by Andrew Hillard
What started with waiting ends with a witness. As Acts begins, the apostles await the promised Holy Spirit, the one who would bring them the power they needed to be witnesses to the end of the earth. As Acts concludes, Paul is in Rome, welcoming all who come to him and teaching them about Jesus. What started with Saul persecuting the believers ends with Paul in prison for proclaiming the kingdom. As Acts begins, Saul is a leader of the Jewish opposition to Christianity. As Acts concludes, Paul (formerly known as Saul) is the main target of that opposition. A lot has changed in the world from Acts 1 to Acts 28, but some things remain constant throughout and to this today–the gospel is the power of God to save, and the Spirit is on the move.
Acts doesn’t show us that following Jesus is safe. The stoning of Stephen and the frequent imprisonment of the apostles make that much clear, but at every point where the apostles are pressed, the gospel goes out–from Peter and John before the council in Acts 4 all the way to Paul in Rome in Acts 28. The Spirit provides the boldness to proclaim Jesus without hindrance, in good times and bad, one on one and before a crowd, before a friendly crowd and before an angry mob. A lot of things changed from Acts 1 to Acts 28, and even more has changed in the centuries since. It’s hard even to list all the changes that have happened in our world in the last two months, but what hasn’t changed is what is most important. Jesus is alive, the gospel is the power of God to save, and in those of us who know Jesus, the Spirit is on the move. So let’s do what Spirit-filled people do and tell anyone who can hear about how Jesus changes everything.
by Andrew Hillard
Before Felix, facing the charge of being a “plague…who stirs up riots” among other things, Paul stands up to “cheerfully” make his defense. To my knowledge, I’ve never been labeled a “plague,” but if I had been, “cheerful” doesn’t strike me as the first word I would choose to describe my defense. Maybe “spirited” or “impassioned” or even “accurately” come to mind before “cheerful.” Yet, falsely accused of inciting riots when all he’d done was preach the gospel, Paul defends himself, and more importantly his faith in Jesus, with joy.
Here’s the question for us. Why was Paul able to face opposition with joy? How did he respond cheerfully when his liberty was on the line? First, he knew the truth. He knew that Felix would find no proof of the crimes of which he was accused. Second, he knew what was ultimately at stake. It wasn’t just the truth about the charges against him. It wasn’t even his freedom. Ultimately, the issue was the resurrection hope that he was proclaiming, and that hope was unwavering. Jesus is risen from the dead, and that is not changing. It is settled, and our hope is secure. So, whatever we face today, we can face it “cheerfully,” and we can move forward with joy because Jesus is alive…today and forever.
by Andrew Hillard
Already arrested and on his way into the barracks where he would be held, Paul had a request. He wanted to speak to the people before he was taken away, and given the opportunity to speak, he began, “Brothers and fathers, hear the defense that I now make before you” (Acts 22:1). When he had everyone’s attention, he began to share his story, but his tone was anything but defensive. He boldly shared his personal testimony. He talked about his zeal for the Hebrew law that led him to persecute Christians with imprisonment and even death. He shared openly about his past and honestly about his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. Then, he told the people about the mission to which Jesus called him, first through Ananias and then through a vision of Jesus in the temple, a mission that had shaped every day of his life since that time, especially this moment.
Being taken into custody, Paul reminds us of the beautiful simplicity of our calling as witnesses for Jesus. Because of what Jesus has done for us, we too can share openly about our past, what our lives were like before we knew Jesus, and we can share honestly about how Jesus has worked in our lives. We can share about the calling Jesus has placed on our lives and how we’ve seen him work in and through our lives. Paul’s story also reminds us that everybody won’t be happy to hear our story, but in the trials we face, may we remember the words Jesus stood by him and said in the dark night of the barracks, “Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11). We might not testify in Jerusalem or Rome, but in the Spirit’s power, let’s take courage and testify today, tomorrow, and every day the Lord gives us breath.
by Andrew Hillard
Acts 20 doesn’t seem to start out all that well for Paul. First, after three months in Greece, a group of Jewish religious leaders started plotting against him. It’s not clear exactly what they were plotting and based on Paul’s speedy departure, he wasn’t interested in finding out. From there, Paul made his way to Troas where Paul had the opportunity to speak with a group of believers gathered together to break bread. Since he planned to leave town the next day, Paul “prolonged his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7). As preachers, we like to think that it isn’t like anybody’s going to die if we preach just a little bit longer, but Eutychus proves that this isn’t always the case. As Paul talked longer and longer, Eutychus fell asleep, fell down three stories out the window he was sitting by, and died. The first nine verses of Acts 20 have not gone well for Paul.
Thankfully, things change for the better pretty quickly. Bending over Eutychus and taking him in his arms, Paul declares that the young man has been revived! And then he goes right back upstairs to continue his conversation until morning. We’re told that those who were present “were not a little comforted” (Acts 20:12). Paul’s travel plans were changed. He talked so long that someone fell out of a window. This surely wasn’t how Paul saw these days going, but the result was great comfort for those who heard him and continued ministry for Paul. So, in these days when things are surely not going how we saw them going, let’s follow Paul’s lead. Let’s keep on talking about Jesus.
by Andrew Hillard
We’ve all been there. We know what God is calling us to do and what He is calling us to say, but we’ve got some questions. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I don’t have the answers to their questions? In the midst of this extended section following the missionary work of Paul, Luke introduces us to a Jewish man named Apollos. He’s described as “an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures” (Acts 18:24). He had learned about Jesus and was eager to share the good news with others.
We might be tempted to think that if we had the resumè of Apollos, that if we were “competent in the Scriptures,” then we wouldn’t question what God calls us to do, but despite what his impressive credentials might suggest, Apollos didn’t have all the answers. His teaching revealed that his understanding had some gaps, but Priscilla and Aquila saw his gifting and his passion for the gospel, so they pulled him aside to explain God’s way more accurately. God hasn’t called us to have it all figured out. He’s called us to be faithful with what He’s given us right now, to share the good news we have with others, to instruct and encourage and sharpen one another, and then go share the good news again. God knows what we know, and much better than we do, He knows what we don’t know. So when He calls us, the best question for us to ask is, “Where?”
by Andrew Hillard
We have not been beaten or imprisoned for living out our faith in Jesus, but Paul and Silas were. For the crime of freeing a slave girl from the exploitation of her masters, they were dragged into court, attacked by a mob, and then imprisoned with their feet fastened in stocks. We may not have been where Paul and Silas were, but we’ve all faced our own darkest moments. In those moments, where we turn makes all the difference.
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). In their time of difficulty, Paul and Silas didn’t display great personal strength. They depended upon God’s strength. They prayed, and they sang. We don’t know what they prayed or sang, but we know that the other prisoners listened as they cried out to God and remained in the prison when the doors were opened and their chains were loosened. And we know the impact that all of this had on the Philippian jailer and his family. For Paul and Silas, it was their faithful dependence on God in the darkness of night that shone brightly to those around them. It wasn’t that they were strong but that they prayed and sang to a God who is strong. In our darkest moment, where we turn makes all the difference.
by Andrew Hillard
In our current cultural climate, it seems that you’re either on my side or on the other side. You’re either with me, or you’re against me. And if we disagree on one point, then you must be wrong on every point. There’s no use in me listening to you or in you listening to me. I already know what you’re going to say, and you’re wrong. Unfortunately, that’s the tone of way too much of our discourse, even among professed Christians, a tone that leads us at times to stop even listening to those with whom we disagree.
That’s why the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is a refreshing break from the world in which we live. The events described there don’t take place in a world devoid of extreme or even wrong-headed views. The view that anything other than faith in Jesus is what makes a person right with God is a serious error that had crept into the early church, one that still threatens today in many churches. What’s different in Acts 15 is the way the leaders of the early church handled this challenge. In stark contrast to the way disagreements play out all over social media and cable news today, they actually had a debate, a serious disagreement, but the final result wasn’t division. By the time everyone had been heard in Acts 15:22, “it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church,” to send out messengers to the Gentile believers reassuring them of their support among the Christians at Jerusalem. It was a message marked by thoughtful wisdom and by Spirit-powered unity. It was a message of uncompromising truth and a call to consider the consciences of others. It was a message forged not through name-calling but by carefully listening to one another and to the word of God. It is a message that shows us a better way forward, one where winning hearts with grace and truth matters more than winning the moment.
by Andrew Hillard
What would you say is the most popular verse or passage in the Bible? Genesis 1:1? Psalm 23? John 3:16? If you were to ask me my favorite verse, the answer would be different, but I think the most popular verse in the Bible might be Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged.” For believers and nonbelievers, it is often (mis)used as a defense against any moral evaluation or against any definitive statement about salvation through Christ alone, which is the message that Paul proclaims in the synagogue in Antioch in Acts 13. The initial response of the people was to beg Paul and Barnabas to return to the synagogue the next week to share more, but when practically the entire city showed up to hear Paul’s message, some had a different reaction.
Acts 13:45 tells us that “when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.” When it became clear that Paul’s message might actually mean a change to their way of life, they got defensive. They didn’t quote Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:1, but Paul and Barnabas respond as if they did. It wasn’t Paul and Barnabas that were judging or condemning those who rejected the gospel. It was their response to God’s word, to “thrust it aside” and judge themselves “unworthy of eternal life” (Acts 13:46), that left them in their sinful opposition to God. The good news of salvation through Jesus was proclaimed widely and freely, without judgment about who would respond or who was worthy. Paul and Barnabas remind us that it isn’t our place to decide how someone will respond to the gospel. It’s our mission to share who Jesus is and what He has done. And by God’s grace and the Spirit’s power, some will respond with rejoicing and by glorifying the word of the Lord.
by Andrew Hillard
We’ve started to learn a little bit more in recent days about our “new normal” and how our lives might be changing (yet again) for the months ahead. Every business that has your email address needs you to know about their “new normal,” even as each of us struggles to grasp what the “new normal” of our daily lives will look like. For all the questions about the future, it seems one certainty of our “new normal” will be the incessant use of the phrase “new normal.”
Today, as we think about our “new normal” (last time I promise), we read in Acts 11 about another generation who had their assumptions challenged and their plans changed. They initially respond as many of us are responding right now—with criticism and finger-pointing. However, hearing the testimony of what God had done, it isn’t long before they fell silent, except for their worship and praise of God.
Over the coming months, things are going to be different for us. I’m not saying that our changes will prove as historically significant as the revelation that the saving work of Jesus knows no national or ethnic bounds. What I am saying is that the same Spirit at work in Acts 11 is at work in each of us who believe in Jesus, calling us away from criticism and away from the blame game, calling us to sit silently with His word until we are ready to glorify God.
by Andrew Hillard
We’re told that Aeneas had been bedridden for eight years due to paralysis. This wasn’t a recent injury from which his body might have still been expected to heal. For eight years, he had been bound to his bed—paralyzed. The situation of Aeneas was dire, but Peter would soon enter a situation even more desperate. He was called to the upper room where the body of Tabitha, also called Dorcas, was laid. She had become ill and died. The permanence of Aeneas’ paralysis and Dorcas’ death was assumed by all who knew them. It’s why the widows stood weeping as they showed Peter the garments Dorcas had made. The end of these stories seemed to already be written.
But then Peter looked at Aeneas in Acts 9:34 and said, “Jesus Christ heals you: rise and make your bed.” And Aeneas did just that. Then in Acts 9:40, Peter kneels in prayer before turning to the body of this woman who had died to say, “Tabitha, arise.” Dorcas did just that. Two situations that seemed certain were transformed, each with the same result—that someone who no one expected to rise did just that. But that wasn’t the only result of these two miraculous reversals. These stories aren’t included here as exciting interruptions to the story of the early church and the spread of the gospel. These miraculous stories conclude with what has become a common refrain in the book of Acts–that many “turned to the Lord” (Acts 9:35) and many “believed in the Lord” (Acts 9:42). They didn’t turn to Peter. They didn’t believe in Peter. They believed in Jesus, the one on whom Peter had called and the one whose power and glory were on display. It would have been easy enough here for Peter to take the credit and steal the glory in some way, but Peter was living here as he would call us to live, in such a way that others “may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation” (1 Peter 2:12). As we begin a new week, whatever these days bring, let’s make that our priority—that our lives would cause those who see us to glorify God.