What Prevents Me from Being Baptized?

“Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.

Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,

so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’

And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea” (Acts 8:25–40).

While Peter and John returned to Jerusalem, an angel directed Philip to an out of the way place where he met an Ethiopian court official. The man was reading Isaiah and had questions about the text.

Instead of answering the man’s questions, Philip shared Christ with him. Take note, though, that he began with the Scripture the man was reading. The principle we glean is that, while Christ may not appear in every verse, all of Scripture reveals Him. He is the sum and culmination of every text. Also, rather than getting into the weeds, as many people would prefer, the gospel is the most important conversation we can have with anyone.

As they went along, the eunuch spied some kind of water, whether a spring, a pond, or a puddle, we don’t know and it didn’t matter. He asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” The English Standard Version simply omits v. 37, while the New American Standard adds a footnote that it doesn’t appear in the original manuscripts.

The verse seems to have been added later in an effort to answer the question and, while absent from the original, it does offer some help. So, the King James Version inserts verse 37: “And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

In other words, genuine faith in Christ is the only requirement for baptism. Anyone who adequately professes authentic saving faith in Christ is a proper candidate for baptism. No other condition for baptism is placed on anyone in the New Testament than a clear testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.

Was Philip able to guarantee that the eunuch would follow Christ faithfully once he returned to his homeland, culture, and responsibilities? Of course not. Nor can we guarantee that everyone we baptize will walk with Christ faithfully all the days of their lives.

It’s precisely for this reason that the Great Commission commands us to make disciples, “baptizing them and teaching them.” We baptize someone once, but we have an ongoing obligation (whenever possible) to teach them to observe all that Christ commanded.

When Philip had baptized the eunuch, the Spirit lead him away preaching the gospel and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing in the Lord. From which, we can only conclude that the eunuch’s faith in Christ was real and the Lord would lose nothing of all the Father has given Him (John 6:39).

The Lord grant us the discernment to divide between His wisdom and ours and to recognize that it’s Christ’s church He’s building, not ours.

By grace,



“The Great Power of God”

“Now there was a man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic in the city and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him, saying, ‘This man is what is called the Great Power of God.’ And they were giving him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic arts. But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. Even Simon himself believed; and after being baptized, he continued on with Philip, and as he observed signs and great miracles taking place, he was constantly amazed.

Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit. Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give this authority to me as well, so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.’ But Simon answered and said, ‘Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.’” (Acts 8:9–24).

We’re introduced to Simon, a magician, who was called, “The Great Power of God” because of his sorceries. For a long time, people sought him out to help with their problems. They gave him great heed because they believed he held a special wisdom and knowledge.

Luke writes that Simon, “formerly was practicing magic,” that is he no longer did. He believed the gospel, was baptized, and stopped practicing magic. He abandoned his claim to greatness when he encountered the One who was truly great, the Lord Jesus Christ.

So amazed was he at the saving power of Christ, that he followed Philip to learn as much as he could. He observed the signs and miracles, but as many of us would do, he drew conclusions based on his past experiences.

None of us comes to faith in Christ with full understanding of the Christian life. All of us have misconceptions about many things. That’s why the Great Commission includes teaching people to observe all that Christ commanded us (Matt. 28:20). Baptism and teaching are both elements of the Great Commission. We don’t just invite people to Jesus and go knock on the next door.

Luke matter-of-factly drops a theological bomb into the text: The Holy Spirit hadn’t yet fallen on anyone in Samaria. They’d only been baptized in Jesus’ name. What’s noteworthy is that Philip baptized everyone who believed without distinction – both “men and women alike” (v. 12). There was no multi-tiered standard for considering candidates for baptism. They believed and were baptized – period.

The apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to pray for people to receive the Holy Spirit, something that Philip, evidently wasn’t called to do. The apostolic seal was essential to the proper establishment of the church in those early days. Though no apostles remain, God’s Word tells us what we need to know to maintain biblical order in the church (1 Tim. 3:15).

As Simon watched people receiving the Holy Spirit when the apostles laid hands on them, he drew a conclusion from his past. He’d received his powers for magic by buying them, and concluded that the apostles’ gift must work the same way. He wanted to be able to impart the Holy Spirit to people as well. So, he offered to pay Peter and John for the gift.

Peter, rightly rebuked Simon leaving no room for doubt that God’s gifts of grace cannot be bought. Some have thought that Peter’s reprimand revealed that Simon was a false convert, not a true believer, but listen to what Peter said: “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you” (v. 22).

He extended grace to Simon in the midst of a sharp rebuke. He didn’t just cut him off. He called him to repentance. Peter’s response lacked the gentleness that Jesus had showed him (Luke 22:31-32), but the message was the same. There is forgiveness to those who humble themselves before the Lord.

Simon responded, humbly I think, “Pray to the Lord for me yourselves, so that nothing of what you have said may come upon me” (v. 24), demonstrating a contrite heart that was willing to turn from any remaining sin (and we all have some) in order to follow Christ fully and faithfully. He asked the apostles to pray for him that he might not fall into the horror of Peter’s words.

We’re not told if they laid hands on Simon to receive the Spirit, but nothing more was said. The matter was closed. A new believer was corrected and responded appropriately. The apostles moved on.

I cannot believe that Peter, whom Christ so graciously restored after he’d denied Him publicly three times, would proverbially through Simon under the bus for a single, ignorant indiscretion. Rather, the big fisherman must’ve embraced him and restored him as the Lord had done the apostle.

Remember, the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). Gospel power overcomes all our sins, every single one, from first to last.

To God be the glory.

By grace,


Why All the Rejoicing?

“Philip went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. The crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing. For in the case of many who had unclean spirits, they were coming out of them shouting with a loud voice; and many who had been paralyzed and lame were healed. So there was much rejoicing in that city” (Acts 8:6-8).

Because of Saul’s violent outburst against the Jerusalem church, Philip went to Samaria and proclaimed Christ. The Holy Spirit authenticated his message with signs, such as healing the sick and casting out demons. The miracles were not the manufactured manipulations such as are common on television today. They were verifiable miracles granted by God.

While some today will focus on the miracles, the Scriptures uniformly center on Christ and His gospel of grace. Notice that “the crowds with one accord were giving attention to what was said by Philip, as they heard and saw the signs which he was performing.” The crowds did not give attention to the signs, but to the message. The signs drove them to the gospel as they were designed to do.

To be sure, the signs were captivating, people who’d been oppressed by evil spirits were set free. Those who’d been paralyzed and lame were made whole again. The release from guilt and shame, plus the unknown causes were wiped clean. No wonder “there was much rejoicing in that city.”
Still, the greater joy was knowing why they were cleansed and healed – Jesus had saved them. The removal of the consequences of sin is incidental to the destruction of sin itself. Sin demands God’s wrath. Loss and illness are just reminders of that fact. To stand before Holy God in one’s sins is most terrifying. To have that guilt and shame buried in the righteousness of Christ is most liberating and joyful.

Rejoicing is to be joyous, not simply pleased or content, but enthusiastic with the news. The Samaritans had lived in idolatrous darkness for ages. Now, the light of gospel grace had come to them in the name of Jesus with evidence to prove that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Of course, they were glad to be healed, but Luke is clear to point out why they rejoiced – because of the gospel Philip proclaimed.

Today, many hold to the idea that the gospel is only a stepping stone to reuniting them with loved ones or to gaining marvelous treasures to whet their appetites. Such people are still steeped in the darkness of their idolatry. They trample underfoot the precious name of Jesus while clinging to the hope of reliving some dream lost in this fallen life.

Churches need, whether they know it or not, pastors – men who are saturated with the Word of God, who will proclaim the pure gospel of God’s grace to save sinners by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Churches need shepherds who hold to the reforming principles of Scripture alone and Scripture interpreting Scripture. These are the men who will build churches for the glory of God alone.

Far too long and too often, churches today are held hostage by false teachers, hirelings who’ve jumped the fence to make a name for themselves among Christ’s sheep. Many have filled the pews with unredeemed and unregenerate religious hypocrites just to say, “Look how many we’ve baptized.” Those goats fight against everything Christ’s church stands for. They think they have a better way because they have a secular business experience. Often, the Christians left in the church will simply let the bullies take over. The church’s carcass has already begun to decay.

Sometimes, God allows a man to step into such a situation and, by grace, begin to turn things around. It’s never easy and there are no short cuts. In such instances, it’s a cause for great rejoicing indeed as people are released from their idolatrous traditions and autonomy. There are a number of success stories across our nation where some of the least likely shepherds were called to churches because the power brokers thought they had a lamb they could control, but God revealed a lion who was strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might (Eph. 6:10).

God grant us men like Philip, who will proclaim Christ in the most unlikely places, where there will be much rejoicing in Your grace.

By grace,


The Church-Homeless Christian

“They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground” (Heb 11:37–38).

Many Christians today are homeless – church-homeless. That is, they have no church home, no Christian body with whom they worship and have fellowship on a regular basis. Some may pop in somewhere from time to time, but they’re committed nowhere. They enjoy a sense of anonymity when they do go to church, but they have no accountability but to themselves.

Church-homelessness is not a new phenomenon, but it is a contemporary crisis. From the inception of the New Testament church, Christians have been displaced, negatively, by persecution and economic hardships, and positively, through missions.

Without rehearsing the causes and effects of church-homelessness throughout history, we can observe two causes, or kinds of homelessness among Christians today.

The first cause, or kind of Christian homelessness is the apathetic, compromised Christian. Lacking divinely inspired conviction, these spiritually bored, underachievers have nothing better to do than to sit around gossiping about others who seek to serve the Lord. They complain about every message preached, lesson taught, song sung, or dinner served.

They will not lift a finger to solve any problem in their local congregation, but they eagerly lift their voices, whining, griping and festering like a boil over every issue, real or imagined, great or small. They never have a kind word to say about anyone in the church because, at the end of the day, they love their sins more than the body of Christ.

The sad reality is that many of these so-called believers aren’t truly Christ’s disciples at all. Like the stony and thorny soils in Jesus’ parable of the sower, fleshly temptations, or worldly cares keep cropping up around them and turn them away from Christ. Every vain pursuit that arises takes precedence over whatever fellowship they may appear to have with Christ and His church.

Truth be told, many of these folks are merely religious hypocrites who have no claim on Christ’s grace to save them, but don’t tell them that or they’ll turn and rend you. Don’t warn them of the coming judgment against such tempests in communion cups or they’ll launch a campaign to expel you from the church.

As painful as it is to have them in the church, Jesus told another parable of the coming judgment in which they’ll be forever removed from Christ’s church and His presence.

The second cause, or kind of Christian homelessness is the frustrated, grace-starved Christian. They are the ones who hunger and thirst for righteousness, but endure weak, shallow, dull, dish-water sermons and light, fluffy, candy-coated music masquerading as worship.

Too many pastors have drunk the contemporary Kool-Aid that says, “The gospel is divisive,” and “we don’t want to offend anyone.” True, the gospel is divisive and it does offend, but it’s the only cure for the terminal cancer that is our sin.

Genuine Christians are begging for someone to bring to them the pure milk and meat of the Word. The gruel that’s dished up on many Sundays and from so-called television ministries is dissatisfying at best and leaves Christians near death at worst.

The true child of God desires the deeper things of Christ. A traditional spiritual hymn that’s enjoyed a revival in recent years states, “You may have all this world; give me Jesus.” Real Christians are crying for someone to give them Jesus, not covered dishes or video games or other glossed-over worldly aperitifs to suspend their pangs for the things of God.

While abandoning Christ’s sheep, many pastors pursue the unconvinced and unconverted in the hope of filling their buildings to the point of needing larger surrounds to house their throngs. The merely religious shove their way into posh theatre seats and indulge in an hour’s free entertainment. Yet Christ’s saints go about “being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy)” (Heb. 11:37b-38a).

The need to plant new churches worldwide has never been greater. Likewise, the need to start new congregations across the cities of North America has never been more urgent; not just any churches, though. America needs churches where the whole counsel of God is spoken lovingly and graciously, yet without apology or compromise. Churches need pastors who are willing to lay down their lives for the people of God. Christians need pastors and teachers and elders who will lead by example in the character of Christ.

No dull, lifeless congregation ever changed anyone, except to drive them to hate the name of Jesus Christ more than they already did. A church that effervesces with the Spirit of Christ, though, will draw people whom the Holy Spirit is calling to Christ, who hunger and thirst for His righteousness. The Christian who resonates with the character of Christ will, both in words and actions, point people to Jesus, the only name by which we must be saved.

May God raise up to Himself a multitude of church planters in our generation, who will carry the gospel to the ends of the earth and next door.

By grace,



“But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison. Therefore, those who had been scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:3–4).

“Scattered” describes the manner in which the Christians departed Jerusalem. They were dispersed randomly, sown like seeds, without thought or care for their safety or well-being. The image of the sower in Jesus’ parable comes to mind who reached into his bag and scattered seeds indiscriminately on the road, over the stones, and among the thorns, as well as in the good soil.

The word Luke used for “scattered” relates their going out directly to Saul’s persecution. As he ravaged the church, the Christians who escaped his systematic and exhaustive search to extinguish the name of Jesus didn’t go into witness protection programs to hide out in security for the rest of their lives. They “went about preaching the word.”

To all appearances, the Christians fled Jerusalem aimlessly. In reality, God sent them out purposefully. God does nothing without purpose. Jesus foretold them that His church would proclaim His gospel around the world: “You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Events take place in the world that, to us, seem pointless. Just as children, who often don’t understand what their parents’ do, we seldom comprehend all that God has in store.

Luke’s word for “preaching” gives us the word “evangelize.” They went about – without a plan, strategy, organization, or support – scattering the good news, the glad tidings of God’s grace through Jesus Christ to save sinners.

We often think of preaching as a style of speaking (in loud, stained-glass tones), that’s done by a certain person (a duly ordained preacher), in a particular location (behind a pulpit, in a steepled church), at a certain time (Sunday morning), while wearing a manner of dress (suit and tie).

Luke, though, had in mind something very different. First, “they were all scattered… except the apostles” (Acts 8:1). Untrained men and women, singles and families, young and old – everyone in the church – except the apostles – went out proclaiming Christ. Second, they didn’t preach in pulpits or wear suits and ties or speak in artificial manners. They made much of Christ, using their own words and communicating in ordinary speech as they went – wherever, whenever.

Saul’s attempt to annihilate the church became the catalyst by which the church began to fulfill the Lord Jesus’ promise. The church had been growing numerically at a phenomenal rate, but no one had yet gone beyond the local community. A growing complacency had begun to creep into the church. Had it been allowed to continue, the extraordinary gospel growth may well have stalled and given way to the spiritual lethargy that’s so common today. So, God used Saul to stir the pot, so to speak and send His people out.

Today, a kind of religious apathy has captured many churches. The Great Commission to “go and tell” has morphed into “come and stay.” Instead of making disciples, we prefer to entertain spectators. Pastoral success is measured by the number of people who fill the pews every week rather than those who go out to share Christ, gather believers, and start new churches and other ministries.

Unlike the early church, which emphasized preaching, praying, and fellowship, many churches today seem content to focus on performances and entertainment. Discipleship is a class that people attend. Worship is a performance that people watch. Preaching is a self-help pep speech to which people listen. Prayer is a brief professionally-rehearsed statement made to begin or end a meeting. Regrettably, many people are content with such fanfare.

Perhaps, God will bring another widespread persecution against His church in our generation in order to wake His dispirited disciples out of our cozy slumber. When it comes, the religious hypocrites that swell the congregations will likely depart. The redeemed will gather together as our spiritual forebears did for teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42).

Then, we’ll make a profound difference in the world for the glory of God.

By grace,


A Taste for Death

“Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death. And on that day a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some devout men buried Stephen, and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison” (Acts 8:1-3).

Knowing the work of grace the Spirit of Christ would later do in Saul’s life, we might be tempted to think that the young Pharisee didn’t really mean to kill Stephen. After all, he didn’t actually participate in the stoning. He only consented to it. Even then, he was just caught up in heat of the moment. Scripture, however, is very clear.

The word translated “hearty agreement” (NAS), “consenting” (KJV), “approved” (ESV) is a double-compounded term. Two prefixes attach to the root, focusing its meaning. The root word means to suppose, seem good, or please. It’s what we mean when we say, “okay,” or give a thumbs-up sign. It conveys agreement. Saul favored the manner and extent of Stephen’s penalty.

The primary prefix adds the nuanced feeling of “well,” as in “well-pleased.” When John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River, everyone heard God the Father say about Jesus, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Mt. 3:17). The prefix elevates the sense from simply nodding approval to taking real pleasure in a thing. It makes the thing a delight, which is why the NAS adds the description “hearty.” It’s not a matter of joviality, but of real pleasure. Saul genuinely enjoyed watching Stephen’s execution.

The secondary prefix means “with,” and links the verb to the following noun, “putting him to death,” which means to murder, kill, put out of the way, or destroy. So, Saul took great delight, not only in silencing Stephen, but in brutally and viciously murdering him.

If anyone ever opposed Jesus Christ so thoroughly, it was Saul of Tarsus. He embraced a personal satisfaction in disposing of anyone associated with the name of Jesus. Stephen’s death only whet his appetite for more. He ravaged (“made havoc of,” KJV) the church; that is, he assaulted Christians with the cruelest contempt possible, attempting to obliterate the name of Jesus entirely.

The kind of hatred that Saul felt for those who loved the Lord Jesus in his day is alive and well in ours. Hatred seems to be the defining quality of humanity. One group gets media attention for demonstrating their hatred. Then, the internet rings with the hatred of those who hate the haters. Pride fuels our hate. We (all of us) justify our brand of hate as those ours is of a higher, purer, or nobler quality than that of those we hate. All the while, Satan laughs in our faces as we dance to his tune.

The hate of mankind will never accomplish the will of God. When we hate, we dishonor God – whoever we are and whomever we hate. What are we to do when we someone doing hateful things? Should we turn a blind eye? That would make us an accessory to their hate. Should we applaud them? That would make us their accomplices. Christ gave another answer:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mt. 5:43-48).

How would the world look today, if, instead of hating the haters, we learned to love our enemies, really love them and to pray for those who persecute us? We might not end the atrocities people commit, but we would change ourselves. Instead of becoming haters ourselves, delighting in a taste for death with the rest, we would rejoice in Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

Wouldn’t that be glorious?

By grace,

Grace in the Torrent

“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:54-60).

“Now when they heard this,” that is, the whole of Stephen’s defense of Christ and God’s judgment against the people, “they were cut to the quick.” Literally, “they were sawn asunder to the heart,” just as they were in Acts 5:33. Absent the grace of God, they were agitated, stirred to anger and boiled with animosity. Only this time, there was no one to restrain them. They carried out the murder that was in their hearts according to their natures.

We like to think that we are free, but we are only free within the limits of our nature. Even the good we do is tainted by our sin. Thus, Jesus taught that the world cannot receive the Spirit of truth (Jn. 14:17). Likewise, Paul wrote, “But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised” (1Cor. 2:14). So, in the darkness of their hearts, they lunged for Stephen, as jackals on the prey. “They began gnashing their teeth at him,” growling with hellish hatred.

The Spirit filled Stephen, showing him God’s glory and Jesus standing (the royal position of judgment) at His right hand. God gives His people grace to withstand great anguish. The world labors in vain to understand the gift of grace that often attends God’s children as they stand in the torrent of hell’s abuse. His peace certainly passes all human understanding. Even Christ’s disciples are often mystified by God’s overwhelming grace when they should cave before the flood of hostility heaped against them. And yet, Stephen “said,” that is, he spoke in an ordinary voice, not screaming hysterically as his plaintiffs did, and continued to make much of Christ: “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

Stephen’s accusers could bear no more of his love for Christ. Their hatred for Jesus drove them over the edge like the demon-possessed Gadarene pigs. Even though he used the more obscure term that Jesus favored for Himself, “Son of Man,” they all knew of Whom he meant. In a single, murderous reflex, propelled by bestial rage, they pounced on him and drove him out of the city gate where they began to stone him. The stones they cast weren’t little pebbles intended to irritate him. They were large enough to inflict serious damage, even to be fatal.

As an aside, Luke mentioned, without comment, a young man named Saul, whom readers would get to know later. Saul stood by, approving the slaughter of an innocent man, solely because of his faith in, love for, and witness to Christ.

The stoning of Stephen was no simple or sanitary procedure. Without delving into the gory details of stoning, suffice it to say that it was an inefficient form of execution – bloody and cruel, it took a good while to accomplish.

Even as his life ebbed away, Stephen displayed God’s grace in the torrent. He committed himself to the Lord Jesus as Christ had committed Himself to the Father. Then, he prayed for his murderers as Jesus had prayed for His.

Our natural tendency is to ask God to remove the hardship. The popular notion is that we should have all the treats and sweets we want and none of the bitters. If we just have enough faith, God will give us all the cookies we ask for. The Bible teaches us, though, that God is eternal, wise, and holy. He operates in a different economy than we do, He keeps a different timeline, and He pursues a different agenda than ours.

Perhaps, instead of seeking the removal of the trial, we should seek the grace to see God’s glory through the hurt. I’m daily more convinced that there’s coming another persecution in the life of the church. It might even be the final chapter in our history. I pray we’ll be ready.

By grace,

Defending Christ, 6

“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53).

Stephen dropped the gavel of God’s judgment against his hearers – and the rest of us – saying, in essence, “Like father, like son.” He accurately assessed the condition of the human heart outside the grace of God. To appreciate the necessity and agency of God’s overcoming grace, we have to recognize the depth of our depravity. We’ll always opt for sin. We’ll always choose the pleasures of the flesh. It’s what we do.

Spanish fighting bulls have a distinct athletic profile with a massive neck that enhances their prowess in the fight. When a bull first enters the arena, he thrashes about wildly, displaying his power and agility. He’s a fierce animal. In a well-choreographed series of events, banderilleros pierce the bull’s neck with a pair of short sticks with iron barbs. The picadors enter on horseback with long lances they use to cut the animal’s spine at a precise point. The purpose is to bleed out the animal and limit his mobility. By the time the matador (literally, the “killer”) enters the ring, the bull is half-dead. Always color-blind, he’s now unable to see anything but movement a few feet directly in front of him, nor can he move his head side to side. It’s now (comparatively) safer for the matador to approach the bull, drop his cape and thrust his estoque (a slender rapier) through the bull’s neck, into its chest, with the intent to kill the animal. In essence, the bull is blind and stiff-necked.

Scripture is replete with censorious descriptions of the human condition as having a heart of stone (Eze. 36:26), flint (Zec. 7:12), or a forehead like emery (Eze. 3:9). Paul called the unregenerate heart darkened (Rom. 1:21) and given over to impurity, degrading passions, and a depraved mind (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). The idea is a portrait of obstinance and rebellion, really a kind of insanity. More than a childish temper tantrum, it conveys a resolute hardness that refuses to listen, learn, or yield, even to pure love.

Once we see how desperate our natural condition is – that we are wholly and willingly given over to our sins – only then can we begin to appreciate the wondrous majesty of God’s redeeming grace in Christ Jesus.

We really do deserve all that hell holds for us. We really have no claim on God for mercy. Yet, God, in purest mercy makes hell-deserving enemies alive in Christ Jesus. In a marvelous display of utter grace, Christ bore the just wrath of holy God in the place of those who deserved His wrath and imputes to them His perfect righteousness.

The very news of Jesus Christ, broken and risen again, redeeming hell-bound children of wrath divides humanity in the starkest terms imaginable. Those who love the Lord Jesus delight in absolute ecstasy to know the joy of the Lord and to sing His praises for His redeeming grace. Meanwhile, those who love their sins, mock and scoff at the name of Jesus, “always resisting the Holy Spirit.”

They are the ones who openly despise the name of Jesus, using it as a cussword. They bear no tolerance for those who dare to love the Name above every name. They long to eradicate the world of the pestilence they believe the church to be. They may even pretend to be religious simply because the appearance is good for business or serves a social function, but they unashamedly oppose the name of Jesus.

They will never, of their own accord, bow the knee to Jesus and proclaim Him Lord. Only by the redeeming work of God’s grace will any of us every acknowledge Christ as Lord in humble submission and worship.

Understanding that reality drives the believer’s worship to an even greater depth. In 1758, Robert Robinson penned the words:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for They courts above.

May we join in the chorus of praise to our great Redeemer.

By grace,

Defending Christ, 5

“Our fathers had the tabernacle of testimony in the wilderness, just as He who spoke to Moses directed him to make it according to the pattern which he had seen. And having received it in their turn, our fathers brought it in with Joshua upon dispossessing the nations whom God drove out before our fathers, until the time of David. David found favor in God’s sight, and asked that he might find a dwelling place for the God of Jacob. But it was Solomon who built a house for Him. However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands; as the prophet says: ‘Heaven is My throne, And earth is the footstool of My feet; What kind of house will you build for Me?’ says the Lord, ‘Or what place is there for My repose? Was it not My hand which made all these things?’” (Acts 7:44-50).

Stephen offered Abraham and Moses as living witnesses of God’s work of grace to redeem a people for His own possession. God appeared to Abraham, called him to Himself and promised to make a nation peculiar to God through Abraham. Then, God appeared to Moses, called him to Himself and sent him to deliver Israel into the land He’d promised to Abraham.

Here, Stephen called attention to the tabernacle and the temple, in which God dwelt among the whole nation of Israel. Since He is omnipresent, “the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands.” The purpose for the two meeting places – one portable, as Israel traveled in the desert and one permanent, when Israel settled in Canaan – was not for God’s benefit, but for Israel’s. God condescended to a specific place in time so that His people could meet with Him.

God not only commanded Moses to erect a tabernacle, He gave him detailed instructions to build it exactly as God desired: “According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it” (Ex. 25:9). The writer of Hebrews informs us that Moses’ tabernacle was a copy of the real tabernacle in heaven (Heb. 8:5).

It’s ironic that God commanded Moses to build a tent according to a specific design, and yet, God denied David the opportunity to build a permanent structure for God, when the king came up with the idea on his own. David never did build a temple for God, but God let Solomon do it.

It shouldn’t surprise us though. Ever since the fall, humanity has tried to improve on God’s creation and to better God’s ways. Unfortunately, not even churches can often escape the temptation to add to or trim off some of God’s Word. The so-called worship wars are little more than our asserting our own preferences and prejudices over against someone else’s. If God truly had a particular musical style in mind, He would’ve preserved it right along with the texts of Scripture and He would’ve commanded us to make His music.

How often do we try to make something for God that He doesn’t require? Should we expect God to be pleased because we thought of something that He hasn’t. Scripture has enough examples of the consequences of such inventions that we should lose all temptation to introduce strange fire into our worship assemblies. Every time we do, we get into trouble, and yet, churches build their calendars around Hallmark holidays, as if God delights to see us applauding different segments of the population instead of worshiping Him.

The point of all this is that God will not be worshiped as a mere idol, with the trappings of fallen humanity, but as God alone. We cannot recreate Him in our own image. We must approach Him as He is – infinitely holy, perfect in all His attributes, and sovereign over His creation. We come to Him on His terms, not ours, nor do we negotiate with Him. He is Lord.

Some people bristle at the idea of God’s sovereignty and holiness because they doubt His trustworthiness, but God is truly good because He is perfectly holy, and He is able to save completely because He is sovereign. He demonstrated His sovereignty and holiness when He appeared to Abraham and Moses and when He dwelt with Israel and when He became flesh and dwelt among us and whenever He redeems someone from bondage to sin.

By grace,


Defending Christ, 4

“This Moses whom they disowned, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’ is the one whom God sent to be both a ruler and a deliverer with the help of the angel who appeared to him in the thorn bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brethren.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us; for this Moses who led us out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what happened to him.’ At that time they made a calf and brought a sacrifice to the idol, and were rejoicing in the works of their hands. But God turned away and delivered them up to serve the host of heaven; as it is written in the book of the prophets, ‘It was not to Me that you offered victims and sacrifices forty years in the wilderness, was it, O house of Israel? ‘You also took along the tabernacle of Moloch and the star of the god Rompha, the images which you made to worship. I also will remove you beyond Babylon’” (Acts 7:35-43).

God rarely uses a superstar to accomplish His purposes, ordaining, rather, to demonstrate the sufficiency of His grace by revealing His strength in the weakness of the vessels He chooses (2 Cor. 12:9). While He does use people of unusual talents and abilities, God often uses the foolish and the weak (by the world’s standards) to eliminate our tendency to boast (1 Cor. 1:26-29). He does so, “So that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God (1 Cor. 2:5).

Isaiah lamented his own depravity when confronted with the absolute holiness of God (Isa. 6:5). Jeremiah protested God’s call to proclaim His Word, on the ground of his youth and inexperience (Jer. 1:6). Amos confessed that he was a simple shepherd and fig dresser (Amos 7:14).

In Moses’ case, God chose someone who was not a man of words, but was slow (lit. “heavy”) of speech and tongue (Ex. 4:10). He wasn’t witless, just not very articulate. He had no facility of elocution. Some writers have suggested that he may have spoken with a lisp or stuttered. Regardless, he wasn’t a strong oral communicator. So intimidated was he that God granted Aaron to speak on Moses’ behalf.

The pattern of choosing the least likely runs throughout the Scriptures. Prophets and apostles alike answered God’s call by reciting their many disqualifications. Each time, though, God reassured His chosen servants that He was able and would go with them. Their success in ministry resulted from God’s grace.

At every turn, the pattern emerges. God calls someone to Himself. His calling and closeness bring the weight of His glory on His elect, which devastates any pride in self in the presence and power of the infinitely holy God. Yet, God changes the hearts of His servants and equips them to carry out His purpose. All the while, God is glorified through their words – His words.

The fact that God calls certain ones to serve Him in special ways, doesn’t guarantee success, as people count success. Stephen stated, “Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt.” Moses stood against a constant onslaught of rebellion and rejection from the people he’d led out of Egypt. They chose, according to their fallen nature, to return to slavery.

Despite the daily opposition that Moses faced, God worked to redeem a people for Himself – and He did. Even today, God works relentlessly to call people to Himself. By grace, Christ continues to build His church – and He is creating His perfect masterpiece using imperfect men and women – young and old, rich and poor, educated and unlearned, from every people and language and social group.

I pray that those who long to see the finished product – when Christ calls His people ultimately and finally into the kingdom of God’s glory – will be satisfied with the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose.

By grace,