Is the Church a Thermometer or a Thermostat?

Relevant Text: Acts 16:22-23
Full Text: Neh. 6; Acts 16

“The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison …” [1]

 Letter from a Birmingham Jail (excerpt)
Martin Luther King, Jr.
1963 [2]

“I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at the South’s beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlines of her massive religious-education buildings. Over and over I have found myself asking: ‘What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices when the lips of Governor Barnett dripped with words of interposition and nullification? Where were they when Governor Wallace gave a clarion call for defiance and hatred? Where were their voices of support when bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?’

“Yes, these questions are still in my mind. In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.

“There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being ‘disturbers of the peace’ and ‘outside agitators.‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were ‘a colony of heaven,’ called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be ‘astronomically intimidated.'”

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Footnotes

[1] Acts 16:22-23 NIV1984  |  [2] Excerpt from a letter written by Martin Luther King, Jr., from a Birmingham Jail (1963) to eight fellow clergymen in Alabama who disagreed with his approach to injustice. You can find the full text of the letter: here. We also recommend his speech, “I Have a Dream”: here.

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God’s Search-and-Rescue Mission

Relevant Text: Acts 13:10
Full Text: Neh. 3; Acts 13

Search-and-Rescue | On March 23, 2003, a US Army convoy took a wrong turn and was ambushed near Nasiriyah. A rocket-propelled grenade hit the Humvee that carried PFC Jessica Lynch. Since she was severely injured, Iraqi forces took her as a POW to a hospital, where she was abused and raped. When the US military learned of her location, they organized a search-and-rescue mission. On April 1, US Marines staged a diversion to draw Iraqi soldiers away from the hospital, which enabled Joint Special Operations to launch a raid and successfully extract Lynch [1].

Straight Paths | Like the US military, God is on a mission to seek and save the lost [2]. As the church in Antioch was worshiping and fasting, the Spirit called Barnabas and Saul to go to Cyprus. He was sending them on a mission to seek and save the governor of Cyprus, Sergius Paulus, who was in a city nearly 275 miles from Antioch. Unbeknownst to them, God was already working in the governor’s heart. Thus, when they arrived, he “summoned Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God” [3]. It was astounding that this powerful, pagan ruler would request to hear the gospel from these unknown, insignificant men. It had to be the Lord.

Crooked Obstacles | An acquaintance of the governor, however, was “seeking to turn the [governor] away from the faith” [4]. Saul, however, was Spirit-filled and stopped him: Will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind” [5]. Immediately, the governor believed and, after seeing the man go blind, was astonished at the Lord’s teaching. No obstacle would stop God from bringing the governor to faith. He would send, pursue, search and save him. He was on a mission. And He was successful.

Prayer | Lord, You have straight paths that lead to faith and you send us out as emissaries on your mission to seek and save the lost – including some of our own family and friends. Yes, there are obstacles, where straight paths are trying to be made crooked. Yet, you will have none of it. You long for your people to be free from the heavy and lonely and deceiving burdens of sin [6]. So, you conquer all obstacles to carry us along the straight paths of faith. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] For historical information about Jessica Lynch, see Wikipedia. Jessica Lynch; Andrew Chang. “’Search and Rescue’ Is Not Just a Frill.” ABCNews. 5 April 2003.  |  [2] See Lk. 19:10; Jn. 3:17.  |  [3] Acts 13:7 ESV  |  [4] Acts 13:8 ESV  |  [5] Acts 13:10-11 ESV  |  [6] See Rom. 6:20; Jn. 8:34; Gal. 3:22. Matt. 11:30.


“Efficient” Christian Fellowship

Relevant Text: Acts 12:5
Full Text: Neh. 1-2; Acts 12

Efficiency | A New York minute, Johnny Carson quipped, is “the time it takes from when the lights turn green till the guy behind you starts honking his horn.” Yes, New Yorkers think simple tasks should be done quickly – street-walking, food-ordering, MetroCard-swiping. Even complicated tasks – stock-trading, eye surgery – must get faster. Yes, efficiency is king. But when it comes to Christian community, how should we measure efficiency?

Fellowship | In the months following Pentecost, the church grew from 120 disciples worldwide to over 5,000 Christians in Jerusalem alone. As it grew, however, it was persecuted. Here, James was beheaded and Peter was imprisoned. But “the church was earnestly praying to God for him” [1]. There was a network of home churches in Jerusalem that was praying. When they got down on their knees, God sent an angel to Peter on the night before his trial. That angel broke him free and led him past the guards.

Faith | Yet, God didn’t release Peter because their faith was perfect. In fact, when he arrived at Mary’s home, most of them didn’t even believe it was him! When the servant girl heard his voice through the door, she got so excited that she forgot to open the door and returned to tell the others: “Peter is at the door!” [2] But they didn’t believe her: “You’re out of your mind … It must be his angel” [3]. When they finally opened the door and saw Peter, “they were astonished” [4]. Then he told them what happened and how God answered their prayers.

Response | Who knows how long these home groups had been praying for Peter. They weren’t measuring efficiency in units of time, but by the degree to which they were getting involved in what God was already doing in their midst. When they met together and prayed, He did transforming and empowering things – even when their faith was imperfect. And as a result, God was glorified to use them to open the hearts of many to the gospel of Jesus.

Prayer | Lord, We long for you to do great things among us. Therefore, teach us to measure efficiency by our love, compassion, joy, holiness and zeal. Make us bold witnesses – in our homes and on our knees – for our lives are short. Let us not be satisfied with ordinary fellowship. Instead, for the sake of your name, let chains fall off and your people set free among us. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1]  Acts 12:5 NIV1984  |  [2]  Acts 12:14 NIV1984  |  [3]  Acts 12:15 NIV1984  |  [4]  Acts 12:16 NIV1984

New York City Circa 1857

Relevant Text: Ezra 10:1 (underlined)
Full Text: Ezra 10; Acts 10-11

Police | It was summer 1857. The NYC Municipal Police Force was massively corrupt under Mayor Fernando Wood. So Albany shortened his second term and created the Metropolitan Police Force. But Wood refused to vacate. He and the Municipals occupied City Hall. Police feuding continued throughout the summer until the Metropolitans – with the National Guard – defeated the Municipals and forced Wood to submit. On July 2, courts upheld the Metropolitans’ jurisdiction [1].

Gangs | Two days later, gangs began rioting. Battles raged on Bowery and Bayard. Bloodshed covered Mulberry, Elizabeth and Baxter. Gangs looted and pillaged neighborhoods. Shopkeepers, pedestrians and residents were all fair game. It only lasted a week, but it was intense and total anarchy.

Banks | Then came the financial crisis. The recession got worse on August 24, when the NY Branch of the Ohio Life Insurance and Trust Company failed. Railroad bonds were embezzled, routine transactions ceased, major stocks fell 10%, and depositors demanded gold. Thankfully, a gold delivery from California was expected. On September 12, however, a hurricane destroyed that shipment and fifteen tons of gold sank into the ocean. A month later, the Panic of 1857 took effect and the NY banks were closed from October 13 through December 12.

Revival | In this chaos, God raised up Jeremiah Lanphier – a middle-aged tradesman whose church had relocated uptown. On September 23, he and six others met for noontime prayer on Fulton Street. Fourteen met the next week and twenty-three the week following. By mid-November, over 10,000 businessmen were “confessing sin, getting saved, [and] praying for revival” [2] – like Ezra’s account: “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly” [3]. Thousands were being saved and mercy ministries were being opened, e.g., The Bowery Mission, The Salvation Army. There were no lead preachers or famous speakers – just humble men hungry for God. They prayed. He moved.

Prayer | Lord, Lead us in a season of repentance, confession and prayer so that we are awakened to a desire for more holiness. Today, as we live in the midst of uncertain times, we bow before you in humility and pray for our church, our city and our nation. Let us be faithful in small prayer meetings and leave the work of revival to you. Amen.

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Footnotes

[1] Historical sources include: (a) The Religious Revival. The New York Times. (original publication: 20 March 1858), (b) Gregory Christiano. 1857: A Year to Forget. Urbanography., (c) Smithwords, The Great Awakening of 1857-1858., (d) Audrey Barrick, Christians Mark 150 Years of Fulton Street Revival. 23 Sept 2007., (e) Program for the 150th Anniversary celebration of the Fulton Street Noon Prayer. 2007. | [2] See [1](c) | [3] Ezra 10:1 ESV


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