Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Biggest Dare

When I have my morning quiet time with God, after I've confessed my sins and lifted up my prayer requests in Jesus' name, I add a prayer petition along the lines of, "Father, as I read Your Word today, show me the truth You want me to see and live out of today."

Then I read the appointed Bible verses, usually about four chapters each day, from whatever annual program for Bible-reading I happen to be using that year.

I've read the New Testament book of Acts many times since coming to faith in Christ forty-plus years ago. I've also taught and preached on it.

But I noticed a passage in Acts today that I can honestly say I don't remember ever noticing before. It so struck me that, as I sat reading it today, I said out loud, "How have I never seen that verse?"

The verse is Acts 5:13: "No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people."

Context is everything when considering passages of Scripture, of course. The context here is Luke's account of the early growth of the Church in Jerusalem after Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension back to heaven and after God's Holy Spirit was given to the Church at Pentecost. (Acts was written by a man named Luke, who also wrote one of the four gospels in the New Testament.)

In Acts 4, we read how the Church encountered opposition from the religious leaders in Jerusalem, but kept growing anyway, how, to give people a sign of Jesus' identity as God and Messiah, the Church was enabled to perform miracles in Jesus' name, and how, though not coerced to do so, some of its wealthy members sold property to see that the poorer of their fellowship had all that they needed.

At the beginning of chapter 5, Luke tells about a couple, members of the early Church--Ananias and Sapphira--who had sold a piece of their property. They told the rest of the Church they were giving ALL the proceeds from the sale to care for poorer Church members. But it's learned that in fact, they'd withheld some of the proceeds from the sale for themselves.

Now, Luke makes clear that (1) Ananias and Sapphira had been under no obligation to give anything to the Church and that (2) even after they sold the property, they were free to give just a portion of the proceeds to the Church.

But the couple wanted to be celebrated for their generosity. So, they lied. In very public ways, they stuck to their lie, died, and were unceremoniously buried. Acts 5:11 says: "Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events." I bet! The message was clear: Do what you want to do with your property and money but don't try lying to God about it.

The signs and wonders God performed through His Church continued and the first Christians, at least 5000 of them, all Jews at this point, met regularly at a place called Solomon's Colonnade (or Solomon's Porch), part of the temple complex.

Then, verse 13, that verse I never noticed before, crops up: "No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people."

It's a strange verse. Jesus, after all, gave (and still gives) God the Holy Spirit to baptized believers in Him. He does this to help Christians trust in Him and to help them as they share the good news of new and everlasting life through repentance and faith in Jesus with others. The early Christians were, we're told "highly regarded by the people."

But here we see the Church, reaching out to others, telling others about Jesus, and performing signs in Jesus' name. Yet, at this point, "no one else dared join them."

What is up with that?

I think there are several reasons.

First, back in Acts 4, Peter and John, two of Jesus' earliest followers, were pulled in for questioning by the religious authorities, then jailed overnight, threatened, and told never again to speak in Jesus' name again. Up to that point, the early Church had enjoyed official tolerance and public favor. After that though, it became more dangerous to confess faith in Jesus. It would be daunting, unless you had a loved one or friend in dire need of the healing Christians were performing in Jesus' name, when desperation, the sense that you had nothing to lose, would trump fear, to "join" the believers in worshiping Jesus.

A second reason is likely the report about Ananias and Sapphira. Their death for lying to God (Peter says they lied to God in Acts 5:4 and more specifically, to God the Holy Spirit in Acts 5:9), was as sure a sign of the Lordship of Jesus (God the Son) as the healings being done in His name. Through Jesus, people were hearing that God shared His righteousness with all who dare to turn from sin and trust their lives to Christ, saving believers in Christ from death and condemnation. But now they saw affirmed a truth that Randy Stonehill wrote about God three decades ago: "He understands the human heart / His mercy is complete / But His grace was not intended as a place to wipe your feet."

The God we know in Jesus Christ saves us by grace through faith in Jesus. When we come to Him through Jesus, He sets us free to do and be all that we can do and be. He stamps us with His gracious approval as His child.

But He is God, sovereign. He's not to be toyed with or taken for granted.

I think that people were wary of worshiping with the first Christians at Solomon's Colonnade at that moment in the narrative of Acts because they realized that the God the Christians were worshiping was more than a distant deity, more than a religious icon, or a cosmic rabbit's foot, or a genie delivering up their heart's desire. He is God: holy, absolute, righteous. 

They wanted blessings that, at best, would end at the grave; He was offering eternity. 

They wanted a God they could keep at arm's length; He insisted on getting in their grills and living inside them.

Acts 5:13 reminded me today, God isn't playing. If we want the life He's offering, He will give us Himself without stinting. He will be with us always and He will give us eternity.

But if we're not interested in daily surrendering to Him, having our priorities scrambled, submitting to daily change, being exposed to the constant possibility of rejection by a sin-driven world, or giving up on our favorite sins, we too might choose not to come too close to Jesus.

Drawing close to the God revealed in Jesus Christ can be very dangerous to our egos and our desire to control our own lives. I pray to God that I'll draw close to Him today and every day nonetheless.

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