Why would God let us make such a mess of things?

It was in Lystra in Acts 14:8 that Paul told a man “who was lame from birth and had never walked” to “Stand up on your feet” and the man “jumped up and began to walk” (verse 10).

The people who saw it happen “shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’” (verse 11). Paul was horrified. He ran into the crowd yelling, “No, no, no, we’re human just like you. And we’re here to bring you the good news, that there’s a living God you can turn to rather than all these worthless gods of yours.” Which sounds a bit like an insult, but he then says in verse 16,“In the past, God let all nations go their own way.” 

Butwhy did he say that? Because it explains why these people in Lystra were so taken up with the idea of the gods appearing to them in human form. It was simply the result of God allowing entire nations to create their own gods in place of him – and end up trusting in these gods of their own making and imagination instead of trusting him. And “in the past” that was the way things had always been for these people – but – Paul was now showing them something entirely different. 

He was showing them a God who could heal a man who’d never walked. Their gods couldn’t do that. But these unfortunate people had been living their entire lives in utter dependence on gods that in reality had no power at all. It was just as Paul said, that their gods were “worthless.” 

Imagine being told that today too, that all the gods we’ve created and depend on for help and healing, or for guidance in how to live and make life work out well for ourselves, are completely useless and a waste of space. 

A person would well ask, then, “But why would God let that happen?” Why, for century after century, would he let us live under this delusion that we can handle life without him and depend on worthless gods instead? Or why, to echo Paul’s words in verse 16, would he “In the past, let all nations go their own way,” and we end up with gods that are no help to us at all?

The answer Paul gives is in verse 17, that “God has not left himself without testimony,” or as another translation puts it, “God never left us without evidence of himself and his goodness.” So, while letting us go our own way and create our own gods, and make a right mess of the planet and our own lives, he never hates us for it – or gets in a jealous sulk and makes sure we suffer for rejecting him. 

Amazingly, verse 17, despite us going our own way, “He has shown kindness by sending us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, giving us food and happiness to our hearts’ content.” He doesn’t hate us, and he never has. He’s always loved us, and here was this same living, loving God proving it yet again in Lystra by healing a man who couldn’t walk. Because that’s where God’s focus is; it’s on providing clear “evidence of himself and his goodness.” 

In other words, “dear people of Lystra, can you see why we, Paul and Barnabas as ordinary humans just like you, are here? We don’t come to you as gods, we’re here because there’s a living God who is showing you through us that this is what HE’S like, and what he loves doing.” And compare that to their gods too.   

So, lifting all this up into our day, when it’s our turn now to ask, “Why would God let us make such a mess of things?” – the same answer applies. We still experience all kinds of good things, good food, good friends, great memories as families, and lovely mornings when the air is fresh, or sunning ourselves and feeling the warmth seep into our stressed out bodies. 

The question then becomes, “But why would God let these things still happen to us too, after all the gods we’ve created and looked to instead of him?”

God’s answer to us is what he said through Paul and Barnabas to the people of Lystra: “It’s to show you what I’m like compared to your gods, because I’m all good news. I’m kind and good, because I love you and I always will, and I’m more than willing to show my goodness, kindness and love for you even more when you’re ready to dump your worthless gods and trust in me.” 

“Appointed for eternal life” – part 2

Does “all who were appointed for eternal life believed” In Acts 13:48 mean that we only believe in God and go to heaven if God has chosen us to do so? Or that it’s only by his appointment that we believe, not our choice? 

The context of Acts 13 suggests otherwise (covered in Part 1), and so does the book of Acts up to this point. From Acts 1:8 on it’s clear that God appointed steps in his plan of salvation: first the Jews and then the Gentiles. The Jews were the first to be appointed for eternal life, meaning God appointed them to be the first in line to hear (and be given the chance to believe) the amazing good news that, because of Jesus, the doors to eternal life had been flung open to us humans. The Jews would then fulfill the second part of God’s plan in Isaiah 49:6, of passing on that wonderful good news to the Gentiles.  

Which is exactly what happened. First, the Jews heard the gospel about Jesus from the apostles, and Paul then took it to the Gentiles. To each in their appointed turn. 

As Gentiles, then, it’s now our turn to grasp what “the doors to eternal life being flung open to us through Jesus” means. Does it mean eternal life in the future, for instance, like Christians today who talk about going to heaven one day? But is that what made the Gentiles in Acts 13:48 “glad,” and why they “honoured the word of the Lord” – that they too now would be going to heaven after they died? Is that what made the gospel such good news to them? Or closer to home – is that what thrilled me and what got me honouring and soaking up the scriptures too? 

Knowing there’s a resurrection to eternal life in the future is certainly comforting in a world where life now has so many fears and uncertainties – but is that all Christianity has to offer, that we’re simply treading water until at last we escape this mortal coil for a blissful life in whatever we picture heaven to be? Was that the “good news” Paul was bringing to the Gentiles?  

Fortunately, Paul himself answers that for us in verses 32-33, when he says, “We tell you the good news.” So here comes Paul’s definition of the gospel message, which is: “What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us,” the proof of which was the “raising up of Jesus.” 

So, what God promised Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (“our fathers”) has now been opened up to us by the resurrection of Jesus. Ever since his resurrection, then, we can experience what was promised by God in the Old Testament. 

And it’s not some time in the future we get to experience it, or after we die; it’s right now. That’s why “through Jesus” we’ve been forgiven and justified (verses 38-39). Our relationship with God has been totally restored through Jesus so that in our lives in the here and now we can experience all those wonderful promises God made being fulfilled.  

What better news could there be than that? But to Paul’s dismay his fellow Jews rejected it (verse 46). To which Paul replies: then you “do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life.” But why on earth would they think that when God had made them worthy by forgiveness and justification through Jesus? 

Forgiveness and justification through Jesus had flung open the doors to eternal life in the here and now. That was the good news the Gentiles leapt at, because they thought THEY were the ones who were unworthy of eternal life, not being Jews. 

But now they heard Paul saying in verse 47, that the Jews were supposed to be “a light for the Gentiles” (quoting Isaiah 49:6). In other words, it was God’s plan all along for the Jews to understand the good news message first so they could then pass it on to the Gentiles.

And the good news message was this: that salvation and eternal life had been opened up to the whole world to be experienced in the here and now, just as God had promised, thanks to forgiveness and justification being made possible by Jesus. And the Gentiles who heard that in Acts 13 loved it. 

“Appointed for eternal life”

In Acts 13:48 the Gentiles (in Pisidian Antioch) “were glad and honoured the word of the Lord, and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.” 

It’s a key verse used by some to prove predestination, that God predestined, pre-appointed, pre-determined, chose, called and elected only some people for belief and eternal life. And plain observation seems to back that up too, because most people aren’t “glad” and don’t “honour the word of the Lord.” It looks like God meant it to be that way, then, that only some people would be saved and appointed for eternal life, while a huge majority wouldn’t be. 

But where is the good news in a message like that? And what kind of picture of God does it paint, too? Because it doesn’t sound fair at all. It also contradicts Peter’s statement in Acts 10:34 that “God shows no favouritism.”  

So where do we go from here? Fortunately, there are obvious hints in the context as to what’s going on here, the first of which, in verse 45, is the Jews being “filled with jealousy,” because they thought that God had only chosen and appointed them for eternal life.  

So when they saw “almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord,” including those awful, undeserving Gentiles, it must’ve been really galling. Why should Gentiles receive the same understanding and privileges as Jews, when it was the jews who had “honoured the word of the Lord” for all those centuries, and the Gentiles hadn’t?   

It’s like watching new immigrants waltzing into your country and immediately being given the same privileges you’ve worked all your life and paid taxes for, and they haven’t. 

So Paul reminds these jealous Jews in verse 47 that God “made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth,” quoting  Isaiah 49:6. The Jews had been given the amazing privilege by God of being the first to understand salvation. So, yes, it was true, that to begin with God had only chosen the Jews and appointed them for eternal life – but there it was in their very own scriptures that God had also appointed the Jews to “bring salvation” to the rest of the world, which meant the Gentiles too.    

But instead of these Jews accepting what their own scriptures said, they “talked abusively against what Paul was saying” (verse 45) and “rejected” it (verse 46). So Paul tells them, “We had to speak the word of God to you (Jews) first,” because that was the first part of God’s plan, to give the Jews the understanding of Jesus now being the key to salvation and eternal life (which was done by the apostles in Acts 2, 3 and 4 ). But the second part of his plan was the Jews passing that good news on to the Gentiles. The Jews, however, didn’t like that idea at all, because they were jealous of the Gentiles being just as privileged as they were. 

Paul’s reaction in verse 46 was blunt: “Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles.” 

What a kick in the pants that was, because the Jews thought it was the Gentiles who were unworthy of eternal life, not them.The Gentiles, meanwhile, were thrilled (verse 48), because they thought Jesus was only Israel’s Saviour, not theirs. But here was Paul saying it was their turn now to be appointed for eternal life, just as scripture had predicted, and they jumped at it. 

So verse 48 in context has nothing to do with only some people being appointed for eternal life and the rest aren’t. It’s talking about the Gentiles being given their turn at receiving eternal life, and believing the scriptures that proved it. The Jews had been given that privilege first, but they’d rejected it – and rejected their calling in Isaiah 49:6 too – so Paul and Barnabas “shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium,” Acts 13:51.

What’s in the gospel message that really gets to people? (Part 2)

Continuing from part 1 last week, what really gets to people about the gospel message are two things. The first of the two is “forgiveness of sins” in Acts 13:38 (covered in part 1), which is followed immediately in verse 39 by the second thing, that “Through Jesus everyone who believes is justified.” 

“Justified” means being totally acceptable to God. But what made that so shocking – and what really got to those people listening to Paul – was Paul’s next statement that they were all justified “from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.”

To the Jews in the audience that must have been the most shocking news they’d ever heard, because the backbone of their beliefs was the law of Moses. How could anyone dare suggest, therefore, that the law of Moses wasn’t enough to justify them?  

But Paul said it was “through Jesus” and belief in him, and not Moses, that made them acceptable to God, because the law of Moses never justified them in the first place. It was never meant to. It was meant instead to make sin more real, or as Paul phrased it in Romans 3:20, “through the law we became conscious of sin.” Paul knew that in his own experience too, because he would “never have known what it was to covet if the law had not said, ‘Do not covet’” (Romans 7:7). 

So all their attempting to live up to the Ten Commandments hadn’t made them acceptable to God. But they kept on trying to obey the law of Moses anyway, because what else could they do to get themselves right with God? Paul even said that his efforts at “legalistic righteousness” were “faultless” (Philippians 3:6). So he couldn’t have tried any harder to please God, but the pressure to keep that up had been so demanding and relentless that it reduced him to crying out, “What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). Try as hard as he could, he knew it was never enough, and he hated himself for it.  

He was like a child who so desperately wants to be acceptable in his Dad’s eyes by living up to his Dad’s high hopes and dreams for him. It’s an awful pressure on the child, though, because he keeps on failing. 

But then he hears his Dad say, “Why are you trying so hard to seek my acceptance, son, when you’ve already got it?” And if the child wonders how on earth that’s possible, it’s because his Dad understands justification. His Dad got the gospel message, that we don’t have to make ourselves acceptable to God, because Jesus did that for us. It was Jesus’ great gift to us – well actually his second great gift to us, forgiveness being the first. But what a gift that becomes for a Dad to pass on to his children, because he can watch with joy what happens to them when they believe it.  

It was this same great gift that Paul passed on in his first sermon as an apostle in Acts 13. And it shocked his listeners back then just as it does today, because how can it be possible for God to accept us when even as mature Christians we keep on failing him so miserably too? 

But what keeps us going and “pressing on,” as Paul phrased it in Philippians 3:14, is knowing God has already made us acceptable to him no matter how much we dither and doubt and fall short of his standards. Why? Because of Jesus, who justified us when there was nothing we did – or can do – to make us right with God. He made us right with God, all day and every day, so live with that and see what it does for us, and for our kids….

What’s in the gospel message that really gets to people?

In Acts 13:44 “almost the whole city (of Pisidian Antioch in south western Turkey) gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” The gospel message had created that kind of stir. And this was a city made up mostly of pagan Gentiles too, who had no background in Bible teaching, no clue about the God of the Old Testament, or the history of Israel, or the promises God had made.

So what was in the gospel message that had triggered such an eager response? And would it create the same response in people today too, who also have little to no understanding of God and his promises? 

Well, whatever was said in the synagogue that day in Acts 13 it had both “Jews and devout (Gentile) converts to Judaism following Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God,” verse 43.  

So there’s our clue: it was learning about the grace of God that had triggered such an eager response. But what was so great about God’s grace? 

According to Paul it offered two things, the first of which he mentions in verse 38 when he says,“Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you.” 

To the Jews in the audience that was shocking news, because for centuries they’d lived under the cloud of God never forgiving them for what they’d done. Instead, they‘d had to pay “double for all their sins” (Isaiah 40:2), and all those sacrifices they’d “repeated endlessly year after year” (Hebrews 10:1) were “an annual reminder of (their) sins” too (verse 3), so that all year and every year they were faced with their guilt (verse 2). 

As such, things had never been right between them and God, just like a child in disgrace never being able to make things right with his parents. Nothing the child says or does heals the relationship. But that’s understandable when the child knew better but treated his parents with disdain, just like the Jews who’d known better had treated God with disdain. 

Like a child in disgrace, then, the Jews longed for forgiveness. And suddenly, here was Paul telling them they’d been forgiven “through Jesus.” What a weight off their shoulders that must have been, just like it is for any of us who’ve said and done things we’ve deeply regretted but could do nothing about. Even the memory of those stupidities cannot not be erased. Back they come to haunt us, sticking to us for life like a criminal record.  

It’s so hard to forgive oneself too, isn’t it? You feel like such an idiot when easily charmed and scammed into stupidity, to the point perhaps of wishing you were dead, because it feels like the world would be better off without you. As Gentiles, then, we too can relate to the huge relief of knowing “through Jesus” that all that rubbish God had to watch and tolerate in us year upon year has been erased. Our criminal record is now an empty file.  

And this is what makes the grace of God so amazing, and especially in a world that’s so unforgiving by comparison. In the “woke” and “virtue signalling” culture of today every wrong, no matter how long ago it was done, or how famous the person was who did it, is now being hung out like dirty laundry for all to see and spit at. Write a wrong tweet in a moment of stupidity and it will be pounced on. And no matter how much good you’ve done otherwise, it is all forgotten in the mob frenzy of holier-than-thou indignation by those who think they have the right to be judge and jury of your life – and the right to inflict the suffering they feel you deserve too.  

Disgusting things people have done deserve to be exposed, of course, and appropriate penalties applied, but what reaches a person’s heart more to create deep repentance and change than knowing through Jesus there is nothing that can’t be forgiven? It’s the first and most important step in every human life, because without forgiveness we can never shake off self-disgust or the helpless feeling of never being able to correct what we’ve done wrong. 

So as those Jews and Gentiles in the synagogue listened to Paul, they felt the heaviness of their past slipping away, like a fresh wind blowing the suffocating pollution out of a city. No wonder they followed Paul and Barnabas wanting to hear more about God’s amazing grace. And more is what they got too….(more about that in Part 2 next week)    

”You are a child of the devil”

In Acts 13:9-10 ”Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, ‘You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right. You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord?’” 

Strong words indeed; so what stirred them? There’s a clue back in verse 6, because Elymas was “a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet.” He could really wow people with his acts of magic and captivating teaching. His skill at both had caught the eye of the governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, too, because Elymas had become his “attendant,” or spiritual advisor (verse 7).  

So what we’ve got in Elymas is a very clever man, who had the ear and the respect of the top man in Cyprus, and huge influence over the public as well. And he’d managed all this as a Jewish foreigner promoting Jewish teachings that had deeply impressed the pagan Roman Sergius. 

Sergius, therefore, had been well primed by Elymas to delve into the spiritual teachings of the Jews, so it’s no surprise that, on hearing about Saul and Barnabas and what they were teaching, Sergius “wanted to hear the word of God” from them too (verse 7). 

Elymas knew he was in trouble. No way could he equal or better the knowledge and wisdom of Paul and Barnabas. But he had an ace up his sleeve: he was a master of “trickery and deceit.” He could twist what sounded true into something that didn’t sound true. He knew how to “pervert” something obviously “right” (verse 10) into something that sounded wrong. He had the craftiness and cunning of a lawyer who can bring facts, evidence and even eye witnesses into question, and turn a jury his way instead. 

Which was exactly what Elymas tried to do with Sergius: he “tried to turn the proconsul from the faith,” verse 8. He could see his boss was leaning very favourably to what Paul was explaining from God’s word, so it was time for desperate measures: Elymas blatantly resorted to the devil’s tactic in Genesis 3, of twisting what God’s word clearly said into something God never meant or intended. 

But Paul, “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 9), saw right through Elymas and called him out. Note that Paul was being inspired by the Holy Spirit to do it too, as encouragement to all Christians since then that the Spirit will help us recognize the devil’s children and have the courage to expose them. 

We could do with that courage too, because there are masters of trickery and deceit trying to “turn people from the faith” and “pervert the right ways of the Lord” in our day as well. Within even mainstream Christianity there are those who are trying to turn people away from the clear teaching of Jesus about male and female and marriage in Matthew 19:4-6. One has to wonder why they are directly opposing the word of God, but in Acts 13 we know why: the deceit and trickery of the devil trying to make people his children, not God’s.    

So it’s not surprising this happens when we’re also living in a culture riddled with trickery and deceit at all levels – politicians, media, big corporations, pharmaceutical companies, health authorities, and even multi-billionaires posing as “philanthropists.” Their consciences are so dead they can lie without blinking. Their agendas are blatantly driven by power and greed, yet somehow they convince us they are noble and right. They are masters at what they do. 

They are like Elymas to a tee, “enemies of everything that is right” (verse 10). But for that to infect how Christians behave as well, is a tragedy. The encouraging part is, the Holy Spirit has people like Paul in the church too, who – filled with the Spirit – expose those trying to twist the word of God, call them out as “enemies” (verse 10), and do what Paul did in verse 11, when he openly declared to Elymas “the hand of the Lord is against you,” with proof to follow. 

Because when Paul did that Sergius Paulus responded. He saw right through Elymas too, and instead of being turned away from the word of God, he believed and loved it (verse 12). And in so doing he became a child of God, not a child of the devil.       

Does the Holy Spirit still speak today?

In Acts 13:2 we are told “the Holy Spirit said….,” and it’s put in inverted commas as a quote by a voice with specific instructions: “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 

So, did the Spirit literally speak to those gathered together at this point? And was it in a voice that everyone could hear? No explanation is given here in how the Spirit spoke, or how they knew it was the Spirit speaking, but there are people today who claim the Spirit speaks to them too. When I’ve asked how they know it’s the Holy Spirit speaking it’s almost taken as an insult, so it’s a touchy subject.   

But it’s also a vital one, because it’s clear in the book of Acts that communication by the Holy Spirit is how God’s will is known in this era of Jesus’ ministry. And, fortunately, it’s this chapter, Acts 13, that gives us clues to help us know if it’s the Holy Spirit speaking, and how the Holy Spirit “speaks.” 

The first clue is in Acts 13:1-2, because “in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers” who, on realizing the gigantic task facing them in Acts 11:18 that “God had granted the Gentiles repentance unto life” too, put all else aside, including food, to seek the Spirit’s help and guidance.  

And when the church did that the Holy Spirit responded. So the first clue in knowing it’s the Spirit speaking is the church’s humble recognition that, in an impossible situation or challenge, trusting the Spirit is the place to start. And it has to be the Spirit inspiring that understanding too, because this is how he makes God’s will known. It’s to those who recognize the only way that we as a church can truly be witnesses to a world that knows little to nothing about Jesus is by the power, wisdom and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8).    

So that’s where they began in Acts 13: they got together in mutual recognition that only the Spirit could help them. But how did they know when an answer came that it was the Holy Spirit responding? By the second clue: that they all agreed. They all came to the same conclusion that the first step in this massive new mission they’d been faced with was sending out Barnabas and Saul to kick things off. Just like Acts 6:5, “This proposal pleased the whole group.”    

But someone could say, “Yes, but, we did that in our church too and we all agreed, but it all turned out horribly.” 

Which brings us to the third clue, that it’s on looking back that we can say with certainty it was the Holy Spirit speaking. Luke, for instance, was totally confident in Acts 13:2 that “the Holy Spirit said,” because the fruits proved it. Read the rest of Acts 13 and there’s no doubt that sending out Saul and Barnabas was obviously Spirit inspired. 

Which brings us to the fourth clue the Spirit is speaking, because amazing things happen that no one could have foreseen or even guessed at, like what happened next in verses 4 to 12. I doubt any five year plan or conference to exchange ideas would have come up with that. 

But how did the Holy Spirit speak? Was it through a voice? There were “prophets” in the group in verse 1, so did a prophet speak? Prophets speak today too, but how do we know they’re speaking what the Spirit is inspiring? 

That’s answered for us in Acts 13:13 to 48, because what Saul said in those verses tied in totally with being a witness to Jesus, which is what the Holy Spirit had been given to the church for (Acts 1:8). So that’s our fifth clue it’s the Holy Spirit speaking, because what is spoken is absolutely in tune with why God raised up Jesus (Acts 13:30-35).    

So, does the Holy Spirit still speak today? Absolutely, because we depend on him speaking to us just as much as he spoke to them in Acts 13, to know God’s will and be given opportunity to teach it – and be able to look back and know by the fruits that it truly was, and is, the Holy Spirit speaking. 

And what if all five clues operate the same way in our own lives as well, when we’re personally faced with overwhelmingly challenging situations? What if we too put all else aside to seek the Holy Spirit’s wisdom and guidance (the first clue), and the conclusion we come to is obvious (the second clue), and looking back later the fruits are great (the third clue), because amazing things we could never have imagined happen (the fourth clue), and what happens becomes a wonderful witness to Jesus being alive (the fifth clue).  

But that’s life for us now – as groups and as individuals – faced with the daunting task in verse 47 of “being a light for the Gentiles, that you (we) may bring (knowledge and experience of) salvation to the ends of the earth.” According to Acts 13, we can call on the Holy Spirit and he will “speak” to us, and in ways that will give us some great stories to tell too.

When human institutions think they’re God

In Acts 12:23 King Herod (Agrippa the first) was struck down “by an angel of the Lord,” and “he was eaten by worms and died.”  

The reason for his quick and awful death, and why one of God’s angels was directly involved in it as well, is made clear in verse 22. At the end of a rousing speech to the people of Tyre and Sidon (verses 20-21), Herod, all dressed up in his silver robes sparkling in the sunlight and looking very regal on his throne, laps up the grovelling applause of his needy audience and their cries of “This is the voice of a god, not a man.” 

He didn’t deny it either, which wasn’t a smart move on his part, because he was “immediately” infested by an angel with voracious maggots for not “giving praise to God,” verse 23. And clearly there’s a vital lesson here that the Holy Spirit wants to get across, because it’s placed right after the story of Peter being rescued by an angel in response to “the church earnestly praying to God for him” (verse 5).

It’s quite a contrast between what happened when people recognized their human helplessness and believed that only God could help them, compared to what happened to a man who liked to think he was God and could act as he jolly well pleased. 

It should send shivers up the spine of anyone in power from this point on, whether it be national leaders, corporate bosses, social influencers, billionaires and celebrities, or judges and police chiefs, that God does not take anyone thinking they are gods lightly. He knows exactly what they’re up to, and if it’s not acknowledging their need for his help and guidance then they’d better be prepared for anything to happen, including the direct involvement of angels. 

And if they think that’s all just huff and puff and empty threats, look at what’s happening in our world today. Greedy, deceitful, God-ignoring liars and hypocrites are being exposed at all levels, in nations, world health organizations, pharmaceutical companies, family destroying policy makers, and lobbyists for all sorts of divisive, chaos causing agendas. The awful result is increasing distrust for all our respected institutions, and increasing anger threatening civil wars, humiliation for arrogant leaders, and maybe even the collapse of proud and powerful empires.  

And in all the present chaos of the pandemic, where scientists, medical advisers and politicians are unable to agree on any course of action that doesn’t involve further risk to physical and mental health, or to the global economy present and future, has anyone in leadership acknowledged or even mildly suggested we might need help from God? “Oh no, no no, don’t bring God into the equation; we are gods, we will see this through.” But at what cost and more heartbreaking and unnecessary suffering?   

Acts 12 was put in there for a reason by a loving, merciful God, as both a warning to those who think they’re gods and as reassurance to those who accept their need for God, that God notices, he responds, and he has multiple millions of angels at his command that he can send to aid, encourage and intervene for those who earnestly seek his help, or, as we see in the case of King Herod, cause the cruel and arrogant to fall. 

It is also a great lesson for the church, which has also had its share of arrogant and cruel leaders through the centuries, and in our day as well, where religious people in power have exploited it for their own ends and believe they’re above the law. But in a moment their hypocrisy is exposed, as if God is saying, “That’s enough of that garbage,” and down they fall to become blips in history or referred to forever as fools.

No wonder we’re asked to pray for those in power, because they are under such huge temptation and are easy prey for the “great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking for someone to devour,” 1 Peter 5:8. He’s the enemy, and if only our human institutions recognized that, and how earnestly, therefore, they need the help of God too. 

When shocking things happen…

In Acts 12:1-2 King Herod had James arrested and killed. James was the firebrand brother of John, nicknamed the “sons of thunder” by Jesus in Mark 3:17. James, then, was likely an enthusiastic and much loved leader in the Jerusalem church. 

His arrest, however, didn’t create much of a ripple in the church. There’s no mention by Luke, for instance, that the church put out a request for prayer for James. Maybe that’s because the last time James was arrested and put in jail, along with all the other apostles, an angel had freed them by unlocking the jail door at night (Acts 5:18-19). 

They were in for a horrible shock, then, when James was executed. And things got worse too, because Herod was so pleased by the Jews’ reaction to having James killed, that he had Peter arrested too (Acts 12:3). Herod also wanted to make a spectacle of Peter’s arrest, by waiting until the Jewish Passover season was over and then holding a “public trial” (verse 4). And to make sure the church didn’t try to rescue Peter, Herod assigned sixteen soldiers to guard him.  

This time it did create a ripple in the church. Stunned by the death of James, and now the upcoming trial and probable execution of Peter as well, “the church was earnestly praying to God for him,” verse 5

There was no more taking it for granted that God would simply rescue Peter like he’d rescued him in Acts 5. Instead, the church got seriously involved in seeking God for a solution. And what followed in Acts 12 is a wonderful example of how God responds to that.    

It tied in beautifully with Barnabas in the previous chapter encouraging the Antioch church “to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” in Acts 11:23. And here in a major crisis, when the church in Jerusalem felt utterly powerless, they did just that. They did turn to the Lord with all their hearts. 

And based on the amazing events that followed in Acts 12, it’s clear that God deeply loved and appreciated them for it. He loved them throwing all their eggs into the one basket of trusting him – and for letting him know that’s what they were doing too.  

They weren’t just resigning themselves to “Oh well, que sera, sera, whatever will be, will be.” They wanted God to know they were involved in this up to their eyeballs too. They weren’t sitting back expecting God “to do it all” – they wanted to be part of it, joining in and taking a real interest in what God would do about Peter, and learn how God was now working in this new era of the church. Because it really was new. Why, for instance, had God allowed James to die?

So they turned to the Lord to find out and learn. It’s like the child with a broken bicycle who turns to Dad to repair it, but rather than sitting back and letting Dad “do it all,” the child wants to join in and learn what Dad does and how, and why the bike broke down in the first place.

To me, therefore, this was participatory prayer by the church in Jerusalem, rather than intercessory prayer. They wanted to be part of the process, to tune into God’s thinking, and watch with great interest what God would do, and in their prayers express that to God.  

I take it, then, that this was this kind of relationship with God the Holy Spirit was creating in the church, because it was the Holy Spirit who’d allowed James to die, but this was the result of it. James wasn’t a wasted death at all. It had caused the church to get involved and really turn to the Lord with all their hearts, and discover what happens when you do.   

And here we are now, in the same church with the same Holy Spirit at work, teaching us the same things. And what a delight in Acts 12 to learn that God clearly loves us turning to him and taking an interest in what he does when we feel utterly powerless. Because that’s when he can land all sorts of amazing surprises on us – as Peter is about to find out…. 

Being “full of the Holy Spirit” is easy to recognize

In Acts 11:24 Barnabas is described as “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” Which proved to be jolly useful because he’d just been sent to Antioch by the apostles in Jerusalem to find out if a whole bunch of Gentiles really had been “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (verse 16). 

The apostles figured Barnabas would know, because he was so “full of the Spirit” himself that he’d easily recognize if others were full of the Spirit too. And true to the apostles’ expectations “When Barnabas arrived (in Antioch) he saw the evidence of the grace of God,” verse 23. Meaning that, yes, he could easily see that these Gentiles, and lots of them too, had responded to the “men from Cyprus and Cyrene telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus” (verse 20).

So out of the blue, with no input or preaching by the apostles themselves, a new church full of Gentiles had sprouted up in Antioch. And they were easily recognizable as being baptized with the Spirit too. It was a shock that “the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles” (Acts 10:45), but the evidence was undeniable: God in his grace (Acts 11:23) had filled these Gentiles with the Holy Spirit too. 

But what made that so recognizable? Well, three times in this chapter the same basic point is repeated, that these Gentiles “believed in the Lord Jesus Christ”  (verse 17), they “believed and turned to the Lord” (verse 21), and they’d been encouraged by Barnabas in verse 23 to “remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.”   

People who are “full of the Spirit,” therefore, are easily recognized as such by their obvious focus on Jesus being Lord and Christ. But how was their “obvious focus on Jesus” also recognizable too?  

It was in God granting them “repentance unto life,” verse 18. The “repentance” part could easily be seen in the entirely new direction their Gentile lives had taken when they realized that “God had anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil,” Acts 10:38. What a revelation that was for these Gentiles, that Jesus would now do this for them too, opening up a whole new life to them that would free them of all that junk the devil had filled their heads with.  

Their lives would now be directed “unto life,” the entirely new life Jesus had opened up through his death and resurrection that would change them into people like Barnabas, who was “a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith.” And that was now theirs to experience “in full” too.

Imagine having that kind of power flowing through you, where goodness oozes from you wherever you go, all the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 are yours in full all the time, and you have total trust that Jesus will live his life in you all day and every day. And chuck in the gifts of the Spirit Jesus gives us too, that enable us to serve with wisdom, skill and practical healing that reaches right into people’s innermost deepest needs. 

All this makes being “full of the Spirit” easy to recognize. And it was certainly recognizable among those Gentiles in Antioch, because when they heard that “severe famine” had really hit “the brothers living in Judea,” they immediately wanted to help (verses 28-30). 

Imagine that, Gentiles wanting to help Jews. It was a total turnaround, a “repentance unto life,” because instead of sworn enemies hating each other they’re calling each other “brothers.” And instead of being stuck with the devil’s divisive rubbish they’re living a brand new lifestyle that is clear and visible witness to the new life and love that Jesus was now living in those who believed in him.      

Oh yes, being “full of the Holy Spirit” is easy to recognize, and in such obvious and dramatic ways that it’s no wonder “a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (verse 21).