God Can Surprise Us

Relevant Text: Acts 9:31
Full Text: Ezra 9, Acts 9

Fatalism | One of the worst feelings in life is fatalism – that is, the feeling of resignation that this is the way things will be forever and nothing will change. This is the way that I am or my spouse is or my kids are or work is or my small group is or government is or society is. I am powerless to do anything about it. It will go on this way forever and, most likely, it will just get worse.

Hopelessness | On the day that Stephen was killed, a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem, which scattered the believers throughout the region [1]. One of the main leaders of the persecution was a young Pharisee named Saul: “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” [2]. Imagine how hopeless the church felt – they had no Bill of Rights to protect them, the Roman government was hostile toward them, and the religious leaders had letters of authority to imprison them. The momentum against them was enormous. Would this ever change? Would there ever be peace?

Conversion | Then, out of nowhere, God took Saul and turned him around. Saul was on his way to Damascus, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” [3], and God opened his heart. He changed so much that he went from being the worst enemy of Christ to being his strongest advocate. In fact, his former Jewish colleagues and brothers began conspiring to murder him [4]. What happened to the church? In the entire region, it “had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” [5].

Prayer | Lord, You are near and strong and interested in the affairs of this world and in the progress and mission of your church. You continue to change us and make us into your image to reflect the glory of your name. Today, remind us – especially those of us who struggle with despairing without hope – that you are full of surprises for churches, nations, families and individuals. Give us expectant hearts about our futures and increase our faith in your freedom and sovereignty. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Acts 8:1  |  [2] Acts 8:3 ESV  |  [3] Acts 9:1  |  [4] Acts 9:23  |  [5] Acts 9:31 ESV

Cultivating our Hunger for the Lord

Relevant Text: Ezra 8:21
Full Text: Ezra 8; Act 8

Appetite | What’s the best way to ruin your appetite for Christmas dinner? Open your stocking and dive into all the candy canes and peanut butter cups and chocolate bars. Then, when it comes time for dinner, you’ll be too full for the roasted turkey and cornbread dressing and pecan pie. Yes, the more you want to enjoy Christmas dinner, the less you eat on Christmas morning. The same thing goes for feasting on the Lord and His promises. When we fill up on the junk food of this world [1], His banquet table loses appeal. In fasting [2], however, we can cultivate our hunger for God and intensify our longing for Him [3].

Protection | Before the second wave of exiles got on the road to Jerusalem [4], Ezra announced a fast: “Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God” [5]. Their purpose was “to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” [6]. Ezra wanted to magnify the Lord’s sovereignty – especially in the sight of the king: “For I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, ‘The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him’” [7]. And God responded in mercy: “So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty” [8].

Prayer | Lord, When the Israelites sought you through fasting and prayer, they expressed their humility and dependence on you. They were desperate for your protection on their 800-mile journey home to Jerusalem [9]. We, too, have a long road-trip ahead of us on our journey home to you. And we admit that we cannot make it safely without you – for we know that we are not in charge of this world; you are. Thus, we rely on you, not ourselves. So please demonstrate your wisdom and power and authority in our lives for your own name’s sake. When we fast, even as our stomachs ache for food, intensify our hunger for you [10]. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] The junk food of this world is its empty promises and entertainment. Instead of feasting on His truth and promises, we often stuff ourselves with “life’s worries, riches and pleasures” (Lk. 8:14 NIV1984) and “the desires for other things” (Mk. 4:19 ESV). And just as our stomachs are not tempted to get full on potted meat food product or blood sausage, we are also not tempted to fill up on the evil and wicked things of this world. Instead, we fill up on junk food – things that look and taste good but don’t ultimately satisfy. In Jesus’ parables, he gives very interesting examples – new land, new livestock and even a new spouse (see Lk. 14:12-24). Elsewhere, he cites, “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things” (see Mk. 4:10-20 ESV). Thus, in fasting, we reorient our hunger for God, making fasting a lover’s quest, not a legalist’s victory (see Phil. 3:8-11).

[2] Fasting does not have to be denial from food. As Martin Lloyd-Jones wrote, “Fasting if we conceive of it truly, must not … be confined to the question of food and drink; fasting should really be made to include abstinence from anything which is legitimate in and of itself for the sake of some special spiritual purpose. There are many bodily functions which are right and normal and perfectly legitimate, but which for special peculiar reasons in certain circumstances should be controlled. That is fasting.” (1959-1960). One thing to note, however: fasting is not dieting. To fast from sugar or chocolate for the purpose of cutting out calories is not fasting; to fast from sugar or chocolate because you love it and think that abstaining from these things would remind your to hunger for God is fasting.

[3] The Bible never promotes self-denial as an end in itself, e.g., “Then he [Jesus] said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’” (Lk. 9:23 ESV, emphasis mine). Instead, the Lord wants us to enjoy the fullness of Christian liberty (e.g., 1 Tim. 4:1-3; Col. 2:20-21). Yet, the Bible talks about fasting – that is, exercising self-denial – as a means to increase our hunger for God.

[4] Ezra 1-6 (first wave; about 50,000 exiles returned home), Ezra 7-10 (second wave; about 8,000 exiles returned home)

[5] Ezra 8:21 ESV

[6] Id.

[7] Ezra 8:22 ESV

[8] Ezra 8:23 ESV

[10] In Heart of Darkness, Conrad Joseph Conrad writes about how intense physical hunger can lead to desperate measures: “No fear can stand up to hunger, no patience can wear it out, disgust simply does not exist where hunger is; and as to superstition, beliefs, and what you may call principles, they are less than chaff in a breeze.” Likewise, we can intensity our measures to find and seek God when we fast and pray for His presence.

The Great Mercy of God Through Encouragement and Warning

Relevant Text: Acts 7:51-52
Full Text: Ezra 6, Acts 6
Weekend Text: Ezra 7-8, Acts 7-8

Trial | The first martyr was a deacon – not a disciple, missionary or preacher. Stephen was a man “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” [1] and “full of grace and power” [2]. Yet, his opponents hated him. When they took him to trial for opposing God [3], he defended himself with a story – a long history of Israel’s repeated rejection of the Lord and His prophets. Then he concluded: You stiff-necked people … you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One[4]. In other words, in embracing Jesus as Lord, he wasn’t the one rejecting God; they were!

Grace | For Stephen, that speech led to execution. For us, it’s an encouragement and a warning. It’s an encouragement because it shows how patient God is. He won’t turn away because we’ve sinned once or twice … or even seventy times seven times [5]. If we repent, He’s eager to forgive. Yet, his speech is also a warning because it shows that God disciplines the unrepentant. It may seem harsh to talk about His punishment, but it’s actually loving and gracious. It awakens our hearts to the truth that we must worship Jesus as Lord. In fact, one man heard Stephen’s speech of warning and never forgot it – Paul. Just days after he approved of Stephen’s execution, Paul received the outpouring of God’s grace when Jesus appeared to him. And he never “got over” it. He never stopped preaching about God’s great and long-suffering mercy to him – the chief of sinners [6].

Prayer | Lord, Stephen’s words of encouragement and warning are filled with grace. Today, if we will repent, you are eager to pursue us – no matter how sinful we may be or how undeserving we may feel. As David – another great sinner – sang, “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love … as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” [7]. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Acts 6:5 ESV  |  [2] Acts 6:8 ESV  |  [3] Acts 6:14 ESV. See also Acts 6:11.
|  [4] Acts 7:51-52 ESV  |  [5] Matt. 18:22  |  [6] See 1 Tim. 1:12-17.
|  [7] Ps. 103:8-14 ESV

God Has Plans for You Tomorrow

Relevant Text: Ezra 5:17 (underlined)
Full Text: Ezra 5, Acts 5

Plot | Suspense is the key to great stories. No one wants to read about Jack and Jill meeting in college, having 2.5 children, vacationing in the Hamptons, climbing the corporate ladder, and then retiring in Florida. There needs to be some struggle, some hopeless moment. Jack needs to fall down and break his crown and Jill needs to come tumbling after. They need to deal with unemployment, infertility, financial insecurity, inoperable sickness, etc.

Point | Ezra is a great story. It opens with the exiles returning home to Jerusalem [1] and rebuilding the temple while singing: “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever” [2]. Everything seems wonderful. Until, that is, their neighbors successfully convince the king to quash their plans. So, the temple is rubble for fifteen years – no worship, no sacrifices, no presence of God. Imagine their discouragement – especially after having been in exile for the past fifty years! What was God doing? Then a new king comes into power and considers the matter: See whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem[3]. As a result, not only does he let the Israelites resume construction, he also pays for it out of his own royal treasury!

Patience | Yes, we love to read great stories. But most of us hate to live them. After all, our lives are not books; we can’t see how many pages are left for the all-wrapped-up-in-a-bow ending. Yet, the message those remaining pages signal is the same if you’re reading this today: The Author of your story is not done yet. God has plans for you tomorrow and the rest of your days. We can’t assume too much in the middle. He wants our lives to be great stories of His excellencies [4]. Yes, there are suspenseful times because we aren’t the writers, but we know the One who is and He has promised: “For those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” [5].

Prayer | Lord, We confess that we have indicted you in the middle of your work in our lives when things have seemed hopeless and impossible. Yet, we trust that you are working out a million things to make our lives great stories of your grace and power. Therefore, guard us from presuming too much and increase our faith in you. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Ezra 1-2  |  [2] Ezra 3:11 ESV  |  [3] Ezra 5:17 ESV  |
[4] See 1 Peter 2:9-12.  |  [5] Rom 8:28 ESV

What Is the Secret to Effective Testimony?

Relevant Text: Acts 4:19-20 (underlined)
Full Text: Ezra 4, Acts 4

Effective Speaking | Some people are expected to be effective speakers – they’re well-educated (Clinton) or well-trained (Reagan). But how does an uneducated and unskilled person become a good orator? After Jesus’ ascension, the disciples regularly preached the gospel. Once, after healing a lame beggar, Peter and John were arrested for publicly preaching to over 5,000 people. The next day, the Jewish leaders asked them, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” [1]. Peter answered that they preached in the name of Jesus – “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” [2]. Then, Luke notes, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus” [3]. What was the secret to their testimony?

The Non-Secret | Although education has value, it will not turn anyone into a courageous and clear spokesperson for the truth. We don’t need to be formally educated to boldly communicate the gospel. Even Jesus himself surprised the Jewish leaders for his boldness apart from education: “How is it that this man [Jesus] has learning, when he has never studied?” [4]. Should we attempt boldness any differently? As he said, ”A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher” [5].

The Secret | The secret to their testimony was their knowing Jesus. Our courage comes from spending time with him. As Peter said to his inquisitors, “We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” [6]. They saw and heard what Jesus said and did because they spent time with him. Thus, they were confident in the truth and able to proclaim it boldly. Let us also, therefore, speak with clarity and courage because of the time we have spent with him.

Prayer | Lord, Like the disciples, as we spend time with you, we cannot help but testify boldly with our lips and with our lives about what we have seen and heard. Your Word is truth because it brings us into the light of the Living Truth, Jesus Christ. May we not pursue effective testimony apart from spending time with you and, for those of us who feel uneducated or unskilled, let us boast in our weaknesses that your power may dwell in us all the more [7]. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Acts 4:7 ESV  |  [2] Acts 4:12 ESV  |  [3] Acts 4:13 ESV  |  [4] John 7:15, ESV  |  [5] Luke 6:40, ESV  |  [6] Acts 19-20, ESV  |  [7] See 2 Cor. 12:9.
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