Worthy to Suffer

“At midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” Acts 16:25

Paul and Silas were not visiting prisoners, they were prisoners. Without any judicial inquiry they had been beaten with rods until their backs were marked with many painful and bloody stripes. To ensure they did not escape they were placed in the inner cells. I remember visiting the high security section of a prison in South Africa. As we left I counted the locked doors, all with guards that we passed through. There were eleven! Paul and Silas may not have had so many but they were well secured. What could have justified such strong action?

Paul had wanted to go to the Roman province of Asia to preach the Gospel of Christ but was forbidden by the Holy Spirit. So he tried to go to Bithynia with the same outcome. For a man like Paul this might be a little frustrating but then the Holy Spirit directed him to Philippi where he had opportunity to preach the Gospel and see results. In the process of this a demon possessed woman followed him everywhere and was distracting his hearers from his message. He became so annoyed that, after many days and under Christ’s authority, he cast the demon out of the woman. This was a relatively insignificant distraction but it led to Paul and Silas being beaten and imprisoned.

We should not be surprised that relatively insignificant distractions may lead to significant service for Jesus Christ. Quite often these are only seen in hindsight.

Paul and Silas could have been filled with self pity or questioned whether or not they were in the will of God. Some may have thought they had been disobedient to God. Others may have asked what terrible thing they had done or maybe they just assumed Paul and Silas were workers of much evil. Instead, they were praying and singing hymns “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name” (cf. Acts 5:41). This is where many of Christ’s followers fall short. We are not all willing to suffer for His name. Instead we are inclined to seek the pleasures and enjoy the comforts of this world. In so doing we forsake Christ. Unlike Paul and Silas we are more likely to be concerned about our position rather than the condition of others. That they were singing hymns tells us that they were definitely not sulking or wallowing in self pity. Though beaten and imprisoned unjustly they were singing praise to God from their hearts with thanksgiving.

We ought not to be surprised that the Lord then gave these men the opportunity to lead many to Christ. There is a link between being willing to suffer for His name with leading others to faith in Jesus Christ.

Writing Scripts

“You were hypocrites in your hearts when you sent me to the Lord” Jeremiah 42:20

The small, unprotected and disorganised remnant of Judah that remained in Judea must have felt vulnerable and unsafe. Those who had obeyed the Lord and surrendered to the king of Babylon were safe but removed from the land. Of those who had not obeyed the Lord most were now dead and only these few remained.

The armies of Babylon had gone home but they still felt that the Lord’s hand was heavy upon them and they were at risk. Since everything Jeremiah had prophesied had come to pass they went to him and asked him to seek the Lord’s counsel.

They promised that they would obey the Lord regardless of “whether it is pleasing or displeasing” (v 6) but the Lord knew their hearts and was determined to reveal their hypocrisy. What is revealed is that they had already chosen what they would do and were just seeking the Lord’s confirmation. This is often the way people relate to God when they do not have a genuine personal relationship with Him.

We need to be careful that we do not follow the example of these people. When we pray we should make up our minds to do as He reveals regardless of the response. Let us be sure that we have not already settled our direction before we hear the Lord’s response to our prayer. If we have, we will make up scenarios or accounts of events that will seemingly justify our actions even when contrary to God’s revelation and word to us. True prayer allows the Lord to respond as He chooses with the full intention of obeying whether it seems pleasing to us or not.

The people who came to Jeremiah with this request received a wonderful response – stay where they are and God would be their provider and protector until all Israel was brought back. If they chose to disregard and disobey the word of the Lord, contrary to their promise, they would suffer the very thing they sought to escape.

They had already made up their minds and instead of believing God’s revelation concerning past events and their current situation, they invented their own version that would make their decision look reasonable (44:16-19). In so doing they called God a liar (43:2). The Lord’s response to these people was, “Why do you commit this great evil against yourselves” (44:7). It is so illogical for people to choose against the revealed will of God. One can only wonder at how often we have rewritten our own history so as to put ourselves in a good light when in fact we are disobeying the word of the Lord.

The issue was not so much about where they should be physically but where their heart is toward the Lord. The same is true for us. The Lord will also test our heart motives in prayer. He doesn’t do this to harm us but to reveal where our heart really is so that our relationship with Him may become more intimate. God’s warnings were for Judah’s good, as they are for us, so let us take Him at His word and not try and write our own scripts.

A Faithful Ambassador

“This is the twenty third year in which the word of the Lord has come to me; and I have spoken to you, rising early and speaking, but you have not listened” Jeremiah 25:3

There are probably many people who share the Gospel who identify with Jeremiah. For twenty three years he had been a prophet of the Lord faithfully passing on what the Lord had given him to speak yet the people of Jerusalem and Judah had taken no heed. The Lord retained a remnant in Israel so the rejection was not total but successive kings of Judah had turned the hearts of the people away from the Lord. There were many other voices proclaiming what was supposed to be the word of the Lord but they were liars who deceived the people by telling them what they wanted to hear rather than the truth (27:10, 14-16). The same tactic is employed by some today. They proclaim a false Gospel while claiming it is from the Lord.

Jeremiah seemed alone in proclaiming the true word of the Lord yet he refused to compromise to appease kings, priests, other prophets or even to save his life (26:8). He would rather be an offense to people than offend the Lord.

The world might judge him as being unsuccessful but the Lord judged him otherwise. Successful in ministering the word of God is not determined by whether hearers receive God’s word. Success is measured in whether one is faithful to the Lord’s word and calling.

Jeremiah had to withstand the wrath of kings, accusations from religious leaders and stand face to face, in the presence of witnesses, with one who claimed to speak for the Lord but was a liar (28:1). He did this knowing that there was a strong movement among the false prophets to have him killed. He would not compromise the word of the Lord to save his life. His words to them were, “I am in your hand; do with me as seems good and proper to you” (26:14).

Like Daniel’s three friends, he knew that whether he lived or died he would not compromise the word of the Lord (Daniel 3:18). Like the apostle Paul he knew that, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

The church needs people who will proclaim God’s word as He gave it and not how people want to hear it. In the days of Jeremiah the false teachers were in the majority and they ridiculed, mocked and threatened Jeremiah. They deceived the people who then suffered the Lord’s chastisement. By rejecting the faithful word and believing a lie they set themselves against God.

A person may spend twenty three years as Christ’s faithful ambassador but whether they are successful or not is not in the numbers of people who respond and follow Christ. False teachers more readily gain a following because they speak what fallen people want to hear. The successful ambassador of Christ is the one who stands firm and faithful to Christ’s word even in the face of threats and persecution. The acclaim of people and numbers are no way to measure success. Faithfulness and obedience to Christ are the only measure and Jesus Christ alone is able to measure that.

Thank the Giver

“Thus says the Lord, “You have sold yourselves for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money” Isaiah 52:3

When the Lord spoke these words through Isaiah to Jerusalem the people had turned to idolatry and away from knowledge of the Lord. This sounds much like our world today. As we consider how the Lord dealt with Israel we will gain an understanding of how He will deal with people now.

The book of Isaiah makes it clear that the Lord’s intent is to redeem Israel. By the time we get to chapter 51 the Lord is pleading with Israel to “Listen to me,” stated three times. God wants to be heard but the people were not listening. Our world is not listening to God’s word either. There are few who really want to hear what God has said.

For those who do listen there is another step. The Lord then says to Israel, also stated three times, “Awake, awake.” It is not enough to just hear what God is saying but to respond to it. As our world is today so was Israel then. People who expect utopia on earth without Christ are dreaming. Israel had tried everything to keep safe. They attempted to build their own military, they had paid tribute to other nations and they had bought mercenary armies and yet they still suffered. For all their attempts to buy freedom they had failed. The Lord says they sold themselves for nothing. Their treasuries were emptied for no gain. All attempts that people make to buy deliverance the Lord says are futile.

Many people seek forgiveness and salvation but they want to be able to boast that they achieved it by their own effort, merit and wisdom. Such is the nature of pride. Paul responds to this by writing, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the Gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

It goes against pride but forgiveness of sin and salvation are a gift from God. The Lord says through Isaiah, “You shall be redeemed without money” (52:3). Israel will be redeemed as a gift from the Lord. In this we observe the Divine Nature of God. In chapter 53 the Lord describes how He will do it. That chapter is a description of Jesus Christ at His crucifixion and resurrection. In a nutshell we have it in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Jesus Christ is the Gift. Those who receive Him are the children of God (John 1:12). Later Paul would write, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).

The Lord’s plea with Israel and with all people today is to cease futile efforts to buy forgiveness and salvation with money, by acts of righteousness, by personal achievement, or religious ceremony and ritual, and simply receive forgiveness and salvation as the Gift it is in Jesus Christ. There is only one thing left for us to do. When we have received a gift, we thank the giver.

“Behold Your Mother!”

“Then [Jesus] said to the disciple [John], ‘Behold your mother!’ And from that hour that disciple took her to his own home.” John 19:27

When Jesus spoke these caring words to John he was already nailed to the cross and suffering excruciatingly from that cross and events leading up to it. We are not told how or when Joseph had died but from this passage it is clear that Jesus had assumed responsibility sometime before this for His mother’s care and well being. In Paul’s letter to Timothy Paul writes concerning the care of believing widows and the responsibility a son has for his widowed mother. He writes that it is unthinkable that Christians would not care for their ageing parents (1 Timothy 5:8). After all, it is an aspect of the fifth commandment!

It appears that Jesus was not just asking John to look after Mary until she could get back to her other sons in Galilee. He was commanding John to treat Mary as he would his own mother and Mary was to relate to John as her own son – indefinitely. At this time none of Jesus’ half-brothers believed that He was the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah. That would come later but for now they seemed to have little interest in His teaching or what was happening in His life.

Jesus wanted to ensure that a godly man was caring for His mother. That John was chosen ahead of other disciples may be for several reasons. John referred to himself as “the disciple whom [Jesus] loved” (v 26) so there was already a very special bond between Jesus and John and most likely between Mary and John also.

The society and culture in which we live is quite different but the principle remains the same. We have a privilege and a responsibility to care for our parents when they are unable to do so themselves and especially our widowed mothers (1 Timothy 5:8; John 19:26-27). As a church body we have the privilege of being able to care for them according to their need. Paul writes that we should honour such mothers by caring for them (1 Timothy 5:1) just as Jesus provided for His mother’s care even while on the cross.

There are several places in the Bible where we are told that the Lord will care for the fatherless and widows (cf. James 1:27; Psalm 146:9). The church is Christ on earth and is therefore His heart, arms and legs to minister to the need of believing widows when family is unable or unwilling to do so. The church is the “John” to the widowed mother without believing children. The application of that caring may be as varied as there are widowed mothers. We honour and reveal Jesus Christ in the world when we apply His example.

The “Would Have Beens”

“He would have fed them with the finest wheat; and with honey from the rock I would have satisfied you” Psalm 81:16

We may often ponder what might have been if we had made a different choice or acted and spoken differently but there is a certainty about these words: “Would have been.” This Psalm is a prayer for Israel to return to the Lord. Things would have been much different had they heeded the word of the Lord that had come through His prophets.

“Hear, O My people … O Israel, if you will listen to Me” (v 8) and “Oh, that My people would listen to Me, that Israel would walk in My ways!” (v 13). Had Israel heeded the Lord the nation would have been immeasurably better off. The Lord would have subdued their enemies and provided abundantly for them. Instead, He has allowed their enemies to have power over them and their land had been much less fruitful than it would have been.

Nothing can be done about the past except, hopefully, to learn from it. The Word of God will let us know what would have been had we been more willing to hear and conform to the will of God. The person without Christ will merely reflect on what might have been but God’s Word opens the door to realise that we have at times missed the perfect will of God. In His grace, as a loving Father, God has kept us through those times and not disowned or abandoned us.

Let us come to the Lord confessing our failure to hear and heed His word and determine in our hearts that, by His gracious enabling, there will be no more “would have beens” in our lives and plenty of “have beens!”

We discover His will for us through reading and studying the Bible combined with prayer and life experiences that the Lord sends our way. The temptation is to do that which seems right in our own eyes without seeking His will and way.

Vance Havner writes, “I suspect that much of our praying to be used is selfish and underneath it is the sneaking desire to make our mark and be recognised.” Our desire may be to glorify ourselves so that we and others think better of us but Peter writes that we are to live so “that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

The key question we must ask with regard to all things in our lives is, “Is God glorified or am I?” If we are really honest before the Lord the answer might not be as we had hoped but this is an opportunity to grow in grace. Then He shall satisfy our hearts.

The Right Place

“I have commanded the ravens to feed you there” 1 Kings 17:4

Had Elijah gone anywhere else the ravens would not have found him but King Ahab’s men might have. The Lord could have protected Elijah even in Ahab’s palace had He chosen to do so but Elijah’s absence would give Ahab opportunity to consider his position before God without Elijah being in his face.

It is good for us to consider, from time to time, whether we are where the Lord wants us to be or whether He may be directing us elsewhere. Quite likely we will discover that we are where He wants us to be but even if that is so we won’t have that assurance unless we ask. The reason we do not ask may be because we are comfortable where we are or that it just does not cross our minds to check?

Elijah was faced with possible death from Ahab if he did not move away so he was well motivated to hear where the Lord would have him go. We shouldn’t need to wait until we feel threatened before we seek the Lord’s counsel or confirmation. Such threats might be loss of employment, unmet needs, difficult neighbours or schooling for children.

In Acts 8 we read how the Lord took Philip away from a thriving evangelistic ministry in Samaria to the desert to meet one man. Philip might have argued with the Lord about the wisdom of such a move and his friends might also have discouraged him but he obeyed the Lord.

Rather than remain in doubt, we can, from time to time, ask the Lord if we are where He wants us to be and doing what He wants us to do. Of course we will only do this if He is indeed Lord in our hearts and we are willing to do whatever He asks. There is always joy and peace in knowing that we are where the Lord wants us to be. When we are he will provide all we need.

Had Elijah thought he knew a better place there could have been quite a different outcome. Elijah was a man not a superhero. God did great things through Elijah, not because he was greater than other men, but because he took the word of the Lord literally and went to the place and did what he was asked by the Lord.

In the context of the evangelist Philip (Acts 8), but equally applying to Elijah and us, Vance Havner writes, “Philip ‘arose and went … and behold.’ He who said, ‘Go ye therefore …’ has said ‘Lo, I am with you.’ As you obey, you may not see the why of it, but you shall see the who. He who says ‘Go’ goes along.”

Where the Lord sends us He goes with us and will provide for us there. Elijah knew this theoretically at first but because he acted upon it he experienced it first hand and his faith in the Lord grew and was proven.