Archive for Acts
Yesterday I posted the outline of Paul’s story as found in Acts 22:1-21. Today I want to share some simple tips to help you write your personal testimony in a clear way. First, magnify Christ, not sin. Years ago when I served in St. Louis we had an itinerant evangelist come share his story in our church. His name was Rick Stanley, and his claim to fame was that he was the step brother of Elvis Presley. For over 30 minutes our guest described his personal experience with the decadence of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” to our wide-eyed congregation. His conclusion was that he came to Christ and began traveling across America sharing his story about life with Elvis. He had traded life with the “king” for a new life with the “King of Kings.” While his story was certainly powerful and compelling, Rick did what many do who have experienced a colorful past: he magnified his sin. Your story may be colorful in its own right, and certainly that does provide the context for the change that Christ brings. But if you choose to share that in your story, don’t glorify it; glorify Christ!
Second, use everyday language. I have a friend named Dave Bennett who once described to me his frustration with Christians who use “insider language” when they communicate their faith. Take for example the simple phrase, “I asked Jesus to come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior.” For those in faith, that communicates. For those who have not grown up in the culture of church, however, it doesn’t. Bennett told me he went to Webster’s Dictionary and looked up the words in that common phrase. He discovered that according to Webster’s, Jesus was a religious leader who lived in history 2,000 years ago; that the heart was the muscle in the center of your chest that pumps blood to the rest of the body; that a lord was a feudal castle owner; and that a savior was a person who rescued you from a situation of danger. Bennett argued that when we say “I asked Jesus to come into my heart to be my Lord and Savior,” people might actually hear us say, “I asked a religious leader who lived in history 2,000 years ago to come into the muscle in the center of my chest that pumps blood to the rest of my body to be my feudal castle owner and rescuer from situations of danger.” Ok, you get the point. Use everyday language as you think about how you will communicate your faith. Don’t assume that everyone you talk to has knowledge of church culture.
Next, be brief. If you’ve been to a management or a leadership seminar you’ve probably heard people talk about giving the “elevator pitch.” In other words, it’s important to have your story so concise you can share it in the length of time it takes to ride the elevator with a potential client. There’s something about being brief that helps us stay on point and communicate effectively. Sometimes less is more.
Fourth, be yourself. Don’t try to be anyone else. God made you to be you, so be yourself. Resist the temptation to borrow elements from someone else’s story. When we try to be someone or something we’re not, we diminish the authenticity of our testimony.
Once you have written your story, commit it to memory. Learn it “by heart,” as they say. Then look for opportunities to share it. They say that as many as 95% of American Christians have never shared their faith. One of the reasons why is that we aren’t prepared. God can’t use what you haven’t prepared to, but if you’ll take the time to write and memorize your own story, God will meet your preparation with opportunities to share it.
One of the things I’m working on this year is changing the culture of our church from one that values numbers to one that values stories. Not just any story, mind you, but stories about life transformation. One of my favorite quotes is by G.K. Chesterton, who said, “The only thing that can satisfy the soul is a story and a person…and even then the story must be about a person.” I believe that going forward churches are going to be built one “story” at a time.
Yesterday I taught our congregation how to write their own story using the model presented in Acts 22:1-21 by the Apostle Paul. To set the context, Paul had been brought up on charges and had been given the opportunity to present his own defense. At that point Paul simply shared his own story of life change. I’ve provided the outline to the text so that you can see how it works.
1. My Life Before I Came to Christ (Acts 22:1-5)
“Brothers and esteemed fathers,” Paul said, “listen to me as I offer my defense.” When they heard him speaking in their own language,a the silence was even greater. Then Paul said, “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the Christians from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.
2. How I Came to Know Christ (Acts 22:6-13)
“As I was on the road, approaching Damascus about noon, a very bright light from heaven suddenly shone down around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ “‘Who are you, lord?’ I asked. “And the voice replied, ‘I am Jesus the Nazarene,b the one you are persecuting.’ 9The people with me saw the light but didn’t understand the voice speaking to me. “I asked, ‘What should I do, Lord?’ “And the Lord told me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told everything you are to do.’ “I was blinded by the intense light and had to be led by the hand to Damascus by my companions. A man named Ananias lived there. He was a godly man, deeply devoted to the law, and well regarded by all the Jews of Damascus. He came and stood beside me and said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight.’ And that very moment I could see him!
3. My Life Since I Have Come to Christ (Acts 22:14-21)
“Then he told me, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord.’ “After I returned to Jerusalem, I was praying in the Temple and fell into a trance. I saw a vision of Jesusc saying to me, ‘Hurry! Leave Jerusalem, for the people here won’t accept your testimony about me.’
“‘But Lord,’ I argued, ‘they certainly know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. And I was in complete agreement when your witness Stephen was killed. I stood by and kept the coats they took off when they stoned him.’ “But the Lord said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles!’”
While your story may have different content than Paul’s, you can still use the same outline to hang your thoughts upon. Your story is valuable to the Kingdom of God! It’s worth sharing, but you can’t share what you haven’t prepared! Tomorrow I’ll post some simple tips on how to write and share your story.
I think that we’re aware that missions has a price tag, but we usually think of the price in terms of the dollar amount we’ll give to the offering appeal. Denominations will make a large allocation toward missions work, and churches follow suit by devoting a sizeable percentage of their operating budgets toward the same. The point I’m trying to make is that we can affix a hard number to the price of missions, right down to the penny.
In Acts 13:1-3, God revealed an opportunity to a new church as they gathered in worship. The pricetag was high. God asked for 40% of their leadership team to be released from their teaching and leading responsibilities to carry the gospel even farther past the margins. Not only did God ask for 40% of their leadership team, he asked for their top two performers, Paul and Barnabas. Not to take anything away from the other three, but Paul and Barnabas are the names we’ve known since elementary Sunday School.
When God asks his people to make a commitment to reach the world, he’s going to ask for our best. He’s going to ask us to make a sacrifice that will be costly. God doesn’t broker in small change. He’s committed to reaching the world, and he’s committed to sending his people into the world. He’s not afraid to “ask for the check.” Come to think of it, God himself modelled this when he sent Jesus to the world.
The church at Antioch was a worshiping community. They were sincere and devout, making worship the priority of their gatherings. Acts 13:2 reports, “One day as these men were worshiping the Lord, the Holy Spirit said…” (NLT). Here’s an important point for today’s church: God revealed himself to the church in the context of their worship. And when God revealed himself in worship, he also revealed his heart and his plan for the church. The closer you become to God to more clearly you can discern what is on his heart. So here’s a couple of thoughts about my observation.
Where do we most fully connect with the heart of God? Where do we go when we want to determine next steps for our ministries and churches? Regardless of what we say, our practice usually winds up betraying us. We seek to determine next steps in committee meetings or board meetings where little if any prayer is even offered. When the community of faith in Acts wanted or needed divine guidance, they didn’t call meetings. They got busy with their worship.
Do you expect God to speak to you in worship? Whether your worship is private and daily or weekly and corporate matters little. God has something to say if he can just find someone who is willing to listen. My prayer for each of us is that we will approach worship with an expectancy to encounter the living God who reveals himself and his plans to his church.
Last weekend we began our annual Global Missions emphasis. Usually, these month long celebrations of missions and missionaries come packaged to church leaders to provide a supporting structure for the challenge to pray, give, and go. For some time I’ve personally been frustrated with missions promotions because they seem to polarize and distance the local church from the foreign field. So rather than speak on the routine subject matter associated with missions and missionaries, I chose to do some foundational work on the missional church strategy and how missions works within that model.
I chose as my text Acts 13:1-3, which reads as follows: “Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul. One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.’ So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way” (NLT).
The first observation about the text that I shared in worship last weekend was that sending was in the DNA of the church. The church at Antioch had been founded by disciples who had fled Jerusalem due to persecution. You can read about it in Acts 11:19-26. As the Holy Spirit had sent these disciples to Antioch to share the gospel, the Holy Spirit was again sending disciples from Antioch into more marginalized locations. I believe this act of sending was reflexive and natural for them because missions was in their DNA.
I’m fascinated that the church was so willing to embrace a new direction, especially given its limited history. I suppose they could have said, “We’ll engage our world when we are more established,” but they didn’t. As a people who had been together for less than 24 months, they were quite willing to respond to God’s leadership and join Him where He was at work.
I believe the more established something becomes, the more prone it is to exclusion. I can remember when my wife and I began dating. We were both in college and had a lot of friends. In the early stages of our dating relationship we could easily maintain and manage our friendships. But as our relationship deepened toward engagement and ultimately marriage, the more limited our relationships with friends became. In other words, the more established our relationship became, the more exclusive it became.
That principle is not just true of human relationships, its also true of organizations like the church. Within the DNA of the church of Jesus Christ lies the principle of sending. Regardless of its history, the church is rooted and founded with that essential component.
Tomorrow I’ll post my second observation about this important text. In the meantime, make sure to remember that establishment does not necessitate exclusion. Be true to your DNA.
Acts 10 is the story of two people. The scene opens with a man named Cornelius, a prominent Roman military leader who was compassionate toward others. You get the feel that he was well respected by those who knew him. He was a good man; in fact, one of only five men in the Bible who are called “good.” That’s quite a compliment! But despite all of his goodness and his many acts of charity, he still had a huge hole in his heart. There was a vacuum within. He knew it, and God knew it.
Cue the next scene. The story transports the reader to another location where one finds Peter atop a roof deep in prayer. While in prayer, Peter had a vision. In his vision, a sheet descended from heaven filled with a variety of animals that didn’t exactly fit the Jewish dietary laws. A voice came from heaven that instructed Peter to kill and eat the animals. Peter protested to God and passed on the ham sandwich. After the vision repeated itself the third time, Peter got the point.
What was God doing? He was trying to get the gospel to Cornelius, but in order to do so he had to disturb and disrupt Peter from his comfort zone. As I thought about this passage, it made me wonder how willing I was to get uncomfortable for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. How about you? What comprises your spiritual comfort zone? Religious tradition? Dress? Political party? Socio-economic status? Skin color?
We must never forget that the call of the gospel is a call to become like Jesus Christ and not like ourselves. In order to make an impact in today’s culture, it may require people like you and me to leave the limits of familiarity and take some steps into new territory.
We are usually most comfortable in the comfort and security of our own homes. The farther away from home we venture, the greater our level of discomfort. Think of Jesus. Bethlehem’s manger was a fair piece from the throne of glory. Yet Jesus left his comfort zone and took on flesh and came to our polluted planet. It seems the least we could do is walk across the room.
I believe for every one of us there is at least one corresponding person like Cornelius who is waiting for us to be willing to take the risk leaving where we want to be to head to where we need to be. Think about it. It could change your life, and someone else’s, too!
This weekend I presented the third sermon from my series titled Missionaries You Should Know, focused on Saul of Tarsus, aka the Apostle Paul. What gained my attention from my study of Acts 9 was Jesus’ simple testament in verse 15: “Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as the people of Israel.”
This verse reminded me of the counsel I once received from my friend Ken Lumley. Eating pancakes at a Village Inn in Ft. Worth, Texas one night, Ken leaned across the table and said, “God calls special people to specific places for His sovereign purposes.” We were talking about church planting and the story of Abram from Genesis 12:1-2.
I thought about Ken and Abram and missions and Saul, and used that principle to share what I believe God wants to do in each of our lives. So this weekend I used Acts 9:15 to simply point out this truth: God calls and sends special people to specific places for His saving purposes.
I believe that each person is special. Not in a little league “everyone gets a trophy” kind of way, but in the sense that we are special because God has set his affection on us and we are profoundly loved by Him. In other words, we are special because we are God’s children. We don’t really bring anything to the table that completes a deficiency in God. He’s quite complete on His own without us. But because we belong to Him, special we are indeed.
We are not God’s special people in a vaccuum. We are who we are in the context of where we are. Paul was called and sent to a specific people in specific geographical locations. Part of knowing what God expects of you is to simply evaluate where you are in this world. You are in a family, a neighborhood, a school, a job and a city by God’s design. He intends for you to live your life as an expression of his tangible presence in order to share the gospel of Jesus Christ right where you are.
I hate to be interrupted. I bet you do too. You know…
…the phone rings at dinner;
…the door bell rings during the ball game;
…someone drops by your office unannounced;
…your youngest spills milk;
…your oldest has a fender bender;
…your spouse locks his or her keys in their car;
You could probably add a dozen more ways you’ve been interrupted in just the last week alone.
Do you ever wonder if God is a part of those interruptions?
Allow me to introduce you to a man named Philip. Philip was person that God kept interrupting to do Kingdom things. Those interruptions may not have made much sense to Philip, but they did to God. And because he was “interrupt-able,” God used him to make a mark in the world.
Philip, just like Stephen, was not an apostle. He was an average Joe in the church who had come to faith in Christ in the ground swell of response following Pentecost. You might say that Philip is believer 2.0. I think it would have been exciting to have participated in the awesome work of God in the days following Pentecost. But Philip, like many others, found his world interrupted by the persecution that flared following the martyrdom of Stephen.
What can Philip teach us about interruptions?
1. Life’s interruptions may be God’s opportunities. Acts 8:1-2 says that when persecution hit the church, the people scattered from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria. Who wouldn’t rather have stayed home? Or stayed together? What appeared on the surface to be a very bad thing (persecution), actually turned out to be a very good thing because the gospel became decentralized.
2. Spiritual leaders make the most out of interruptions. Acts 8:4 tells us that the believers who scattered proclaimed the gospel as they went. How Kingdom minded is that?! I like Luke’s word play at this point: they scattered the gospel as they scattered out of town!
3. God will interrupt us from good things for better things. The next report we get concerning Philip is that God interrupted his travel plans and told him to take an exit and focus on one particular town. There, Philip preached, cast out demons, and was used by God to perform some incredible miracles of healing. In the end, God gave Philip that city for Christ, and filled it with joy! It wasn’t that Philip had been doing bad things. God just had something better for him.
4. God’s interruptions don’t always make sense. The next scene provides us with the most recognizable story about Philip: his conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch. Think about this one. Philip is impacting multitudes, and God interrupted him to leave the multitude to go to the desert road to talk to one person. That’s right, one. That doesn’t make sense to us, does it? But it did to God. Legend has it that the eunuch became the first to take the gospel to the continent of Africa. We need to be very careful about how we assess God’s interruptions. His interruptions may not make sense to us. But like Philip, we need to be responsive nonetheless.
5. As long as you are open to God, he will continue to interrupt your life. I like how the chapter ends. Philip is snatched from the baptismal waters and parachute dropped into another region where he continues to share the gospel. His life is one big interruption after another, all the way to Cesarea.
How long has it been since you have sensed that God is playing a part in the interruptions of your life? Are you “interrupt-able?” Or do you wear a big DO NOT DISTURB sign across your heart? What would happen if you began to interpret the interruptions of life as the interruptions of God?
Let me encourage you this week to look for signs of the divine. Look for the providence of God to lead you from where you plan to be to where you need to be. It may surprise you what God has in store for you!
During the month of October I’m doing a series titled, Missionaries You Should Know. Last weekend I opened to Acts 6-7 and taught about an interesting character named Stephen. I like him, enough in fact, to have given his name to my son. A lot of things are obvious about Stephen. As a man of good reputation and full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3), he was selected to serve the widows who were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. He was confrontational. If you read his sermon in Acts 7, he doesn’t pull any punches as he preaches the gospel (Acts 7:51-53). Most notably, Stephen was the first martyr of the Christian church (Acts 7:54-60). I don’t suppose his confrontational style had anything to do with that.
I am intrigued by an obscure verse about his face. Acts 6:15 says, “At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s.”
Hmmm. I imagine Stephen to be a guy like me…middle aged…family and kids…job…mortgage…and I’m not stretching the truth one bit to say that no one (especially an enemy) has expressed that I have the face of an angel! So what’s this about?
I got to thinking about some verses like Matthew 18:10, where Jesus said that we should always take care in how we deal with children because “their angels are always in the presence of (the) heavenly Father.”
Then I thought about Moses in Exodus 34. He came down the mountain after being in the presence of God for 40 days and nights with a face so radiant that the people became filled with fear.
And then I thought about Jesus and his transfiguration in Matthew 17:1-2. The Bible reports that Jesus appearance was altered and he became radiant.
I think those clues help us to understand something about Stephen. Though he wasn’t an apostle, he did know how to live in the presence of God. When you spend time in the presence of God, you not only reflect God’s countenance, you also reflect his heart and his passion. No wonder Stephen stepped up and preached the gospel with such clarity and passion. He was simply reflecting the heart of the One he has spent time with.
My mother always said that I needed to choose my friends carefully because I would be influenced by them to become like them. It was good advice that Lisa and I have passed down to our own kids. When you spend time with God, it’ll show. You’ll reflect his values and mimic his interests. Our God is a missionary God, and if you spend time in his presence, you’ll become a missionary, too.
The early church had to deal with persecution enacted by religious leaders and later, the Roman government itself. The church had to confront hypocrisy within its own ranks as certain members chose to seek reputation enhancement over character development. But in Acts 6 we find the greatest challenge of all…the question concerning what kind of church they were going to be.
This weekend in worship I framed the conversation by describing the difference between a battle ship and a cruise ship. I’ve not been on a battle ship, but it appears that everything about a battle ship and everyone on a battle ship is there in support of the mission. From the crew to the bridge, every person has an assignment that relates to the mission. Every function is evaluated in light of the mission.