Courage To Go On

Courage to Go On

2 Timothy 2:1-13

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend recently sent me some ads which needed proofreading:

Nice parachute. Never opened. Used once.

Nordic Track $300. Hardly used. Call Chubby.

Semi-Annual after-Christmas Sale.

Snowblower for sale. Only used on snowy days.

Stock up and save. Limit one.

Wanted: Man to take care of cow that does not smoke or drink.

Dog for sale: Eats anything and is fond of children.

For sale by owner: complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica 45 volumes. Excellent condition. $1,000 or best offer. No longer needed. Got married last month. Wife knows everything.

Does she really? Does she know the meaning of life? Does she know what really matters? Do any of us?

“Affluenza” is the new term of the day—affluence which afflicts us with its demands, overwork and overstress.

I read this week that 80% of men and 62% of women put in more than 40 hours a week on the job. But all this work is not giving our lives meaning and fulfillment. 60% of Americans feel pressured to work too much; 80% wish for more time to be with their families and themselves.

We’re starting to realize that it’s just not worth it. We’ve climbed to the top of the ladder, only to discover that it’s leaning against the wrong wall.

Then the hard times come. How do you go on in the face of chemotherapy, job loss, single parenting, the divorce of your parents, peer pressure at school, demands which are pulling you apart, the general weariness of life?

It all comes to purpose. You and I will choose to go on in the face of suffering and sacrifice if the goal is worth such cost. When we find the right purpose, a meaning to life which is worth our lives, we’ll pay any price to fulfill it. There, in that purpose, we’ll find the courage to go on.

Let me explain.

Choose to please God

Paul gave his life for a reason, as he wrote this letter from the Mamartine dungeon: “This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal” (vs. 8b-9). Why? “I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they too may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory” (v. 10). Suffering, going on, for a purpose.

Now let’s back up:

“You then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (v. 1). “Be strong” means to keep on being empowered. “Grace” simply means the “unmerited favor,” the power and help which God has given you. Now stand in this strength, not in your own. In his Spirit, in his power, and not your own. And lead others to do the same (v. 2; there’s an entire disciple-making strategy in this one verse).

“Endure hardship” (literally, “take your lumps”) like a good soldier, “to please your commanding officer” (v. 4). The Greek word means the person who enrolled you in the army and has been your leader ever since.

Don’t “get involved in civilian affairs”—the phrase means to get entangled, as when a soldier gets his weapons tangled up in his clothes. “Civilian affairs” keep a soldier from fighting the battle, winning the war. In other words, stay on purpose.

Compete as an “athlete”—the Greek is the word for a professional athlete, not the amateur for whom athletics is merely a hobby. This is to be our full-time work, the passion and focus of our lives.

Do so to “receive the victor’s crown” (v. 5). This is the “stephanos,” the victor’s wreath given to the winner of an athletic contest. Do so according to the “rules;” they related to the training of athletes as well as their competition. Greek athletes had to state on oath that they had fulfilled ten months’ training before they were eligible to enter the contest. Those who wish to run in the Boston Marathon must have a time low enough to make them eligible.

To use a different analogy, sacrifice as a hardworking farmer to “be the first to receive a share of the crops” (v. 6).

Now Paul quotes one of the first hymns in Christian history:

If we “died” with him (the Greek word is a completed action, referring to our salvation experience), we will live with him (present tense, here and now).

If we endure, we will reign with him.

If we “disown” him, he will disown us. Paul refers to a person who claims not to know Christ as Savior and Lord. If we do not accept his salvation, he cannot save us.

But if we are faithless, he is still faithful.

Here’s the summary: God rewards those who fulfill his purpose for their lives.

Here we find the courage to go on: the risen, living, active Christ will reward our faithfulness to his call, both now and in eternity. And he will help us fulfill it. He will give us his power, if we will fulfill his purpose. And we will pay any price, make any sacrifice, because the reward he gives is worth all it costs and more.

When Jesus Christ is real in our lives, we find in his power and reward the courage to go on.

Expect Jesus to help

But here’s the problem for many in our culture: we don’t make our choices as if Jesus Christ has anything to do with them. He’s a figure of history, a fact of our religion, a Sunday topic, but little more. When did you last choose to do something or not, to make a sacrifice or not, based on what Jesus Christ would do personally in response? Why should you?

Last year, I picked up a book whose thesis interested me: The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown. No one had yet heard of it. Its basic idea was that Jesus was a great religious teacher, but only a man. “Christians” of the first centuries all knew this. But Constantine the Great, to unify his empire, in essence deified Jesus in the early 4th century. He and his cohorts purged all the records. And the Roman Catholic Church perpetuated the myth of a divine, crucified and resurrected Savior and Lord. People like Leonardo da Vinci knew the truth, and kept it alive through their paintings and secret society. We can find clues to this truth in these works of art and literature; thus the “da Vinci code.”

There’s more to the book and its heresies, but this will suffice for us today. Now the book has sold 43 million copies, and stayed atop the bestseller lists for months.

How do we know the book is wrong? The Bible you have was created, according to its thesis, by the church centuries after Christ’s life was done, and was written to promote the myth of his divinity. So “the Bible says” is no answer. You believe the contrary, of course; but you’ve inherited the myth. Is there objective reason to reject this thesis and find your courage in the purpose and actions of a risen, living Jesus? Absolutely.

Without citing the New Testament, we know these facts:

In AD 52, Thallus the Samaritan described the darkness of Jesus’ crucifixion; so we know he died on the cross as the Scriptures say.

Tacitus (died AD 120), the greatest Roman historian, states that Jesus died at the hands of Pontius Pilate, as the New Testament says.

Suetonius (died AD 135) writes of the Christians’ faith in Jesus.

In AD 112 the Roman administrator Pliny the Younger described the fact that Christians “sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ as to a god.”

We have letters, books, and fragments from Christian writers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Quadratus, Justin the Martyr) dating to the first century, unanimously teaching that Jesus Christ was and is the risen Lord, the Son of God.

The hypothesis that Jesus was a man deified by Constantine in AD 325 is historically preposterous. Every evidence and source is to the contrary. Everything we know from ancient records tells us that Jesus Christ was believed by Christians to be their risen and living Lord. As he is today.

When we believe that he is alive and real, that he is empowering and rewarding us, everything changes.

Martin Rinkart buried 4,000 people in his city during the Thirty Years War, including several members of his family. That was the year he wrote the hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.”

Terry Anderson, the Christian journalist taken hostage in Lebanon for seven years, wrote of his experience: “We come closest to God at our lowest moments. It’s easiest to hear God when you are stripped of pride and arrogance, when you have nothing to rely on except God. It’s pretty painful to get to that point, but when you do, God’s there.”

When I started my doctoral dissertation, I wrote on an index card the words of Galatians 6:9, “Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we will reap a harvest if we faint not.” That card got me through it.

When I went to Malaysia as a summer missionary, my pastor gave me a devotional book inside which he had written the words, “The will of God never leads where the grace of God cannot sustain.” That sentence got me through the jungles of Borneo.


Where do you need the courage to go on? Ask yourself: is this goal within the plan and purpose of God for my life? He is indeed the risen, living Lord. Has he called you to this Mamartine dungeon? If he has, count on the power and reward of God. If you’re not, do whatever it takes to get into his will, his power, and his reward.

A great violinist was due in a particular city. The newspaper reports written in advance of his concert, however, devoted most of their attention to the original Strativarius violin he would play. The morning of the concert, the local paper even carried a picture of the great instrument. That night the concert hall filled with people, and the musician played at his best. When he concluded, applause thundered.

Then the violinist raised his instrument over his head, and smashed it across his chair. It splintered into a thousand pieces. The audience gasped in shock. The violinist explained: “I read in this morning’s paper how great my violin was. So I walked down the street and found a pawn shop. For ten dollars I bought this violin. I put some new strings on it, and used it this evening. I wanted to demonstrate to you that it’s not the violin that counts most. It’s the hands that hold the violin.”

No matter how smashed your violin may be, the hands that hold it count most. Hold onto those hands, for they are holding onto you.

Gospel Movements and Servant Leaders

Gospel Movements and Servant Leaders:

Changing the Culture for the Kingdom

Dr. Jim Denison

Religious trends in the Western world are not encouraging. According to the latest American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), the number of Americans who describe themselves as “Christian” has dropped from 86% to 76% since 1990. At the same time, the number who says they have “no religion” has nearly doubled to more than 15%. The number who call themselves “atheist” or “agnostic” has quadrupled, and is now almost twice the number of Episcopalians in our country.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently released their “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey.” The survey reports that more than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion, or no religion at all. Among Americans ages 18-29, one in four say they are not affiliated with any religion.

Spiritual trends in Europe are even more troubling. Harris Interactive conducted a large survey of religious beliefs on the Continent. Its results: in Italy, 62% say they believe in “any form of God or any type of supreme being”; in Spain, 48% of the population agrees; in Germany, 41% affirm the existence of “God”; 35% in England and 27% in France concur.

Why is Western spirituality in this condition? How can servant leaders change our culture for God’s Kingdom?

Why do we think the way we do? Explaining the “postmodern” context

The first Christians held a clear and positive view of biblical authority, so that Paul could say that “All scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). Today, nearly half of all Americans say that the Bible, the Qur’an, and the Book of Mormon all teach the same truth. What has caused our shift from objective authority to “relative” truth?

The medieval world

In the generations following apostolic Christianity, the authority structures of the Christian movement shifted from the Bible itself to the Scriptures as they are interpreted by the Church. Ignatius, bishop of Antioch argued for the authority of the bishop over the church and a “college” of bishops as the ruling authority of the universal Church. Irenaeus further identified the Roman Church as the “preeminent authority” in Christendom, with her leaders emanating from Peter and Paul through the bishops who have succeeded them.

Soon (ca. 250) Cyprian of Carthage had separated the “clergy” from the “laity” and made his famous claim, “He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother.” When Constantine made his conversion to Christianity in 312 and subsequently legalized the church, the institutional authority of the Christian movement was clearly defined as the Roman Church and her leadership.

This concept of ecclesiastical authority molded greatly the patristic and medieval concepts of Scriptural authority. As God gave the Scriptures through the Church, so (it was argued) he guided the Church through her leaders to the proper interpretation and application of his word. Creeds, councils, and papal rulings became the means by which the biblical materials were understood and transmitted.

And so the foundation blocks of the modern world were set in place: objective truth and absolute authority structures, centered in the teachings of the Church.

The Reformation project

In shorthand, the Protestant reformers sought to relocate authority with the Scriptures as they are interpreted by the individual believer. Martin Luther made the famous claim, “Only the Holy Scripture possesses canonical authority.” He discounted in turn the claims of magistrates, church councils, church fathers, bishops, and even the pope to authority over the Scriptures. John Calvin agreed: “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scriptures”; “Scripture has its authority from God, not from the church.”

With the reformers’ achievement the Protestant foundation blocks of the modern world were laid: a Bible which possesses objective meaning, theological positions which are certain and true, and Scriptural authority which is final and absolute.

The “modern” mind

While the religious world was experiencing this monumental conflict between ecclesiastical and Scriptural authority structures, the philosophical world was undergoing a struggle equally foundational and far-reaching.

Rene Descartes, a Catholic mathematician with an intense personal need to find foundational truth, sought that truth which he could not doubt. He determined that the existence of the thinking self was the first truth which doubt could not deny. As a result, he defined the human condition as one centered in the autonomous rational process. The “rationalist” worldview followed Descartes’ location of authority within human reason.

The empiricist reaction focused upon personal experience as the true authority for knowledge. John Locke asserted that the mind is born not with innate ideas (the Cartesian system) but as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. David Hume claimed that this empirical method cannot lead to true and certain knowledge. Every belief is derived from an object; our minds connect these objects into patterns on the basis of the appearance of unprovable causal relations. We cannot defend our reason by reason.

Immanuel Kant forged that merger between the rational and the empirical worldviews which organized the foundational building blocks of modernity into their final form. In short, his truce between mind and senses combined both into a larger whole: the senses furnish “raw data” which the mind organizes according to categories within itself, and the result is

“knowledge.” However, according to this system we can have certain knowledge only of the “phenomena” (those objects which are present to the senses of the knower), not of the “noumena” (objects lying beyond sense experience). This distinction would prove to be crucial for the later shift from the “modern” to the “postmodern” world.

With the Kantian synthesis the philosophical foundation stones of the modern world were laid beside the Catholic and the Protestant. In all three, truth is certain and available, and epistemic authority is clear and absolute. Whether authority resides in the Church, the Scriptures, or empirical knowledge interpreted rationally, there is no question in the modern mind about its objective character.

The philosophical problem was this: there exists within the Kantian synthesis a subjective element undetected by most of its contemporary followers. In short, if knowledge is the result of our individual interpretation of our personal sense experience, then in what sense can this knowledge be objective? My sense impressions may be different from yours. My interpretation of this data is personal and subjective as well. Not only can I not know the “noumena” (the “thing-in-itself” which lies beyond my senses), I cannot claim objective authority for my interpretation of the “phenomena,” either.

The first “postmoderns”

First we must consider Friedrich Nietzsche, the “patron saint of postmodern philosophy.” According to this critic of the Christian faith, the world is composed of fragments, each one individual. We construct concepts which rob reality of its diversity and individuality (such as forming the concept “leaf” for leaves, an idea which can never do justice to the diversity of leaves). These concepts or laws are actually illusions or convenient fictions. “Truth” is solely a function of the language we employ and exists only within specific linguistic contexts. It is a function of the internal workings of language itself. The authority structure of the Church, whether centered on the Bible or the Church’s teachings, is therefore unfounded and irrelevant.

Nietzsche’s hermeneutical insights parallel Friedrich Schleiermacher’s earlier theological assertions. According to this “father of theological liberalism,” biblical texts are not systematic theological treatises but reflections of the minds and contexts of their authors. The interpreter must move behind the text to its author’s mind. The work of theology is therefore to “abstract entirely from the specific content of the particular Christian experiences.”

And so an entirely different epistemological foundation began to be laid by Nietzsche and Schleiermacher, one which rejected the objective building blocks of the modern world for a knowledge base centered in subjectivity. In their view, truth is not absolute and objective but relative and individual. Recent philosophers of language would soon finish this foundation and build a new house on it.

Finishing the new foundation

According to Wilhelm Dilthey, hermeneutics functions in a circle. We comprehend language by understanding its words, yet these words derive their meaning only within their holistic context. Objectivity in interpretation cannot be achieved, and should not be desired.

Hans-Georg Gadamer agreed that the interpreter must “fuse the horizons.” Meaning emerges only as the text and interpreter engage in dialogue, a “hermeneutical conversation.” Because each reader will conduct his or her own conversation with the text, objective meaning is obviously impossible.

Ludwig Wittgenstein rejected his earlier language philosophy (built on a scientific, mathematical, positivistic hermeneutic) for a view of language as “game.” Social rules determine the use of words and their meaning. Language is a social phenomenon which derives its meaning from social interaction. Since each “player” works from personal and subjective rules, there can be no objective authority within any speech act.

The “structuralists” further developed the social nature of language. According to Ferdinand de Saussure, language is like a work of music in which we focus on the whole work, not the individual performers of the musicians. As social constructs, texts are developed to provide structures of meaning in a meaningless existence. These structures form the foundation for hermeneutical theory and practice.

The movement known as “deconstructionism” moved even further toward subjectivity: meaning cannot be inherent in a text or speech act, but emerges only as the interpreter enters into dialogue with the author. One significant role of the contemporary interpreter is to deconstruct the modern epistemological structures with their mythical claims to objective authority.

In this century language philosophers have largely discarded the hermeneutical foundations which undergirded speech and faith since the time of Christ. Claims to objective truth and absolute authority have been dismissed, whether their source is the Church, the Scriptures, or interpreted experience. In their place we have seen the construction of a foundation and building called “postmodern.” The implications of this project for Scriptural authority are historic and monumental.

Building a postmodern world

The “postmodern” movement which has resulted from such foundational shifts is still evolving and ill-defined. However, three names stand above the rest in stature and significance: Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Richard Rorty.

Michel Foucault (1926-1984) was the most significant bridge figure from Nietzsche to the postmodern world. He insisted that all language expresses power. There is no objective “world” behind our speech; “truth” is the fictional fabrication by which we seek to make sense of a senseless world.

Jacques Derrida critiques the Enlightenment ontology with the approach known as “deconstructionism.” According to him, there is no fixed or universal reality. Not only can we make no objective claims to knowledge, given the subjective nature of the interpretive process; there is no independent reality to describe. We “create” our own world by speaking of it. Language possesses no fixed meaning and is not connected to a fixed reality. Our words do not carry meaning (“logocentrism”); rather, they create it.

For instance, the device on which I typed this manuscript is either a MacBook Pro, a fancy typewriter, or a strange box which makes annoying clicks, depending entirely on whether I, my grandfather, or my preschool friend is describing it. We cannot get beyond the words to the “reality,” for the words create that reality for us.

Richard Rorty, one of America’s most popular philosophers, completes the postmodern foundation by demonstrating its pragmatic usefulness for our daily lives. Rorty agrees with Foucault and Derrida that language is a matter of human convention, not the mirror of an objective reality. Because no foundational truths or “first principles” exist apart from our linguistic creation of them, we must develop our personal ways of coping with reality as we see it. “Truth” for us is what works for us. Language is therefore to be judged by its pragmatic value, not its supposed representation of objective reality. Language is a tool for interpreting and coping with life.

To sum up, the postmodern worldview is built upon three foundation stones. First, the ontological and epistemological belief that no reality exists independent of the linguistic interpretation of our personal experiences. Second, the linguistic belief that we literally create our own worlds by the speech we employ to describe and interpret these experiences. And third, the pragmatic belief that such language acts, when affirmed as mutually acceptable and equally valuable, forge a community of tolerance and shared, created purpose.

Arguing for truth in a day of subjectivity

What does this evolution in worldview mean for the “ethics of leadership”? Clearly it challenges our understanding of both terms and their significance today.

In the postmodern view, “ethics” are personal, subjective, and relative. There is no such thing as absolute truth. You have no right to force your beliefs on me. So long as we are sincere in our beliefs and tolerant of the beliefs of others, we’ll get along. No objective ethics can be posited or defended.

“Leadership” is equally subjective as a term and category. Since the “will to power” is the basic drive in human nature, leadership all too easily becomes an expression of this power motive. To defend an objective, even biblical view of leadership ethics, first we must defend the notion of objective truth.

First, a philosophical response. Unfortunately, one approach to postmodernism among evangelicals is to accept its foundational beliefs and attempt to build a Christian structure

upon them. This results in an intensely subjective faith which possesses no intrinsic or objective merit for others. Fortunately, there are other ways.

I suggest that the postmodern rejection of objective truth contains within itself the fissures which may lead to its collapse. In brief, if no objective truth exists, how can I accept this assertion as objectively true? According to postmoderns, no statement possesses independent and objective truth. And yet the preceding statement is held to be independently and objectively true. This seems a bit like the ancient skeptics (ca. 500 BC) who claimed, “There is no such thing as certainty and we’re sure of it.”

A second philosophical critique of postmodernism centers in its rejection of objective ethics. Since all ethics are purely pragmatic and contextual, no ethical position can be judged or rejected by those outside its culture. If this be so, then how are we to view events such as the Holocaust? Within the interpretive culture of the Third Reich, Auschwitz and Dachau were pragmatically necessary and purposeful. And yet they stand as the quintessential rejection of the tolerance and inclusion so valued by postmoderns. The postmodern must choose between his insistence on inclusion and his rejection of intolerance. Logically, he cannot have both.

The postmodern rejection of objective biblical authority thus rests upon illogical and mutually contradictory foundational principles. This “apagogic” apologetic (defending one’s position by exposing the weaknesses of its opponents) may prove effective with the postmodern who values logical consistency.

If, however, our postmodern friend simply shrugs her shoulders and says, “So what”? we can turn to a pragmatic response. Here the postmodern rejection of modernity is in our favor. The chief obstacle to faith posed by modernity was its insistence on empirical proof and scientific verification. The postmodern rejects such a materialist worldview, insisting that all truth claims are equally (though relatively) valid. The result is a renewed interest in spirituality unprecedented in our century. While this contemporary spirituality is unfortunately embracing of all alternatives, at least Christianity can function as one of these options.

How can we make an appeal for biblical authority in such a marketplace of spiritual competitors? By reversing the “modern” strategy. In modernity we told our culture, “Christianity is true; it is therefore relevant and attractive.” We invited nonbelievers to accept the faith on the basis of its biblical, objective merits. “The Bible says” was all the authority our truth claims required.

In the postmodern culture we must use exactly the opposite strategy: our faith must be attractive; then it may be relevant; then it might be true (at least for its followers). If we can show the postmodern seeker for spiritual meaning that Christianity is attractive, interesting, and appealing, he will likely be willing to explore its relevance for his life. When he sees its relevance for us, he may decide to try it for himself. And when it “works,” he will decide that it is true for him. He will then affirm the authority of the Scriptures, not in order to come to faith but because he has.

Can such an approach be effective? If we jettison our “truth first” approach to biblical authority and begin by appealing to our culture on the basis of attractive relevance, will we abandon our Scriptural heritage? No–we will return to it.

We live in a postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christian culture. The first Christians lived in a pre-modern, pre-denominational, pre-Christian world. They had no hope of taking the gospel to the “ends of the earth” by beginning their appeal to the Gentiles with biblical authority. The larger Greek world shared the postmodern skepticism of any absolute truth claim, let alone those made on the basis of Hebrew scriptures or a Jewish carpenter’s teachings. And so the apostolic Christians build their evangelistic efforts on personal relevance and practical ministry. The result was the beginning of the most powerful, popular, and far-reaching religious movement in history.

I am convinced that we are now living in a culture more like that of the apostolic Christians than any we have seen since their day. They had no buildings or institutions to which they could invite a skeptical world, and so they went to that world with the gospel. They had no objective authority base from which to work, so they demonstrated the authority of the Scriptures by their attractive, personal relevance. We now live in a day when nonbelievers will not come to our buildings to listen to our appeals on the basis of Scriptural authority. But when we show them the pragmatic value of biblical truth in our lives, ministries, and community, we will gain a hearing.

Postmodernity offers us a compelling opportunity to “remember our future.” To remember the biblical strategies upon which the Christian movement was founded, and to rebuild our ministries on their foundation. To move into our postmodern future on the basis of our premodern heritage.

The challenge of cultural leadership in Dallas, Texas

Jesus tells us that whatever we do for “the least of these,” we do for him (Matthew 25:40). Our compassion for widows and orphans is proof of our “pure and undefiled” commitment to God (James 1:27). If we claim to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:37, 39).

So, who are our neighbors? What needs can we meet in Jesus’ name? Here are some facts regarding Dallas, Texas:


•450,000 school-age children in Dallas County across 600+ schools in 15 districts.

•Just 42% of third graders in Dallas County are reading at or above grade level.

•DISD spends $40,000 per high school graduate, during four years of high school. How is that working for us? Only 4% of high school seniors read at a 12th grade standard; only 1% compete in mathematics at a 12th grade standard.

•21% of Dallas County is illiterate, just two points above the state average. 19% of adult Texans cannot read a newspaper. Texas ranks last in the nation for citizens age 25 and older who have a high school diploma or GED.


•The number of North Texans seeks help from food pantries or soup kitchens each week has risen 80 percent since 2006, to 64,600 a week. Nearly half are children. In fact, 20% of Dallas children live with “food insecurity.”

•Texas ranks next to last among states for hunger and for child hunger.

Financial stability

•29.3% of children in Dallas County, more than 190,000 children total, live in families below the federal income poverty level. Across nine counties of North Texas, the number rises to more than 360,000.

Immigration and opportunity

•44% of the residents in DFW are first or second generation immigrants; the number continues to grow. More than 239 languages are spoken in our city.

•We have nearly 20,000 International students and the largest refugee population in America.

Human trafficking

•Globally, two children are sold into slavery every minute, 1.2 million a year. 79 percent are sold into sexual exploitation; half are children. The average price per slave: $90. They generate annual profits around $32 billion, more than Google’s annual revenue.

•More than 200,000 slaves are working in the U.S.; 17,000 more will be trafficked next year.

•25% of all international victims in America are in Texas.

•There are 6,000 runaways annually in Dallas; one out of three is lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of leaving home. The average age of entry into sex trafficking is between 12 and 13 years old.

Vulnerable children—fatherless and orphans

•There are as many as 210 million orphans around the world.

•10 to 15% commit suicide before they reach the age of 18

•60% of the girls become prostitutes and 70% of the boys become hardened criminals.

Cycle of incarceration

•The Dallas Crime Index indicates that Dallas is in the fourth percentile for safety; 94% of America’s cities are safer than we are. 223 crimes are committed in Dallas per square mile; the national average is 39.

•Dallas operates the seventh-largest jail in America, with an average jail population of over 6,300 inmates and 100,000 per year.

My friend Randel Everett says we have no right to preach the gospel to a hungry person. Do you agree?

Servant leadership in a post-modern context

How can servant leaders make a different for God’s Kingdom in our culture? What are the practical implications of a culture which questions an objective understanding of leadership? My assertion is this: effective leadership today must be transformational rather than positional.

Positional leaders assume an authority derived from their title or place within the organization. Postmodern culture questions all such assumed or inherent authority claims. Transformational leaders, by contrast, earn the right to lead by enabling the organization to achieve its mutually-agreed upon measures of success. Such leaders empower and encourage those they lead, transforming the organization with a culture of community. This approach alone ensures sustained success in our post-modern worldview.

How is transformational leadership achieved?

Choose servant leadership

First, our postmodern culture requires leadership built on relationship and servanthood. Bernard Swain describes the four types of leadership:

•Sovereign: the leader determines both the vision and its implementation

•Parallel: the leader serves the organization as it seeks and fulfills its vision collectively

•Mutual: the leader serves as a member of a team which shares its duties and responsibilities

•Semi-mutual: the leader defines the vision and direction of the organization, then serves its members as they achieve that vision through their own initiatives and efforts.

Our context requires and rewards a semi-mutual leadership style. Effective leaders know and define their passion and that of their organization, then serve and empower its members to fulfill that vision in a collective and collaborative spirit.

Oswald Sanders, in his now-classic Spiritual Leadership, claims that “true greatness, true leadership, is found in giving yourself in service to others, not in coaxing or inducing others to serve you.” Max DePree, the former CEO of Herman Miller and author of bestselling leadership literature, defines leadership:

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant and a debtor. That sums up the progress of an artful leader.

Would those you lead say that you serve them, or that they serve you?

Know your strengths

A collaborative servant leadership style builds mutuality and community. It requires that leaders know their strengths and weaknesses, and be enthusiastic about delegating responsibility and authority to those who complement and supplement their gifts. Peter Drucker, often called the “father of modern leadership theory,” distinguished four personalities needed for the tasks of top management:

•The “thought” person

•The “action” person

•The “people” person

•The “front” person.

Drucker believed that these four temperaments are almost never found in a single person and warned, “the one-man top management job is a major reason why businesses fail to grow.”

A servant leader in postmodern context will celebrate the gifts and passions of those he or she serves in the organization. Who are you empowering and encouraging as they join you in fulfilling your organization’s vision?

Choose personal integrity

The leader’s personal character is foundational to success in a culture which disparages positional authority. Sanders quotes the great military leader Bernard Montgomery: “Leadership is the capacity and will to rally men and women to a common purpose, and the character which inspires confidence.” The second is essential to the first.

Warren Bennis is the University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business Administration and Founding Chairman of The Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California. In 1976 he warned us about the “unconscious conspiracy” in every organization to maintain the status-quo for the future benefits of current participants. The solution is for leaders to empower their followers to fulfill the organization’s collective vision for the benefit of its members and customers. To do so, leaders must embody four critical competencies:

•Management of attention

•Management of meaning

•Management of trust

•Management of self.

In a culture which depreciates leadership by position, it is essential that we earn the right to lead by virtue of our personal character. We cannot ask people to do what we are unwilling to do, or go further than we are willing to lead. What the leader is, the organization becomes.

DePree cites Mahatma Gandhi’s list of the seven sins in the world:

•Wealth without work

•Pleasure without conscience

•Knowledge without character

•Commerce without morality

•Science without humanity

•Worship without sacrifice

•Politics without principle.

Because character is so central to effective leadership today, spiritual formation is now indispensible for leaders. If the members of your organization were as committed to personal integrity as you are, would that be good for your colleagues and customers?


My argument is that the postmodern context challenges positional leadership assumptions, requiring leaders to transform their organization through service, community and integrity. Such leaders enable and empower their followers to achieve mutual goals in an environment of sustained success.

When Allied armies advanced on the North African port of Eritrea during World War II, the fleeing Axis forces did an ingenious thing. They loaded barges with concrete and sank them across the mouth of the harbor, making it impossible for the approaching troops to enter. But the Allies hit on an even more inventive solution. They emptied several gigantic oil tanks, the kind which hold one hundred thousand barrels of oil and more, and sealed them watertight. They attached chains to each of them. Then at low tide their divers attached the other ends of the chains to the barges sitting on the bottom of the harbor. And when the tides rose, their power was so great that they lifted the sealed oil tanks and the cement-filled barges with them. It was then an easy task to dispose of the barges and reopen the harbor.

This power of the tides inspired Shakespeare to pen these immortal words:

There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyages of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

On such a full sea are we now afloat;

And we must take the current when it serves,

Or lose our ventures (Julius Caesar, Act IV, scene II).

If we embrace the challenge of servant leadership in the postmodern tides of our day as transformational leaders who serve, build community and lead by example, we will “take the current when it serves” and become the most effective leaders we can be. May it be so for each of us today.

Suggested reading

•Jack Beatty, The World According to Peter Drucker (New York: The Free Press, 1998).

•Warren Bennis, Why Leaders Can’t Lead: The Unconscious Conspiracy Continues (San Francisco: Josey Bass, 1989).

•James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: HarperCollins, 1978).

•Stephen M. R. Covey, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing That Changes Everything (New York: Free Press, 2006).

•Max DePree, Leadership Is An Art (New York: Dell, 1989).

•James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

•Mac Pier, Consequential Leadership: 15 Leaders Fighting for our Cities, Our Poor, Our Youth and Our Culture (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2012).

•J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994).

•Bernard Swain, Liberating Leadership: Practical Styles for Pastoral Ministry (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986).

•Stephen T. Um and Justin Buzzard, Why Cities Matter: To God, the Culture, and the Church (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2013).

Learning to Live in the Spirit

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Learning to Live in the Spirit:

An introduction to the book of Acts

Dr. Jim Denison

Book of Acts overview

West Texans know the difference between a “flush-pump” well and an “artesian” well. A flush-pump well is drilled down to a water source; the tubing and pump handle are installed; and the handle is pumped until water is forced to the surface. An artesian well is quite different: when it is drilled to the water source, the underground pressure forces the water through the hole to the surface.

Many of us live a flush-pump faith. We pump ourselves up by studying Scripture, praying, attending worship services and religious events, and striving to grow in our faith. But an artesian well faith is possible. We can live in Christ so that his Spirit flows through us in victorious and power-filled daily experience. Who would choose the former when the latter is available to us?

The book of Acts describes Christianity as God intends it to be lived. Here we meet those who laid the foundations upon which the Church has worked to build the Kingdom across more than twenty centuries. These men and women were closest historically to Jesus; many of them walked personally with him in his incarnate ministry. His Spirit used them to initiate the most powerful spiritual movement in human history.

Let’s remember the purposes and priorities which motivated the apostolic Christians. Then we will live in the Spirit and continue the Acts which he empowers.

What is the book of “Acts”?

Who wrote the book?

Nowhere does the book we title “Acts of the Apostles” name its author. But reading the book, we encounter an interesting phenomenon beginning with Paul’s trip west to Macedonia (Acts 16:10-17): the writer describes Paul’s group as “we.” He includes himself in the missionary team again when they moved from Philippi to Troas and Ephesus (20:5-16), on their journey to Jerusalem (21:1-18), and to Rome (27:1—28:16). So in identifying our author, we are looking for a missionary associate of Paul.

We know that Luke the physician was a close companion of the apostle. Paul calls him a dear friend and doctor (Colossians 4:10-14), his “fellow worker” (Philemon 24), and lists him among his companions at the end of his life (2 Timothy 4:11). In addition, early tradition names this doctor as the writer of both Acts and the Gospel of Luke. Irenaeus (ca. A.D. 180) and the Muratorian Canon (end of 2nd century) are among the important historical sources. By the 3rd century, the Church held the unanimous opinion that Luke is the author of our text.

So who was he?

He was not an eyewitness of Jesus’ earthly ministry (cf. Luke 1:1-4, where he states that he interviewed eyewitnesses in preparing his book). He was a man of excellent education; his Greek is the most advanced in the New Testament, and his use of medical terms is unique in the Bible (cf. Acts 3:7, where he describes in medical language the healing of the cripple).

Luke was a Gentile, probably the only Gentile writer in the New Testament (excepting perhaps the author of Hebrews). He makes clear that the gospel is for Gentiles as well as Jews (cf. 2:21; 10:43; 13:46-48; 15:16-18; 28:28). He shows God’s care for all persons in need (cf. the beggar of ch. 3, Cornelius in ch. 10, the sailors of ch. 27). Women are important to him and to the Kingdom (cf. Dorcas, 9:36-42; Lydia, 16:11-15).

He wrote to a world filled with skeptics against his faith. For instance, Tacitus, the greatest Roman historian wrote (A.D. 118), “The Christians got their name from one Christus, who was executed by the sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilatus when Tiberius was emperor; and the pernicious superstition was checked for a short time, only to break out afresh—not only in Judea, the home of the plague, but in Rome itself, where all the horrible and shameful things of the world collect and find a home” (Annals 15.44).

In a very real sense, Luke is more like us than any other biblical writer. We are not eyewitnesses to the incarnate Christ; we are Gentiles; we live in a world of modern education; we work in a global economy and share universal concerns; and we face a skeptical culture. The God who used Luke’s work to change his world will use ours in the same way, if we learn to live in the Spirit as he did.

How was Acts written?

The traditional title of our book, “Acts of Apostolic Men” or “Acts of the Apostles,” was given to the work in the mid-second century. The original text, as with all the book of the Bible, was untitled. This title is not entirely accurate—only four apostles are mentioned in the narrative (James, 12:2; John, though he never speaks; Peter; and Paul, the primary figure from ch. 13 forward). A much better title is “Accts of the Holy Spirit.”

The book, like the Gospel of Luke, is dedicated to “Theophilus” (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1). His name means “lover of God,” but his identity is otherwise unknown. He may have been a Christian whose given name Luke wishes to keep secret for protection. He might have been a high government official whom Luke wrote in attempting to defend Christians against persecution. It is possible that he was Luke’s former master (doctors were often slaves). Perhaps Theophilus released Luke, and the physician wrote and dedicated this book and his Gospel to him in appreciation. Or he may have been Luke’s financial sponsor for his project.

The unidentified recipient of the book makes the narrative even more universally relevant. You and I are not Romans or Philippians; no book of the Bible was written specifically to us. But if we are a “lover of God,” this book is for us.

The book seems dependent upon the Gospel of Mark, and thus would have been written after A.D. 45. It does not record Paul’s death, which occurred before Nero’s demise in A.D. 68. Tradition places the origin of the book at Antioch, Paul’s headquarters. But Rome is possible, as the book ends there, as is Ephesus, a major focus of the narrative.

What is Acts about?

The spread of the gospel: The theme of the book comes early. Jesus’ now-familiar final words before his ascension command his followers: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Luke’s narrative therefore describes the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, the “ends of the earth.”

Six key phrases trace the progress of the gospel and serve as turning points in the story:

The Jerusalem section ends, “The word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem; and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith” (6:7).

The Palestine and Samaria section ends, “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was built up; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it was multiplied” (9:31).

The Gentile extension to Antioch and Cornelius ends, “The word of God grew and multiplied” (12:24).

The extension through Asia Minor and Galatia ends, “So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” (16:5).

The extension to Europe ends, “So the word of the Lord grew and prevailed mightily” (19:20).

The extension to Rome ends with Paul “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (28:31).

The defense of the gospel: Luke wrote his narrative not only to show how the Kingdom spread from Palestine to Rome, but also to defend the truths that Kingdom proclaims. At least six attacks against the Christian faith can be identified and refuted in the narrative:

The delay in Jesus’ return is explained by the coming of his Spirit (ch. 2).

The ethics of the Christian community are vindicated from accusation (2:42-47; 4:32-35).

The innocence of Christian leaders is vindicated before their accusers (cf. 4:1-22).

The integrity of Saul/Paul is made clear before the Jews (cf. his conversion in ch. 9).

The divine call to the Gentiles is substantiated (chs. 10-11, 15).

The inherent logic of the gospel is demonstrated before Greek philosophers (17:16-34).

The explanation of the gospel: Luke wrote his narrative to defend Christians against their enemies, but also to develop Christians in their own faith commitments. Six theological themes dominate his description of Spirit-filled faith.

First, God’s historical purposes will be fulfilled.

The events of Acts occur by his will (cf. 2:23; 4:27-29).

The life of the church fulfills Scripture: the coming of the Spirit (2:17-21); the mission to the Gentiles (13:47); the incorporation of the Gentiles into the Church (15:16-18).

The life of the church is directed by God: the Spirit speaks to us (13:2; 15:28; 16:6); angels speak to Christian leaders (5:19); the Lord himself appears to his servants (18:9; 23:11).

The power of God is seen in signs and wonders performed in Jesus’ name (3:16; 14:3).

Second, God’s message will be proclaimed:

Christ fulfilled the Scriptures (2:16-21).

Christ is accredited by miracles (2:22).

He was crucified and resurrected (2:23-24).

He is Lord and Christ (2:25-36).

He saves all who call on him (2:37-41).

Third, God’s ministry will be discharged:

Jerusalem (1:1—8:3).

Judea and Samaria (8:4—12:25).

The “uttermost parts of the earth” (13:1—28:31).

Fourth, the Church will succeed despite opposition (“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” 14:22):

Mockery at Pentecost (ch. 2).

Corruption of Ananias and Sapphira (ch. 5).

Martyrdom of Stephen (ch. 7).

The church persecuted and scattered (8:1-4).

Peter imprisoned and released by the angel (ch. 12).

Sorcerer Bar-Jesus (13:6-12).

Common rejection by Jewish leaders (cf. 13:44-47).

Numerous attempts on Paul’s life (cf. 14:5-6, 19-20; 17:1-9; 19:23-41).

Paul imprisoned (cf. 16:16-40).

The gospel rejected by the Greeks (17:16-34).

Paul arrested in Jerusalem (21:27ff).

Paul rejected by the people and leaders (chs. 22-28).

Paul shipwrecked (27:13-44).

The book ends with Paul under arrest (28:30-31).

Fifth, Gentiles are included among the people of God:

All are included in salvation (2:21).

Gentiles are accepted by the Father (chs. 10-11, 15).

All races and societies are reached through missionary journeys (chs. 13-20).

The gospel is preached in Rome itself (ch. 28 fulfills 9:15).

Sixth, the Church is living and active:

The Holy Spirit is active (throughout the book).

The people are united in ministry (cf. 2:42-47; 4:32-37).

The Lord blesses his people with continued growth and progress (cf. 2:47).

How can we live in the Spirit today?

Elton Trueblood, the great Christian philosopher, believed that every successful organization has a passion, a philosophy, and a program. I’m convinced he is right. So were the first Christians. Let’s close today’s study by remembering their passion, philosophy, and program, and making them ours.

Our passion: growing the Kingdom of God

Jesus began his public ministry with this proclamation: “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). He ended his earthly ministry with the same theme and passion: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). The kingdom of God was his focus and passion. It must be ours as well.

The kingdom comes wherever God’s will is done, on earth as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). When we make God our King and ourselves his subjects, we enter his Kingdom. Such a commitment is the theme of our church all across this year. It must the passion of our hearts in every year.

We exist to bring as many people into God’s kingdom as we can. This is the passion which the Holy Spirit honors and empowers. It must be the purpose of our hearts in this new year, if we would know the Spirit’s power and help.

Our philosophy: making members into ministers

Jesus’ last words to his church promised his power to fulfill this passion: “You will receive power after the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). God’s people must seek his purpose to have his power.

There is no clergy/laity distinction in the word of God. “You” in Jesus’ command is plural, including every one of his followers. Every believer has gifts of the Spirit to be used in ministry. To the degree that we find and follow our calling, we will fulfill God’s purpose and have his power.

Our program: meeting needs in Jesus’ name

Our Lord closed his command with a clear program: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8b). In Jerusalem, where they were; then spreading into the neighboring regions, then into the entire world. They would take the good news of God’s love wherever they could. They would meet the needs they found, whether for physical healing or spiritual truth. And they would use those needs to proclaim Jesus’ name and grace.

Every Christian knows someone with a need, a hurt, a problem. See that need as an opportunity for ministry. Go to that hurting heart with a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name. Start where you are, and go where God directs. And you’ll continue the spread of the Kingdom which began in the book of Acts, until our Lord returns.


Much about the future is uncertain today. The war against terrorism continues; the global economy, while making progress, will always be cause for concern; some of our family members and friends are seeking work, and many are hurting physically, vocationally, financially, and relationally.

We can live a flush-pump Christian faith, getting by from day to day and problem to problem. Or we can live an artesian Christian victory, filled and empowered by the Spirit each day. If we make God’s passion, philosophy, and program their own, we will help those we influence experience the power of God’s Spirit. We can give no greater gift.

Making Loneliness Your Friend

Making Loneliness Your Friend

2 Timothy 1:13-18

Dr. Jim Denison

A man who felt constantly dominated by his wife went to see a psychologist, who gave him a book on assertiveness. He read it and then drove home, pointed his finger at his wife, and said, “I want you to know that from now on, I’m in charge around here. First you’re going to cook me a delicious dinner. Then you’re going to make me a sumptuous dessert. Then you’ll draw my bath so I can relax. Then, guess who’s going to lay out my clothes and comb my hair?” She replied, “The mortician?” The man then needed our topic today.

This morning, I want to talk with you about loneliness.

Less than 4% of US mail is personal cards and letters.

James Lynch, a medical researcher at Johns Hopkins Hospital, is convinced that loneliness is the number one killer in America, the primary factor in deaths due to heart attacks and cancer. We look self-sufficient and happy, all the while being stung to death by loneliness.

This epidemic is only getting worse. Glenn Cartwright, a researcher with McGill University, warns that the Internet makes it possible for us to develop our own parallel identity. We can choose a body, gender, and role through chat rooms, Instant Messaging, and games which are amazingly real. He concludes: “The twenty-first century may well be the century of technologically induced disaffection, characterized by an increased sense of loneliness, alienation, [and] powerlessness.”

I read through several books on our subject this week. The best definition of “loneliness” I found was this: loneliness is “the feeling of not being meaningfully related.” It’s not the same thing as being alone—you can feel lonely in a crowd, sometimes more so. It’s feeling that you’re not “meaningfully related” to people, to enough people, to the right people.

It’s a feeling we all face. Every one of us, more than we know. Let’s try to understand the problem, then find ways to live with it in hope.

Understand loneliness

Erich Fromm, the eminent counselor, once wrote: “The deepest need of man …is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness…. Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions…. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome…. Man overcomes his conscious despair by the routine of amusement, the passive consumption of sounds and sights offered by the amusement industry; furthermore by the satisfaction of buying ever new things, and soon exchanging them for others.”

Fromm wrote those words in 1967, before the Vietnam War came to its bitter end; before Watergate; before September 11. Today sociologists describe our society as “cocooned,” withdrawn into ourselves more than ever before in human history. Gone is the front porch—no one even builds them on houses anymore. Gone is the evening stroll with the neighbors. Gone are extended families—most are scattered across the country and beyond. In their place, 25% of the populace experiences acute loneliness at any given time, and nearly all of us face it with regularity.


Loneliness starts early: as infants we feel unwanted, even though we are. Every time we are left alone when we want to be picked up from the crib, or the babysitter, we become afraid. Afraid of being alone.

By adolescence, our greatest fear is that others will not like us. That’s why we dress to conform, act to conform, and are more concerned with who “likes” who than anything else in our lives. We fear being unpopular above all else, and learn not to risk loving people or seeking their love. We’d rather be lonely.

As adults, we learn that we are what others think of us—of our performance, appearance, possessions. We learn to fear their rejection above all else. We are afraid to love and seek love, because we may be rejected. Then our children grow up and move away, and we feel less needed. We grow still older, and it seems that the world knows us or needs us even less. And our loneliness grows.

At the root of it all, we believe that we are not worthy of love. Not really. People may like us, appreciate us, need us, use us, but we don’t deserve to be loved. And so we make ourselves lonely as a result.

People turn to technology and the Internet to find companionship. Or to pornography to fantasize that they are wanted. Or to drugs or alcohol to dull the pain and find people who share our problem. Or clubs, social groups, sports teams, hobbies, churches to avoid loneliness. But we can be lonely in a crowd—some of you are this morning.

What do we do? Our text offers us steps which are so simple, every one of us can take them today.

See yourself as God sees you (vs. 13-14)

First, we seek our worth in God. One of our Father’s names in Hebrew is “Jehovah-Shammah,” which means “the God who is there.” He is.

What you have heard from Paul, and from the rest of the biblical revelation, keep as the pattern of sound teaching (v. 13). Believe that it is true. Believe that Jesus died on the cross to pay for your sins and failures. Believe that nothing can separate you from his love. Believe that he loves you without condition, that he has forgiven every sin you’ve confessed to him, that he’s on your side. Have “faith and love in Christ Jesus.”

Then “guard” this “good deposit that was entrusted to you” (v. 14a). “Guard” means to protect it, to preserve it from all thieves and attack. See yourself as God sees you, his created child, one died for by his Son. No matter what the world says you are.

Do this “with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us” (v. 14b). When you are tempted to believe the lies of your world, that you are what you do, how you look, what people think of you, that you are not worthy of loving and being loved, go to the Holy Spirit. Ask God for his help and power. Seek his strength, and it is yours.

Find your identity not in your reputation, or popularity, or circumstances. Not in how you feel about yourself, or think others feel about you. Find it in the rock-solid, unchanging fact that you are the loved child of the God of the universe.

Transform loneliness into solitude (v. 15)

Next, choose to transform loneliness into solitude. You can expect to feel lonely at times of grief, sickness, or failure. You can expect to face rejection, as Paul did (v. 15; 4:9-11a). Moses spent 40 years away from home in the wilderness; David wandered the Judean hills alone; Paul spent three years by himself after his Damascus Road experience. Jesus often prayed alone, and he died alone. Expect to be alone at times, and to feel lonely.

Then choose to redeem your loneliness, to turn it into the spiritual joy of solitude.

Thomas Merton, in Thoughts on Solitude: “The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness…comes to know the invisible companionship of God.”

Henri Nouwen adds: “To live a spiritual life, we must first find the courage to enter into the desert of loneliness and to change it by gentle and persistent efforts into the garden of solitude.”

Paul Tillich was right: “Loneliness can be conquered only by those who can bear solitude.”

How do we transform loneliness into solitude?

We use the time alone to be with God. To listen to his Spirit and his Scriptures, to “keep” and “guard” them with the help of the Holy Spirit.

We make time to meditate with our Father. Get alone with God in his creation if you can. Ask him to speak to you through nature, through some event in your life or the world.

Pick a verse and experience it; imagine yourself in it; feel it and live through it. Imagine yourself, for instance, as Paul in the Mamartime dungeon. Feel the cold, clammy walls, the rough floor, the handcuffs chafing your wrists as you write this letter. Taste the gruel you’re given for food. Smell what it must have been like. And know that if God could give a prisoner in such a place a book of his Holy Scriptures, he can speak to you.

So listen. Worship. Pray. Be still and know that he is God. His word urges us: “Come near to God and he will come near to you” (James 4:8). Choose to make your loneliness into solitude with your Father. And his presence will comfort your lonely heart.

Be the presence of Christ (vs. 16-18)

Now, what if you’re not in the prison of loneliness with Paul? You know someone who is. Be the presence of Christ to that person.

“Onesiphorus” meant “profitable.” Here is a man who took his life into his own hands, identifying with a prisoner on death row, following the same faith which would lead to Paul’s death. And his grace meant the world to the greatest apostle in Christian history.

Every one of us is either Paul or we are Onesiphorus. Either you need someone in your loneliness, or you know someone who needs you. Ironically, the more we offer others our presence, the more we find comfort in our loneliness as well. As we love, we are loved. As we offer grace, we find it. As we serve, we are served.


Mother Teresa believed that loneliness is the greatest epidemic in America. If it has found you, choose to see yourself as God sees you—worthy of loving and being loved. Turn your loneliness with solitude, and find in your Father his love for your hurting soul. And be his presence, his hand, his grace to the Paul you know.

A nurse writes: “It was a busy morning when an elderly gentleman arrived to have stitches removed from his thumb. He told me he was in a hurry, as he had an appointment at 9 a.m.. While taking care of his wound, I asked him if he had a doctor’s appointment this morning, as he was in such a hurry. He told me no, that he needed to go to the nursing home to eat breakfast with his wife.

“I then asked about her health. He told me that she had been there for a while, and was an Alzheimer’s patient. As I finished dressing his wound, I asked if she would be worried if he was a bit late. He replied that she had not recognized him in five years.

“I was surprised and said, ‘And you still go every morning, even though she doesn’t know who you are?’ He smiled, patted my hand, and said, ‘She doesn’t know me, but I still know who she is.’ I had to hold back tears as he left and I thought, ‘That is the kind of love I want in my life.'”

You have that love in your life. His hand is nail-scarred. Take it today. Give it tomorrow. And you’ll make loneliness your friend.

Power from Heaven!

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Power from Heaven!

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 2, Ephesians 5:18

Robert Louis Stevenson, then a child of six or seven years, was standing at his window one night watching a lamplighter at work. One by one, the man would light the streetlamps as he walked down the road. Young Stevenson watched with fascination. His nurse asked what he was doing. The little boy answered, “I am watching a man making holes in the darkness.”

We need holes in the darkness today, don’t we? Terrorist threats continue; airline flights are changed or cancelled as a result of homeland security issues; presidential campaigns always bring a certain level of uncertainty to the future. Many are still in need of employment; hurting hearts and homes are on every side. Where do you most need a touch from God today? Where do your class members most need to feel his grace?

The light we need is available to us. In fact, every believer already possesses all the power and help of God. What the Holy Spirit did for the first Christians, he is waiting to do for us. Let’s learn to make your class and each heart the Upper Room this week.

Receive God’s Spirit (vs. 1-4)

Here’s the situation. Jesus’ followers number around 120, in a hostile world of more than 25 million. The very people who executed Jesus are now the enemies of his followers. What they did to him, they stand ready to do to them. Yet Jesus has charged them with reaching that hostile world in its entirety—all 25 million. One third of our world claims to follow Jesus. .0006% of their world did.

If we were in their shoes, we’d be doing something. We’d organize strategies, start ministries, plan programs, do all we could. They knew better.

“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all in one place” (v. 1). Pentecost was the 50th day after the Passover Sabbath. Jews from around the world were crowded into Jerusalem for the religious holiday.

Meanwhile, Jesus’ church was crowded into a single room. Where and why? Earlier Jesus had assured them that when he left, his Father would send another Counselor to them, the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). Then he promised them, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Before his ascension, their Master told them one last time to wait in Jerusalem for the “gift” of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4).

And so they risked their lives to meet in an upper room of a Jerusalem house. First-century houses were often constructed with a large second-floor room which was used for meals and guests. It was cooler than the first floor, with windows open to the sky, and could accommodate a large number of people. Perhaps twenty were gathered in this setting (cf. Acts 1:13-15).

Here they prayed constantly for God’s protection and his Spirit’s power. For one long week, after Jesus’ ascension until the day of Pentecost came. Despite their differences, and the persecution which threatened their very lives, they prayed with one heart and spirit.

And God kept his word. “Suddenly” (immediately, without warning, unexpectedly) a sound like the blowing of a “violent” (turbulent, stormy, threatening) wind came from heaven (v. 2). It filled the entire house where they were meeting together. Jesus had earlier likened the Spirit to the wind (John 3:8). Both are more powerful than human strength, able to overwhelm us instantly. Both are unseen but very real. Neither can be produced or predicted. And both are essential to life.

Next “what seemed to be tongues of fire” came from heaven, then “separated and came to rest on each of them” (v. 3). Fire is a consistent metaphor for the holiness and presence of God (“Our God is a consuming fire,” Hebrews 12:29, quoting Deuteronomy 4:24). John the Baptist had predicted that Jesus “would baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matthew 3:11). The prophet Joel had earlier predicted such an event (2:28-29), a promise Peter would soon quote (Ac. 2:16ff).

These “tongues of fire” were emblematic of the anointing and empowering of God. And they came to rest “on each of them” (Ac. 2:3b), showing that each believer would be equally and similarly empowered. No clergy/laity distinction here!

Here was the result: “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (v. 4). “Filled” means to be influenced by, to be controlled. It does not refer to quantifiable experience, but to a yielded and submitted life. We will meet this word again today.

Note that “all of them” had this experience. Again, each believer was empowered by the same Holy Spirit. Now each of them “began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” This is not a reference to the “gift of tongues” or ecstatic prayer language described by Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:28-30; 14:1-19). A comparison of the two experiences makes their differences clear:

At Pentecost, all experienced these “tongues”; at Corinth, not all did (Paul’s question is literally translated, “All do not speak in tongues, do they?” 1 Cor 12:30).

At Pentecost, no interpreters were necessary (“we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” Acts 2:11); at Corinth, tongues were not to be used in public without an interpreter (1 Corinthians 14:27-28).

At Pentecost, the people recognized the “tongues” of the disciples as their own languages (Acts 2:11); at Corinth, the “tongues” used were not capable of human understanding (1 Corinthians 14:2).

In short, the Holy Spirit enabled the Pentecost believers to witness to their faith in the languages of those who had gathered in Jerusalem for the feast. It is no more true to say that we must speak in “unknown” tongues to have the Spirit than it is true to say that we must each witness immediately to our neighbors when the Spirit enters our lives.

The point of the passage is not the disciples’ witnessing in languages they had not previously learned, but the Spirit who enabled such ministry. The Pentecost gift was not their language, but the Holy Spirit. Previously, the Spirit would come “on” individuals for specific acts and times of service (cf. Samson’s experience, Judges 14:19). Now, after Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection, the Spirit is able to dwell “in” us. He came into the lives of God’s people at Pentecost, and dwells in us eternally.

As a result, we are the temple of God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17); the Spirit enters us at salvation and never leaves (Romans 8:9). If you have made Christ your Lord, you have his Spirit. Does his Spirit have you?

Yield to the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18)

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). He can still do in our lives all that he did in his earthly ministry and his first church. If you and your class have not experienced his power recently in life-changing ways, perhaps the explanation is that you have not done what his word asks of us. Ephesians 5:18 is our key: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Before we continue exploring the Pentecost experience, let’s learn how to make it our own.

First, receive the Holy Spirit in salvation. Be sure that your class members have invited Christ to be their personal Savior and Lord. You will give them no greater gift than the assurance of their eternal salvation.

Second, admit that you need the Spirit’s power. Not just his salvation, but his power. A carpenter knows that his drill needs power. Do you know that your church and your life needs God’s power as well? The Lord’s word is clear: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Zechariah 4:6). Paul adds, “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4:20). We cannot change lives without the power of the Spirit at work through us. We can do nothing eternal or significant unless he does it. And God will not do for us that which we try to do for ourselves. Self-reliance is the cardinal sin against spiritual power.

Third, be cleansed from all that hinders the Spirit. A carpenter can connect his drill to a socket and still have no power, if the plug is corroded. The plug must be clean for the power to flow.

In the same way, we are seeking the power of the Holy Spirit, and he cannot fill and control a dirty vessel. He cannot give his power with a dirty plug. We must be clean first. 2 Chronicles 7.14 is clear: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” If we confess, God will forgive. If we are clean, God will move in power.

Are you willing to be cleansed from everything which hinders the Holy Spirit in your life? Then take a moment for a moral inventory. Write on a sheet of paper anything which is hindering the Spirit in your life. If you’re not sure, ask him and he’ll show you. Confess these sins specifically to God, and claim his cleansing. Cleanse the “plug” and you will know the power.

Last, ask the Spirit to control and empower your life. A carpenter’s drill doesn’t have to do this, for it has no will. But we do. And we must ask the Spirit to control and empower us, before he will.

Will you do this, right now? In prayer, simply ask the Spirit to take control of your life, your mind, your time, your abilities. Surrender your will to him. Promise to obey him wherever he leads you.

And believe that he has. Nowhere does the Bible describe how it “feels” to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Some will feel something unusual; others will not. I seldom do. The proof is in the results, not the feeling. So step out in faith, believing that the Spirit has empowered you, for he has.

And do this daily. The literal Greek is, “Be continually being filled.” Whenever sin corrodes your relationship with him, confess it and claim cleansing. Then reconnect with the Spirit. Stay in communion with him all through the day—stay “plugged in.”

As you do, remember that God empowers us according to his purpose for us. The Holy Spirit never empowered a Christian in the Book of Acts except to make him or her a more effective witness. If we are not willing to share Christ, we will not have the power of the Spirit. If we are, we will. Make this your daily experience. No disciple is as crucial to spiritual success as this.


Dwight Moody preached to over one hundred million souls in his ministry. He founded what became Moody Bible College, and was widely considered one of the godliest men in America. His prayers have been recorded and published; his passion for the lost was legendary. And yet Moody often said of his own soul, “I am a leaky bucket, and I need to be refilled daily.” If he needed this, so do I. Do you?

Does God still move? Can we see “Book of Acts miracles” today? Can some of us be the next Paul, Barnabas, Peter, Lydia? Can we make holes in the darkness today? The answer is up to us, isn’t it?

Power from Heaven! (Part 2)

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Power From Heaven! (Part 2)

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 2

In late 1966, Herb Kelleher, John Parker, and Rollin King met at San Antonio’s St. Anthony Club to talk about the need for an air carrier in Texas. Their idea was simple: to connect Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. The result is the most profitable airline in aviation history. But their cause was their real genius: to make air travel affordable for people who could not otherwise fly. That cause is the reason Southwest Airlines is still the leading low fare airline, and that cause is their passion and purpose for being. From the chief executive to baggage handlers, their cause is their corporation. They do nothing which does not fulfill this objective and purpose.

God’s people should be even more passionate about fulfilling his purpose for our lives and our church. But we are distracted by every other priority the world can manufacture. The members of your class are tempted by every definition of success imaginable. It is the typical pattern of fallen human beings to seek God’s help with our agendas, our dreams and goals. But he will honor and empower only that which accomplishes his will. No loving father could encourage his children to do that which is to their harm.

Our Father wants his will for our lives, because that will is for our best and his glory.

The first Christians learned at Pentecost that God’s power is intended to fulfill God’s purpose and no other. Let’s learn how to experience that same power as we fulfill that same purpose.

Seize the opportunity at hand (vs. 5-12)

Immediately upon experiencing the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the first Christians found themselves in one of the most exciting ministry opportunities described anywhere in Scripture. Jews from all over the Empire gathered each year in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost; the universal Roman roads and peace made such travel especially plausible in the first century of the Christian movement.

And so the disciples found themselves face to face with people groups from fifteen different countries or locales. The peoples listed in vs. 8-11 spanned the known world, from Rome to the west to the Parthian Empire and Arabia to the east. The first Christians would have spent years in travel to speak to the same people who were now gathered at their doorstep (v. 5).

Making things even easier, the crowd “came together” because they heard the sound of the Spirit’s movement upon the disciples (v. 6a), and “each one heard them speaking in his own language” (v. 6b). The work of the Spirit created an event through which the Spirit could work. Charles Finney, the 19th century revivalist, was right: “When the church is on fire, people will come from miles around to watch it burn.”

The gathering crowds were shocked. They knew the disciples to be Galileans (v. 7), people with their own distinct language and dialect. But now these “country folk,” never known for educational interest, had somehow learned the native dialects of each of the people gathered from across the world. The crowds’ astonishment knew no bounds: “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (v. 11). And so they wondered to each other, “What does this mean?” (v. 12).

The language miracle of Pentecost was perhaps not primarily one which enabled the crowds to understand the speech of the disciples. Each of the groups listed would know the Aramaic which was native to Palestine; Greek was a common language understood across the world as well. Nowhere else do we find Paul or other missionaries unable to communicate God’s word because of language barriers, for the Aramaic and Greek they spoke was universally useful.

Rather, this was a work of the Spirit which made clear the miraculous nature of the Christian faith. The disciples could suddenly speak in the native dialects of the people, endearing themselves instantly to their audiences. They could build immediate emotional bridges and connections to the hearts of those they sought to win. And they could demonstrate an ability beyond the human, showing the divine nature of their message. Imagine that a bilingual American whose native language was Russian were to attend your class, and suddenly you could speak to her in her first language. This miracle would not be necessary to communicate the truth of Scripture so much as to demonstrate its divine nature through you.

The Spirit-filled disciples began to fulfill Acts 1:8 in the part of Jerusalem where they found themselves. You and I will always know someone who needs to know Jesus. There is a neighbor, colleague, or family member who represents our first mission field. Baptists have historically defined missions as crossing a cultural, language, or geographic barrier to share the gospel. But we are learning better: missions begins with the next lost person you meet.

Charles Spurgeon, the greatest of all Baptist preachers, was once speaking on personal evangelism. A fireman afterwards told Spurgeon that he didn’t know where to begin such ministry. Spurgeon asked the man if his captain was a believer; the fireman thought he probably was not. So Spurgeon concluded, “Begin today, with him.” Seize the opportunity at hand. Where will you begin this day? This week?

Anticipate reactions (vs. 12-41)

Human nature does not change, making the word of God perennially relevant. This fact also enables us to predict typical responses to that word. The first crowds to hear the gospel from Christian disciples demonstrated exactly the same reactions you and I can expect from those with whom we share the good news today.

Some will be confused (v. 12). The gospel will not be “good news” but “new news.” Only 2% of Americans are afraid they might go to hell; the vast majority thinks a Christian is a good person who believes in God. I do not know a single individual who has understood fully the Christian gospel and chosen to reject it. Typically our friends and neighbors refuse a pseudo-gospel, a message which convinces them that Christianity is about joining a church and practicing a religion. When we share the actual definition of a Christian, many will be confused and need help with understanding.

Others will be critical: “Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine'” (v. 13). The festival of Pentecost often involved feasting and wine (though Jews would not break their religious fast until 10:00 that morning). And so some critics assumed that the strange speech they heard from these Galileans was the result of intoxication of spirits rather than the Spirit. People will always be down on whatever they’re not up on. You and I can expect some to criticize our faith and message.

Some will be convicted: “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” (v. 37). The Spirit alone can bring conviction of sin and transformation of heart. When we speak as he directs us, he will always use our words in the hearts which are open to his truth. You may or may not see such a response immediately, but it is always real in someone’s soul.

And some will be converted: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (v. 41). Of those who are convicted of their sins, many will take the next step to accept the truth we share. And then the Holy Spirit who uses us will bring them into our faith family, and they will join us in the work of the Kingdom.

Many of us approach ministry and evangelism as though we are on trial; the person to whom we speak is the prosecutor, and we are trying to defend ourselves against his criticism and antagonism. In fact, the Lord Jesus is on trial. The Holy Spirit is the defense attorney; Satan is the prosecutor; the person to whom you speak is the jury. A witness is a person called to the stand to share what he or she has experienced personally.

The verdict is not up to you. You may be the last witness in the courtroom, and learn how the jury decided. You may be the first witness called, and never hear how the trial ended. You may be somewhere in between. But no matter—your job is simply to tell what you know. The healed blind man is my favorite witness in Scripture: “One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25).

Build a bridge to Christ (vs. 16-36)

In the power of the Spirit, it is your job and mine simple to share what we know of Christ with those we meet and know. Where do we begin? With what they already know. Jesus met the woman at the well, so he asked for water. He found a man born blind, so he healed his eyes. He fed the crowds because they were hungry.

Paul quoted the Greek philosophers when he spoke to Greek philosophers (Acts 17); he quoted the Old Testament when he spoke to Jewish synagogues. Start with common ground. Find a place where you share a belief or experience, and begin there.

In this case, Peter knew that his crowd was composed of observant Jews, passionate enough about their faith to travel great distances to take part in Pentecost. And so he began with the Scriptures they would all know and accept. He got their attention, and rebutted the charge of drunkenness (vs. 14-15). Then he quoted Joel’s great promise that when the Messiah came and the “last days” began, the Spirit would fall on “all people” (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-21).

The Jews divided time into the “former days” before the Messiah’s advent, and the “latter days” after his coming. And so this Pentecost coming of the Spirit was proof that Jesus of Nazareth really was the Messiah of God. Joel’s prediction legitimized the personal ministry of Jesus’ disciples, and made clear its divine origin.

Now Peter turned from the promise to its fulfillment, explaining clearly what Jesus had accomplished with his life, death, and resurrection (vs. 22-23). He staked everything on the resurrection, for it alone proved Jesus’ divinity (v. 24). And he used David’s psalms with their predictions of such a resurrection as proof that Easter fulfilled the word of the Lord (vs. 25-35). With this conclusion: “let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and God” (v. 36).

Peter’s method can be reproduced by any of us who are willing:

Find a spiritual truth you share in common with the person you are seeking to win to Christ. Perhaps it is a mutual appreciation for the beauty of nature and grandeur of the cosmos, or shared frustration with the sinful nature of our culture and society. Perhaps you have felt the same kind of hurt this person is now facing. Find a place where you and this person share similar beliefs or experiences.

Explain how Jesus has touched this need or experience in your life. If you’re speaking with a person in grief, share how Jesus helped you through a time of loss. If you’re hiking in the woods with a friend, show how the order of creation demonstrates an ordered Creator, and share a way Jesus has brought order to your life. People may disagree with your beliefs, but they will be interested in your story.

Present the essential facts of Jesus’ life and work. Most Americans do not understand what he did, or why he did it.

Use the resurrection to demonstrate his uniqueness and divinity. New Testament writers and ancient Roman and Jewish historians are agreed: Jesus of Nazareth was crucified under Pontius Pilate, and buried in a tomb. On the third day, that tomb was empty; the first Christians believed Jesus to be raised from the dead. We know these facts without opening a New Testament. And there is no explanation for the empty tomb except Easter.

Invite the person to meet this risen Lord personally.

Encourage to personal faith (vs. 37-41)

Some will always respond to God’s word as it is made clear by God’s Spirit at work through us. When they do, we must call them to repentance and faith (v. 38).

Peter’s words have confused many and led some to the conviction that baptism is essential to salvation: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” But the phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” is better translated in this context, “because your sins have been forgiven.” We are not baptized to become Christians, but because we already are.

Nowhere does the Bible teach that baptism (or any other work) is essential to salvation. Rather, our salvation comes only by God’s grace through our faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). A typical American response to the gospel is to trade faith for works. If we are good people and believe in God, such works must be enough. Or, if we have been baptized and attend church, we must be Christians.

I often explain that going to church doesn’t make us Christians any more than going to weddings makes us married or going to funerals makes us deceased. A person becomes married by entering into a personal commitment with another person. So it is with our personal faith in the living and true God.

Peter made clear that God’s grace is for us all, unconditionally (v. 39). Some believe we are good enough for God; others of us believe we can never be. We must encourage both types of people to come to the same grace offered by the same Father.

The apostle’s commitment to this ministry was personal and passionate, as he pled with the crowds to come to Christ (v. 40). John Claypool is right: only that which happens to us can happen through us. When others see what Jesus means to us, they will consider our faith as their own. We must share our love for Christ and others with personal commitment and passionate devotion. Such passion connects heart to heart, and moves the soul to faith.

The results of Peter’s ministry and the disciples’ personal evangelism were stunning and historic: some 3,000 came into the faith that day. And the most powerful spiritual movement in human history had begun.

Invite others to join the family (vs. 42-47)

The gospel is not only for the person—it is for all of humanity. Every image of the Christian faith found in Scripture is a collective picture: a body with many members, a vine with many branches. We can no more live the Christian life alone than we can play football by ourselves. The Spirit’s work made lost souls into children of God, then led them to live as family.

Their priorities should be ours: Bible study, fellowship, worship (“the breaking of bread,” an image for the Lord’s Supper and the worship it inspires), and prayer (v. 42). Out of these priorities came a community of faith which would stand every persecution across twenty centuries. Christians then and now experience God’s miraculous power through our prayerful ministries (v. 43); we share life and needs together (vs. 44-45); we worship together with “glad and sincere hearts” (v. 46); and God continues to add to our number those who are being saved (v. 47).

You and I live in a world of increasing fragmentation. “Cocooning” is a word used by sociologists to describe the way we pull into our own isolated lives. The vast majority of Americans cannot name the people who live on either side of their homes or apartments. The advent of cable and satellite television, movie subscription services, and the Internet has made isolation even more common.

But God made our hearts to need each other. We cannot be happy alone. The church provides the one value our Internet culture cannot: a genuine family. Not just words on the screen, but a caring heart and hand. When we invite others to join our family, they will want to know our Father.


Phillips Brooks, the great Episcopal pastor and preacher, was once asked what he would do if he were sent to a declining church. His answer was simple: “I’d gather together as many people as I could, preach the finest sermon on missions I could, then take the largest offering for missions I could. When we have a mission, we have a church.”

God’s mission for his people is clear. He will empower us to the degree that we will fulfill his mission. How fully do you sense the Spirit at work in your life today?

The Faith of the First Christians

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

The Faith of the First Christians

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 1

A friend once sent me some statements taken from performance evaluation sheets of government employees. Among them:

“His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of morbid curiosity.”

“Got into the gene pool while the lifeguard wasn’t watching.”

“Got a full six-pack, but lacks the plastic thingy to hold it all together.”

“Donated his brain to science before he was done using it.”

“If he were any more stupid, he’d have to be watered twice a week.”

“Some drink from the fountain of knowledge; he only gargled.”

“Gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming.”

“This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.”

Fortunately, the Lord feels very differently about those you will teach this Sunday. They are his answer to the world’s crying need for hope, help, and home. They are his salt and light, his hands and feet. Each person you will teach is called to be his disciple—a fully functioning follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Lord has called you to be their discipler. Your ministry exists to help them find and fulfill theirs. You are the one person in our congregation most responsible for the spiritual development of those you teach and serve.

The first followers of Jesus were in exactly your position. It would be their job to bring all who would follow their Lord into full maturity in the faith. How would they do it? How will we?

Walk with the Lord personally (Acts 1:1-5)

First, we must possess that which we intend to give. We cannot lead others further than we are willing to go. I still remember the impact Henri Nouwen’s statement made on me when I first encountered it: “The great fallacy of our age is to believe we can be led out of the desert by a person who’s never been there.” Your class will heed your words only if they can first follow your example. We must be what we wish others to become.

Luke begins his second book with the same dedication which began his gospel (see last week’s introduction to Acts). His purpose in the first volume was to tell Theophilus about Jesus’ earthly ministry, all that he “began to do and to teach” (v. 1). Jesus knew the importance of setting an example, as did Luke. He recorded first our Lord’s actions, then his teachings.

His Gospel ended with the ascension of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:2; cf. Luke 24:50-53). His second volume picks up where the first left off: with the coming of the Spirit. Before Pentecost, however, the Master Teacher spent 40 more days with his followers. He proved his resurrection to them (v. 3), as it would be the crucial fact upon which the faith would be built (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17-20). Then he taught them further on the Kingdom of God, the central subject of his life and work (v. 3a).

Finally, he urged them not to leave Jerusalem to begin their ministries until they possessed the “gift my Father promised” (v. 4), the “Holy Spirit” (v. 5). They could not serve their Master until they possessed his power.

Neither can we. We must walk with Jesus as fully as did his first disciples. He proves his resurrection to us when we meet with him each morning in prayer, Bible study, and worship. During the turbulent 60s, a reporter asked Billy Graham what he thought about the popular assertion, “God is dead.” Dr. Graham replied, “God is not dead—I spoke with him this morning.” We learn that our Lord is risen and alive every time we meet with him.

As we commune with him, he teaches us more about his Kingdom through his word. And he empowers us to live in that Kingdom and extend its reach as we depend upon his Spirit. Each day we are to ask the Holy Spirit to show us our sins, then confess them by faith (1 John 1:9). Then we are to yield that day to the Spirit’s control and guidance (Ephesians 5:18). When we take these daily steps, we experience the presence and power of Jesus as fully as did his first followers.

In the midst of a stormy sea voyage, one young soldier could stand the dread and anxiety of the ship no longer. He rushed to the control room and watched the captain wrestle with the controls of the huge ship. With skill and strength, he guided the vessel to clear water. Then he turned slightly, looked at the frightened sailor, and smiled. The young sailor returned below deck and assured the crew that the danger was over. “How do you know?” they asked. He answered, “I saw the face of the captain, and he smiled at me.”

Look on his face daily. And those you teach and influence will want the faith and joy you possess.

Seek his purpose passionately (vs. 6-8)

Perhaps you’ve heard the old story about the famous country farmer marksman. His aim with bow and arrow was legendary—he never missed the bulls-eye of his targets. A reporter went to investigate. He found arrows stuck all over the side of the farmer’s barn, dead-center in the bulls-eye. Then he watched the farmer shoot. He would let fly the arrow, then paint the target around it. The axiom is still true: if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Only when we seek God’s purpose passionately can we fulfill it.

Jesus wanted his followers to understand clearly this purpose. They, like us, were more interested in predicting the future (v. 6); he is always more interested in redeeming the present (v. 7). None of us was placed on the planning committee, but on the preparation committee. We are to live each day as though our Lord will return this day. And one day we’ll all be right.

Remember the essentials of God’s plan for his people:

Our purpose: “you will be my witnesses.” A “witness” in a courtroom is a person who tells what he or she has experienced personally. We are all such, each day. At question is only whether we fulfill this purpose poorly or well. We are the Bible people read.

Our people: “you” will be my witnesses. “You” is plural in the Greek. There is no clergy-laity distinction here, or anywhere else in the Scriptures. Every member is a minister. We can reach the world with the gospel only when each one of us finds and fulfills our personal ministries.

Our power: the Holy Spirit will enable us to fulfill this purpose. We cannot win a single soul, change a single heart, or redeem a single life. Only the Spirit can convict us of sin and transform our lives. Your work can be accomplished only when the Spirit does it through you.

Our priorities: we are to begin in our Jerusalem, then extend our ministries to the “ends of the earth.” Every life you touch today is part of your mission field. Each person in your class should have a personal Acts 1:8 strategy. Beginning with you.

Fulfill his will urgently (vs. 9-11)

After Jesus made clear his plan one last time, he ascended back to his Father (v. 9). The ascension of Jesus is as real a fact as his resurrection, and as miraculous. One more time he gave his followers reason to believe in his divinity and serve his Kingdom.

Now our Lord reigns in heaven with the Father. We know these facts about his present place and rule:

He reigns as Lord: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

He reigns over spiritual powers: “[Jesus] has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:22).

He reigns over the world: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

He reigns over the church: “[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18).

He reigns in worship: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (Revelation 5:12).

He reigns as Lord: “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9).

And one day he will return to the planet from which he ascended (Acts 1:10-11). The disciples were “looking intently” up into the sky; the words mean to stare with intense purpose. Then angels sent them about their business: don’t focus on Jesus’ departure, but prepare for his arrival.

We don’t know the timing or manner in which our Lord will return, for the simple reason that such information is of no practical application to our lives today. Greek philosophers were interested in speculative discussions; the Hebrew mindset was intensely practical and present-tense in orientation.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to the dinosaurs or how many years ago creation began, because such knowledge would not change your life as you read these words. If you and I knew exactly how Jesus would return to our planet, such information would change nothing about our lives and work in this moment.

The Bible doesn’t tell us all we wish we knew, but all we need to know. Mark Twain was right: it’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me—it’s the parts I do understand.

Yield to his will specifically (vs. 12-26)

The last half of Acts 1 describes events which are less relevant to our lives and faith today than those we have studied so far. But the principles which these events teach have direct application to our work in following Jesus, especially when we face times where we must know God’s will for our next steps in faith.

Obey Jesus now (v. 12)

The disciples did exactly what their Lord had commanded them: “they returned to Jerusalem.” He had told them to wait there for the coming of the Spirit (v. 4). This despite the obvious dangers inherent in such a decision. The same authorities who had arranged Jesus’ crucifixion would likely be looking to eliminate his followers.

To return to Jerusalem was ill advised at best. But our Lord’s will is not always rational for us at the moment we receive it. Obedience leads to understanding, seldom the other way around. Obey that part of God’s will which you do understand. Do what you know to do, today.

Pray together constantly (vs. 13-14)

The “homogeneous church growth principle” suggests that churches grow best when they try to become and reach only a single kind of person. Jesus’ disciples give the lie to such an approach. No more disparate group was ever assembled on the face of the earth. Among them was Matthew the tax collector, whose former life had supported Rome in every way, coupled with Simon, the zealot who was pledged to the violent overthrow of the Empire. Peter, the man who denied Christ three times, prayed at the side of John, who refused to leave his Lord’s side. Jesus’ brothers, men who had denied his divinity, prayed with disciples who had staked their lives on it.

They all “joined together” (v. 14a)—the phrase means that they met in unity. The closer we get to the Lord, the closer we get to each other. When was the last time your class met together for no reason except to pray together?

These first Christians met together for a specific reason: to pray for God’s Kingdom to come to their lives and city. Chuck Swindoll is right: we can do much for God after we pray, but nothing until we pray. With whom will you pray together for God’s will to be done in your lives today?

Interpret life biblically (vs. 15-20)

Peter then stood and addressed the assembled group from the wisdom and word of God. He explained the fact of Judas’ betrayal as a fulfillment of David’s prediction, leading to an open opportunity for another to fulfill his leadership call (Psalms 69:25; 109:8).

Judas’ betrayal led to his suicide by hanging (Mathew. 27:5). After his death, either his body decayed in the manner Peter describes (v. 18), or was cut down with the described result. In this way, Matthew’s account is completed by Peter’s.

Judas’ actions did not prevent the purpose of God—they helped to complete it. When we interpret all that happens to us in light of the word and will of God, we are able to see his larger purposes and fulfill them by our own faithfulness.

When I taught science and faith classes at Southwestern Seminary, I encouraged my students to interpret science through the eyes of Scripture, not the reverse. Scientific “laws” are always being adapted to new discoveries, as is appropriate. But the word of God does not change; it is always his revelation to his people (cf. Hebrews 4:12).

When we seek biblical principles for responding to the circumstances of our days, we will walk in the will and power of our Father.

Trust his will personally (vs. 21-26)

Now the church must choose the person to take Judas’ place of leadership. This was a crucial decision, with much resting on the outcome. If the person chosen turned out to be a traitor like Judas, they could all die and their movement with them. They must step by sacrificial and personal faith into God’s will.

They established guidelines for apostleship: the person must have been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (vs. 21-22), and be willing to become “a witness with us of his resurrection” (v. 22b). Two men qualified: Joseph called Barsabbas, and Matthias. Their existence shows that more followed Jesus than we find named in the gospels. We are not told that these are the only two who met apostolic qualifications, but that they were the two “proposed” by the church (v. 23).

The apostles sought God’s will in this specific matter, through urgent and heartfelt prayer (v. 24). They then “cast lots” (v. 26), a typical Old Testament procedure for seeking the will of God (cf. 1 Chronicles 26:13-16). Most likely these were two squares or discs; when they both fell “up,” the positive resulted; when they both fell “down,” the negative was interpreted. In this case, the apostles may have written the names of the two men on two discs; whichever name came up on both was determined to be their answer.

Using such tools was in no sense gambling or stepping away from God’s will. Those who used these implements trusted that God would guide the stones or discs to reveal his will. Praying for God to “open or close doors,” or asking him to act in other circumstantial ways, is no less a belief that our Father will use events to disclose his will. Nonetheless, this is the last time “lots” were used in the Bible.

Matthias was the result of their prayer and lot-casting, so “he was added to the eleven apostles” (v. 26). This is the last we hear of him, causing some to suggest that he was not God’s will for Judas’ place among the apostles. Some go further, asserting that Paul was the twelfth apostle meant by God. But the fact that Matthias is not mentioned again in the New Testament is not a conclusive fact, for we hear no more from seven of the other apostles listed in verse 13. Such an argument from silence is speculative at best.

Where do you find yourself needing to know God’s will and purpose for your life today? Follow the example of these first Christians: obey what you know of God’s will, now. Pray with others, constantly. Interpret the events of your life through the eyes and revelation of Scripture. Trust his will personally as he reveals it to you, believing that it is “good, acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). And he will guide you through each step of your path in his will and ultimate purpose for your life.


Norman Vincent Peale once compared God’s will to a flashlight in the dark. The light does not show us all the way to our destination, but merely the next step to take. As we walk in the light we have, step by step, we find our way home.

Acts 1 has given you all the light you need for your next steps in the dark: walk with your Lord personally; seek his purpose passionately; fulfill his will urgently; and yield to his will personally. Lead your class members to do the same, by your example and by your teachings.

Imagine the results if every person who studies this text this week were to adopt its principles. And you have a glimpse into the mind and purpose of God for us all.

The Sin of Anger

The Sin of Anger

Dr. Jim Denison

Billy Martin, former manager of the Texas Rangers among other teams, told in his autobiography of going hunting in Texas with Mickey Mantle. They went to a ranch owned by one of Mantle’s friends. Mantle told Billy to wait in the car while he checked in. The friend asked Mantle to do him a favor. He had a pet mule in the barn who was going blind, and he didn’t have the heart to put him out of his misery. He asked Mantle to shoot the mule for him.

Mantle decided to play a prank. He returned to the car, pretending to be furious. He told Martin that his friend wouldn’t let them hunt on his ranch. “I’m so mad at that guy, I’m going out to his barn and shoot one of his mules!”

He drove like a maniac to the barn. Martin protested, “We can’t do that!” But Mickey was adamant: “Just watch me!” he shouted. When they got to the barn, Mantle jumped out of the truck, ran inside, and shot the mule. As he was returning, he heard two shots. He saw that Martin had taken out his rifle, too.

“What are you doing?” he yelled. Martin yelled back, face flushed with anger, “We’ll show that guy! I just killed two of his cows!”

Anger is a problem in our culture today. Eighty one percent of students said they had bullied classmates during the last month, according to a recent survey done in an Indianapolis middle school. Seventy five percent of the bullies said they’d been taunted themselves. More than 80 percent of computer network managers report that users have become abusive–smashing monitors, breaking keyboards, or kicking hard drives. Women are far more likely to suppress, repress and deny anger, leading to higher rates of depression.

Frederick Buechner’s description of “anger” is my favorite single theological definition: “Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, p. 2).

In this section we’ll study the most fun, and perhaps the most dangerous, of the Seven Deadly Sins. The recently deceased pastor and Bible student Charles Thrasher’s radio talk on our subject was titled correctly: “One letter from ‘danger.'”

Defining “anger” biblically

All proper treatment begins with the proper diagnosis. Webster defines “anger” as “A feeling of displeasure resulting from injury, mistreatment, opposition, etc., and usually showing itself in a desire to fight back at the supposed cause of this feeling.”

Six biblical words are translated by the single English word “anger.” Ap in Hebrew denotes either divine or human anger; the term means “nostril,” which was considered the locale of anger. We get a picture of someone who is “fuming.” The Hebrew verb hara means “burn,” as when Balaam “was angry and beat [his donkey] with his staff” (Numbers 22:27). The Hebrew word za’am means “indignation” or “enraged”; ebra means “boiling rage” (used of Haman vs. Mordecai, Esther 1:12).

Thymos in the Greek is associated with the word for “burning” and describes a passionate longing to injure. And orge is the human emotion caused by jealousy or other harm.

“Anger” is the emotion of being displeased or upset with something done to us. This by itself is normal and human; as we will see, God feels “anger” against sinful actions. “Anger” becomes sinful when it leads to sinful actions, when it causes us to hurt those who hurt us, leading us to wrath, vengeance and revenge. It is thus a “deadly” sin because it leads to murder, injury, and vengeance.

And it is a revelatory moment. Anger is a mirror, showing us what is inside. When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, you find out its content. And you can never put them back. You cannot unring a bell.

Know when anger is leading to sin

God is often “angry” in the Bible, yet he cannot sin (James 1:13): “Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13); “Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:12).

Other examples: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36); “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness” (Romans 1:18); “For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger” (Romans 2:8); “Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Ephesians 5:6); “They always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last” (1 Thessalonians 2:16).

These instances show that “anger,” the feeling of displeasure at the actions of another, cannot in itself be sinful.

Anger is sinful when it leads us to sin. Not the emotion, but our response, is the issue. When is anger leading to sin?

First, when it tempts us to hurt someone: “On Cain and his offering he did not look with favor. So Cain was very angry, and his face was downcast” (Genesis 4:5). Second, when it leads to jealousy: “Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. . . . And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David” (1 Samuel 18:8-9).

Third, when anger leads to spiritual transference. Asa had been a good king in Judah, until he relied on a treaty with Aram more than on God. Hanani the prophet said to him, “The eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. You have done a foolish thing, and from now on you will be at war” (2 Chronicles 16:9).

With this response: “Asa was angry with the seer because of this; he was so enraged that he put him in prison” (v. 10a). And things only got worse: “At the same time Asa brutally oppressed some of the people” (v. 10b). Finally he died tragically from a disease of the feet; “even in his illness he did not seek help from the Lord” (v. 12). Asa refused to take responsibility for his own sin, and instead became angry at the one who exposed it. He “shot the messenger.”

Fourth, anger leads to sin when it is motivated by pride: “When Haman saw that Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor, he was enraged” (Esther 3:5). And we know what happened to him.

Fifth, anger leads to sin when it causes us to reject Jesus: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard [Jesus]. They got up, drove him out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (Luke 4:28-30); after Jesus healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath, “they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus” (Luke 6:11). Anger is sin when it causes us to reject the gospel: “When they heard [the Ephesian silversmith] they were furious and began shouting: ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!'” (Acts 19:28).

Anger is not a sin, but it can lead to all kinds of spiritual disease and defeats.

Deal constructively with anger

Where are you dealing with anger in your life? With whom are you at odds today? What situation or person has frustrated you to the point of anger and even sin? Counselors recommend seven steps to take when anger attacks.

First, expect to feel angry when you are treated unfairly. Martin Luther was right: you cannot keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from nesting in your hair. The feeling of anger is not the problem, but what we do with it. Nuclear power can light a city or destroy it. Scripture teaches, In your anger do not sin” (Ephesians 4:26).

Second own your anger. Admit it. State it specifically. See if there is a pattern in your family history of hurtful anger. Don’t ignore your anger. The Buddhists have a saying: “The body weeps the tears the eyes refuse to shed.”

Third, determine the source of your anger. Be specific and honest. If there are patterns, identify them. Fourth, choose not to respond in kind. Scripture is clear: “Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret–it leads only to evil” (Psalm 37:8); “A quick-tempered man does foolish things, and a crafty man is hated” (Proverbs 14:17); “A man’s wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense” (Proverbs 19:11);

“Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools” (Ecclesiastes 7:9); “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you” (James 1:19-21). Consider the Jewish proverb: “Never argue with a fool in public–passersby may not know who’s who.”

Fifth, be proactive, quickly: “I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:22, 23-24); “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold” (Ephesians 4:26-27). Anger is never to outlast the day. Otherwise, it gives the devil a foothold in our souls and relationships.

Sixth, pray for the person who angered you: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Romans 12:20, quoting Proverbs 25:21, 22). In this image, a woman has come to the village fire to bring coals back to her house. She carries them in a basket on her head. To “heap burning coals on his head” is to be helpful, not revengeful.

Seventh, choose to pardon. This is to forgive by refusing to punish. Let the sin go; set the sinner free; trust justice to God. Do it now. Deal with your anger before it grows.

A small boy had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he had to hammer a nail in the backyard fence. The first day the boy drove 37 nails into the fence. The number gradually dwindled down, as he discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all.

He told his father, who suggested that he now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. Finally the day came when the boy could tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar, just like the nails did to the fence. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say, ‘I’m sorry,’ the wound is still there. A verbal wound is just as bad as a physical one.” So it is with the anger

When You’re Afraid To Follow God

When You’re Afraid to Follow God

2 Timothy 1:1-12

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re talking this morning about fear. Apparently, the experts think we have much to discuss.

It’s a new year, so you could have Neophobia, the fear of anything new. Given your location, you might suffer from Ecclesiophobia, the fear of being in church. Most people find this phobia increasing as the offertory time draws near. You might earlier have experienced Melophobia, the fear of music. You might now feel Homilophobia, the fear of sermons.

I’ll try to help you avoid my favorite phobia: Hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia, the fear of long words.

Today I want to talk with you about Theophobia, the fear of God. More precisely, Fiduciatheophobia, the fear of trusting in God. As we begin the new year by seeking to live in the purpose and will of God, let’s discuss the greatest obstacle standing between most of us and such obedience: our fear of following God’s will.

The fact is that most of us, somewhere in our lives and stories, are afraid of what would happen if we were to trust God fully. Our Western culture likes to trust what we can see, measure, and predict. We like five-year plans and long range goals. We see history as linear, and the lack of contradiction as the test for all truth. We want our future to be planned and predictable. But we cannot see God. And we cannot plan or predict his will.

And so we’re afraid that he will ask more of us than we can give, more than we are able to do or give to him. He’ll ask us to teach when we can’t teach, or to give more than we can give. Or we’re afraid that he’ll ask more of us than we want to give, that he’ll lead us where we don’t want to go, that the price of following him will be higher than we want to pay.

Most of us have an area or person in our lives which we are afraid to surrender to God’s purpose and will. Do you? Where’s yours?

Remember who you are (vs. 1-7)

Fear of following God was young Timothy’s greatest problem in his life and work.

“If Timothy comes, see to it that he has nothing to fear while he is with you, for he is carrying on the work of the Lord, just as I am. No one, then, should refuse to accept him. Send him on his way in peace so that he may return to me” (1 Corinthians 16:10-11).

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).

Timothy wept when the apostle left him in Ephesus on his departure to Macedonia (2 Timothy 1:4; cf. 1 Timothy 1:3).

His first fear was ours: we are unable. If we trust fully the will of God, he will want us to do things we can’t, to give more than we can give, to do more than we can do.

Moses stuttered, so he told God he couldn’t speak to Pharaoh. Jeremiah told the Lord he was too young. Isaiah confessed that his lips and life were unclean. When Peter saw Jesus perform a miracle he exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”

Most of us feel the same way. If you surrender your life and year to God, he might lead you to do more than you can do, and you’ll fail. Here’s what to do.

First, remember who you are: a child of God (vs. 1-2).

Timothy was Paul’s “dear son” in the faith (v. 2). And he was the child of God before he was the “son” of Paul. So are you.

Your culture says you are what you can produce, or how you look, or how well your kids do, or what you own. God says you are his child: “The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children” (Romans 8:16). And no good Father will ask his child to fail.

Next, remember where you’re from: your heritage in faith (vs. 3-5).

Timothy’s father was not a believer. The people of his hometown of Lystra stoned Paul and left him for dead; what might they do to this young disciple of his Lord? But God used his mother Eunice and grandmother Lois to lead him to Christ and nurture his faith. God protected him and then gave him the greatest apostle in Christian history as his ministry partner.

God has brought you this far. If your parents were godly, remember their gifts to your soul. Remember your salvation and those who helped bring you to Christ. Think of Sunday school teachers, pastors, friends who have helped you in the faith. Think of times and places where God protected you from harm. He didn’t bring you this far to leave you. He’s not going to fail you now.

Now, remember what he has given you: your spiritual gifts (v. 6).

Timothy was given spiritual gifts which are exactly what he needed to fulfill God’s will for his life. So have you. He has already given you whatever you need to do what he wants you to do.

But like young Timothy, we must “fan into flame” this gift. How do you fan a spark into flame? You feed it the fuel of wood and oxygen. You protect it from winds which would extinguish it. You continue to grow it, adding more and more fuel as it is able to use them effectively. You diligently focus upon it, not sporadically. You do this with urgency, for the fire is important to you in the cold or with the food to be cooked.

So with your spiritual gifts. Do you know yours? Are you feeding them through prayer, Bible study, and worship? Are you focusing upon using them to fulfill God’s will for your life? God’s gifts will not let you fail his purpose for you.

Last, remember who lives in you (v. 7). Your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. He did not give you a spirit of timidity, fear, cowardice. If you’re afraid to follow his will, the fault is not his. Rather, he has given us a spirit of power (“dunamis” in the Greek). All the power of the Spirit who created the universe lives in us. We have that spirit of “love” which seeks the other’s good. And we have a spirit of “self-discipline,” the ability to use God’s power and love to fulfill his will for us. The Holy Spirit will not let you fail.

Remember where you’re going (vs. 8-12)

What are you afraid to surrender to the will and purpose of God today? There are times when we’re all afraid that God will ask of us more than we can do or give. If that’s your fear today, remember that you’re his child, and your Father wants you to succeed; he hasn’t brought you this far to leave you; your gifts are enough to accomplish your purpose; the Holy Spirit will not let you fail.

Now we are to join with Paul “in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God” (v. 8b). Join Paul in trusting the will of God, no matter what it costs. Here we find our other fear about surrendering to the will of God: will it cost us more than we want to pay? Will it lead us where we don’t want to go?

In a word, no.

The One we trust has already saved us by his grace (v. 9). He loves you this much. You are headed into the future he has planned for your life.

He has already destroyed death and brought into being life and immortality (v. 10). You are headed for immortality and eternity if you will follow him.

You are headed for a purpose of meaning and joy (v. 11).

And so you can say with Paul: “I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard that which I have entrusted to him for that day” (v. 12). “Guard” means to keep safe and secure. “Entrust” means to put on deposit. We might say, “I know that everything I have deposited in his bank will be kept safe.” Everything.

He will only lead you into that future which is for your best.

If Noah had been afraid to trust the will of God in building the Ark, would he have survived the flood? If Moses, with his stuttering problem, had refused to say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” would he have died in Egypt? If David, the small shepherd boy, had been intimidated by the threats of Goliath, would he have been king? If Isaiah had been afraid to say, “Here am I. Send me,” would he have become Jesus’ favorite prophet? If Daniel had feared the lions more than the Lord, would we know his name? If Jonah had persisted in fearing Nineveh more than he feared God, would we have his story?

If Peter and Andrew, James and John had been afraid to leave their nets and boats to follow Jesus, would they be honored by our faith today? If Paul had been more afraid of the authorities than his Master, would the New Testament be half its size today? If John had been more afraid of jail on Patmos than Jesus, would we have the Revelation?

Pete Rose’s confession that he gambled on baseball has apparently done little to rehabilitate his reputation. David’s confession to adultery and murder enabled God to cleanse his soul and use his legacy to bring us the Messiah. Jason Allen Alexander, the man who was married to Britney Spears for 55 hours this past weekend, will soon be a trivia question answer. Joseph the carpenter, the man who was willing to marry the pregnant Mary, is a hero to Christian history.

It’s all in the One you trust. His plan for your life is better than yours: “‘I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart'” (Jeremiah 29:11-13). Either his word is true or it is false. Either his plan for your life is good, or it is not. There’s only one way to find out.


There are two ways to see life. Shakespeare’s Macbeth represents one:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

To the last syllable of recorded time,

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing

(Macbeth, Act 5, scene 5).

Many people in our culture agree: life is chaos, with no meaning beyond what you can make of it today. If that’s true, if the God who made us is such an “idiot,” then we’d best not trust our lives to his plans. He may well ask what we cannot do or don’t want to do. Ask him to save your soul from hell, but don’t trust him to guide your life or year.

Before you choose that view of life, remember that this God sent his Son to die in your place, on your cross. Remember: you are his child; he did not bring you this far to leave you; his gifts are all you need to fulfill his purpose; his Spirit will not let you fail; he has a plan to prosper you and not harm you, to give you hope and a future.

Don’t be afraid to trust your plans and hopes, your family and future, your dreams and goals to this God. Be afraid not to.

This is the invitation, and the word, of God.