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.

How to Obey When You’re Afraid

Relevant Text: Ezra 3:3
Full Text: Ezra 3, Acts 3

Fear | When your boss asks, “Have you done such-and-such yet?”, you only have a moment to respond. It’s either yes or no. It’s that simple … or is it? When I was working on Capitol Hill for then-Congressman Joe Scarborough, there were always a hundred things going on. Constituents and lobbyists were arriving for meetings, bells were ringing for votes, deadlines were approaching for articles, planes were being reserved for travel. Each day was a chaotic whirlwind. Thus, there were times when Joe asked, “Have you done such-and-such yet?”, and the truth was, “No.” If the task was simple, however, I always wanted to say, “Yes,” and then do it as soon as he walked away without him ever noticing. Yet, in the moment between his question and my answer, I was making a major decision: Whose opinion did I care more about – Joe’s or God’s? I knew that Joe wanted me to get the job done, but I also knew that God wanted me to be truthful. How could I choose to obey God when I feared losing my job? [1]

Despite | In 586 BC, the Babylonians conquered Judah, exiled the Israelites, and destroyed the Temple. Fifty years passed, during which time the Babylonian Empire fell and the Persian Empire grew. Then, in 539 BC, Cyrus the Great of Persia sent the exiles home [2]. When they returned to Judah, they “assembled as one man in Jerusalem” [3] and began rebuilding the temple. But they ran into a problem – their neighbors set out to intimidate them because they didn’t want the temple to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, the Israelites continued despite their fear of the peoples around them[4]. Yes, they were afraid and their fear was real. Yet, their fear didn’t keep them from obeying God. They obeyed in faith because they longed for the joy of the presence of the Lord in the temple more than they feared their neighbors.

Prayer | Lord, Thank you for the testimony of the Israelites because it foreshadowed the obedience of Jesus. In the garden, as he anticipated the suffering and death that would happen if he obeyed you, he sweat blood in agony. Yet, in that moment, he prayed, “Not my will, but yours, be done” [5] – because he longed for the joy of our salvation that would come through obedience [6]. Today, we pray that our joy in you and in obeying you would overcome our fear of others. Amen. [7]

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Footnotes

[1] No, Joe never threatened to fire me over a task forgotten! Yet, I’m sure, depending on the level of importance of any given task, I would have definitely gotten in trouble! We were – and remain – great friends because he is such a delight to work with! Nonetheless, I was a nervous 22 year-old with her first job when I worked for him. There is fear in such a heart no matter how great the boss is!  |  [2] See Ezra 1  |  [3] Ezra 3:1 NIV  |  [4] Ezra 3:3 NIV  |  [5] Lk. 22:42 ESV  |  [6] See Heb. 12:1-2.  |  [7] For an excellent sermon on how to confront all kinds of fear, see Charles Spurgeon, Fearing and Trusting – Trusting and Not Fearing (10 January 1913).


This Is the Best Promise for the New Year

Relevant Text: Acts 2:38-39
Full Text: Ezra 2, Acts 2

Redemption | There’s no better way to begin the new year than with the reminder that the One who sits on the throne of the universe says, “Behold, I am making all things new” [1] – a promise so important that its certainty is reinforced: “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true” [2]. Indeed, everything in history – including the events of our lives – connects with the great work of God in the redemption of Christ [3]. It works the same today as it has in the past.

Tragedy | Pharaoh finally got it. After the angel of death swept through Egypt, killing every firstborn child (even his own) except those whose doorposts were sprinkled with the blood of the Passover Lamb, Pharaoh freed the Israelites from slavery. Fifty days later, Moses descended Mount Sinai with stone tablets containing the Law of the Lord [4] and was shocked by what he saw. The people of the Lord were worshipping a golden idol. He shouted, “Who is on the Lord’s side? Come to me” [5]. When only the Levites came, however, he told them to kill the others [6]. Three thousand people died that day.

Salvation | Fifty days after the firstborn Son of God was slain, the Spirit came down and wrote the Law of the Lord on hearts of flesh [7]. Peter then explained the gospel: “God has raised this Jesus to life … Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear” [8]. The crowd was cut to the heart and asked how to respond. He answered, Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins[9]. In other words, the sprinkled blood of Jesus the Passover Lamb spares those who trust in him and releases them from slavery to sin. Three thousand people were saved that day.

Prayer | Lord, We ascribe greatness to you because your salvation – not our sin – is the last word. Today, as we look back on the past year, we confess that we have been great sinners. Yet, rooting our hearts in your redemption, we confess that you are a great Savior. Therefore, redeem our past and increase our faith to believe the certainty of your promise to make all things new. Let us not be overcome by guilt, but anxious for glory. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Rev. 21:5 ESV  |  [2] Rev. 21:6 ESV  |  [3] See Jonathan Edwards, A History of the Work of Redemption. 1789. The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. (“The Work of Redemption is a work that God carries on from the fall of man to the end of the world.” – based on Is. 51:8b).  |  [4] Ex. 31:18 ESV  |  [5] Ex. 32:26 ESV  |  [6] Ex. 32:27 ESV  |  [7] Hence the reason that Peter quotes Joel 2:28-32.  |  [8] Acts 2:32-33 ESV  |  [9] Acts 2:38-39 ESV

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