The Cliffhanger

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Acts 28

Starting with the arrest of Paul in chapter 21, Luke has been steering his readers to a grand finale, where Paul will finally stand in front of the most powerful man in the world to give his testimony. The Apostle endured conspiracies against his life, corruption in government, and finally storms at sea to make it to Rome. Paul was willing to go through all this because he had a clear vision and purpose for his life and knew Rome was where God wanted him to be and the Emperor was who God wanted him to see.

But the conclusion Luke had been building towards is suddenly cut short with Paul under house arrest. We’re not told if he ever got the chance to defend his case before the Emperor, but we can be confident that he did since God said he would. Though exactly how it came about or what happened after is a mystery. There are traditions that say he was acquitted and then brought the Gospel to Spain, but Luke doesn’t confirm or deny it. He just closes his book with a cliffhanger.
So what are we to take away from this saga with the abrupt and unresolved ending and why would Luke decide to leave it the way he did?
Luke began the Book of Acts by reporting the last interactions Jesus had with his disciples before he ascended. He told them that they would be his witnesses in their local regions and then throughout the world. Luke then proceeded to show his readers how the disciples went about doing this. But he left his story open-ended, and he did all this for a reason.
The Acts of the Apostles is about how the disciples carried out the Great Commission and it is left unresolved because the story wasn’t supposed to end with Paul in Rome, it was supposed to progress with disciples continuing to fulfill the final instructions of Jesus. And it did. The reason you’re reading this now is that the witnessing has endured to this day. And it will continue so long as people like you and me keep spreading the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
So don’t worry about this cliffhanger. The final resolution will come when Jesus himself returns to see the fruit of his disciples’ labor and to establish the Kingdom they represent. Until then, we must maintain the work that was started in Christ and continued with his disciples. May the perseverance and commitment of Paul and the rest of the Apostles act as an example for you on your journey and encourage you to remain faithful in the advancement of the Great Commission.
-Joel Fletcher

The Long Journey to Rome

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Acts 27

Today it only takes a few hours to travel from the Holy Land to Rome. A non-stop plane ticket costs just a few hundred bucks. For a couple of hundred more, you can get upgraded to first class. That sounds rather nice–flying over the beautiful Mediterranean sea, being waited on hand and foot, heading to the former center of the Roman empire to take in the sights and sounds of this majestic ancient city.
For Paul, though, the journey was not so short…or luxurious. And it certainly wasn’t non-stop. The trek to Rome included a slew of problems for this man from Tarsus and his companions, such as a snakebite, a shipwreck, and a plan to slaughter prisoners. What happened during this voyage would have tested the most experienced seafarer. But throughout the storms and chaos, Paul remained calm and determined. When others had lost hope and were filled with fear, the Apostle took charge and restored order.
Paul was able to remain composed and didn’t cave to fear because of where he placed his trust. He had been informed by the Lord that he would make it to Rome to testify there and he believed this wholeheartedly. God had been faithful thus far and Paul knew this would continue. After all, he did write the words of Romans 8:28.
“We know that God is always at work for the good of everyone who loves him. They are the ones God has chosen for his purpose.” – Romans 8:28 (CEV)
God has a plan. From the Bible, we can gain a general understanding of it. We can see how He has worked in history and what He intends to do in the future. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult for us to see where we fit in the grand scheme of things or how God can work in us. God used Paul as an instrument for His glorious plan. It wasn’t because he was special that God chose to employ Paul as His messenger to the Gentiles; he was special only because he was chosen. We don’t have to be special for God to use us either (which is a good thing…because we’re not).
Paul found himself on that arduous adventure because he was doing work for God. If we are going to be active followers of Christ and productive promoters of his Good News, sometimes we’re going to find ourselves in difficult situations as well. But we, like Paul, can have courage knowing the plan God has for the future and confidence because we are doing His will.
-Joel Fletcher

Paul Speaks Freely

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Acts 26

Because of his appeal to Caesar in chapter 25, Paul was guaranteed his next trial would take place in Rome. So when Paul stood before King Agrippa and other dignitaries, he wasn’t required to defend himself or give testimony. Having said that, Paul wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity to witness about the works God had performed in his life–this was one of his life’s missions. So Paul, being able to speak freely, gave his most passionate testimony yet.
There are three things we should learn about apologetics (defending the Christian faith) from Paul’s final defense before he headed to Rome.

1. Know Your Stuff.

Although Festus called Paul crazy, he recognized him as a man of great understanding. Going back to his days as a Pharisee, Paul demonstrated his great zeal for truth and reason. He didn’t lose this enthusiasm when he became a follower of Jesus, he refocused it. Paul knew the Hebrew sacred writings better than anyone and was a master at reconciling the long-held truths of Scripture with his new-found recognition of Jesus as Messiah. Paul was also well learned in the other philosophies and religions of the day. This is most clearly seen in his visit to Mars Hill.
If we are going to be able to defend our faith, we must be knowledgable of both the ideas of Scripture and those contrary to them.

2. Live Above Reproach.

One of the most common critiques leveled against Christianity today is that its adherents are hypocrites. Nothing ruins credibility more effectively than saying one thing then doing the opposite. The Jews had quite a difficult time trying to get charges against Paul to stick. As has been mentioned before, Paul strived to live life with a clear conscience. So in order to discredit and disgrace Paul, the religious leaders had to contrive charges against him.
To be an effective witness and apologist for the Christian faith, we must also strive to live with a clear conscience.

3. Be Positive.

Another issue some have with Christians is that they can be too harsh when talking about their faith. Street preachers and picketers are tuned out and labeled as unfriendly fanatics (or worse) by passersby. Sadly, they are the only representatives of Christ some people every meet.
When Jesus was harsh it was with those who should known better (the religious elite). When Paul was trying to convince unbelievers of the wonderful nature of the Good News, he would do so in a positive way–highlighting things like the resurrection, the power of God, and the mercy He extends to sinners.
The truth is that there are certain tenets of Christianity that non-believers don’t like. When witnessing we should focus on the recognized positives of the faith that appeal to most people–mercy, justice, eternal life, etc. Once people start understanding things like the nature of God and morality, then we can start discussing the perceived negative doctrines of Christianity.
Paul was knowledgeable, had a clear conscience, and was positive when defending his faith and promoting the Good News. The power of the Gospel message is amazing and life-changing. If we want to further its reach and be better able to defend it, we must follow these three principles from Paul.
-Joel Fletcher

Paul Exercised His Privilege And So Can You

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Acts 25

In chapter 16, we found out that Paul was a Roman citizen. Being a citizen of this vast empire was a great privilege. There were only two ways to gain Roman citizenship; you could either purchase it (something only the rich could afford to do), or be lucky enough to inherit it from your parents when you were born. Paul was born a Roman citizen.
The reason why you would want to be a Roman citizen in the first century is that they were given rights others were not guaranteed. The rights to marry another Roman citizen, to sue and to be sued, to have a legal trial, and to not be crucified were just some of the benefits offered to those privileged enough be Roman citizens.
As we saw in chapter 21, Paul had already used his citizenship to get out of being flogged (Romans, legally, could not be tortured or whipped). In chapter 25 Paul exercised another of his rights–the right to appeal to Caesar. Paul knew that if he was brought back to Jerusalem, the men that had pledged to kill him would probably succeed. He also knew that he had to get to Rome to testify there. Thus Paul used his privilege to get to where he needed to go, so he could do what he was required to do (though, as we shall see in the coming chapters, this journey would not be an easy one).
If you were born in the West (especially the United States), you, like Paul, are privileged. You have rights like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of the press. But there are many parts of the world today where these rights that are taken for granted are only the ideals of dreamers. There are Christians throughout the world who have to look over their shoulder as they travel to church (if a public place of worship is even allowed) and others who are worshiping with the knowledge that every gathering may easily be their last.
There is another privilege you share with Paul: you are a citizen of Heaven. This citizenship cannot be purchased or inherited. It is not exclusive. The Kingdom of Heaven (or, Kingdom of God) is open to anyone. The poor and the rich, the weak and the strong, the lost and the found are all welcome. The cost of this privilege was paid for by God with the blood of His Son. It is offered to any who will receive it.
Paul was first and foremost a citizen of Heaven. He lived his life devoted to advancing the Kingdom and the One who will establish it in its fullness. The rights his Roman citizenship granted him were nothing compared to those his Lord did. That being said, Paul exercised his privilege as a Roman in order to promote God’s Kingdom as a Christian. He wanted to make sure as many people as possible would become citizens of the Kingdom. You also can use your rights as a citizen of your country to further the cause of the Kingdom. Exercise your earthly privileges in a way that leads others to receive heavenly ones.
-Joel Fletcher

Paul Faces Felix

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Acts 24
When the Roman Empire conquered the Holy Land in the middle of the first century BC, it established its own rulers to ensure peace and cooperation throughout the region. The Jews have had a long history of revolting against their rulers (especially when they weren’t monotheists), so it makes sense that one of the main jobs of the regional Roman rulers was to keep Zealots (Jews who vocally, and sometimes violently, opposed Roman rule in their homeland) from causing too much trouble. Whenever any of these Zealots caused an uprising in a Jewish city, there were major consequences–sometimes death.
 So when in chapter 24, the attorney for the Jewish elders accused Paul of being a trouble maker who stirred up riots among the Jews, he was saying that Paul was not such a great guy and should perhaps be killed. He also claimed that Paul desecrated the temple–a capital offense. These religious leaders wanted Paul taken out.
As Paul stood to defend himself before Felix, the first of several Roman rulers who would hear his case, he was up against some serious allegations. But Paul was unfazed. He had just been assured by his Master that his journey would not end here. Paul spoke boldly in both the defense of his character and his faith. I think Paul would have done this even without that assurance because of where he had his focus. Paul’s eyes were fixed firmly on his savior and the future hope of the resurrection. This allowed Paul to operate without fear of death or retribution–to be at peace.
You may not live in a society where you must defend yourself or your faith in front of corrupt rulers. But perhaps someday you will face charges because of your beliefs. If that time ever comes, you, like Paul, can have a peace that passes understanding. Trust in God, rely on His promises, focus on His Son and the hope of the resurrection, and pray.
-Joel Fletcher

Jesus and Paul, Paralleled

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Acts 23

The Apostle Paul was no stranger to persecution. He saw it from both sides. He was at times the persecutor and the persecuted. While he was a zealous Pharisee in Jerusalem, he targeted Jews who joined the sect of followers of Jesus called the Way. When he became a follower himself and preached the Gospel throughout Asia Minor and Macedonia, he was imprisoned multiple times and warned by friends not to return to Jerusalem, because if he did, he would likely be killed. Yet in chapter 23, we see Paul is not only in Jerusalem but in the custody of the Romans, facing the Sanhedrin.

About a quarter century earlier, another Jewish preacher stood in front of the same group of religious leaders. The name of that preacher was Jesus, and it was because of him that Paul found himself in an identical position. Like Paul, Jesus had also returned to Jerusalem that final time knowing it could mean death. And both times, each was the target of a treacherous plot. But neither Paul nor Jesus were moved from their mission because of this threat. They were both willing to die for the cause.
But there are several important differences between Paul and Jesus during their final days in the Jewish Holy City. Unlike Paul, Jesus put up no defense while in front of the Sanhedrin and Roman rulers. The prophecy in Isaiah 53:7 puts it this way: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Paul, on the other hand, started his remarks to the Sanhedrin by stating that he has lived his life with a clear conscience. Then, after inadvertently insulting the High Priest, he cleverly changed the subject from himself to a disagreement between the Pharisees and Sadducees. The ensuing bruhaha allowed Paul to get out of there without facing any penalties.
The following night Paul was told by the Lord that he would not die in Jerusalem but would make it to Rome to testify there also. Despite the fears of his friends, Jerusalem would not be the end of the road for Paul. And this is the other difference between Paul and Jesus. Because Jesus would not defend himself when he had the opportunity, the intimate Passover meal he shared with his twelve disciples would be their last together; the following day he was beaten and crucified.
Paul and Jesus both went to Jerusalem to save lives. The latter accomplished this goal by taking on the sins of the world and offering his life as a sacrifice for all. The former did this by telling any who would listen about that sacrifice and how to receive the salvation offered as a result of it.
Usually, I would say that we should follow the example of Christ. But when it comes to facing charges that are unfounded, we should look to Paul as the model. Yes, Paul was willing to die for what he believed in, but he didn’t intend to because of false accusations. Paul defended himself so he could advance the Gospel; Jesus didn’t so he could guarantee it. We must be willing to die for the cause of the Kingdom, yet always seeking to put ourselves in the best position to champion it.
-Joel Fletcher

Rehashing the Road to Damascus

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Hello! My name is Joel Fletcher and I am going to be writing the daily devotions for this week. I live in Minnesota with my wonderful wife, delightful daughter, and as of next Friday, a pastoral puppy. I like adjectives, alliteration, and Aussiedors.

This week we’re going to wrap up the book of Acts.

Since chapter 9, Luke has been chronicling the campaigns of one Saul of Tarsus (now called Paul), a Jewish Pharisee turned Christian Missionary. Now the story of how this up-and-coming member of an exclusive Jewish religious group became the follower and apologist of a so-called radical who was crucified has already been told, but over the next few chapters, it will be reiterated.

At the end of chapter 21, Paul is arrested due to a ruckus caused by his presence in Jerusalem. From this moment until his presumed death in Rome, Paul will be in the custody of the Romans. This incarceration will enable Paul to spread the Gospel to people he would have not met otherwise.

The method Paul will use to do this is called witnessing. Witness or testimony is the attesting of facts or events. A witness is someone with personal knowledge of something. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus is the central point he uses when sharing his testimony. As we will see throughout this week, Paul does not shy away from sharing what he knows to be the truth—even if it means facing death.

As you read through these final chapters of the Book of Acts this week, be mindful of how passionate Paul is in defense of his beliefs. Paul uses every opportunity he has to persuade people of the power of God, demonstrated in the resurrection of the Christ and his coming Kingdom. We may not have the same powerful testimony of being struck blind by the risen savior, but each one of us who believes has the opportunity and mandate to witness to any who will listen.

 

-Joel Fletcher

Our Week of Unity

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I’ve enjoyed writing this week’s devotions and sharing with you Paul’s words on unity. Today I want to recap what we’ve learned and encourage you to start living out these ideas in your own life.

 

 

I began this week talking about the conflict-ridden times we are living in and the fact that the Church is not immune to divisiveness. The church has struggled with unity since its inception, but this isn’t how it should be. Paul wanted unity for the church in Philippi—he said this would make his joy complete. Unity is also what is needed in every church today. This is why we should pursue it.

 

 

On Monday, I said that to be unified we must be striving towards the same idea—to be of same mind. And the idea around which we should be unified is living out the Gospel. This should be our singular purpose in life and everything else should pale in comparison to it.

 

The next day we moved to Paul’s advice on the way towards unity. Humility, the lowering of one’s self and self-interests, is how he says we should go about achieving unity. Our agendas should be subject to God’s. Paul pointed to Christ as the prime example of living in humility and subjecting oneself to God’s will. We must follow Christ’s pattern of humility if we are to have unity in our churches.

 

On Wednesday, we learned about four enemies of unity and why they’re so destructive to churches. The first is pride, which promotes self-interest instead of the Gospel. The second is gossip, which divides people by pointing out others shortcomings without trying to help them. The third enemy is complaining. When we complain, we are saying that we think something is wrong, but we don’t care enough about the body to address the issue in the proper way. The fourth enemy to unity we see is argument, but not just simple disagreement. Arguments that are fueled by a desire to be proved right and arguments that are filled with bitterness instead of love drive churches apart. All four of these enemies are real dangers that we should fight against with love and humility.

 

On Thursday I spoke about our union with Christ and how essential it is to church unity. Union with Christ has two aspects: knowing him and being like him. In knowing him we must truly understand what he did, why he did it, and what that means for us. In being like him, we must strive to live as he lived, in subjection to the will of God and in the service of others. Christ is the head of the body; if we want unity in the body, we must be united with him.

 

Yesterday I spoke about Paul’s final advice for the Philippians on unity and four principles we can take from it. The first is of reconciliation. When two or more people in the church are divided, the church should work together to bring everyone back into unity. The second principle is about exercising gentleness. Just as Jesus was gentle when caring for those who were weak and needed special attention, the Church today needs that same gentleness in its ministry. The next principle is that we should live our lives worry free from the troubles that plague this age and that, when we do face struggles, we should bring them to God in prayer. The final principle we see is that we should fill our minds with things that are good instead of the rot that is a hallmark of this world. These four principles will go a long way towards promoting unity in our churches.

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these devotions this week, along with the words of Paul to the Philippians. But we are not called to simply be hearers (or readers) of the word—we must also be doers. The words of Paul to the Philippians are challenging, but the results from following them would be life changing and paradigm shifting for the Church. If we want to see unity in the Church, we must start by applying these ideas in our own lives as individuals—living in humility, having the Gospel be our primary focus, and not gossiping, complaining, or arguing.

 

– Joel Fletcher

Paul’s Final Exhortation for Unity

Philippians 4

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Yesterday we took a break from our discussion on unity in the body to talk about our union with Christ—the head of the body. Today we’re back to the theme of unity in the Church and looking at Philippians 4, where Paul offers the Philippians some final exhortations for unity. From Paul’s advice to the church at Philippi in this passage, we can see four principles that, if applied, will help promote unity in our own churches.

 

The first principle we see here is reconciliation. In verse 2 Paul calls attention to an apparent disagreement that was causing strife among two of the woman in the church. He urged them to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” These women had been workers, alongside Paul, for the Gospel and this disagreement between them was hindering their ministry. Personal differences should never get in the way of our commitment to the Gospel. When disagreements arise, the church should work together towards reconciliation so that it can get back to its primary focus.

 

The second principle we can take from this passage is to live gently. Paul says in verse 5 (NRSV) to “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Gentleness is one of the Fruit of the Spirit, but one that I think is often overlooked. This comes from a misunderstanding of what gentleness is all about. Many people equate gentleness to weakness, but it is actually a sign of strength. A weak person is one who lacks strength but a gentle person is one who appears weak for the benefit of others. Gentleness allows us to care for those who are weak and need special attention. Jesus was gentle—this aided him greatly in his ministry to sick and inflicted. If we want to have inclusive churches that minister to the needs of those who are weak, we must promote gentleness.

 

 

Living worry free is another principle Paul pushes in this passage that can aide our goal of church unity. In verses 6 and 7 (NRSV) he says “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Worry and anxiety are enemies of the Gospel. Worry is a prison; the Gospel is freedom. Worry keeps us focused on the evils of the age we live in—all the bad things that come about from our sinful nature. It takes our minds off the hope we have in the future Kingdom of God, where everything will be made right and worry rendered obsolete. When bad things do happen in our lives, we shouldn’t spend time thinking about how much worse they could get or why it is happening to us. We should instead bring our concerns before a God who can offer us peace that we won’t find anywhere else, and that can get us through this evil age until we dwell with him in His kingdom. A church at peace and without worry is one that is focused on the future and making a difference in the present.

 

 

The final unity principle Paul offers in Philippians 4 is filling our minds with that which is good. In verse (NRSV) he says, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” There are a lot of things in this world that try to grab our attention and many of them are not beneficial. Our minds our shaped by what we take in, just as our bodies are by the food we eat. This is why what we think about is so important. If we want to get good out, we must put good in. If we want to be unified in our purpose, we must be unified in our thinking, and that thinking should be on things that are true, honorable, just, pure, pleasing, commendable, and excellent.

 

While they are not always easy to follow, these four principles will go a long way towards promoting unity within the Church.

 

– Joel Fletcher

Union with Christ

Philippians 3

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The last few days we’ve been talking about unity in the body. Today I want to spend some time discussing unity (or union) with the head of the body. Our connection with Jesus affects every relationship in our lives. If we are to achieve unity in our local church, we must maintain union with our Lord.

 

Union with Christ has two important aspects. The first is knowing him. This does not mean to know who he is or to know some things about him. It is to understand what he went through and why he endured it. It is to realize that without him we are hopeless. It means communicating with him. It means recognizing that our own efforts count as nothing towards our salvation and that only through him can we be saved and that this is a good thing. Paul says that everything he could boast about in himself is garbage compared to the worth of knowing Christ (Phil. 3:8), and in John 17:3 Jesus says that eternal life is to know the only true God and His son. Knowing Christ is essential for salvation and for being united with him.

 

The second aspect of our union with Christ is being like him. Earlier in Philippians, Paul tells readers to have the same mind as Christ (2:5).  Just as Jesus lived to serve the will of God, we should. Just as he was willing to give up his life for others, we should. He lived perfectly and we should strive to do the same. In Galatians 2:20 (ESV) Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Union with Christ is about emptying ourselves of the muck that comes from our sinful nature and replacing it with the holiness that comes from Christ—out with the old, in with the new.

 

“Therefore, if anyone is in [union] Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (1 Corinthians 5:17, NIV)

 

In this life, we will never achieve perfect union with Jesus. We will not fully know him or be totally like him until we can be with him—without the presence of sin. Paul recognized this and writes that despite his shortcoming he would “press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:14, NRSV). We, too, should press on towards the goal to have union with Jesus. It won’t be perfect, but it will go a long way in furthering our own spiritual development and the unity of the Church.

– Joel Fletcher