Tuesday, Nov. 25

To listen to the audio version, click here.

Tuesday

Throughout the Bible we are continually reminded of the sovereignty of God. His rule, reign, and exercise of authority over all of creation can be seen throughout the events of history. Our world does not have a haphazard existence. Things do not just happen by chance. Behind the workings of history remains the master strategy of our great God. While man operates freely in humanity, God's sovereign providence stands over and above our actions. He works out His will through the actions of human wills, without violating the freedom of those human wills.  He accomplishes His purpose, as the prophet Isaiah reminds us, "O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure."  (Isa. 25:1)

The first missionary movement of the church is just such a plan. Obviously, the church in Jerusalem found plenty of evangelistic work to do in its first few years after Pentecost. Travelers and religious pilgrims continually streamed into Jerusalem, which gave the church an open door for extending the reach of the gospel. But the command of Christ was for the gospel to be carried to the regions beyond Jerusalem. While I do not think we can fault the apostles and early believers for their staying in Jerusalem, with the best of intentions of evangelizing, the fact remains that they had not set forth on following the full extent of the great commission. They were having great ministry, but the Lord planned more for them.

Remember back with me to Acts 1:8 -  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Now consider Acts 8:1 - And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Hmmmm??  Is it coincidence that the scattering of the church took them to the exact places that Jesus told them they would go as His witnesses?


I believe we can learn an important truth at this point. Whenever Christians find themselves in the midst of busy and effective ministry, they must not simply assume that they are totally fulfilling all that the Lord desires of them. There may be other dimensions and other directions in which they must go forth. It is imperative that they remain sensitive to the teaching of Scripture and the clear leading of the Holy Spirit through the circumstances they encounter, so that they might fulfill the will of God in their lives.


The master strategy of our Lord will do whatever is necessary to bring His people into His will. This can be seen by the persecution that broke forth upon the church in such a way that the Christians were scattered into the regions outside of Jerusalem. God accomplished His will through the means of persecution. He causes "all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Rom. 8:28).

Jeff Frazier

Monday, Nov. 24

To listen to the audio version, click here.

Monday


And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.  And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.  Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.     - Acts 7:59-8:4

It was by means of the persecution that arose over Stephen that these early Christians were pressed out of Jerusalem, squirted out into the areas around, into Judea and Samaria, and began to preach the word, all according to the program of God. God used Saul of Tarsus, even before he became a Christian to accomplish this. God works to use the very obstacles thrown in the path of Christians to advance his cause. You can picture young Saul, enraged over what he regarded as a heresy, trying to stamp it out with all the energy of his flesh, entering house after house, dragging off men and women and committing them to prison. This is the rage of a tortured conscience, which tries, by zealous activity, to cover up its anxiety, emptiness, and hurt. Yet God uses this as an instrument to accomplish his purpose.

God does two things with this rage of Saul's: He forces the church out of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria to fulfill the divine program as he had outlined, and he makes the early church depend not upon the apostles but upon the gifts of the Spirit distributed to everyone — for these who were scattered abroad were not the apostles. Dr. Luke is careful to tell us that. These were ordinary, plain-vanilla Christians like you and me. And yet they had gifts of the Spirit. But they would never have discovered their gifts if they had not been pushed out, and put to work. So God used this pressure to place them in circumstances where they began to develop the gifts of evangelism, of witnessing, of helps, wisdom, knowledge, teaching, prophecy, and all the other gifts of the Spirit that had been made available to them.

Sometimes I think that God will have to do this in our day before people will begin to believe that they have spiritual gifts and put them to work. He may have to bring persecution upon us so that there cannot be dependence upon a central ministry, but each one will begin to utilize the gifts that God has given him.


Are you going through some kind of pressure today? Well, it is not punishment for our sins — Jesus took our punishment fully, on the Cross. The pressure, the trials, and the problems that come are by no means always the result of sin in our lives. Sometimes they are, but it may be God's way of moving you, of pressuring you into a new experience, into a new understanding of his truth and of his equipment in your life, and giving you a new opportunity to put it to work.

Jeff Frazier

Friday, November 21st

To listen to the audio version, click here.

Friday, November 21

Acts 7:54-60


Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."  But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

In the mid-1950‘s 5 young men in their 20‘s committed their lives to sharing the gospel with the indigenous tribes of Ecuador.


Their names were Jim Elliott, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully and Nate Saint.


Most were graduates of Wheaton College, were married and had young children.

They committed themselves to reaching a tribe of nearly stone age people called the Huaorani. They knew the Huaorani had the reputation of being violent and extremely resistant to outsiders. So they spent several months dropping gifts from an airplane in an attempt to demonstrate good will and friendship. Finally, in January  of 1956, they decided to make contact on the ground. On the very day they landed their plane close to the Huaorani village all five men were speared to death. Later it was discovered that they had refused to use their guns to defend themselves as they were being attacked.


Their story has been told in books and film.


While in Ecuador last summer with one of our church’s student mission teams, we visited the “Nate Saint House” where the men would have gathered before flying into the jungle on the day they died. It was a very sobering experience to be so close to the powerful story of martyrdom for the cause of Christ.


The deaths of those 5 young men, leaving their wives and young children behind seemed so unnecessary; such a waste!


But because their widows and children forgave the Huaorani and continued to reach out to them with the gospel, today there is a thriving Huaorani church and all four of the surviving tribesmen who speared those missionaries are now elders in that church! Furthermore, just as Stephen’s death in the first century sparked the continued growth of the gospel, the deaths of these five young missionaries also sparked a new wave of Christian missions all over the world.


But how do we even begin to relate to martyrdom living where we do in North America?


A “martyr” is usually defined as one who is persecuted or put to death specifically for their religious beliefs.


How can we compare what we might experience to what Stephen experienced, or to what those five young men and their families experienced in Ecuador?


In some ways, of course, we can’t.


But, when I really think about it, I think there is a way we can relate to this story. Is it not true that we all give our lives to something?


Is it not true that every day, every hour, we each pour our lives out on some altar?


That altar might be our work, the quest for money or success; it might be education or even our families. But we all pour our lives out for something!


Most of the time we pour our lives out so gradually that we barely even notice we are doing it.

Some, like the 5 missionaries in Ecuador, like Stephen, pour their lives out in a moment of brilliant clarity; like an exploding water balloon. But most of us pour our lives out a drop at a time.


It occurs to me that we are all martyrs for something! We all give our lives to and for some purpose. 
When we look at this story we are tempted to focus on how Stephen died, and we should, because martyrdom has happened throughout the centuries and is happening around the world today.


But I think this story is here to also teach us how Stephen lived!


He was a man of grace.


He was a man of truth.


A man of courage; courage anchored in grace and truth.


It seems to me that Stephen teaches us that a martyr is one willing to die for what he or she is living for.


We may not all be called to die like Stephen, but we are all called to live like Stephen, because Stephen lived like Jesus!

Pastor Brian Coffey

Thursday, November 20th

To listen to the audio version, click here.

Thursday, November 20

Acts 7:54-60


Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

While traveling recently on a long flight back from the middle east, I found myself watching a movie on the plane. The film was called “Railway Man” starring Colin Firth.


It was the story of a British World War II veteran who was struggling with what we now call PTSD.


He struggles to resume his life due to deep emotional trauma. He eventually falls in love with a woman who sees first hand his emotional paralysis and challenges him to address the root of his pain.


It turns out he had been part of a group of soldiers captured by the Japanese and forced to work on the Thai-Burma railway in the jungles of the Malay Peninsula.


It was time of brutality and abuse; at one time he was tortured mercilessly by one particular guard and it was hatred for this guard that lay at the center of his pain.


He accidentally discovers that his tormentor is still alive so he decides to go back to the location of his imprisonment with the intent to confront and perhaps kill the former Japanese guard, thinking this act of justice and revenge might finally bring him peace.


However, when he finds the man and has the opportunity, he finds he just can’t bring himself to do what he intended to do. He realizes that man has also lived in an emotional prison for years as well; a prison of guilt, shame and remorse for his own actions.


Firth’s character offers the Japanese man forgiveness, thus setting both men free.


I thought it was a terrific movie, and I was reminded of it when I read again the story of the martyrdom of Stephen.


Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.


Remarkable! Even as he is being stoned to death Stephen prays for his murderers, offering them forgiveness.

Of course, our minds go immediately to the words of Jesus on the cross, when he looked down upon those who   had him crucified, and said:


“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)


We have already learned that Stephen was a man full of grace and power. We have seen that he was a man of truth, unashamed of the gospel and unafraid to defend it. Now we see that he was also a man of enormous courage. But notice that Stephen not only had the courage to die for his faith in Jesus, but also to forgive those who were casting the stones!


We usually think of Stephen as an example of Christian martyrdom, and he is. But I think Stephen can teach us some important things about forgiveness as well. Have you ever thought of forgiveness as requiring grace, truth and courage?


Forgiveness requires truth because, in order to forgive, the sin must be acknowledged and named.
Forgiveness is most powerful and effective when we say not just, “I forgive you,” but, “I forgive you for what you did or said that hurt me.”


For example: In the movie, “Railway Man,” before Colin Firth’s character offers forgiveness to the former Japanese guard he recounts the abuse and torture and the guard acknowledges fully what he had done.


Here Stephen says, “Do not hold this sin against them.” He acknowledges that what these men are doing is a sinful act. He speaks the truth and the truth allows forgiveness to take place.


Second, forgiveness requires grace. Stephen could afford to offer his murderers forgiveness because he knew his own sins had been forgiven. We can only forgive others when we have already received forgiveness ourselves. Grace tends to produce grace in our lives.


Finally, forgiveness requires courage. Forgiveness requires courage because forgiveness always costs us something. Forgiveness costs us the opportunity and fleeting pleasure of revenge or retribution. Forgiveness means relinquishing what feels like our right to inflict suffering and humiliation on the one who has wronged us. Forgiveness means to trust that God will handle all judgment and justice.


Who and what might you need to forgive today? Ask God for the grace, truth and courage to do so.


Pastor Brian Coffey

Wednesday, November 19th

To listen to the audio version, click here.

Wednesday, November 19

Acts 7:54-60


Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Over chapters 4 and 5 in Acts we have seen growing opposition to the gospel. The intensity of the opposition has escalated from arresting and warning the apostles; to arresting, warning and beating them; to what is now essentially a lynch-mob.

Stephen is dragged before the council, accused of blasphemy, and challenged to defend himself. He does so by recounting the history of Israel leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. He accuses his accusers of being guilty of putting Jesus, the “Righteous One,” to death and the council is enraged. But what drives then to suddenly turn into a murderous mob that stones Stephen to death making him the first Christian martyr?


Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him.

The line we need to pay attention to is where Stephen says: 


I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God... 


We can almost miss this but Stephen’s choice of words here is incredibly important!
First, by claiming that Jesus is at the right hand of God Stephen is again identifying Jesus as the Messiah. The Jewish council would have recognized that Stephen was identifying Jesus as the “Son of Man” in Daniel 7. They would have interpreted this as making Jesus equal to God and therefor as the highest form of blasphemy.


Second, the image of Jesus standing is very significant. This the only time in scripture that Jesus is mentioned as standing in heaven; usually he is seated at the right hand of the Father. Stephen’s accusers would have recalled passages from the scriptures like:


Psalm 68:1
May God arise, may his enemies be scattered;
 may his foes flee before him.
Isaiah 3:13
The Lord takes his place in court;
 he rises to judge the people.

They were enraged because they knew that the image of Jesus standing meant he was standing in judgment over them as enemies of God for what they were doing to Stephen! These religious leaders faced two options: either they responded to the truth about Jesus with repentance or they had to kill the messenger. They chose to put Stephen to death.
But there is something else to see here.


Many scholars think that Jesus is standing not just to judge Stephen’s murderers, but in honor of his servant.


In Psalm 116:15 we read:
Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of one of his saints.


In Jesus’ parable of the talents the master says to his servant:


‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’
(Matthew 25:23)


I think we see a beautiful picture here of Jesus standing to honor his faithful servant Stephen and to welcome him home! 


So as stones hurled by hate-filled men rained down on him Stephen also had two options. He could return their hatred with his own bitterness and curses; or he could turn his eyes toward Jesus who stood to welcome him into heaven. He chose Jesus.

Pastor Brian Coffey

Tuesday, November 18th

To listen to the audio version, click here.

Tuesday, November 18

Acts 7:1-3; 51-53

And the high priest said, "Are these things so?" And Stephen said: "Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, 'Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.'

From here Stephen launches into a 48 verse-long sermon that covers the history of Israel from Abraham to Joseph to Moses to David to Solomon. I would encourage you to go back and read the whole of chapter 6 in your Bible. While Stephen is recounting the history of God’s people you can almost see the men who had arrested him nodding their heads; uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. They knew the history and Stephen wanted them to know that he knew the history as well. Then, after 48 verses, he starts to talk about Jesus and his whole tone changes!

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."

My first role in ministry was part time Youth Pastor at a church in Glen Ellen. I was in seminary at the time so it was a great way to get my feet wet in ministry while completing my education.
Just a few weeks into my new role I needed a haircut so I dropped into an old fashioned barber shop in Wheaton near where I lived at the time. When I say “old fashioned” I mean the striped barber shop pole outside and men only inside. I sat down to wait for my turn and reached for a magazine - and immediately noticed that most of them were rather inappropriate for a public place! I also noticed the conversation was liberally sprinkled with profane language.
I thought about leaving - but that would have been pretty awkward since I just sat down. So I just sat and waited. When my turn came I sat in the barber’s big chair and just wanted to get my hair cut and get out of there. But the barber was a talker and started right in.


“Hey, you’re new here aren’t ya?”


“Yes.”


“Whaddaya want?”


“Just a basic haircut.”


“O.K., gotcha. So, where do you live?”


“In Wheaton.”


“Whaddaya do?”


Now I had a choice to make! If I said I was a “Youth Pastor” I had a feeling the whole conversation was going to change! So I said, “I’m a teacher.”


I avoided what would have certainly been an uncomfortable moment and I avoided the conversation that may have followed.


Stephen didn’t do that.


"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it."

Problem!

In essence Stephen moves from “uh-huh to unh-unh” ...

He turns the tables on his accusers by putting them on trial!

He accuses the council of being “stiff-necked.” This is a phrase that meant stubborn and prideful.

He says they are also “uncircumcised in heart.” The physical mark of circumcision was to be a reminder of their covenant with God, but Stephen is telling them that although they have the physical mark, their hearts are far from God.


He goes on to state that they have resisted the Holy Spirit, persecuted the prophets and murdered the “Righteous One.” Notice that “Righteous One” is capitalized; that’s because it is written as a title. Stephen is referring directly to Jesus as the Messiah of God which his accusers would have considered blasphemy.

We see here that Stephen was a man of grace but also a man of truth. When challenged to defend himself he spoke the truth about Jesus, even when he knew it was likely to enrage his listeners.

The truth is that the truth can sometimes get you into trouble!

So when you are asked what you believe or why you go to church or why you read the Bible, do you ever stop short of sharing the truth about Jesus or the gospel?

Ask God through the Holy Spirit to give you both the boldness to speak the truth and the grace to do so with love.


Pastor Brian Coffey

Monday, November 17th

To listen to the audio version, click here.

Monday, November 17

Acts 6:8-15


And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

When we think of the word “hero” some of us think of fictional characters like Batman, Rocky Balboa or Jack Bauer. Some of us think of athletes like Michael Jordan or LeBron James. But, in general, I think most of us would agree that we tend to throw the word “hero” around a bit too easily.

I recently came across the story of a Pakistani teenager named Aitzaz Hasan. In January of this year 17 year old Hasan noticed a suspicious looking man walking toward his high school in Pakistan. He quickly recognized that the man was a suicide bomber wearing a jacket loaded with 13 pounds of explosives and clearly intended to detonate the bomb inside the school. Thinking quickly, Hasan ran toward the man and challenged him to a fight. After a brief struggle the cowardly bomber set off his explosives, killing both of them instantly. Hasan’s courage and decisive action saved the lives of over 1,500 faculty and students in the high school. I think we would all agree that Hasan was a hero.

In John 15 Jesus defined true heroism when he said, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lays down his life for a friend.”

We are introduced to just such a hero in Acts 6.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.

Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to administer the distribution of food to the widows in chapter 5. Along with the others he was chosen for his Godly character and wisdom. Here Luke tells us he was a man “full of grace and power.”

When I think about this description of Stephen it occurs to me that, in my experience, those two words rarely describe the same person. That is, when it comes to both personality and behavior, human beings tend to gravitate toward one of those two polar opposites. People are either graceful or they are powerful.

Some folks are gentle, soft-spoken, patient, and very easy to be around. You probably know someone in your life right now that you would describe as full of grace.

Other people are more confident, in charge, type “A”, “get it done” type people. These folks aren’t always comfortable to be around, but they get a lot done! You might have a boss or co-worker that you would describe as full of power.
   
So, at first glance “grace” and “power” don’t seem to go together! Grace is a gentle word; power is a stronger, harsher word; yet Luke says that Stephen was both!
   
Stephen was full of grace, Luke says.

What is “grace?”

The Greek word translated as grace is charis, and it carries the meaning of gift, and specifically the gift of God’s favor.

The gift of God’s grace is at the very center of the gospel.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God... (Ephesians 2:8)

Interestingly, in John 1:14 Jesus is described in the same way:

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

So what does it mean to be “full of grace?”

To be full of grace is to be full of God’s favor.

In Ephesians 1:4 we read:

For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.


To be full of grace is to be full of God’s love.

In Ephesians 3:17-19 Paul writes:

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.


To be full of grace is to be full of God’s forgiveness.

Ephesians 1:7 says:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God's grace

To be full of grace is to be full of God’s peace.

In Colossians 3:15 Paul reminds us to...

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts

To be full of grace is to be full of God’s Spirit.

In Romans 8:16 we read:

The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.


Stephen was full of grace because he was filled with the gift of the gospel; because his life was defined by the gospel; and because his identity was anchored in the grace and love of Christ.

Luke also says that Stephen was full of power.

What is “power” and where did Stephen’s power come from?

The word is dunamis, from which we take our words dynamic and dynamite. Dunamis refers to might, strength or ability.

Luke says,

But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

His power came in the form of wisdom; and his wisdom came from the Holy Spirit.

In John 15 Jesus said:

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.


Stephen was full of power because he had received the gift of the Holy Spirit when he put his faith in Jesus.


What I think what we most need to see here is that, although Stephen was certainly a hero of the faith - as we will see later in this chapter - he was no different than you and me. He was simply a man who believed the gospel and had allowed Jesus to fill him with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit then filled him with both grace and power.


I believe the Spirit wants to do the same for each one of us.

Pastor Brian Coffey