Wednesday, March 4th

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Wednesday, March 4th

When God’s People Disagree

Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe. God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.

—Acts 15:7-8

When a basketball team heads down the court and the point guard calls a play, all the members of the team know their role and their assignment. They go to the spot they’ve practiced and unfold the play to get the ball to a particular player. If everything goes as planned, the offense will progress and one of the players will have an opportunity to score.

If some of the players are in disagreement about the play, however—if they don’t like the play that’s been called or if they refuse to go to the spot called for by the play—chances are the offense will fall apart and it will be difficult to score. If a team isn’t unified, it opens the door for their opponents to take over or for the team to self-destruct. They need a clear vision and the willingness to execute it together to be effective as a team.

The same is true for believers. If we want to accomplish the plans God has for us, we need to be united in our purpose and willing to play our own roles. But what happens when some people disagree with the play that has been called as we’re going down the court of life?

This is what happened to the church in the book of Acts. The Gentiles were coming to Christ in an unprecedented fashion. Some of the church leaders thought it was enough for these converts to believe and be baptized; others thought they should adhere to all the Jewish religious customs first. This issue was coming to a head, and it needed to be resolved before the church imploded or fractured into different divisions.

So how did these early Christians deal with their disagreement? Their response serves as a model for us today. The truth is that even as believers, we will encounter differences of opinion and strong diverging viewpoints. In those situations, we can follow the pattern set by Peter, James, and the rest of the believers in Acts 15:

  1. They sought God’s will (Acts 15:7-8).
  2. They engaged in healthy discussion about the issue (Acts 15:5-6).
  3. They watched for evidence of how God was at work (Acts 15:12).
Challenge: The next time you find yourself not seeing eye-to-eye with a fellow believer, use this model: seek God’s will, discuss the issue in a respectful way, and be open to how God may be at work, even his ways are different from what you’ve been expecting or how things have always been done in the past.

—Stephanie Rische

Tuesday, March 3rd

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Tuesday, March 3rd

When the Rules become God

It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.

—Acts 15:19

As a kid, I played a card game with a ridiculous name I can no longer remember whose entire premise was to see how many meaningless rules the participant could keep track of. With each hand that was dealt, more rules were added and more players got disqualified for breaking the ever-growing litany of dos and don’ts. The winner was the person who managed to remember and follow the rules for the longest period of time.

As ludicrous as the game was, it provides something of a commentary on our rather complicated relationship with rules when it comes to life in general. On a societal level, we need clear boundaries to keep our communities and interactions safe and respectful. And on a spiritual level, God has given us instructions about how we should honor him and live in harmony with others. But we have a tendency as humans to make rules into an idol—something that becomes more important to us than God himself.

In the early church, the major point of division and disunity was over the Jewish rules and customs. Did converts have to follow the requirements of Judaism (in particular, circumcision) to be a Christian?

In the church today, we don’t face division about circumcision, but there are certainly ways we tend to add on rules to what Christ has already accomplished to save us. In his book Jesus Plus Nothing Equals Everything, Tullian Tchividjian talks about our tendency to think that the gospel is not enough. So we add on rules—things we believe we must do to earn God’s favor. But this, he claims, is not the true gospel. “Legalism says God will love us if we change. The gospel says God will change us because He loves us.”

After Paul and Barnabas finished making their case to the church leaders about God’s work among the Gentiles, James addressed them, encouraging them not to make it difficult for the Gentiles to come to Christ.

His message to the early church was the same one we need today: Jesus’ blood is sufficient to forgive us and save us. There are no additional rules we need to create, no extra hoops we have to jump through to be made right with him. Jesus has done everything—there is nothing we need to add. Tullian offers this life-giving reminder about the gospel: “The gospel doesn’t make bad people good; it makes dead people alive.”

Question: What rules do you tend to add on to the gospel? What do you fill in the blank in this equation: Jesus + _____ = Everything? How might adding on human rules to the gospel create division in the church?

—Stephanie Rische

Monday, March 2nd

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Tuesday, March 2nd

Tradition vs. the Gospel

Why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been ale to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.

—Acts 15:10-11

If the music we listen to is any indication, Americans have a certain amount of disdain for rules. A quick scan of iTunes indicates that there are more than ten songs in recent years with the title “Breaking the Rules” or “Break the Rules.” We like to make our own decisions, live free and unhindered, do our own thing—and we have the sound track to prove it.

But there’s an interesting flip side to our perspective on rules: even if we don’t like them for ourselves, we tend to take delight in making sure others toe the line. Think of it this way: when we’re pulled over for a traffic violation, we have plenty of rationalizations for why we should be exempt from the consequences. But when someone cuts us off or zips around us in the turn lane, we want them to get what’s coming to them. This is true from the time we’re young. A child may glibly ignore his mother’s admonition to share with his sister, but when there’s something she won’t share with him, he happily points out her rule-breaking—even resorting to tattling, if necessary.

So why do we have such an affinity for the rules, especially when it comes to making sure other people follow them? Perhaps it’s because black-and-white rules give us a sense of control. If we can put everything in a neat little box, we can be assured of who’s in and who’s out, who’s right and who’s wrong. And we can feel satisfied and self-assured that we are okay.

The problem with this mentality is that it falls apart when it comes to spiritual matters. No amount of rule-following can ever save us; only the blood of Christ can do that. And there’s no way for us to smugly judge the state of another person’s soul by the external rules they conform to.

We don’t usually think of it in these terms, but as Christians, we can make an idol of legalism, putting the rules first in our hearts, before Christ. There’s a dark side to this kind of rule-worship in terms of community too. When we start caring more about our manmade rules than about people, it can cause deep division among God’s people.

The early church faced a similar dilemma regarding rules and what was required of followers of Christ. As the believers knew, there are some things we choose to do and not do out of a desire to obey God and become more like him. But following God’s commands should come out of an overflow of love and gratitude; it is not a prerequisite for salvation.

As the early church grew to include Gentiles, the believers were faced with a new dilemma. These converts hadn’t grown up with Jewish customs, meaning they hadn’t been circumcised. Some church leaders thought this tradition was necessary for all believers, while others strongly disagreed. This was a huge issue that threatened to create a schism in the church and hamper the work God was doing.

This is where Peter’s wisdom came in. He reminded his fellow believers that Jesus came to make our yokes easy and our burdens light. His sacrifice was enough to save them—and it is enough to save us today.

Question: What are some of the human rules and traditions that threaten to divide the church today? What do you think Peter would say if he were giving advice to us?

—Stephanie Rische

Friday, February 27th

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February 27

Celebrating the Work Together

From Attalia they sailed back to Antioch, where they had been committed to the grace of God for the work they had now completed. On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles. And they stayed there a long time with the disciples.

—Acts 14:26-28

In his book 365 Thank Yous, John Kralik writes about finding himself at a low point in his life, with his career, his marriage, his friendships, and his relationship with his children in shambles. He knew something needed to change, but he went about it in a somewhat countercultural way. Instead of turning his focus inward, he embarked on a quest to write one thank-you note every day for an entire year. There was a surprising side effect that he couldn’t have anticipated. While the recipients appreciated their notes, the bigger transformation happened within John himself.

As John learned, gratitude isn’t just meant to be felt; God intended it to be expressed and externalized. This is true when it comes to what other people have done for us, but it is even more so when it comes to celebrating and thanking God for what he has done.

Scripture commands God’s people countless times to acknowledge his works publicly:

Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

—Psalm 96:3

I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among the throngs I will praise you.

—Psalm 35:18

Praise the Lord. Sing to the Lord a new song, his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.
—Psalm 141:1

It’s so easy, when we’re in the middle of the work God has called us to do, to jump past what God is doing right now and mentally move on to the next step, the next challenge. There’s always another problem to be solved, another task to be accomplished, another goal to be met, and we often fail to pause in the middle of it all to thank God for what he has done and then celebrate those things with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

When Paul and Barnabas reported to the other believers all they had seen God doing as the early church exploded, the entire congregation was bolstered. Acts 14:22 says that as they met with the believers in various cities, they strengthened them and encouraged them to remain true to the faith.

There is great joy in celebrating God’s work in the context of community. Those who give the good report are blessed as they say it with their lips and solidify it in their hearts, and those who hear it are encouraged as they are reminded once again of God’s character and faithfulness.

Just as sorrows are divided in community, so joys are multiplied.

Challenge: How have you seen God at work in your life or in the life of others? Take time to celebrate that work by writing it down and/or telling someone about it.

—Stephanie Rische

Thursday, February 26th

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February 26

Enduring in the Face of Opposition

The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news.

—Acts 14:5-7

Charles Joseph Coward was born in 1905 in England, and by all accounts he had an ordinary life . . . for the first three decades or so. In 1937 he joined the British army, and three years later, he was captured by Nazi forces. Over the course of the next several years, he was sent to one German prisoner of war camp after the other.

But during this time he wasn’t focused on himself and how to save his own skin. Instead, Coward defied his name, devoting himself to rescuing Jews from Auschwitz, one of Germany’s dreaded concentration camps in World War II. His most daring feat of courage, however, was when he exchanged clothes with a prisoner and smuggled himself into Auschwitz for a night. There was someone he thought he might be able to rescue, but the only way to find him was to go behind bars himself. While many prisoners were making desperate attempts to smuggle themselves out of the concentration camp, this man, later dubbed the Count of Auschwitz, put his life on the line to get in.

His attempt was unsuccessful—he was never able found the prisoner he was looking for—but his brave actions serve as an example for us of being willing to face hardship to do the right thing. When we take a stand for Christ, we will sometimes find ourselves standing against the crowd, just as Charles Joseph Coward did.

During their time in Lystra, Paul and Barnabas learned just how fickle popular opinion can be. Shortly after they arrived, the people thought they were gods (Acts 14:11-13). And then, just a few verses later, the Jewish leaders arrived and turned the crowd against them until they took the drastic action of stoning Paul (Acts 14:19).

When we look to the crowd to affirm us or define our worth, we will struggle to endure the opposition we face. But when we look to Jesus as our cornerstone for truth, we will be able to remain faithful until the end. Even if, like for Charles Coward, that means being smuggled into enemy territory.

When are you most tempted to listen to the crowd? First Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Write down this verse somewhere you’ll see it to remind you whose voice to listen to.

—Stephanie Rische

Wednesday, February 25th

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February 25

Dealing with Opposition

Paul and Barnabas appointed elders for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, committed them to the Lord, in whom they had put their trust.

—Acts 14:23

If ever there was a test of the human body, mind, and soul, surely it must be war. War poses nearly every kind of challenge conceivable: it’s a test of courage, of physical ability, of mental sharpness, of loyalty and patriotism.

On a daily basis, soldiers face challenges of a magnitude most civilians can’t even comprehend: the prospect of having to take human life, the threat of being killed themselves, the absence of the comforts of home, and the long stretches of time they’re separated from family and friends.

But perhaps one of the most significant challenges faced by those on the front lines is one we might not immediately consider: endurance. It’s not just that soldiers have to put up with those difficulties; it’s also that they don’t know how long they’ll have to.

During World War II, after the Invasion of Normandy in June 1944, most Americans believed the Allied victory was close at hand. Most of the troops weren’t issued winter uniforms because the generals were convinced they wouldn’t be in Europe long enough to need them. The soldiers, meanwhile, talked among themselves in their foxholes about being home by Christmas.

But weeks became months, and still the fighting continued. Many of the soldiers grew weary in the waiting, and a few grew so desperate that they took drastic measures to get home. In the midst of mortar exchanges with the Germans, some American GIs stuck a foot out of their foxholes in an attempt to get wounded badly enough to be sent home. But there were other soldiers who found a way to endure despite the opposition and hardships.

Paul and Barnabas weren’t in a war, per se, but they faced fierce opponents—spiritual snipers, perhaps—who were looking to shut down their ministry, cause them harm, and even take their lives, if necessary. These men were faced with a decision: Would they choose self-preservation and head home, or would they endure despite the opposition?

Remarkably, Paul and Barnabas were undaunted by the challenges and obstacles they faced. They would preach in one place until their lives were in too much danger, and then they’d flee to another city. They’d minister there for as long as they could until they were driven out again. They may have been diverted to new locations, but their mission never wavered. The new cities just meant that God was using them to spread the gospel even farther. Acts 14:7 makes it clear that they never lost sight of their calling: after they fled to new cities, “they continued to preach the good news.”

Perhaps one of the most remarkable details about the endurance of these men happened just after Paul was stoned and left for dead. Anyone would have understood if he and Barnabas decided to take an early retirement at that point, but instead, they immediately returned to Lystra and Iconium—the very cities where they’d been threatened and attacked (see Acts 14:21-22).

What difficult situation are you facing right now? What would it look like to endure, as Paul and Barnabas did, in the midst of that situation?

—Stephanie Rische

Tuesday, February 24th

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February 24

Unity in the Midst of Opposition

Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.

—Acts 14:3

In 1996, Eric Daniel Harris, a pastor at Kentucky Missionary Baptist Church in Saline City, Arkansas, pled guilty to a startling crime: he set fire to his own church. But perhaps the most surprising part of the arson wasn’t that he did it but why he did it. It wasn’t to get insurance money; it wasn’t out of spite. No, his actions were a misguided attempt to create unity in his congregation. He said, “There was a division among church members, and they needed a project to unite them.”

Clearly Pastor Harris was wrong to commit a crime to achieve this goal. But he may have been on to something with the underlying premise. The truth is, although opposition and hardship can be painful, God can also redeem those trials and bring something good out of them.

We know from Scripture that God has the power to prevent us from facing opposition and going through trials. He parted the Red Sea to enable the Israelites to escape slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. He took the prophet Elijah to heaven in a chariot of fire, meaning Elijah never had to experience death. When Jesus walked the earth, he healed the lame and sick and brought sight to the blind.

But there have also been times in history when God allowed his followers to face opposition. Instead of going directly to the Promised Land, the Israelites had to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Joseph was sold by his brothers and thrown in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Jesus allowed his friend Lazarus to die even though Lazarus’s sisters asked Jesus to heal him.

None of these circumstances meant that God wasn’t blessing these people or that he had withdrawn his presence from them. Instead, he allowed those times of opposition so he could fulfill his purposes in ways more powerful than what could be accomplished through harmony and ease.

God allowed Paul and Barnabas to face significant opposition on their missionary journey too. But that didn’t mean they were doing something wrong or that God was withholding his blessings from them. The reality is that Jesus is a dividing line. The apostle Peter described Jesus as a rock that will be either a stumbling block or a cornerstone (1 Peter 2:4-10). It’s impossible to remain neutral about Jesus. So when people oppose Jesus, it’s natural that they’ll oppose us too.

Have you ever faced opposition because of your faith? How would you respond if you were criticized or faced negative consequences for following Jesus?

—Stephanie Rische