Beware Of the Serpent

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Beware of the Serpent

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 4:32-5:16

One of Aesop’s fables tells the story of a lion who tailed a herd of oxen but could find no way to attack the young calves he saw as prey. Each time he drew near, the full-grown oxen circled around their young, horns at the ready. The lion could not hope to succeed against such strength. So he devised another strategy. He hid near the herd and whispered gossip and accusations unseen. Soon the oxen were divided into smaller groups of accusation and slander. And it was easy for the lion to attack the splintered herd.

God’s word warns: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:8-9). This lion always attacks God’s people at the point of unity. He’s a spiritual economist, seeking the maximum damage for the minimum effort. And he knows that if he can divide us, he can defeat us.

Jesus prayed for his followers across history, “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). Let’s learn to join his prayer this week.

Earn the enemy’s wrath (Acts 4:32-37)

A group of pastors were gathered at a conference. Heated debate arose around a point of theological interpretation. In the midst of all the arguing, one wise pastor turned to the man at his side and said, “I’m sure glad we’re just the decoys.” His friend asked what he meant. He clarified: “While we’re here arguing and drawing the enemy’s fire, it’s the people back home in their prayer closets who are doing the real work of the Lord.”

The pastor’s sentiment is a welcome endorsement of the ministry of prayer, but a bit naïve. The enemy knows well who his real enemies are. And he always attacks those who attack him. If you and your class are not facing temptation and spiritual adversity, it may be that you’re doing little which threatens Satan. And so, odd as it seems, a valuable spiritual principle is to live so as to earn the enemy’s wrath. Then you know you’re in the will and purpose of God.

Here’s what we can do to please our Father and anger our enemy.

Value the family of God (v. 32)

Verse 32 is proof that apostolic Christianity was miraculous in origin: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” Remember that they had come from fifteen different languages and cultures (cf. Acts 2:8-11). The ancient world was notoriously tribal in nature, as extended families and homogeneous cultures learned to depend on none but themselves. To live in harmony across racial and language barriers was unique in their time, counter to centuries of learned behavior.

But such unity was their daily experience. “All” the believers, with no exceptions, “were one in heart and mind,” united in their emotions and their intellect, their feelings and theology. The unity amidst diversity which characterized them immediately after Pentecost (Acts 2:44) had only grown in strength and depth.

They proved their unity not by words but works: “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had” (v. 32b). This early economy was not an endorsement of “socialism” or “Communism,” despite such claims in the last century. The apostolic Christians possessed no such notions. Rather, these first believers had no one but each other. Their Jewish families likely disowned them for rejecting the traditions of their elders. The Romans wanted nothing to do with them. They lost jobs, houses, and community. They were forced to share all things in common.

Such unity is our most powerful witness, as Jesus made clear (Jn. 13:35; 17:21). Justin the Martyr quoted the astonishment expressed by enemies of apostolic Christianity: “How you love each other!” I was won to Jesus more by the love I saw in his people than the theology I heard expressed by his leaders. Every father is pleased when we love his children. And the enemy is angered by such unity.

Testify to the resurrection of Jesus (v. 33)

Works and words are the two “wings” of genuine witness, two sides of the same coin. Which of your arms would you rather lose? I have long admired the statement attributed to St. Francis: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” But I also know that we must use words for our works to be effective spiritually.

Salvation requires words: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13). Paul’s consequent question makes the point: “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” (v. 14).

The apostolic Christians knew that their witness required both unity of example and power of speech: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all” (Ac. 4:33). They were under compulsion: “we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Ac. 4:20). Their conviction was clear: “We must obey God rather than men!” (Ac. 5:29).

When we are willing to testify with courage, we will receive “much grace.” God’s purpose will never lack God’s power. We must show others why we love each other so much, so they can know how to experience such love in their own lives. And the enemy is angered by such courage.

Help those who are hurting (vs. 34-35)

As more and more people came into the faith, the social and financial needs of the first Christians continued to grow. They would not yet pay for their faith with their lives (though this strategy of the enemy would soon be initiated). But their lives were changed in dramatic and difficult ways by their commitment to Christ.


God’s Power for God’s Purpose


Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 6:1-7

The date was Monday, March 11, 1991, and the president of the United States was desperately trying to prove that he was somebody. President Bush was visiting Anthony Henderson’s school, and sat down beside Anthony to read him a book. Suddenly Anthony asked, “Are you really the president?”

Mr. Bush was surprised by the question. “You mean you didn’t know that? How can I prove it to you?” He showed him his driver’s license, but the boy wasn’t convinced. He showed him his American Express card, then a picture of his grandson playing baseball, then pointed to the black limousine outside. But nothing worked.

The picture in USA Today told the whole story: Anthony sitting with a puzzled president, examining his American Express card. Wondering if he’s really somebody or not. We all want to be somebody special.

Jesus taught us how: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15). We are special to the degree that we are servants—to the degree that we serve our Lord and his children.

When Dr. Herbert Howard came to Park Cities in view of a call to be pastor in 1948, he preached a sermon entitled Everybody’s Somebody. It became famous. The church asked him to preach it each year. I have listened to it with great gratitude and profit.

This week we’ll learn how to preach it ourselves.

Find a need (Acts 6:1)

Today we travel back in time to A.D. 35 and the greatest crisis which would confront the first Christian congregation: “the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (v. 1). What was the problem?

Some in the first congregation were from Palestine, and spoke Hebrew and Aramaic. Others were from the Hellenistic world, so they spoke Greek. Many of these had become Christians at Pentecost, and stayed in the city. Others of them had moved to Jerusalem to retire.

The Jewish people had long cared for their widows, since they had no one else to help them. When a woman married, her father no longer bore responsibility for her support; if her husband died, his family was no longer responsible for her. And employment options for first-century women were extremely limited, as you might guess. So the Jewish people took a daily collection for their needs, called the Tamhui or Table, and a weekly collection every Friday as well, called the Kuppah or Basket.

If someone left Judaism for Christianity, he or she forfeited this support system. So the apostles took it over. However, the church had outgrown the care the apostles could provide. And these families not from Palestine became convinced that their widows were being discriminated against. They “complained”—the Greek word means to “murmur” or “grumble.”

This was a very serious state of affairs. Not only could widows starve to death if the church didn’t act, but the fragile racial coalition which was early Christianity was in danger of failing. And this splintering of the Christian movement would doom it.

Service begins with a need, something we can do, a person we can help. Ask the Lord to break your heart with what breaks his. Ask him to make you aware of those around you and their needs, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. And he will.

Meet the need in the Spirit (vs. 2-6)

The apostles were the leaders of the church, so that responsibility for meeting this crisis fell to them. They quickly “gathered all the disciples together” (v. 2), not just the 120 or the larger leadership of the church. Here we find early evidence for congregational governance, and indication of the seriousness of the situation. How would they resolve the challenge?

Know your gifts and calling

The apostles began with what they knew: “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (v. 2). Their statement in no sense minimized the severity of the situation. “Wait on tables” conjures in our minds the picture of a restaurant waiter or waitress. But their words were literally “serve the tables.” “Tables” were the means by which they distributed the daily food offerings. The word is plural, indicating that several distribution centers were used. This fact may explain the need for “seven men” (v. 3).

The apostles knew their calling in the Spirit was to the “ministry of the word of God.” And they knew they could not serve the word and serve the tables both. They must choose. So must we. God will call us to meet those needs which are within our gifts and ministry. If you find a need which does not match your calling, find someone whose calling it does match. A dear friend once helped me with this statement: “Their need does not constitute your call.” Our call is first to be obedient to God and his larger purpose for us, then to meet needs as a means of answering that call.

If you do something which is not within God’s calling for you, you cannot fulfill the purpose he does intend for your life. And you prevent the person who is called to that task from answering the word and will of God. So know your gifts and calling, and match them to the needs which you find.

Respond in the direction and wisdom of the Spirit

The apostles knew they were not called to this particular ministry, so they knew God would call others who were: “Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (vs. 3-4).

Joy In A Jail Cell

Joy in a Jail Cell

2 Timothy 3:10—4:22

Dr. Jim Denison, Senior Pastor

The following came from an anonymous mother in Austin, Texas. She titles the list, “Things I’ve learned from my children (honest and no kidding):”

A king size waterbed holds enough water to fill a 2000 sq. ft. house four inches deep.

You should not throw baseballs up when the ceiling fan is on. When using a ceiling fan as a bat, you have to throw the ball up a few times before you get a hit. A ceiling fan can hit a baseball a long way. The glass in windows (even double-pane) does not stop a baseball hit by a ceiling fan.

When you hear the toilet flush and the words “uh oh,” it’s already too late.

Super glue is forever.

The spin cycle on the washing machine does not make earthworms dizzy. It will, however, make cats dizzy. Cats throw up twice their body weight when dizzy.

Always look in the oven before you turn it on. Plastic toys do not like ovens. The fire department in Austin, Texas has a five-minute response time.

We’re talking today about being happy in hard places. The subject is relevant.

Psychologist Martin Seligman says that depression in the year 2000 was about ten times as likely as in 1900. More than 14 million adults in our country have suffered a major depressive episode in the past year; more than 35 million have had one at some point in their lives.

In 2002, Americans spent $7.7 billion on 6.9 million cosmetic procedures, including 1.7 million Botox injections.

We are time-crunched. “Zipcar” is an hourly rental-car service now making money. “P. J. Squares” are on the market; peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches pre-made for those who don’t have the thirty seconds it takes to make their own.

Paul learned to be joyous in jail, happy on death row. He knew somehow that “the Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (4:18). Perhaps he can help us say the same. Where do you need to be happy in a hard place? Where is your jail cell today?

Remember where you’ve been (3:10-11)

Paul writes his son in the faith, “You, however, know all about” me; the phrase means to follow someone closely, to know them intimately. Timothy knew all about Paul’s life, his godly character, his “persecutions” and “sufferings” when he was run out of town and stoned and left for dead. He knew that Paul’s problems were real.

Despite all the apostle has faced, “the Lord rescued me from all of them” (v. 11b). “Rescued” means to pluck from danger, to pull from the fire. He didn’t keep Paul from suffering, but he rescued him in the midst of the pain. Now Paul believes that what God did once, he will do again.

When you’re in jail, remember where you’ve been. Look back at all that God has done for you, and you can look forward to what he will do next.

Look at your existence. To spell “collagen,” the name of a common type of protein, you need to arrange all eight letters in the right order. To make the protein itself, you need to arrange 1,055 amino acids in precisely the right sequence. This happens spontaneously in nature. Yet the odds are one in 10×260, a number larger than all the atoms in the universe (Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, 288). And that’s just one protein in your genetic makeup.

Look at your country and its freedoms and prosperity. Take note of the health you enjoy today. Think about the salvation you have received through Christ. Realize that you already have eternal life, and will, eternally.

Think of the last thing God did for you. Realize that he didn’t bring you this far to leave you. Remember what he has done for you, and you’ll be empowered to trust him for what he will do for you. And you’ll find joy in a jail cell.

Don’t blame God (3:12-13)

If the greatest apostle in Christian history sits on death row, we will suffer as well. “Everyone” (with no exceptions) who “wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus” (to please God and be loyal to him) “will be persecuted.” The word means to bear a heavy load, to be under pressure or attack. It is inevitable. You’ve joined the battle, and now the enemy knows about you and will find you.

So don’t blame God when the enemy attacks. Our Lord warned us that he would:

“Be on your guard against men; they will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues” (Matthew 10:17).

“You will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Matthew 24:9).

“If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:20).

Why do we face persecutions and problems? How could a good God create such a world as this? Why not blame him when you’re in prison?

Because this is a fallen world. Before the fall in Eden, there was no cancer, heart disease, AIDS, SARS, hurricanes or tornadoes. All of creation was affected by the Fall (Romans 8:19-22).

And because we are fallen people. We face “evil men and imposters” who deceive and are deceived (v. 13). Thus Daniel is in the lion’s den and Paul in the Mamertine dungeon.

So expect to be persecuted for your faith, expect to face temptations, tests, and problems. Don’t blame God—seek him. Ask for his help. When we have the flu we don’t blame our doctor—we call him.

If we’ll expect problems, we’ll stay reliant on our Father. We’ll know that the next battle is just over the next hill, that we need to stay connected with his power. We’ll not fall so easily into discouragement when problems attack.

When you’re in jail, don’t blame God. Instead, seek his help and his grace.

Persecution, Prayer, and Power

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Persecution, Prayer, and Power

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 4:5-31

My favorite story concerns a young man on his way home, late one dark, cloudy, moonless night. The hour was so late that he decided to take a shortcut through the local cemetery. We can see him picking his way from gravestone to gravestone in the dark.

Suddenly he came upon a recently dug open grave. He didn’t see it in the night, and so he fell in, head over heals. Instantly he sprang to his feet and tried to climb out, but the sides were too steep and slippery. He yelled for help, but the hour was too late and no one heard. Finally he decided to curl up in the corner of the grave and go to sleep until morning, when help would surely arrive.

He had no sooner done this than a second man took the same shortcut through the same cemetery, and fell into the same open grave. He began yelling and thrashing about in the darkness, and the noise he made awakened the first fellow. From the corner of the grave on this dark, cloudy, gloomy, moonless night, the first fellow said to the second, “You can’t get out of here.”

But he did.

Unfortunately, the story makes a relevant point. You are teaching your class in the midst of a graveyard. Some are crying for help, some are trying to climb out on their own, some are asleep, and some have given up. But all around us we find people living in graves of sin, lostness, and spiritual death.

Missions experts calculate that 167 million Americans are spiritually lost today. The Dallas Baptist Association believes that 1.2 million of the 2.1 million people who live in Dallas are unsaved or unchurched. How many lost people could you name right now?

The only answer to the lostness of our community is boldness on the part of believers. No half measures will get the gospel out and the Kingdom built. Business as usual will not be enough. The best definition of insanity I know is this: doing the same thing while expecting a different result. Only when we stand boldly for our Lord can we make a difference in the lives of the people we are called to reach.

But we are afraid. Afraid we will fail. Afraid we won’t know what to say, that we won’t be able to answer the questions people will ask. Afraid that our lives will not back up our words. Afraid of rejection or worse. Afraid of losing status and stature with our friends and society. We need power to stand boldly for God.

This week we’ll locate the power source of discipleship. Then we’ll each decide whether or not we will live in this power and victory each day.

Expect opposition (Acts 4:5-7)

My youth minister once told us: “If you and the devil aren’t on a head-on collision course, you’re probably running side by side.” He was right. When you and I stand for God, the enemy stands against us. Satan and Jesus are locked in a war, and we’re the battlefield. As the African proverb has it, when elephants fight the grass always loses. We should expect opposition if we are serious about following Jesus.

The enemy struck back quickly in ancient Jerusalem. No sooner had the crippled man been healed and the gospel preached than the authorities rose up in opposition. The “next day” (v. 5) the counterattack began as the “rulers, elders and teachers of the law” met. These three composed the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, a Supreme Court to us. The rulers were political in nature; the elders were the spiritual leaders; the teachers of the law were religious scholars who served the leaders. Their meeting in full shows the significance of the threat to them, and of theirs to the church.

The high priest and his ruling “council” met at their head. Annas was still “high priest” to the Jewish people (v. 6), though he had been deposed by the Romans in AD 15 and replaced by his son and then his son-in-law Caiaphas. The “John” who met with them may have been the man appointed high priest in AD 36; “Alexander” is not otherwise known. If the president and his cabinet were to meet with the Supreme Court and leaders of Congress, their assembled power would be analogous to that present here.

Peter and John were made to meet before them. Imagine the scene. Two Galilean fishermen, heretofore residents of the bottom floor of Jewish social significance, now merit a gathering of the nation’s highest authorities. What was the highest level of authority you have encountered personally? How much thought did you give to your appearance, preparations, and words? How intimidated did you feel? Sense the fear that must have grown in the hearts of these men as they awaited their appearance before the Court.

Now they are put on legal ground: “By what power or what name did you do this?” (v. 7). In other words, what defense can you cite for the legality of your actions? The Court is asking these fishermen to defend themselves with law and reason. If they wish, these leaders can condemn the accused to death. They are literally on trial for their lives.

Everything worthwhile comes at a cost. Your home, your car, your clothes; your childrens’ school tuition; even your health comes at a price. Standing for Jesus can cost us most of all. Our Lord warned us: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11); “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33). If you wish to follow Jesus, you should expect opposition.

Stand for Christ (vs. 8-12)

What will be their response? The future of their fledgling spiritual movement hangs in the balance. If their defense is unsuccessful, their group will be deemed illegal and imprisoned or worse. Peter and John, the recognized leaders of the Christian movement, will likely be executed. On the other hand, if they succumb to the pressure of the authorities, they will be unfaithful to a higher Authority. They will lose the power he can give only to those who are obedient to his Commission.

Staying Out Of Spiritual Ditches

Staying Out of Spiritual Ditches

2 Timothy 2:14-26

Dr. Jim Denison

According to ESPN Magazine, Americans will bet $7 billion on today’s Super Bowl. We will go through 16 million pizza boxes, enough to construct 388,889 life-size cardboard statues of Rush Limbaugh; fans at the game will eat 5,000 pounds of hot dogs; 31 million pounds of chips will be eaten at Super Bowl parties; 43.5 million pounds of guacamole will be consumed; and 39% of American males say they will curse during the game. 61% are probably lying about cursing during the game.

In other words, the Super Bowl is also the Sin Bowl. What we do in church this morning may have little to do with what we do watching the game tonight.

Why should it? Our culture has long divided the spiritual from the secular.

Centuries before Christ, the Greeks decided that the soul existed apart from the body, that our souls were put into our bodies to punish and purify them. So, you can do anything you like with your body, so long as you are spiritual.

Do what you want on Saturday, so long as you go to church on Sunday. So long as you believe in God, pray occasionally, read the Bible some. Researchers cannot find any statistical difference in moral behavior in America between those who say they go to church and those who say they do not. And that’s a tragedy, probably our greatest single hindrance to winning our nation to Christ.

Across our series in 2 Timothy, we’re seeking to live on purpose. Well, here’s God’s purpose in a single verse (v. 15). How do we do this?

My family and I were once in Colorado on summer vacation. We drove through a pass high in the mountains and observed 20-foot-tall wooden poles along the side of the road. We could think of no reason for their existence, so we asked. A native told us that in the winter, the snow piles nearly 20 feet high. The poles tell the snow plow drivers where the road is, so they don’t drive off the side of the mountain.

We’re living in a moral snowstorm. Here are the poles to keep us safe.

Avoid godless language (vs. 14-19)

Paul begins in an odd place. But as we study, we’ll soon learn why he starts here. “Warn them before God against quarreling about words,” he commands (v. 14).

“Warn them” in Paul’s language implies that this is a sin they are already committing and must stop immediately. It is an order from God.

“Quarreling about words” means literally “waging a word war.” He’s talking about gossip—saying about people what you will not say to them. And he’s describing slander—making false or unsubstantiated allegations which attack their character. If you know someone who is repeating gossip or slander, you know someone Paul here warns to stop.

Later the apostle diagnoses the problem as “godless chatter” (v. 16), “profane empty or vain talking.” Profane language and cursing; ungodly jokes or stories; language which neither glorifies God nor helps his people.

Why is godless language so evil?

“It is of no value” (v. 14), a waste of time and life.

It “only ruins those who listen”—the Greek pictures a person demolishing a house. Godless language ruins those who speak it, and those who hear it. It is “second-hand smoke” in the soul, and hurts every heart it touches.

“Those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (v. 16). Solomon warns us: “Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips” (Ecclesiastes 10:12). Our words reveal our hearts.

And so “Their teaching will spread like gangrene” (v. 17). Mouth cancer only spreads.

As examples, Paul cites two men otherwise unknown to us except from his pen. But they were known to Timothy and his church so well that no further identification was needed. They “wandered away from the truth” into heresy (v. 18). The apostle warns that if it could happen to them, it will happen to us.

What are we to do?

“Avoid godless chatter” (v. 16)—”avoid” means to shun those who are speaking godless language, to refuse to participate. If you hear someone speaking ill of another person, refuse to listen. Refuse to participate. Remember that it “ruins those who listen,” that it will affect your soul. Stop the cycle of gossip immediately.

“Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness” (v. 19)—if you are the one speaking godless language, “turn away from wickedness.” Stop now, before the cancer spreads.

Let’s let God’s word reinforce the point:

“Do not go about spreading slander among your people” (Leviticus 19:16).

“Whoever slanders his neighbor in secret, him will I put to silence; whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure” (Psalm 101:5).

“He who conceals his hatred has lying lips, and whoever spreads slander is a fool” (Proverbs 10:18).

“Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down. As charcoal to embers and as wood to fire, so is a quarrelsome man for kindling strife” (Proverbs 26:20-21).

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31).

“Remind the people to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready to do whatever is good, to slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and to show true humility toward all men (Titus 3:1-2).

“Brothers, do not slander one another” (James 4:11).

“Rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander of every kind” (1 Peter 2:1).

Any questions? Avoid godless language, and you’ll avoid the ditch of the soul.

Avoid godless desires (vs. 20-22)

Now Paul moves from our language to the hearts our words reveal. He loves using metaphors taken from the culture of his day. Writing to the pastor of the wealthiest church in Christendom, he speaks of a “large house” (v. 20), a home which belongs to someone who is wealthy and powerful. Its furnishings illustrate the furnishings of our spiritual lives.

The Power of His Name

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

The Power of His Name

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 3-4:4

This Sunday the Super Bowl will be on everyone’s mind. As I am writing this lesson (on December 31, 2003), we don’t know if the Cowboys will be the NFC representative. But I can guess. Some teams are like the Cowboys, just glad (and a bit surprised) to be in the playoffs. Others will consider anything less than a Super Bowl victory this weekend in Houston to be an unsuccessful season. We all have goals, dreams, ambitions. We want our lives to count.

Most of us want to make a difference. When our days are over, we want to believe that they were significant, that people were changed and God was glorified because of us. Most of the people who attend your class want to help others know Jesus. But they may not know how to begin.

Last week’s text centered on ways to speak the gospel. This week we will learn ways to live it. Francis of Assisi’s oft-quoted maxim is still worth contemplation: “Preach the gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.” This week’s study will teach us how to live in such a way that our words have their greatest impact for God’s Kingdom.

See the one (Acts 3:1-5)

As our story opens we find Peter and John making their way to the Jerusalem Temple for worship (Acts 3:1). At this early point in Christian history, the followers of Jesus are all Jews. And they have not yet broken with their Jewish traditions. Here they are climbing up the steps to the gate titled Beautiful for the evening sacrifice. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, tells us that by this date the evening sacrifice had been moved to 3:00 in the afternoon.

Everything about the story is routine. This is the third sacrifice of its kind that day. Something like Sunday night church after Sunday morning, or the third worship service that morning, or the third time I preached the same sermon that weekend. You’re part of church life—you know the routine.

Even the beggar at the gate is routine. Acts 4:22 says he’s more than 40 years old. Since he was a small child, his parents have brought him to the Temple to beg. Likely to the same gate, seeking alms from the religious people who congregate there. I’ve seen this custom in Israel still—hungry, homeless, hurting people standing around the gates into the Old City, beside the places of worship, hoping for help from those who pass by.

Everything is routine. How many times have these men climbed these steps to walk through this gate to this service, passing this beggar? Something like Sunday morning for you, perhaps. Getting up at the same time, driving the same streets, parking in the same place, sitting in the same pew.

Until today.

Today, “Peter looked straight at him” (v. 4). The word means to stare with intent purpose. We met it in Acts 1, used to describe the disciples’ stares at Jesus’ ascension. It will be used later of Stephen at his stoning, as he stared into the throne room of God (Acts 7:55).

Others saw the crippled man, but Peter looked. Others heard, but Peter listened. Others rushed by, but Peter and John stopped. And the miracle begins here, because they had an eye for the one.

They learned it from Jesus. Their Master could see Zacchaeus in his tree, a woman touching the hem of his garment in the press of the crowd, a lonely woman at a Samaritan well. He was the shepherd looking for the one lost sheep, the one seeking the one lost coin. Peter and John have passed this man before, likely for hundreds of times. But now Pentecost has come. Now the Spirit of Jesus is living in their hearts. Now they have an eye for the one.

Here is where personal ministry begins: when we see the one we are to serve. The lonely coworker, the new neighbor, or the grieving friend are our next ministry. What hurting person can you name right now? Would you pray for that person by name, right now? Would you ask Jesus to help you help that person?

Trust the name (v. 6)

Peter and John are among the most unlikely sources of help this man might imagine. They are not physicians. They have no money to give to him. They are not men of political power or prestige, able to arrange aid or social support. They are Galilean fishermen now living in the big city of Jerusalem. They have nothing to give.

Yet they have everything to give: “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (v. 6). Peter and John know their limitations. They know that they can do nothing that matters for this man. But they also know their Lord, and they believe that he can do what men cannot.

So they offer the crippled man help “in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.” In the Bible, a person’s “name” denotes their personality, character, power, and presence. To speak or pray “in the name of Jesus” is to speak or pray in his authority, to claim his help, to call on his power.

I would love to be able to write a $10 million check to our church, completing the capital campaign and supporting ministry and missions all over the world. But of course, my checking account has nowhere near the capital required to fulfill the promise of that check. My signature is “no good” for that amount. However, if I could persuade the Sultan of Brunei, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett to write the same amount over their names, the check would be honored instantly. The name on the check is connected directly to the capital that person possesses.

When Peter and John offered the crippled man help in the “name” of Jesus, they called upon the greatest resource in all the universe. They had seen their Lord astound the scholars, calm the seas, heal the blind and sick, and raise the dead. They knew that he defeated the grave, won our resurrection and victory, and ascended to the Father in heaven.

The Sin of Gluttony

The Sin of Gluttony

Dr. Jim Denison

The dieting crazes which have swept our country in recent years seem to prove one fact: of all the seven deadly sins, the one we seem most interested in avoiding is gluttony. The dictionary defines the term simply as “excess in eating.” But how much is excess?

The question has been around for millenia. Here was the spectrum in the first century.

Many of the Romans sought pleasure at all costs. Their “vomitoriums” were famous–they would gorge themselves, throw it up, and return to the banquet. Prostitution, concubines, and homosexuality were rampant. Gluttony was a way of life.

The Epicureans, a group to whom Paul witnessed at Mars Hill (Acts 17:18), advocated pleasure as the point of life. Happiness comes from seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. But they cautioned against excess, because it could cause pain. Thus they advocated drinking wine, but not drunkenness. Pleasure in moderation would be their goal.

The Stoics were another group present at Mars Hill. They saw the purpose of life as duty. Eat only what you must to be effective in life. Eat only when you are hungry. Pleasure is a side effect, not the purpose. Health is a means to the end of doing what you are required to do in life.

At the remote other end of the spectrum lived the Cynics, a third school of philosophy current in the New Testament era. They argued for the most ascetic lifestyle possible. The body is evil, so it must be punished and restrained. Eat only what you must to live. One of their leaders spent years living in a barrel which also clothed his body. He owned only a wooden bowl and spoon, until he saw a beggar boy eating with his hands, was shamed, and threw his bowl and spoon away. I imagine the boy would have liked to have them.

How much is excess? And why does the answer matter so much? Cicero remarked: “We ought to eat in order to live, not live in order to eat.” Let’s learn how.

Eating is not a sin

Here is the key text we’ll seek to learn and obey: “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). How do we do this?

Let’s begin with this fact: eating is not sinful: “I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot” (Ecclesiastes 5:18);

“I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). Paul wrote, “Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).

Jesus often ate with his disciples. His Last Supper was taken with them. After his resurrection, he fixed breakfast for them to share (John 21:12-13). He could not have eaten and remained sinless, if eating was sinful.

The anorexic rejection of the pleasure of eating comes from the Greek rejection of the body. It is nowhere found in the holistic world view of Scripture.

And so the sin is not eating, it is eating to excess.

Why is excess eating a sin?

Scripture answers our question in six ways. First, it is presumptive: “‘Come,’ each one cries, ‘let me get wine! Let us drink our fill of beer! And tomorrow will be like today, or even far better” (Isaiah 56:12); “I’ll say to myself: ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry'” (Luke 12:19). When we presume on tomorrow and God, we sin against both.

Second, it is never enough: “All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied” (Ecclesiastes 6:7). Third, it leads to poverty: “Drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags” (Proverbs 23:21); “He who loves pleasure will become poor; whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich” (Proverbs 21:17).

Fourth, it leads to spiritual immaturity: “The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature” (Luke 8:14).

Fifth, it harms our witness: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17); “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).

And sixth, it leads to destruction: “Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19); “They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. Their idea of pleasure is to carouse in broad daylight. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you” (2 Peter 2:13); “You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves” (Amos 6:4). The 16th century proverb was right: “Gluttony kills more than the sword.”

What is the solution to the sin of gluttony?

First, pray before eating. Seek the help of God before the tempter attacks.

Second, be disciplined: “When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony. Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive” (Proverbs 23:1-3).

The Sin of Lust

The Sin of Lust

Dr. Jim Denison

The pastor listed his sermon title in the bulletin: “Dealing With Sexual Sin.” But just before he got up to preach, the choir sang the special. Its title: “Oh, why not tonight?” Sometimes you’re done before you begin.

Now we come to the fifth deadly sin: “lust.” The dictionary defines our topic thus: “1. strong desire. Ex. lust for power, lust for gold. 2. desire for indulgence of sex, especially excessive sexual desire. 3. bad desire or appetite.”

We can “lust” for nearly anything. Oswald Chambers is right: lust is saying, “I must have it now.” We can “lust” for more money, for more power, for a new car. But the Bible typically speaks of “lust” in relation to sexual desire. In this sense, Frederick Buechner defines “lust” as the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst. We’ll define “lust” as the sin of desiring a sexual relationship outside the will of God.

One point must be made at the very beginning of our study: sexual attraction is not lust. God made us to be attracted to the opposite sex. It is not a sin to notice a beautiful woman or attractive man. It is only sin if we take that attraction to the next step. The sin is not the first look, but the second.

Now let’s learn how not to take that second look.

Sex in the ancient worldThe subject of sex was as perplexing to the ancients as it is to us. Even Agur, the writer of Proverbs 30, had to admit: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden” (vs.18-19). And King Lemuel, author of Proverbs 31, added this advice from his mother: “O my son, O son of my womb, O son of my vows, do not spend your strength on women, your vigor on those who ruin kings” (vs. 2-3).

The word “sex” appears only one time in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and not a single time in the King James Version. But the subject itself was of enormous significance for the ancient world, as for us.

Ancient Egyptians were typically monogamous, though kings and nobles could have more than one wife. Brothers and sisters were often married; circumcision was widely practiced. Mesopotamians, on the other hand, allowed men any sexual activities they might choose. Marriage was for procreation only. Homosexuality was strictly forbidden.

Greek and Roman culture was extremely tolerant of prostitution, fornication, adultery, and homosexuality. Extramarital intercourse was permitted to Greek men, but not to their wives. Marriage was typically monogamous, though divorce was common and frequent.

In ancient Judaism:, women were expected to be married and to bear children; failure to have children could lead to divorce after ten years. Women were expected to satisfy their husbands sexually and to refrain from tempting others; thus they were typically veiled in public and separated from men. Monogamy was widely practiced by the first century AD, though polygamy was common among the wealthy. Divorce was permitted only to men. And sexual immorality was prohibited by the Torah, including fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and “unlawful” marriages.

When sex is and is not sinSex is not sin when it is obedient to the will of God. He created genders: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 2:27). And he called the first couple to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it” (v. 28).

Sex is not sin when practiced within marriage: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). And it is not sin when celebrating married love (see Song of Songs 4:1-5; 5:10-16; 7:1-9).

But sex is sin before marriage (Deuteronomy 22:13-21; Exodus 22:16). It is sin outside of marriage: “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14).

It is sin when committed with another man’s wife: “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel” (Deuteronomy 22:22). And when it is motivated by lust: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew5:27-28).

How to avoid sexual sin: the book of ProverbsSo how do we avoid this sin? How do we defeat the temptation of the second look? The Book of Proverbs is especially interested in this subject. Here are its answers to the question.

First, be warned: “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched? So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished” (6:27-29). If you’re thinking that you’ll be the one to get away with this, guess where that thought is coming from. God disagrees.

Second, don’t be deceived. A woman or man who tempts to sexual sin may be “religious”: “I have fellowship offerings at home; today I have fulfilled my vows. So I came out to meet you; I looked for you and have found you” (7:14-15). Such a person is enticing: “the lips of an adulteress drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil; but in the end she is bitter as gall, sharp as a double-edged sword” (5:3-4).

They promise pleasure: “I have covered my bed with colored linens from Egypt. I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon. Come, let’s drink deep of love till morning; let’s enjoy ourselves with love!” (7:16-18). And secrecy: “My husband is not at home; he has gone on a long journey. He took his purse filled with money and will not be home till full moon” (7:19-20). They claim innocence: “This is the way of an adulteress: She eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong'” (30:20). But all such claims are lies.

The Sin of Sloth

The Sin of Sloth

Dr. Jim Denison

Some questions are hard to answer: why do they sterilize the needle for lethal injections? If corn oil comes from corn, where does baby oil come from? How do they get the deer to cross at those yellow signs? Why is abbreviation such a long word? Why did Kamikazi pilots wear helmets? And why do they call it “rush hour” when no one moves?

It is “rush hour” all the time in America these days. Every day in this country 108,000 people move; the government issues 50 more pages of regulations; 40 Americans turn 100; we purchase 45,000 new cars and trucks, and wreck 87,000; 20,000 people write letters to the president; dogs bite 11,000 citizens, including 20 mail carriers; we eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 167 million eggs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy. We then jog 17 million miles to get rid of it all. We are busy people.

You wouldn’t think we need to worry about the “deadly” sin of sloth. But you’d be wrong. We can be busy about the wrong things and slothful about the right ones. Let’s learn how to avoid both.

What is sloth?

The dictionary defines a “sloth”: a very slow-moving mammal of South and Central America that lives in trees. Sloths hang upside down from tree branches. There are two principal kinds in the sloth family. One kind has three toes on the forefeet and another has two.

Unfortunately, “sloths” don’t live only in trees. Here’s the dictionary’s second attempt: “unwillingness to work or exert oneself; laziness; idleness.”

It is not “sloth” to rest regularly: “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest and the slave born in your household, and the alien as well, may be refreshed” (Exodus 23:12). The Lord is serious about the Sabbath: “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death” (Exodus 31:15).

Sabbath rest is required by God no matter the circumstances: “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest”(Exodus 34:21).

And it is commanded by Jesus: “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, ‘Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.’ So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place” (Mark 6:30-32).

But it is “sloth” to be lazy about the things that matter. That is the sin of sloth.

Why is sloth a “deadly” sin?

There are five reasons to avoid the sin of sloth.

First, it leads to hunger and poverty: “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry” (Prov. 19:15); “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man” (Proverbs 6:9-11); “The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (Proverbs 13:4); “A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he looks but finds nothing” (Proverbs 20:4).

Second, it frustrates us: “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (Proverbs 15:19). Third, it leads to self-deception: “The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly” (Proverbs 26:16).

Fourth, it leads to ruin: “I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins” (Proverbs 24:30-31); “If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks” (Ecclesiastes 10:18).

Last, it leads to judgment and destruction: when the man refused to multiply his talent, “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant!…Take the talent from him and give it to the one who has the ten talents'” (Matthew 25:26, 28); “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys” (Proverbs 18;9); “The sluggard’s craving will be the death of him, because his hands refuse to work. All day long he craves for more” (Proverbs 21:25-26).

So sloth is forbidden by God: “We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies” (2 Thessalonians 3:11); “We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit what has been promised” (Hebrews 6:12); “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord” (Romans 12:11).

Proverbs: work hard

Proverbs, more than any other book in Scripture, is concerned with sloth, stress, and work. The book gives us one consistent lesson regarding our work: do it well. Work hard. Give yourself fully to your work.

Avoid all sloth: “How long will you lie there, you sluggard? When will you get up from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man” (6:9-11); “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth” (10:4); “He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son, but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son” (10:5); “As vinegar to the teeth and smoke to the eyes, so is a sluggard to those who send him” (10:26).

The writer continues: “The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway” (15:19); “One who is slack in his work is brother to one who destroys” (18:9); “Laziness brings on deep sleep, and the shiftless man goes hungry” (19:15); “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he will not even bring it back to his mouth!” (19.24). “The sluggard buries his hand in the dish; he is too lazy to bring it back to his mouth” (26:15); “A sluggard does not plow in season; so at harvest time he finds nothing” (20:4); “As a door turns on its hinges, so a sluggard turns on his bed” (26:14).

Truth and Consequences

God’s Power for God’s Purpose

Truth and Consequences

Dr. Jim Denison

Acts 5:17-42

Billy Graham’s bestseller Angels tells the story of John G. Paton’s missionary work in the New Hebrides Islands. One night, hostile natives surrounded the mission headquarters, intent on burning the Patons out and killing them. The Patons prayed all night long that God would deliver them. When morning came, they were shocked to see that their attackers had left.

A year later, the tribal chief came to Christ. Mr. Paton asked him what had kept his men from burning down their house a year earlier. Surprised, the chief replied, “Who were all those men you had with you there?” He told the missionary that he had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords in their hands. They surrounded the house, so that the natives were afraid to attack.

Jesus warned us: “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33a). Then he added, “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” So long as we live in his purpose, we can count on his protection and power. The apostle John, survivor of the persecutions we will study today, would later conclude: “The one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). And he is just as powerful today in Dallas as he was on that day in Jerusalem 20 centuries ago.

Where are you afraid to serve God? Most of us experience fear when an opportunity to share our faith arises. Some of us are afraid to trust God with our finances and tithe. Or with our time in serving God more faithfully. We may be afraid to handle work biblically, in fear that we will lose money or success. Pastors and teachers may be tempted to lessen the truth of God’s word in the service of popularity. Is there a place in your life where you are afraid to trust God fully with your life and service?

This week’s study will help you and your class serve God with bold courage and joy. The results could be as significant for our church as they were for these first disciples.

Anticipate angelic protection (Acts 5:17-24)

Psalm 91 has become one of my favorite passages to read to our members when they are facing surgery or other problems. It begins:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust” (Psalm 91:1-2).

When we make God our shelter, our refuge and fortress, he promises to respond:

He will cover you with his feathers,and under his wings you will find refuge;his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart (v. 4).

How will he keep this promise to protect us?

He will command his angels concerning youto guard you in all your ways; they will lift you up in their hands,so that you will not strike your foot against a stone (vs. 11-12).

Jesus experienced such angelic protection in his wilderness temptations: “Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him” (Matthew 4:11). And again in Gethsemane: “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him” (Luke 22:43). Angels appeared at his resurrection (Mark 16:4-7), and at his ascension (Acts 1:10-11). The purpose of these angelic beings is clear: “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” (Hebrews 1:14).

In our text “an angel of the Lord” appeared at the most crucial moment the early Church had yet faced (Acts 5:19). The high priest and his associates among the Sadducees, jealous at the popularity of the apostolic movement, ordered the apostles arrested and jailed. Not just Peter and John this time (cf. Acts 4:7), but the larger team who led the Christian church in Jerusalem. Jail in the first century was not itself a means of punishment, but prelude to physical torture or execution.

Imagine the results if the apostles were found guilty and killed. Never again would the entire leadership team of the Christian faith be small enough and accessible to such a strategy of the enemy (cf. the selection of deacons in Acts 6, the scattering of new leaders in Acts 8:1, and the sending of missionaries in Acts 13). The apostles had no political power or legal means of defense; they possessed no financial resources with which to secure release; they could not and would not attempt to break out of jail. The future of their movement appeared bleak indeed.

But doors locked to men are easily opened by God. In this case the angel simply “opened the doors of the jail and brought them out” (Acts 5:14), charging them to return to their public ministry of gospel proclamation (v. 20). Would they flee to safety in the night? Would they return to their Galilean homes and the protection such escape might afford? Risking their lives, they did exactly as they were told (v. 21). They knew that the same angel who had rescued them this night would protect them so long as they were faithful to their God.

The miraculous nature of their escape was made clear by the arresting officers: “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside” (v. 23). This was no coincidence or human achievement misinterpreted. Professional soldiers, at risk of their lives if they failed their task (cf. Acts 12:19), made the situation clear. They had no faith by which to find spiritual reality where it did not exist. The miracle of this event was no miracle to God.

Such angelic protection would soon rescue Peter from another Jerusalem imprisonment (Acts 12:1-19), as an earthquake would free Paul and Silas from their Philippian jail (Acts 16:26). What angels did for these early disciples, they now stand ready to do for us (cf. Hebrews 1:14).

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