Second Reformed Church

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Stephen & Saul" Sermon: Acts 7:54-8:3

“Stephen & Saul”
[Acts 7:54-8:3]
September 27 2009 Second Reformed Church

Stephen, one of the Church’s first deacons, was accused by false witnesses of blaspheming both God and God’s Law. The false witnesses said that he had preached that “this Jesus” would return to destroy the Temple and change God’s Law. So, Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, and the High Priest asked him if these accusations were true.

Stephen answered them by recounting the history of Israel – a history of persecutions – showing that every time God did something for Israel, and every time Israel followed God, there were people who stood up and persecuted Israel and led her away from the teaching of God. Stephen ended his answer by declaring that it was not “those people” who persecuted the Israel of God, but the High Priest and the Sanhedrin and their fathers before them: they murdered the prophets and they murdered the Savior that God sent to His people.

As we saw in our Scripture, the Sanhedrin flew into a rage and physically responded by grinding their teeth at him. They were in such a rage over what he had said, they were about ready to tear him to pieces.

Surely Stephen knew what was coming; he knew what the result of their accusations against him and his declaration against them would be. So God, in His Mercy, filled Stephen with the Holy Spirit to such a degree that he saw the heavens part, and He saw into the very throne room of God. He saw the Glory of God and he saw Jesus standing at the Right Hand of God.

Let’s stop here for a moment to answer this question, “Why was Jesus standing?” In the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that Jesus “sitteth at the Right Hand of the Father.” But Stephen saw Jesus standing. Does this matter? What’s the difference between sitting and standing?

When we confess that Jesus “sitteth at the Right Hand of the Father,” we are confessing that Jesus is, right now, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Sovereign Ruler and Judge of the Creation. In this confession, we understand that everything must occur according to His Plan and He will judge all sin at His Return.

But when we confess that Jesus is “standing at the Right Hand of God,” we mean something different. When we confess that Jesus is “standing at the Right Hand of God,” we are confessing that He is our High Priest. The author of Hebrews writes, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:7-10, ESV).

“For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself. For the law appoints men in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever” (Hebrews 7:26-28, ESV).

The call of the High Priest was to stand before God and the people and to offer up a blood sacrifice for his sins and the sins of the people, which would reconcile them to God, until they sinned again. Jesus is the Final High Priest: He stands before God and His people, offering up His Holy Self, so that all of our sins are eternally forgiven in Him and He merits us eternal life, making us right with God forever. As Paul wrote, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (I Timothy 2:5-6, ESV).

So Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God.”

The members of the Sanhedrin knew what Stephen was proclaiming in his vision. “The Son of Man” was Jesus’ favorite title for Himself. Daniel described Who this is: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:13-14, ESV).

It was as though Stephen cried out, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and Jesus is there, the Son of Man, as Daniel prophesied, the God and King of all humanity, and He is standing – acting as High Priest between His people and the Father – so those who believe in Him are eternally forgiven and saved to live eternally in His Kingdom.”

This is the same Jesus – the same Son of Man – that we who are Christians have come to know. He is our Savior, our Mediator, our High Priest. So, as we face persecution and even the daily trials of life, let us remember that our God and Savior is standing at the Right Hand of the Father – He is full of Glory – and we are forgiven through His Work as High Priest on our behalf. Be assured, brothers and sisters, if you believe in Jesus Alone for Your Salvation, Jesus has offered up Himself on your behalf, and you are eternally forgiven and right with the Father.

This great assurance that we see in Stephen’s words pushed the Sanhedrin over the edge – they screamed and plugged their ears. They descended upon him and dragged him outside of the city gates and began to stone him. Why? Because that was the punishment – according to the Law of God – for blaspheming – for belittling or wrongly using the Name of God.

We ought not forget that those who oppose Jesus and His Gospel will use the same Bible that we use to try to trap us and trick us. The devil, himself, quoted Scripture to Jesus to try to get Him to sin, but Jesus understood the Scripture better than the devil, who was misusing it and taking it out of context. We must be careful how we read our Bibles. We must read the texts in their context – according to the style of writing they are, according to their historical context, and so forth. When people take the text out of context or misquote it, we end up with heresy and other problems, and there are those who will purposely misuse the Scripture in the hopes of misleading us, getting us to sin, and to doubt God. We need to be as ready as we can be. Read the Bible over and over. Note the type of writing it is – poetry, story, history, etc. Be ready, because someone, someday, will try to mislead you.

Moses records, “Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they bought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death’” (Leviticus 24:10-16, ESV).

The Sanhedrin, in their sin, believe that Stephen’s confession that Jesus is God the Savior, the High Priest and Mediator between God and His people, was blasphemy – that he had said something that was utterly untrue and against the Name of God. So they followed the Law and dragged him outside of the gates of the city and began to stone him.

Do you understand? The death penalty was given to anyone who used God’s Name in a flip or disrespectful way. The death penalty was given to anyone who said things about God that were not true or called someone or something God that was not. God is very serious about His Name and the knowledge of Who He is. How often have we let the Name of God slip casually from our lips? How often have we said things about God that have no merit in Scripture? Although the death penalty is no longer in effect for this sin, it is still a sin.

And those who had taken up stones against Stephen laid their garments – their coats – at the feet of a young man – a young rabbi – by the name of Saul. We will learn later in Acts that Saul is a student – a prized student – of Gamaliel – the Pharisee who had warned the Sanhedrin back in chapter five to let these men go and wait to see if the followers of Jesus would just fall apart, as had the followers of other false teachers, or if this would continue and prove itself to be of God.

And as they stoned Stephen, he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Do these prayers sound familiar?

Remember the crucifixion of Jesus: “And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. And Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:33-34a, ESV).

“It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of th temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out in a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit ’ And having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:44-46, ESV).

We have no reason to believe that Stephen was at the crucifixion, but he would have heard what happened – what was said – and what it meant. He had learned some of the lessons of the crucifixion and was putting them into practice as he was being killed.

One the one hand, Stephen recognized that it was not his place to judge the sin of others. He acknowledged that Jesus is the judge of the whole world. And he asked that the sin of killing him would not be held against them – he showed mercy to the very people who were killing him. Why? Because until the moment of death, a person may come to faith in Jesus Alone and be saved, and Stephen cared more about the salvation of those who were killing him than his own physical life.

How willing are you to forgive those who have sinned against you? Whether someone has knowingly or unknowingly wronged you, have you held a grudge against them? Have you sought revenge on them? Have you wished them ill? Or have you forgiven them and prayed for them and their salvation? It’s not the natural thing to do. It’s not an easy thing to do. But it is the Christ-like thing to do. And we as Christians – “little Christs” – ought to be like our Savior in forgiving others, just as we have been forgiven. Don’t we pray that every Sunday in the Lord’s Prayer? Do you mean it?

The other thing Stephen learned and confessed in his prayer is that the only safe place to be – in life or in death – is in Jesus Hands. Stephen confessed his sure belief that he would be received into the Presence of Jesus, His Savior.

Are you sure that when you die, you will see Jesus standing there, waiting to receive you, as Stephen did? If you believe in Jesus Alone for your Salvation – if all of your hope and confidence is in His Work Alone and nothing of your own, then you shall see Jesus in that final moment – standing – waiting to receive you into His Kingdom.

And Stephen fell asleep – He died in the safety of His Lord and Savior. And devout men buried him with lamentation.

And we are told that “Saul approved of his execution.” And we should understand this was not just a passive approval. The word that is used for “approved” means that Saul was hungry for Stephen’s execution. He believed it was the right thing to do, and he couldn’t wait to see it come to pass. Saul, as he himself later admits, was a zealous persecutor of those who did not conform to his understanding of God’s Law. So, when he saw someone he thought was blaspheming, his mouth watered, he became excited and desired to see him stoned to death.

“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.”

Up until this time, though the Christians had some run-ins with the religious leaders, in particular, they basically were allowed to function as a sect of Judaism in Jerusalem. But with the stoning of Stephen, Jerusalem turned against the Christians, naming them all as heretics – blasphemers – and the first great persecution of the Christians began. It was so great that only the twelve apostles stayed in Jerusalem – all of the other Christians fled to Judea and Samaria.

From this, let us understand that God uses man’s sin to accomplish His Good Plan. It was sinful for Jerusalem to persecute the Christians. But what had Jesus told the disciples on the day of Ascension? “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” (Acts 1:8, ESV).

It was time The disciples had been in Jerusalem. They had grown. They had ben taught by the apostles. But they had not left Jerusalem. And it is God’s plan that the Gospel be preach to every people and every nation, beginning in Jerusalem, and then “all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

The Jews of Jerusalem sinned against the Christians by persecuting them, but it accomplished God’s Good Plan of moving the disciples out of Jerusalem, first to be His witnesses in all of Judea and Samaria.

And we’ve seen that again and again in the Scripture; we have seen this again and again in Sunday morning Bible study: God does not sin, but God uses human sin to accomplish His Good Plan. Remember what happened to Joseph and how his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt. After they reunited, we read, “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’ ... But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people would be kept alive, as they are today’” (Genesis 50:15, 19-20, ESV). Joseph’s brothers sinned in selling him into slavery, but it was through that sinful act that God accomplished His Good Plan of having Joseph rise to power and save many people who would have starved during the famine.

Saul became even more zealous, ravaging the church, breaking into the homes of suspected Christians, dragging men and women off to prison. Thankfully, this sin is not the end of the story of Saul. We will learn more about him, Lord willing, as we progress through the book of Acts.

For today, let us be comforted and find our assurance trusting in the fact that Jesus is our High Priest and stands ready to welcome us into His Kingdom as forgive sons and daughters of the Father.

Let us remember that those who oppose Jesus and His Gospel will use our own Bible to try to get us to sin and doubt. So we need to know our Bibles and understand them as best as we can.

Let us be merciful towards those who sin against us, being more concerned about their salvation than even our physical well-being.

And let us understand that God uses man’s sin to accomplish His Good Plan. So, let us not worry about what man does, but concentrate our hopes and lives on Jesus and His Promises to us.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You for the promise that Jesus stands at Your Right Hand as our High Priest, ready and able to receive us as forgiven sons and daughters. Help us to understand Your Word and to seek out ways – through worship and Bible study and good books, and through the intercession of the Holy Spirit Who lives in us – to understand it better. Make us merciful, as You have been merciful to us. And help us to trust in You and the Plan that You are unfolding, even when we only see the sin of man. For Yours is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"A History of Persecutions" Sermon: Acts 7:1-53

“A History of Persecutions”
[Acts 7:1-53]
September 20, 2009 Second Reformed Church

Last week we saw Stephen, one of the first deacons, hauled before the Sanhedrin of the Jews to answer accusations, made by false witnesses, that he had blasphemed the Law of God and God Himself, that he had spoken against the Temple and the Law of God, and that he had taught that “this Jesus” would destroy the Temple and change God’s Law. And we ended by considering the fact that Stephen’s face shone with the Glory of God signifying that the message that he taught was from God – it was approved by God – and the Jews were in the wrong.

After these accusations were made against Stephen, the high priest turned to him, as we heard in this morning’s reading, and demanded, “Are these things so?” And how did Stephen answer? He answered by relating the history of the persecutions of God’s people.

Stephen went through the major history of the Israel of God up to his day and showed them that every time God did something for the Israel of God, a persecution followed. And then God would do something again, and a persecution would follow.

Stephen began at the beginning of the nation, with God blessing Abraham and choosing him to be the father of the nation of Israel. God chose Abraham and told him to leave his homeland and his family and his religion and follow Him to Canaan. But God gave Abraham himself nothing in the land, but the promise that it would belong to his offspring. And God promised him persecution – that his offspring would be taken out of Canaan to a land that they didn’t know and they would be slaves there for 400 years – as they were in Egypt, as we will remember.

But God promised to judge Egypt and save His people and to bring them back to Canaan where they would worship God as God. And God made a covenant with Abraham, and Abraham and his descendants were marked with the sign of circumcision. And Abraham became the father of Isaac, who was circumcised on the eighth day, and Isaac was the father of Jacob, and Jacob was the father of the twelve patriarchs, including Joseph.

But the patriarchs were jealous of Joseph and persecuted him and sold him off into Egypt. But God went with Joseph and blessed him and gave him favor in Egypt and raised him up to be second in command over all of that nation.

But a famine came – which Joseph and the Egyptians had been warned about by God, so they had saved grain – and people from all over the world came to Egypt to buy grain – including Joseph’s brothers, who did not recognize him. So he sent them home the first time them came, and the second time he revealed who he was to them. And Jacob and his family – seventy-five persons – moved down to Egypt and lived there and multiplied and became a great people.

But Pharaoh died and Joseph died, and the new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph – he just knew that there was this large and powerful people living in Egypt, who might try to overthrow him and take his kingdom away. So the Pharaoh persecuted them and had the sons of Israel put to death.

But God saved Moses, who was placed in a basket and found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who took him for her own. And Moses was raised as Pharaoh’s son, and he was instructed in all of the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he became mighty in word and deed.

But when Moses was forty years old, he interceded between an Egyptian and an Israelite who was being beaten, and he killed the Egyptian. But rather than see this as a sign that Moses had been sent of God to deliver Israel from her bondage, the Israelites persecuted him – denounced him and God’s call on him – and asked if he would kill them for disobedience. So Moses fled into the wilderness.

But God blessed Moses and gave him two sons, and when Moses was eighty years old, God met Moses in the burning bush and called him to go to Egypt to set God’s people free. God told Moses that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to take his shoes off, because he was standing on holy ground. And God made him ruler and redeemer of Israel from Egypt, and God did many wonders and signs through him for the next forty years as Moses brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, into the wilderness, where he met God on Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments and the Law of God, which he delivered to the people.

But the people of Israel rebelled against Moses and persecuted him and thrust him aside, wailing that they would rather be back in Egypt with the cucumbers and garlic to eat. And they called on Aaron, Moses’ brother, to make them an idol – a visible god – that they could worship – and a golden calf jumped out of the fire and they worshiped it and bowed down to it. So God turned them over to their own devices and let them worship the sun and moon and stars.

The prophet Amos tells us that they worshiped the god, Moloch, who called for children and babies to be burned alive – “purified,” they called it – in the fire of his altar. They worshiped the god, Rephan, the Babylonian sun god. And because they committed these sins, God promised that the day would come when He would send His people into exile in Babylon – which we know did occur.

But, in the meantime, Israel came to repent of their sins, and God gave them the gift of the tabernacle – a moveable sanctuary – where God Himself would descend and meet with His people. And it when with them under the leadership of Joshua, and God went with them as well and blessed them and drove out all the nations of Canaan before them. Then, in the days of David the King, he asked God if he might build a temple for God, but God gave that work to David’s son, Solomon.

But God does not dwell in houses made by human hands – although He meets with us and ministers to us in the sanctuary, God is not a man that He can be “housed.” Isaiah records God explaining that Heaven is His throne and the earth is His footstool, so there is no place – no building – in which God may rest or lay His Head. For God is the maker of everything that is.

So Stephen went through this history of persecutions, the sin of Israel, and God’s blessings and forgiveness – the covenant God made with His people. And we can imagine the members of the Sanhedrin listening and shaking their heads, “yes.” “Our people were chosen by God and blessed by God, but outsiders have continued to cause us trouble – one after another. Those people have persecuted us. Those people have tried to put us down. Those people have tried to interfere with God’s Plan.”

The Sanhedrin was patting itself on the back for being the protector of Israel, the friend of God, those who stood up for and protected the Law of God – keeping it pure and unsullied by sinners. Stephen had recounted their history to them in such a way that they had been lulled into a false confidence that exposed their very hypocrisy.

Stephen said, “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 not your fathers 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.”

Stephen said, “You stubborn, incorrigible people. You may be physically circumcised, but you are not part of the covenant – your heart is stone and you are deaf to the Word of God and the workings of the Holy Spirit. It was not ‘those people’ that sinned against God and His blessings – it was you and your fathers. It was your fathers, not ‘those people,’ who killed the prophets that God sent to us for our good. They killed John the Baptist in our own days – the one whom God sent to announce the coming of the Righteous One, Jesus Christ, the Savior God promised – the One you betrayed and now have murdered. You hypocrites! You pride yourselves on having received the Law from God, but you do not keep it.”

There is a wonderful book by Steven J. Lawson called, When All Hell Breaks Loose, You May Be Doing Something Right. In it, Lawson looks at the life of Job, who we will remember suffered in every way without ever knowing why he suffered, and Lawson explains that sometimes, if we do everything right, all the things that God wants us to do, if we keep from sinning, that may be the very time that “all Hell breaks loose.” In other words, suffering can be a sign of our doing what’s right.

We see that in Stephen’s recalling the history of the persecutions of the Israel of God. Understand, Stephen is not saying – and I am not saying – that Abraham and Moses and others were sinless – we know they were sinners, just like us. We could understand if they and we were receiving punishment and suffering for our sins. What may be hard to understand is why we would suffer for doing what is right – what God has told us to do.

Remember again Jesus’ words, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If you keep my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates the Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause’” (John 15:18-25, ESV).

Let us understand, then, that since Jesus was persecuted for doing what is right, we will be persecuted for following Him. One of the promises of the Christian life is that if you follow Jesus, you will suffer, because the same type of people who hated Jesus for doing His Father’s Will will hate us for doing His Will.

Yet, we ought not to lose hope or stop following God – we ought not give in to the devil’s roaring. Remember what Peter said, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood through out the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” ( I Peter 5:8-11, ESV).

Let us not be dismayed by what happens to us while we do all those things that God has put before us – including telling others about Him and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, because if we believe in Jesus Christ Alone for our salvation, He promises to bring us healthy and whole into His Kingdom.

A passage that I take great hope in as someone who is chronically ill, that
we should also hope in as we face those who are violent against the Gospel, is II Corinthians 4:16-18: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (ESV).

Let us not be afraid to tell others about Jesus. Let us not be afraid of what others might do to us. Let us find our purpose and joy in following God through the strength of the Holy Spirit. And let us look forward with great expectation for the day when our bodies are restored and perfected, like Jesus’.

Let us pray:
Almighty God, we don’t like to have people angry with us, and we certainly don’t want people to make us suffer. Even so, help us to stand for the Truth and to speak Your Gospel – to do all those things You have commanded us – to live lives that are examples of Who You are and Your Worthiness. And keep our hope centered on Jesus – the Author and Finisher of our faith. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Expect False Witnesses" Sermon: Acts 6:8-15

“Expect False Witnesses”
[Acts 6:8-15]
September 13, 2009 Second Reformed Church

Stephen was elected to be one of the first deacons. And we remember that the office of the deacon was instituted to make sure the physical needs of the Church are being met. In this first instance, there were widows who qualified for Church provision, and they were not all being provided for. If a member of this church is in need and has no way of having that need met, the deacons of this church are to step in to find or provide an answer for that need.

Stephen was caring for the widows who qualified for Church assistance. He was full of grace and power from God the Holy Spirit, and God did great signs and wonders through him. We would think that he would be the type of person that Christian and non-Christian alike would want to have around. But they didn’t.

Some of those from the synagogue of the Freedmen – probably a synagogue that was largely made of up slaves who had become free – of the Cyrenians, of Alexandria, of Cilicia, and of Asia – people were coming from all around the Roman Empire to challenge the things that Stephen was teaching. And if the Lord is willing, we will look at what Stephen was teaching over the next few weeks. But they sent their best debaters to refute his preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and salvation in Jesus Alone.

“But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” Stephen knew the Word of God and was indwelt by God the Holy Spirit Who helped him to be able to defend the Gospel against those who challenged it. Jesus said, “I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:15, ESV).

The first implication of this text for us is we ought to be able to give an answer to those who object to the Gospel or be able to direct them to someone who can. If someone challenges your belief in Jesus and in Him Alone for your salvation, what would you say?

Peter wrote, “Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer from doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (I Peter 3:13-17, ESV).

We ought to be able to give an answer to those who object to the Gospel or be able to direct them to someone who can. Yet, we ought to understand that even if we are able to give an answer or direct them to someone who can, they may still reject what we have to say. That is why we need to remember that it is not our preparation or our ability to argue that convinces a person to believe, but the intercession of God Himself. We could be the best debater in the world, but unless God intercedes and causes a person to believe, he will not believe. Yet, that does not excuse us from preparing; it just shows us why we may be rejected or persecuted and why we ought to be trusting Jesus and asking Him to intercede when we speak.

Since the debaters from the synagogues were defeated by the Wisdom of God coming through the mouth of Stephen, they chose another tact: they instigated men, they stirred up the people, and they set up false witnesses against him. They brought Stephen before the council – the Sanhedrin – and accused him of three things:

They accused him of blaspheming against Moses – that is, God’s Law – and God Himself. They accused him of berating God and how God has called us to live.

They accused him of speaking against the holy places – that is, the temple – and the Law of God. They accused him of not reverencing the temple and God’s Law.

And, they accused him of saying that “this Jesus of Nazareth” – and we can hear the venom in their voices as they said this – “this Jesus of Nazareth” will destroy the temple and change the Law of Moses – that is, God’s Law.

Since Stephen was preaching and teaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, he likely would have quoted Jesus, and the Jews, in their rage, could have twisted Jesus’ Words again, as they had before His crucifixion.

Remember what Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, your will never enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-20, ESV).

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down’” (Matthew 24:1-2, ESV).

“Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This man said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.”’ And the high priest stood up and said, ‘Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?’ But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, ‘I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have said so. But I tell you from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ Then the high priest tore his robes and said, ‘He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have all heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?’ They answered, ‘He deserves death.’ Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ Who is it that struck you?’” (Matthew 26:59-66, ESV).

Jesus said, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If you keep my word, they will also keep yours. But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates the Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause’” (John 15:18-25, ESV).

So, the second implication we should draw from this text is that we ought to expect that if we stand for the Truth of the Gospel, people will tell lies about us – they will bear false witness against us.

The devil and his angels don’t want the Gospel spread. They are still so deluded to think that they can stop God’s Plan or keep Him from saving all those He intends to save. The devil delights to see us fall into sin. He wants our good works to result in our being condemned and spoken falsely of. But the devil is a fool. He has lost and though we may have to endure false witnesses coming against us, Jesus has won and we shall be received into His Kingdom.

Jesus promises us that if we live for Him and speak the Truth of His Gospel, people will tells lies about us. It may happen to us as individuals, it may happen to us as Second Reformed Church, and it may happen to us as Christians generally. I have experienced false witness against me in all three of these areas, perhaps you have, too.

A popular example today is the lie that conservative, evangelical, biblical Christians – use one of more of those descriptors – Christians hate practicing homosexuals. That’s a lie. Christians are not to hate anyone. I don’t hate practicing homosexuals. No one in this church should hate practicing homosexuals. In fact, I would love it if this sanctuary were filled with practicing homosexuals who want to hear and learn God’s Word.

Understand, I believe the Bible – all of it – and the Bible says that homosexual acts are sinful. However, God calls all people to repentance and belief in Jesus – and so must I – and so must you. The unrepentant homosexual is a sinner, and so are you, and so am I. If we were to exclude sinners from the Church, we would have to hate everyone, including ourselves, and no one would be admitted to the sanctuary.

True Christians do not hate practicing homosexuals, because they are sinners just like you and just like me – sinners who need forgiveness and salvation from Jesus Alone.

That’s only one example. Our church or individuals in this church may and have been accused of various things. We should expect that. And we should prepare for it by living holy lives to the greatest extent that we are able, relying on and trusting in God to help us and to make us useful and to use us. And we ought to be quick to confess our sins and to ask for forgiveness.

So let us not be surprised: we ought to expect that if we stand for the Truth of the Gospel, people will tell lies about us – they will bear false witness against us.

After all these lies and accusations and twistings of Jesus’ Word are leveled against Stephen, we read this, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

What is this about?

Remember what happened when Moses came down with the Ten Commandments: “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God” (Exodus 34:29, ESV).

We remember that God allowed Moses to see a reflection of the “back parts” of God’s Glory, and God’s Glory remained on his face as he came down among the people again, and they were frightened of him and made him wear a veil until the glory faded.

Something similar happened to Stephen – as Stephen faced the false witnesses, he witnessed something of the Glory of God, like Moses did, such that his face shown and made him look more heavenly than human.

That does not mean that every time we are confronted and lied about that our faces will start to glow with the Glory of God. What it means, and this is the third implication of the text for us: we ought to trust that God will make Himself known through us, in some way, no matter what happens to us.

God does not usually make people’s faces glow – but it does happen. However, we ought to understand that if we are abiding in God’s Will and bringing His Truth before others, God will make Himself known to them, in some way, at some time, as it pleases Him – whether our message is believed or rejected or if the false witnesses manage to get something worse done against us. So let us trust God – that He knows what is best and that He will do what is best for us and for the Gospel. For we don’t just have the promise that false witnesses will come against us, but God has also promised, as Paul writes, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, ESV).

Let us learn how to give an answer to those who object to the Gospel or be able to direct them to someone who can. Let us expect that if we stand for the Truth of the Gospel, people will tell lies about us – they will bear false witness against us. And let us trust that God will make Himself known through us, in some way, no matter what happens to us.

Let us pray:
Almighty God and Father, we thank You for calling us to be witnesses to Your Gospel – to the salvation that is only through Jesus Alone. We thank You for indwelling us in the Person of God the Holy Spirit. And we thank You for being honest about the false witnesses that will come and for the promise to bring even false witness against us together for our good according to Your Plan. We thank You for Your Love and Care, for it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Consistory

Consistory members -- our next meeting, D.V., is tomorrow after worship. Please plan to stay. Thank you!

Banner Redeux

Back in May I attended the Banner of Truth Minister's Conference on the topic “Our Godly Heritage” (500th Birthday of John Calvin). I didn't blog about it then, but now, below, I give you an outline of the conference. D.V., I plan to go again next year -- you should, too! Click on the Banner of Truth link of the side of this blog for more information.

1. Conference Sermon:

Hebrews 11:1-16; 13:7
It is right for us to remember historical figures, so long as we (1) do it honestly and (2) don’t put them on a pedestal.
They help us (1) as an encouragement to persevere, (2) as a model of faith and life, and (3) as men to lead us to Christ.

2. Persuasive Preaching (1)

John Murray – “preaching is a personal, passionate plea.” To “do it” and “urge it” is costly – preaching the Gospel and suffering (cf. Paul and his thorn in the flesh).
Three peculiar challenges to the task of preaching seriously:
(1) the personal challenge – natural inhibitions/temperament – must remember that preaching is the persuasive work of the Holy Spirit; self-preservation – preaching cannot be about us; danger of triviality – don’t lose the sense of wonder/awe.
(2) the cultural challenge – the world says all is meaningless; we say there is meaning. Exposit the Word; don’t entertain.
(3) the challenge of the theological – we must not separate sovereignty and responsibility – preach a real call to repentance and belief, and that God is Sovereign in salvation.
Three things we need:
(1) clarity – explain that in order to get clean, one must understand that one is dirty.
(2) authority/boldness – we are sent on behalf of Christ with the message of reconciliation. Augustine – “the cross is the pulpit of God’s Love.”
(3) urgency – there is no need for restraint.

3. Union with Christ: Gospel Foundations

Colossians 3:1-17
Calvin – “Everything that Christ has done for us is of no value while we remain outside of Christ.”
The Colossian heresy had something to do with the idea of “fullness.” We must be Christ-centered, not personal experience-centered. It is a work of supernatural grace to preach supernatural grace in Christ.
The basic pattern of apostolic teaching:
(1) There is a grammar of the Gospel. We are continuing to learn how to present the foreign language of the Gospel. The basics of this grammar is that every imperative is rooted in an indicative.
(2) There is a chronology of the Gospel. The present Christ is rooted in the past Christ. The past must be understood to understand the present and future in Christ.
(3) There is a geography of the Gospel. We have died and our life is hidden with Christ in God. We are citizens of heaven living on earth.
(4) There is a rhythm of the Gospel. We are in Christ. Therefore, we are to mortify the flesh, which must be alongside of vivification.
The basic substance of apostolic exposition:
(1) union with Christ is union to Christ – the great ambition of our life is just to know Him.
(2) We don’t just believe in Christ, but He has come to live in us.
(3) Extent – we see life through the lense of putting on the new garments of Christ.

4. The Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom (1)

I Corinthians 13
[This session gave us some biographical background to Chrysostom.]

5. Calvin the Pastor

Philippians 3:7-16
Pastors don’t just preach to the congregation, but to each individual sheep. Calvin was grieved by how far short he fell of his call.
Features of Calvin’s ministry:
(1) He carried out in the conviction that Jesus is the Chief Shepherd, and we are the undershepherds. We are not our own.
(2) He reflected the conviction that the Love of Christ is the animator of the ministry. Unless the Love of Christ reigns in our hearts, we shall not persuade with certainty.
(3) He reflected the servant spirit of the Chief Pastor. All pastors are nothing more than servants. If we do not speak with a servant’s heart, we should keep our mouths shut.
(4) His ministry was founded upon his conviction that preaching and teaching the Gospel are the primary ways to minister to the people. We must immerse ourselves in preaching and teaching.
(A) In preaching the minister has two voices: one for edifying the sheep and one for scaring away the wolves.
(B) When God speaks to the whole body, He speaks to each individual, so we need to know each individual and their needs.
(5) Pastoral visitation is essential. Private instruction is necessary. We must remember that we are sheep who are shepherds, not vice versa. We must stand against all that distances a pastor from his people.
(6) Never weary to tell the congregation to get out of themselves and into Christ. This is the point of pastoral ministry. Neither we, nor our people, are as far along as we think.
(7) Calvin was indelibly shaped and impregnated by his union with Christ. It lay at the heart of his ministry.
Lessons:
(1) We see a humanity that endeared people to Calvin. Being a great preachers is not enough.
(2) He had a deep sense of his own weakness; he knew his strength was is Christ.
(3) Remember that the best theologians are pastors that minister to their flocks. Seminaries ought to have well-tested pastors teaching in them.
(4) He was willing to lay down his life for the flock of Christ.

6. The Pastoral Theology of John Chrysostom (2)

Being a minister of Christ gives one the opportunity to show love to Christ by feeding the sheep.
The Word of God is sufficient for the treating of sick souls. Don’t let whispers and complaints overwhelm you.
Preaching Christian love in I Corinthians 13:
vs 1-3 the place of love in the order of Christian virtues
vs 4-7 Christian love tends to give us meaning – this love is unbounded
vs 8-11 Christian love is timeless

7. Calvin the Teacher

Titus 1:1-2:1
Calvin died saying that he had been faithful to the best of his knowledge.
The three-fold duty of a pastor: to be instructed in knowledge, to hold fast to his doctrine, to seek the solid advantage of the church – the method of edifying the church
(1) Calvin’s theology remained largely the same since age 26. Changes were largely additions. The pasterns of guilt-grace-gratitude remained.
(2) Calvin spent three hours teaching each day. Every minister must be diligent in study. He worked in the lifelong teeth of oppression by the assurance that the Gospel is from God. It is by faith that we live and overcome the enemy.
(3) Calvin preached the lively Scripture, no matter if anyone objected. Don’t preach vainly, but for the profit and salvation of all. The first duty of a pastor is to be in total agreement with the Bible. Anything not found in the Scripture is a vain boast.

8. Persuasive Preaching (2)

Acts 25:23-26:32
Examine the text:
background, scene, religious progeny, opposition and persecution, divine intervention, explanation, interpretation – respectfully, rationally, and skillfully, application, and conclusion.

9. Union with Christ: Gospel Implications

Colossians 3:1-27; II Corinthians 5:17
The change is not alone but within the new order of reality – the real way of progress is not through a list of do’s and don’t’s, but in sharing in the humiliation and exaltation of Christ. We go through mortification and vivification – internally and externally. So we are to be living examples of what we preach.
In studying the Psalms, Calvin found he had more problems with those inside the church than those outside.
Suffering and its reasons are not always understood in this world.
(1) Christ’s people are united in such a way that trying to destroy them is to try to destroy Jesus.
(2) death worked in Stephen, but life worked in Saul.
We ought not to desire suffering, but understand that suffering is not God losing, but God winning.
Colossians symphony:
orientation
mortification
transformation
disposition
(1) People do not naturally live by the biblical paradigms. We must saturate our people with them to wear down their old nature and show them that you can’t live the life Christ calls us to in 24 minutes of preaching.
(2) Your sins don’t disappear at conversion. They don’t have dominion. Emphasize unity in Christ. Specifically teach mortification. The Nike method: “Just do it.” Grace doesn’t stop obedience, but effects it.
(3) Let the Work of Christ dwell in you richly. Read your Bible more, preach more. Sing the Psalms, it is the first sign of conversion. Run worm worship that destroys – idolatry. Let thankfulness dominate.

10. Modern Challenges to Calvinism

II Timothy 3:1-17
There are perilous times because:
(1) of the nature of depravity
(2) of the false religionists – progressing from one deception to another
Corrections:
(1) We must be different from those around us and very confrontational.
(2) The church needs preaching that tells them that there will be suffering.
(3) Seasoned ministers ought to tell young ministers about suffering and hardship.
(4) A biblical system of doctrine must be handed down. The Scripture is all we need for the ministry. We must never compromise what the Scripture says.

11. Q & A session

12. Closing Sermon

II Corinthians 4:1-18
God has entrusted us with an almost overwhelming responsibility, and Satan will do all he can to get us to lose heart and be cast down. We must keep our eyes on Christ and not on ourselves.
We don’t lose heart for two reasons:
(1) because of the greatness of the ministry that God has entrusted to us – the privilege we have. It is a ministry of being united with the Great Minister. There is an inevitable cross. We ought to expect violence, prison, and death in the Christian ministry. Our scars are for a good cause and a Great Master.
(2) because of the greatness of the mercy we have received. At our best, we are damnable, Hell-deserving sinners, but we have received mercy. We are doing the most significant thing in the whole cosmos. Our weakness is held by our Strong Savior.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 6:4 –

“Therefore, pastors must not think that they have so done their duty that they need to do no more when they have daily spent some time in teaching. There is another manner of study, another manner of zeal, another manner of continuance required that they may indeed boast that they are wholly given to that thing. They adjoin thereunto prayer, not that they alone ought to pray, (for this is an exercise common to all the godly), but because they have peculiar causes to pray above all others” – John Calvin, Commentary on Acts, 193-194.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 6:4 –

“A century ago, pastors usually put the initials V. D. M. After their name. This is not an abbreviation of an academic degree but a description of their task. The initials are Latin for Verbi Domini Minister, that is, minister of the Word of the Lord. A pastor, strictly speaking, is not the minister of the church, even if he is ordained by that body. He is not a minister of a local congregation, even though a church council or board supervises his work and pays his salary. A pastor is first and foremost a minister of Christ’s gospel, for Jesus sends him forth to teach and preach the Good News (Matt. 28:19-20). The pastor, then, is a servant of God’s Word. As Paul puts it, ‘How can the people hear unless someone preaches [the Word]?’ (Rom. 10:14). But if the pastor is a servant of the Word, then he ought to devote himself fully to the task of proclaiming the glad gospel tidings. He ought to guard against attractions that take him away from his task. Genuine devotion to prayer and preaching will crown his work with untold blessings” – Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts, 223.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 6:2 –

“Therefore, let everyone of us who is called unto the function of teaching addict himself wholly to order this his estate well. For we are inclined to nothing more than to fall to slothfulness” – John Calvin, Commentary on Acts, 192.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Review: "Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear"

Who is not afraid? Living in the world at this time, would we not consider a person strange who did not have fear? We are afraid we don’t matter. We fear we won’t have enough. We fear what our children have to face. We fear the future. We fear doubting God and His Word.

Max Lucado’s new book, Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear, is the latest book I am reviewing for Thomas Nelson Publishers. You can check out the product information on their website at http://www.thomasnelson.com/consumer/product_detail.asp?sku=9780849921391&dept_id=110301&TopLevel_id=110000&title=Fearless&author=Max-Lucado

I have long enjoyed Max Lucado’s books. His writing is warm, friendly, and thoroughly based in the Scripture. Lucado knows how to tell a story. His ability to tell a story is extremely effective and approachable by pretty much everyone I can think of. His works would be great for discussion groups and/or Bible studies.

In this latest book, he addresses the things that we fear – those I mentioned above and more. And then he does what every good preacher should do, he directs the reader to the Scripture and more specifically to Christ and how He answers the fears that plague us. He shows the reader that the Only Answer to our fears is Jesus Christ and His Promises. In fact, the book contains a discussion guide which “examines” and “exposes” each fear and then gives a Scriptural battle plan for defeating it.

The one fear that Lucado says we ought to hold on to and, in fact nurture, is our fear of God. He shows through the example of the Transfiguration how our knowledge and understanding of God ought always to be growing as we progress in sanctification, and that is accompanied by a holy fear – an awe and reverence that continues to humble and amaze us.

My one disappointment with the book is Lucado’s reliance on The Message – a paraphrase of the Scripture. It is dangerous and unwise to use a paraphrase as though it is the Scripture because paraphrases, as enjoyable and easy as they may be to read, contain errors. I hope he will refrain from relying on paraphrases in the future and use any legitimate translation – there are plenty of readable ones.

Also released with the book is the booklet, Imagine Your Life Without Fear, which collects several chapters of the main book into an inexpensive handout, which could prove useful in evangelism.

I would recommend the book and applaud Lucado for turning the reader from fears to Jesus, but I would recommend that one reads it with a Bible in hand and look up the actual verses, rather than reading the paraphrases.

[This review appears on my blog and at Amazon.com.]

Monday, September 07, 2009

Review: "Body Count"

Another William X. Kienzle novel, Body Count, begins with Father Koesler hearing the confession of a man who claims to have murdered a local priest. Unbeknownst to Father Koesler, his new associate, Father Nick Dunn, a young, annoying, mystery buff and progressive theologian, overhears the confession. Father Dunn tries to convince Father Koesler that there are times when the bond of confession can be broken, but Father Koesler disagrees.

Then there is another murder.

Check it out!

Review: "Chameleon"

William X. Kienzle, former priest, former journalist, wrote a series of excellent mystery novels with the reluctant Father Robert Koesler as the sleuth. In each novel, one has an excellent mystery (at least none of the novels I have read have disappointed me thus far) plus one encounters some aspect of Roman Catholic Theology, which also proves itself interesting to me – not being a Roman Catholic.

In Chameleon, the hooker sister of a nun who is wearing a habit for one of her john’s fantasies is murdered. As case of mistaken identity of course, or was it? When the diocese’s financial advisor is murdered, something more is thought to be afoot.

And did you know that a married man may become a priest, but if his wife dies, he may not remarry?

Highly recommended for mystery enthusiasts and theology buffs.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

"Fulfill Your Call" Sermon: Acts 6:1-7

“Fulfill Your Call”
[Acts 6:1-7]
September 6, 2009 Second Reformed Church

Both the Old and New Testaments have laws to make sure the most vulnerable in society – widows and orphans – receive care from the Church. The Scripture is equally clear that not all widows and orphans need the Church’s care – and those people should be excluded. For example: Ted Kennedy’s wife, though a widow, would not qualify to be supported financially by the Church, because she has plenty herself, and through her family, to provide for her needs.

This morning’s Scripture begins with a problem between two groups of widows who qualify for the Church’s financial support: one was a group of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians and the other group was of Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians. When the distribution occurred – and this could have been of food or money or both – the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians were being overlooked. And we should understand that the word that is used here does not necessarily mean that they were overlooked due to malicious intent – it may have been accidental, based on the inability to communicate in the Greek language. Whatever the case may be, the Greek-speaking Jewish Christians were not having their needs met, and they qualified to have them met by the Church.

The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians went to the twelve apostles and told them that their widows were being neglected and asked them to intercede. This was a good thing to do. They didn’t attack their fellow Christians or condemn them or accuse them. They went to the apostles to straighten the matter out.

However the apostles were unwilling to take over the distribution and make sure that both groups of widows were receiving what the Church had promised to give them. Why? Were the apostles racists? No. They said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” Were they saying that serving tables – serving the widows – was beneath them? No. They were saying that they were not called to that work and, as honorable a work as it is to serve the widows, if they spent their time doing that, they would not fulfill their call as pastors, which, primarily, is to preach and teach and study and pray.

We’ve looked at this before – biblically, a pastor should spend most of his time studying, praying, preaching, and teaching. He may do other things, but not to the neglect of studying, praying, peaching, and teaching. Those four make up the primary call on the life of the pastor. That does not make me better than someone who mows the lawn or cleans the building – and I may do those things from time to time – but I have a different call on my life – the apostle’s had a different call on their lives. It is not wrong to do things that are other than the primary call that God has put upon our lives, but we ought to fulfill our primary call – it is not right for us not to do what God has called us to do in order to do other things, no matter how good those other things are.

So the apostles said that they would not take up the distribution because it would keep them from fulfilling the call that God put on their lives as pastors. Instead, they told the Church to choose seven men who were of good repute, full of the Spirit, and full of wisdom.

They were to choose seven men who were well thought of in the Church and the community – men of integrity. They were to choose men who were Christians – who had made a profession of faith – but not just that – men who also were gifted by God the Holy Spirit and lived out those gifts in love of God and neighbor. And they were to choose men who had spiritual wisdom – not just men who were wise, or intelligent, but men who could relate the teaching of the Scripture to everyday living.

The whole Church realized that what the apostles said and did was the right thing – they were going to continue to fulfill the call that God put on their lives to be pastors, and they would allow others, chosen by the Church, to fulfill their call as those who serve tables – that is, “deacons” – the word, “deacon,” means one who serves or serves at the table.

And notice, it was the Church who chose the deacons, not the apostles. Just as we receive nominations for elders and deacons and then vote, they did the same thing in the early Church. And the Church chose for themselves seven men: Stephen, Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas. These seven were brought before the apostles as the choice of the Church to serve the Church. And the apostles ordained the seven as the first deacons.

How do we know that? Because our text tells us that the apostles prayed for them and laid their hands upon them, sending them out to their work – to fulfill their call. The word, “ordain,” means, “stretching out the hand.”

We can conclude from this, that in a similar manner to our understanding that God the Holy Spirit gifts us and gives us ability as He wills and as it will be useful to the Church and to the glory of God, we may also understand that God has called each of us to specific tasks – specific lifestyles, specific things that we are to do in the Church and in the rest of our lives. And just as every Christian has been gifted by the Holy Spirit – each Christian has been called to something.

Paul wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to anther gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (I Corinthians 12:4-11, ESV).

God has gifted you, and God has called you to serve Him and love Him and love your neighbor through fulfilling your call – through doing what He has called you to do. And don’t think that who you are in Christ doesn’t matter – by example – we are warned not to neglect that gift and calling that God has put upon us. As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given to you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you” (I Timothy 4:14, ESV). In fact, we are to work hard to maximize what we do with what God has given us and call us to. Again, Paul wrote to Timothy, “For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of hands, for God gives us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.

Some may be thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good for you to talk about gift and call – you’re the pastor – but what am I gifted and called to do? I don’t know that I have a call on my life.”

And you would be right – you don’t have a call on your life – you actually have several:

All people on the earth are called to believe in Jesus Alone for their salvation. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:41b, ESV). Since we are all sinners – every single mere human being – we are all called to repentance and belief in Jesus Alone for our salvation. If you believe in Him, you have fulfilled that part of your call.

We are also called to serve in our families. All of us are sons or daughters and we are obliged to serve as sons and daughters – honoring our mothers and fathers, even in death. Some of us are brothers or sisters, mothers or fathers, cousins, nieces, nephews – in all these different relationships, we are called to be who God has called us to be in the family – to serve in the family in love and in thanks to God for our families.

And we are called to serve in the world, both in our paying jobs and in volunteering in whatever way we can to help others and make this a better world, a better community. You don’t have to save the world, but God has put at least one person in your way that you are able to help in some way, which will show to them the love of Jesus.

Yet, if you are a Christian, you are now called to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world – to let everyone know the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Alone. Again, Jesus said, “Go into the world and proclaim the Gospel to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15b, ESV). And Paul wrote, “I am under obligation both to Greeks and barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:14-16, ESV).

This is a call we will work at our whole lives – or until Jesus returns – whichever comes first. We must learn to tell others about Jesus in whatever way we have been gifted to do that – whether it is explaining the Gospel to them, inviting them to Church, giving them some Christian literature, or something else. However God has gifted you – that is how you are to show the Gospel to others.

Also, if we are Christians, we are to be part of a church – part of the life of a church – not because the Church saves us – not because the Church is sinless or perfect – but because God has given us this place to gather for worship and for our good. God has gifted and called each of us to serve in the Church in some way, as we already heard Paul say: “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

If you are involved in Second Reformed Church, it is because – in part – that God has given you a gift or put a call on you to serve here. God put you here because we as a church need you for what God has enabled you and called you to do. I am here at this time because this church needed a pastor and God gifted me and called me to be a pastor. Some of you have been called and gifted as elders or deacons. Some of you have the gift of hospitality, empathy, organization, and so forth. Understand, that doesn’t mean that if you are an accountant for your paying job, you must handle the church’s finances – it may be, but not necessarily. Perhaps you earn a living as an accountant, but you love landscaping. God may have gifted you and sent you here to help maintain the property and the foliage. We need to understand what we can do – what we believe we are called to do – what will fill a need at the church where God has us – and then do it. If you need help finding your place – ask me – ask others in the church. We are here for each other.

We need to also understand that we may be gifted and called in one area and serve in that area at one time and serve in another area another time. God is able to use us in many and various ways as He sees fit and as it brings Him Glory and us joy. Yes, even though we face trials and tribulations in this world, if were are abiding in God’s Will for us – if we are using the gifts that God has given us and working to fulfill the call that God puts on our lives – we will have His Joy.

What happened when the apostles told the Church that they would not serve the distribution because they were called to preach and teach and pray and study? What happened when they told the Church to find persons who were called and gifted to be deacons – to assume the work of the distribution?

First, we’re told that “the Word of God continued to increase.” In other words, the apostles spent their time fulfilling their call preaching as much as possible so people would know that there is Only Salvation in Jesus Alone and to help teach the Christians and mature them in the faith through the workings of the Holy Spirit.

Second, “the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” When the Church fulfills its call and uses the gifts God has given it, God is pleased to add to the Church – for His Glory and our joy. Growth comes as God is pleased to bring about growth, but that does not mean that we can sit in our pews and do nothing. God has called us – not to Salvation by works – but to a faith that works. Our faith is an active faith. We are enabled and called to do something. Do give up until you understand what God has called you to do and then do it with all your might.

And thirdly, “a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Don’t make assumptions about people. The ones who opposed Jesus the most were the religious leaders. Don’t assume that a person believes simply because he wears a clerical collar, or sings in the choir, or holds the Church attendance record.

Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25b-28, ESV).

With the example of Jesus before us, remember also the words of Peter: “As each one has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s various grace” (I Peter 4:10, ESV).

Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You for calling us to be Your sons and daughters, for gifting us by the Holy Spirit and placing various calls upon our lives. We ask that You would give us the grace to know what You have called us to do and be and to fulfill that call in Jesus’ Name. We ask as we receive the elements of the Lord’s Supper that You would meet with us and give us more of Your Grace, that we would be strengthened and renewed for the work You have called us to do. And in all things, keep us from worry and despair, but let us trust wholeheartedly in You, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Shepherd of the Sheep. For it is in His Name we pray, Amen.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:41-42 –

The gospel makes it possible for us to be gentle and loving toward our neighbors and kind to everyone so that we can live in all uprightness and moderation and so that the freedom we seek is the freedom to be servants of God, to the end that when we have to appear before him, we can say we have been his subjects, obedient in all things and in all places” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 284-285.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:38-39 –

“From Gamaliel’s remark we can still glean good, useful, and fruitful instruction. Two of these points are true, as I have already said. The first is that whatever is from God man will never destroy. On the other hand, whatever is from men will collapse under its own without assistance. But Gamaliel’s conclusion to do nothing is wrong. According to him, men do not have to do their duty or become involved in anything or foster God’s truth. Yet it is not enough for us to be instructed in what is good and right; we have to what the power and effectiveness of the instruction are, how to profit from it, and why God has given it to us. When we come here to hear the gospel, we must do more than ask God to give us a good understanding of it. He must give us the wisdom and discernment we need when we consider how we are to use it” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 280-181.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:33 –

“Whence we can gather that no reasons can prevail with the reprobate, to bring them unto the obedience of Christ; for unless God speak within, the outward doctrine shall be able to do nothing else but beat the ears” – John Calvin, Commentary on Acts, 181.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:31 (cont.) –

“That is, the papists are so wretched and cursed, so fiendish that they try to do all they could to bring down the Son of God. They have snatched away his glory by usurping what belongs to him alone. There is not a wretched creature among them, no matter how base, who does not think he receives the forgiveness of his sins. A lecher, a panderer, a pillar of a whorehouse, after whoring all year and committing the most damnable abominations you can imagine, acquires forgiveness of his sins, provided he comes and kisses the foot of an idol at Easter. A usurer who spends all his time grasping greedily and perpetrating a thousand extortions against poor people finds himself saved and washed of all his sins, provided he offers up a mea culpa, without giving the Son of God a second thought. Is it not an exceedingly abominable sacrilege when wicked scum full of contagion and stench come like that and usurp the authority which belongs to Jesus Christ? And who are you pitiable creatures who come like that and rise up against the majesty of the Son of God, whom angels bow before and whom the devils are forced to recognize as their Judge because they cannot have him as their Saviour. So whenever the papists want to use the diabolical and infernal word ‘satisfaction,’ being proud to point out that they think they can make satisfaction for their sins, let us realize that theirs is a diabolical doctrine invented by Satan, a are all the other means which they have fabricated for come to Jesus Christ.

“We note among other things the presumptuousness of their mass, which is their principal idol. There are so many damnable blasphemies in the abominations that the devils in hell themselves tremble. Jesus Christ will not have to open his mouth to condemn them. The devils alone will suffice to judge them for committing such damnable things that the thought of them is terrifying”
– John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 271-272.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:31 (cont.) –

“The statement ‘He has God exalted with his right hand’ is a simile taken form the roles of men in the world and indicates that Jesus Christ is like a viceregent of God his Father to exercise all authority and government over us. Do we wish to show that God rules over us and that we honour him as we should? Then we need to yield to Jesus Christ his Son, our Saviour, whom he has given all power and authority. It is he who wants us to take refuge for reconciliation with himself. In short, our Lord wants to reign over us only in the person of Jesus Christ his Son. It is futile for men to try to serve God and exclude Jesus Christ at the same time. This is manifest idolatry We make of God an idol when we want to honour and serve him other than through Jesus Christ. We must mark this passage well, for it tells us God raised Jesus hi Son to his right hand to make him our Prince and Saviour. That shows, as I have just said, that it is a misguided effort to serve God without acknowledging Jesus Christ as Saviour and Mediator between him and us. That is also John’s testimony: ‘He that does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him’ (John 5:23)” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 263

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:31 (cont.) –

“In addition, let us bear in mind that man has no capacity to repent unless repentance comes from God, for he alone gives it, as I have just said. The papists teach the opposite, saying that man can generate that repentance himself. It is true, they will say, that if God leaves us where we are, we perish, but when he says, ‘Come,’ it is up to us to get up and go to him. That is how they try to garner for themselves a portion of God’s power and might, saying that they can help man come to God. We, on the other hand, heed what the text says here: that Jesus Christ’s office is to give repentance and forgiveness of sins. It follows that we do not have that capacity within ourselves. We know, therefore, that theirs is a doctrine from hell when they say it is up to them to be converted and within their own power to come to God.

....

“Now how does Jesus Christ bring us to repentance? It is when he strips us of everything that belongs to our human nature and regenerates us by his Holy Spirit. We are then said to be children of God. That is why Jesus Christ’s Spirit is called ‘the Spirit of sanctification’ (Rom. 1:4), for he cleanses us of all our stains so that we may become children of God. As I have said, two things are required in this process, namely that everything in our human nature must be removed, and that cannot be done unless Jesus Christ sheds his grace upon us.

“Now we know that men cannot change themselves and that the Holy Spirit must work within them because they are given to every evil and are even slaves and captives of sin, as Paul says: ‘I am sold under sin’ (Rom. 7:14). That is the way men are in their natural state. Just as a horse is under the control of his mater and must be goaded on, we are wretchedly bound and imprisoned by servitude to sin and the devil until the Lord delivers us by his grace. It is true we will not be able to blame our sins on our being forcibly confined by sin. There is not one of us who does not knowingly and willingly in because we are all naturally corrupt and wicked. Consequently, Jesus has to pour out his grace to cleanse us of all our evil affections and free us of sin’s damnable captivity, which is our natural habitat” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 268-269.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:31 –

“The statement ‘He has God exalted with his right hand’ is a simile taken form the roles of men in the world and indicates that Jesus Christ is like a viceregent of God his Father to exercise all authority and government over us. Do we wish to show that God rules over us and that we honour him as we should? Then we need to yield to Jesus Christ his Son, our Saviour, whom he has given all power and authority. It is he who wants us to take refuge for reconciliation with himself. In short, our Lord wants to reign over us only in the person of Jesus Christ his Son. It is futile for men to try to serve God and exclude Jesus Christ at the same time. This is manifest idolatry! We make of God an idol when we want to honour and serve him other than through Jesus Christ. We must mark this passage well, for it tells us God raised Jesus hi Son to his right hand to make him our Prince and Saviour. That shows, as I have just said, that it is a misguided effort to serve God without acknowledging Jesus Christ as Saviour and Mediator between him and us. That is also John’s testimony: ‘He that does not honour the Son does not honour the Father who sent him’ (John 5:23)” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 263

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:30 –

“Therefore, as the apostles hit the priests in the teeth with that wicked and heinous offense which they had committed, so they prevent, by a granting, to express the manner of the reproachful death which Christ suffered, lest the authors of the wickedness triumph as having gotten the victory” – John Calvin, Commentary on Acts, 178.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:28 –

“Consequently, God established the priests on condition that they follow his commands. But if they deviate from them ever so slightly, they are to be treated not only as private individuals but also as devils. Whereas our Lord established them as his angels and his messengers, as we have said, we must consider them as abominable and contemptuously throw mud in their face” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 256.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:21 –

“Some infer from the use of the word all, that instead of a mere representation of the elders, as in ordinary cases, the High Priest and his associates, upon this occasion, summoned the whole eldership, so far as was within reach. A striking analogy would then be furnished by the Great Consistory of the Reformed Dutch Churches” – J. A. Alexander, Acts, 221.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:20 –

“Most people will think that when they hear a sermon on Sunday as a matter of duty, they have done enough. When they return home, instead of discussing, as thy should, what was said in the sermon in order to remember better what was dealt with, they will speak only of unworthy and profane subjects. ‘Not at all! Not at all,’ they will say. ‘That is a heavy subject to think about. Let us not weary our heads with it.’ Still others will be careful not to be offended by the teaching, for with great effort they will come to th sermon once every two months. Consequently, we should not be surprised if men have less understanding and judgment than dumb animals. For animals at least know how to seek the food they need, and men are so wretched they flee from spiritual food, without which they cannot live, although they think they are much at ease in this world. Consequently, we must pay even closer attention to this statement that the gospel is the teaching of life. If we wish to be quickened by God’s power and might and so attain the heavenly kingdom, the gospel must be our doorway. Since God is at work in it and displaying his power through it, it has to be clear to us that there is no other way to come to him. It is certain that we will not enter his kingdom against his will. Only the gospel leads us to him. By it we embrace Jesus Christ, who reconciles us with God. By the gospel, I say, we can come to God and the salvation it promises. That is why our Lord Jesus Christ said, ‘You are not of God, because you refuse to hear his word’ (John 8:47). Therefore, those who are offended by the hearing of God’s word are already marked for being thrown into the fire of hell” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 242-243.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:18 –

“This can be a very useful passage provided we apply it gainfully. It warns us that if we abuse God’s word, he will allow our capacity to reason and make judgements to become like that of dumb animals, and we will be no more worthy to be ranked among men than dogs or pigs” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 236.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:17 –

“In this account, we have a repetition of what we encountered earlier. God’s kingdom cannot be advanced without Satan’s doing everything he can to hinder it. Consequently, there will always be struggle and dissension” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 233.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:15 –

“We see in this passage the trouble the Jews go to in order to ease their neighbors’ pain. There is not one who does not help those in need because of their physical health. As for us, we are not moved even when we see our neighbors perish in body or soul. We would not lift a finger. Their sense of brotherhood does not exist among us today, and that comes from the fact that there is no gratitude in either the small or the great” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 222.

Reformed Wisdom

On Acts 5:13 –

“Last Sunday, we began to talk about how useful the miracles can be for us. First, we are to use them to strengthen our faith, for our Lord extended his hand and his power to witness to his gospel and to show its sure and infallible truth. We must not, then, ever separate the one from the other. For we understand how quickly the devil inclines us to superstition and perverts miracles so that they do not magnify and exalt God’s glory and power, but blaspheme and dishonor him. Examples of that we have seen and still see through the Papacy” – John Calvin, Sermons on the Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1-7, 219.

September Sermons

D.V., I plan to preach:

9/6/09 Communion Acts 6:1-7 “Fulfill Your Call”
9/13/09 Acts 6:8-15 “Expect False Witnesses”
9/20/09 Acts 7:1-53 “A History of Persecutions”
9/27/09 Acts 7:54-8:3 “Stephen & Saul”