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.

Despite the economic hardships which many faced, “There were no needy persons among them” (Acts 4:34). Why? Because those who had means shared with those who did not. This development shows that not all the first Christians were impoverished before coming to faith (as Barnabas’s example will soon show). Christianity appealed to hearts and souls across the social spectrum. And all responded as they could.

Here is a basic principle of Christian stewardship: not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice. God judges us by our heart condition more than our financial ability: “if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have” (2 Corinthians 8:12).

Those with means “put it at the apostles’ feet,” trusting its distribution to the Christian leaders, “and it was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Ac. 4:35). We do not give to the church, but to God through the church. And God directs his people as to the best use of his resources.

Here is the best way to help hurting people: give all you can, trusting God to use what you give in the most effective way. How much should you give? C. S. Lewis was right: the best answer is that we should give more than we can spare. God is pleased with such sacrifice. And the enemy is not.

Set an example others can follow (vs. 36-37)

Barnabas is one of my favorite figures in the Bible. I’m not the first to feel that way. No Barnabas, no Paul. If someone had not done what Barnabas did, Saul of Tarsus would have stayed in Tarsus. And our New Testaments would be missing thirteen books.

His name means “Son of Encouragement.” It would be honor enough to be given that name at birth. But his fellow believers, after witnessing first hand his character and priorities, assigned it to him (v. 36), even higher praise. He was a Levite, descended from the priestly tribe and thus a man of great significance within Judaism. He was a wealthy landowner, so much so that he could sell a field and give the money to the apostles (v. 37). But he sacrificed such social status to follow Jesus. And others would follow his example, most notably the apostle Paul.

If those in your class were to follow Jesus on the same level of sacrifice they see in you, would the Father be pleased? Would the enemy be angry?

Stand boldly against sin (Acts 5:1-11)

Satan’s attack came in the same way it usually does: at the heart and unity of this family and army of faith. Ananias and his wife Sapphira pretended to give the Lord all they made from a land sale. They were wealthy enough to have land to sell, and devious enough to attempt to use that sale to advance themselves within the church. Both Ananias and Sapphira were culpable; she lied about their action even more directly than he is quoted as doing (v. 8). Both were confronted by Peter, and both paid for their sin with their lives.

Ananias and Sapphira are as infamous in the New Testament as Sodom and Gomorrah in the Old. Let’s consider briefly the two most common questions this story raises in most minds.

First, why did God punish their sin so severely? After all, they were benevolent enough to give some of the proceeds of their sale. Their only sin was deception in lying about the entire amount. Had they sold the same land for the same price and given the same amount, but with public acknowledgement that their gift was not the total land price, their gift would have been received with gratitude. Such a gift is far more typically the way we give to God today than is Barnabas’s action. Nowhere does the Bible require us to give everything we make from possessions we sell.

Their only sin was one of appearing to be more benevolent than they really were. Is this sin not repeated consistently in the church today? A teacher gives the impression that he has studied more than he has, and quotes a commentary as though the words were his own. A preacher delivers a sermon prepared by someone else as if it were his. A person is given more food than her family needs, and shares some with a neighbor as though she prepared it herself. A family makes a large contribution to our capital campaign, using an unexpected inheritance but giving the impression that the gift is their own sacrifice.

Deceptive benevolence is an easy sin to commit. And among all the wrong things we can do, most of us would see this crime as fairly benign. Those who would stone Stephen to death in two chapters were not punished as severely as this husband and wife. Saul of Tarsus participated in the persecution of multitudes of Christians, and was never punished by God. Why so severe a penalty for these? If this was the proper consequence of their sin, why is it not the result of such deception today?

Ananias and Sapphira were punished for their deception with death, for one reason above all others: theirs was a cancer which would have crippled or destroyed the Christian movement. Their deception would not have stayed secret for long. Those who bought their land would likely make the sale price public or available, and the sale itself was a matter of public record. The church would eventually know that two of its honored donors had lied about their gift and motives.

As a result, the public witness of the church would have been impugned in the larger community. The credibility and integrity of the apostles and their leadership in this process of benevolence would have been undermined or destroyed. And such deception, left unpunished, would have encouraged the same sin in the hearts of others. If they could deceive the Spirit, he is not truly Lord. Soon reverence for God and trust within the family of faith would be lost, and their community would be fractured.

The sin of Ananias and Sapphira was nothing less than a ploy of Satan to attack the unity and heart of the church (v. 3). Left unchecked, this cancer would have spread throughout the body of Christ. As it was, the punishment Ananias and Sapphira faced led to the opposite result from that intended by the enemy: “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11).

One other question is common with regard to this story: how did Peter know of their sin? It is of course possible that he had access to the public records regarding their sale, though nothing about such knowledge is suggested in the text. The answer is found in one of the most significant statements about the Holy Spirit to be found in all the Scriptures.

In speaking to Ananias, Peter exposed the plot of Satan as a lie “to the Holy Spirit” (v. 3). Then he concluded, “You have not lied to men but to God” (v. 4). Later he asked Sapphira, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” (v. 9). When we deceive the Holy Spirit we deceive God, for he is the “Spirit of the Lord.” Here is proof of the absolute divinity of the Holy Spirit. He is God the Spirit, equal part of the Triune Lord.

And it seems clear from the text that this Holy Spirit revealed the sin of Ananias and Sapphira to Peter. He made the apostle a spiritual oncologist, revealing to him the cancer before it could spread further. In so doing, he made clear to all that he sees every heart and motive, and will stop at nothing to keep God’s people pure. The “great fear” which seized the whole church was not a fear of Peter’s omniscience, but of God’s.

Expect the power of God (Acts 5:12-16)

The result of Peter’s courage and the church’s resultant fear of the Lord came quickly. The leaders performed more miraculous signs and wonders; the congregation grew in unity and numbers; crowds gathered with their sick, and “all of them were healed” (v. 16). And the Kingdom moved forward, having weathered the attack of the enemy and emerged in victory.

One question sometimes arises with this paragraph. Verse 13 documents that “no one else dared to join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people,” but the next verse says, “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” Is this a contradiction?

Several options exist in clarifying the context. “No one else” could mean “no other imposters” such as Ananias and Sapphira, having seen what happens to those who sin against God’s people. Luke could mean that “no one else” joined the believers as they met in Solomon’s Colonnade unless they first came to faith in Christ. He could mean that those who met in Solomon’s Colonnade were so feared by the people that even those coming to faith in Christ were afraid to join them in their meeting.

Or Luke could be describing the growth of the church chronologically: (1) the episode with Ananias and Sapphira led to “great fear” in the church and community (v. 11); great miracles followed (v. 12); the community was afraid to join them (v. 13); then “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (v. 14). There is no contradiction in the text, only a different context than is ours today.

But the same Spirit and the same power which enabled their church to explode in growth now lives in us, and wants to do the same through us.


Three applications of this week’s study are clear. One: we should live and serve so as to incur the wrath of Satan himself. We are to assault the very gates of hell (Matthew 16:18). We do so when we love each other, stand boldly for the risen Christ, meet each other’s needs, and set a godly example for the family of faith. If Satan isn’t attacking us, perhaps we’re not threatening him.

Two: every sin grieves the Lord and leads eventually to death (Romans 6:23). God’s warning to Eve in the Garden (Genesis 2:17) still applies to every sin and transgression. Sometimes the consequences of our sin are less obvious at first than they were for Ananias and Sapphira, but they are no less real. The truism is nonetheless true: sin will always take is further than we wanted to go, keep us longer than we wanted to stay, and cost us more than we wanted to pay.

Three: every secret is known to the Lord. Every motive, every thought, every word of gossip or slander uttered in confidence, every transgression. We must “keep short accounts” with God, spending time often in confession and cleansing. The Holy Spirit can use us to the degree that we are holy. Then he will work through us as he did through the Jerusalem church, to the glory of God.

Is your class a threat to the enemy? Is he attacking your class or church at some point of unity in response? Do you need to confess an act or spirit of deception or divisiveness? Peter warned us that the devil is a “roaring lion” (1 Pt. 5:8). And lions only roar when they are about to attack.

There’s no time to lose.


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).

“Choose” translates the Greek, “look you out,” or “seek out.” The church was to nominate “seven” men; some suggest that this number was chosen for its Hebrew significance as a symbol for completion and perfection (cf. the seven-fold Spirit of Revelation 1). A more practical reason may well be that the Jerusalem church may have been gathered in seven house-churches, and each needed someone to help that cell group minister to its own.

They were to find seven “men.” There is no clergy-laity distinction here or anywhere else in the Bible. Their only qualification: they must be “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” “Known” means “to have the reputation for.” In other words, their lives and witness were to give testimony to the fact that they are filled with the Spirit and wisdom. They must have proven it. Paul later made the same requirement of “deacons”: “They must first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve as deacons” (1 Timothy 3:10).

To be “full of the Spirit” means to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, to be submitted to his leadership and will. This is God’s command for us all (Ephesians 5:18), our daily surrender of heart, soul, mind and strength to his guidance and power. We are to confess every sin he brings to mind, ask his cleansing and forgiveness, and consciously turn our lives and work over to his will. This is to be a lifestyle, a continual process and experience.

When we are “full of the Spirit” we will also be “full” of “wisdom”—a particular gift and skill which brings about the efficient and effective accomplishment of a ministry task (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:8). “Wisdom” is a gift of the Spirit, and the result of the Spirit’s control of our lives. Those called to the task of leading the church in caring for its widows would need the Spirit’s guidance, and the wisdom and skill which the Spirit alone could produce.

Then the apostles could “give our attention” to prayer and the ministry of the word—the Greek means “devote ourselves exclusively to.” These would be the first priorities of the spiritual leaders of the church, in this order. We must listen before we speak.

The “whole group” affirmed the apostles’ leadership as from God (v. 5), another indication that the earliest church governance was congregational in nature. And so they nominated seven men. Stephen, the first on the list, was considered by early church tradition to have been among the Seventy-two sent by Jesus to minister to the Samaritans (Luke 10:1-24). Philip would become an evangelist as well (cf. Acts 8:5-40 and 21:8, where these men were still called “the Seven”).

The only other name on the list to be described in Scripture beyond his name was “Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” He was a Gentile who became a Jew and then a Christian. He was from Antioch, the Gentile city which would soon become the missions headquarters of the apostolic movement (Acts 11:19-26; 13:1-3).

Commentators note that all seven men had Greek names and thus may have represented the Greek side of the church, since it was the group which first raised the problem leading to their selection (6:1). But others point out that it was common in the first century for people to bear Greek names even if they were from Hebrew background and culture.

The apostles prayed (v. 6), indicating that the selection of these men was ultimately up to God. They then “laid their hands on them,” continuing the priestly act of conferring blessing and endorsement for ministry. Some believe that only the apostles performed this function, and see their action as indicative of a specialized clergy and even an apostolic succession (the Catholic model). Others suggest that the Greek grammar connects the “whole group” (v. 5) to the act of laying on hands. Acts 13:3 is a clear example of congregational “ordination,” where the entire church fasted and prayed for Barnabas and Saul, laid hands of blessing on them, and sent them to their global ministry.

The church saw the need to be met, and the Spirit called and empowered those intended by God to meet it. This is precisely the process God still uses in advancing his Kingdom and building his church. Where has the Spirit called you to serve?

Expect Kingdom results (v. 7)

The Spirit’s strategy led to two significant results. One changed apostolic Christianity; the other impacted the Church from then to now.

The word of God spread

First, “the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (v. 7). The word of God “spread,” a Greek tense which indicates an ongoing and continual process, not occasional spurts and starts.

The number of disciples in Jerusalem “increased rapidly,” literally “multiplied.” This was always God’s plan for reaching the world. Remember the math: if you were the only believer in the world today and you won me to Christ; tomorrow we two won two more; the next day we four won four more, and so on—in 31 days more than eight billion (more than the world’s population) would be Christians. You say, “I can’t win one a day.” Could you win one a year? In 31 years the entire world would follow Jesus. That process started here.

Now for the first time in Acts, priests came to the faith, literally a “great crowd” of them. Perhaps they witnessed the church’s practical commitment to its widows and poor, were impressed with such practical faith, and wanted to join this movement of God. These priests would endure much opposition and persecution for their commitment. As Levites, their lands and houses were owned by the nation. This was much like a pastor and his family leaving a church and parsonage with no place to go. Nonetheless they “obeyed the faith” or “were being obedient” (a better translation than the NIV’s “became obedient”). They entered into a lifestyle of discipleship, and never left it.

Note that the widows and their needs are never mentioned again in the book of Acts. Clearly this program of personal ministry worked. It will still work today.

“Deacons” were created

The second legacy of this week’s text was the creation of the office of “deacon.” The Greek word means “servant,” and is found twice in our text: “wait” on tables (v. 2) and the “ministry” of the word (v. 4). Both those who served the widows and those who served the word of God would be diakonia, servants.

There is no indication in Acts 6 that these seven men were understood to be the first to occupy an ongoing office. They responded to a specific need at a specific time. However, the concept of called-out people to serve the needs of God’s people grew in apostolic Christianity, until thirty years later Paul set forth specific characteristics for those who would enter the office of “deacon” (1 Tim. 3:8-10).

Paul would also write to the Roman church, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1). “Servant” is the same word, diakonia, here related to a female. The NIV translates the word “servant,” though it offers the footnote, “or deaconess.” The NIV Study Bible adds the note, “When church related, as it is here, it probably refers to a specific office—woman deacon or deaconess.” Some feel that the “office of deacon” was in full existence by that time, and that Phoebe was thus a female deacon. Others believe that the office was not yet fully developed, or that her role as a “servant” does not necessarily indicate that she was a “deacon.”

The topic of female deacons is further complicated by Paul’s admonition, following the characteristics of deacons, “In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect . . .” (1 Timothy 3:11). “Wives” is actually “women” in the Greek, so that many feel that Paul here refers to female deacons.

Not only is the gender of deacons a question in biblical interpretation. Their evolved role through church history has also been problematic and controversial. By A.D. 250, Cyprian of Carthage and others were suggesting that the “clergy” be separated from the “laity”; the Council of Nicaea affirmed this distinction (A.D. 325). After Constantine the Great legalized the Christian church, he and others began to construct buildings for the clergy and their congregations to use. The medieval church then used the diaconate as the first stage in advancement toward priesthood, and removed the office from the “laity.” As monastic orders took on servant tasks, the “deacons” became more administrative in function.

In the modern era, corporate structures became increasingly important for churches. The pastors became the Chief Operating Officer for many, and the deacons a Board of Directors. Baptists were part of this trend. In 1846, R.B.C. Howell, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, wrote a book called The Deaconship. Here he described deacons as a “Board of Officers” or the “executive board of the church.”

P.E. Burroughs’ book Honoring the Deaconship was used by Southern Baptists from 1929 to 1956. He further defined the deacons’ role as superintending the material holdings and finances of the church, functioning as a board of directors. Harold Foshee’s The Ministry of the Deacon in 1968 was a welcome attempt to return the ministry of deacons to its biblical foundations. He correctly defined deacons as partners and team members with the pastor. Today we find both models in Baptist churches—administrative managers and servant leaders. Our church strongly affirms the latter.


We have studied this week only seven verses, but find within them extremely important and practical principles for God’s people:

We are significant to the degree that we are servants.

We serve by first identifying a need which must be met.

We then engage those God has gifted and is calling to meet this need.

We expect the Kingdom to grow as the gospel is preached through the practice of servant ministry.

You may not be called a “deacon”, but you are called to be a servant by our Lord. You know someone whose needs you can meet in Jesus’ name. Find a need and meet it with God’s love this week.

As a result, you will be able to say, “the word of God spread.” There is no greater responsibility or privilege than this.

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.

Read your mail (3.14-17)

Now, “as for you, continue in what you have learned and become convinced of” (v. 14). “Continue” means to make this a constant and continual habit.

What have we “learned and become convinced of?” “The Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15).

Why should we trust the Bible in hard places? Because “All Scripture is God-breathed” (v. 16a). God breathed these words into the hearts and minds of those who wrote them. Peter adds, “Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).

These words are “useful,” profitable, that which bears results. For what? Teaching—guiding our next step, showing us what to do. Rebuking—showing us our mistakes and sins. Correcting—setting us on the right path. Training in righteousness—instructing us in right living.

With this result: “the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (v. 17). “Thoroughly equipped” means to be completely prepared; the word was used for fitting a rescue boat. For “every” good work—Monday as well as Sunday, business as well as church.

So when you’re in jail, read your mail. J. I. Packer calls the Bible “God preaching.” Augustine described it as “love letters from home.” Prisoners in jail covet mail above everything else. They keep letters when they throw everything else away.

Stay in the word, even in the hard places. Especially in the hard places. Meet God there tomorrow. Ask him to teach, rebuke, correct, and train you. He will. And you’ll find joy in a jail cell.

Expect your parole (4.1-9)

To continue the metaphor, you’re imprisoned in a jail cell, but the judge is coming to hear your case. He is the one “who will judge the living and the dead” (v. 1). Be sure that he finds you faithful to your calling, that you “discharge all the duties of your ministry” (v. 5).

And know that one day you will be paroled from this prison and rewarded on the other side. Your “departure” will come—the word pictures a prisoner set free from his chains, an animal unyoked from its plow, or a tent which is packed for the next march. Paul has traveled across the known world; now he will make his last and greatest journey, the road which leads to God. So will we.

When we’re out of this prison, there is in store for us “the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (v. 8). Your faithfulness in this fallen world, this prison house, is noted and will be rewarded for all eternity.

If you were in a federal penitentiary but knew that you would be released at the end of the month, could you face the coming days with renewed hope?

Redeem your sentence (4.9-22)

You and I don’t know when we’ll be paroled from prison to freedom, so we must use well what time remains. How do we redeem our sentence, making jail into joy?

Love your fellow prisoners.

Paul instructs Timothy, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (v. 11). Nobody reading the book of Acts would expect to find this. John Mark deserted Paul during his first missionary journey. His uncle Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance, but Paul did not. Mark split the first missionary team in history, and we never find him in Acts again. But now Paul wants him to come to Rome. Paul has forgiven him, and offers him grace.

When the apostle appeared before Nero after being re-imprisoned, “At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me” (v. 16a). His so-called team members left the team. Is Paul bitter and angry? “May it not be held against them,” he prays (v. 16b).

Walt Disney was right: hard times make some men bitter, and others better. Choose to be gracious to those who have hurt you. Take the high road. Stop the cycle of vengeance. Offer grace while there’s still time.

And love your Father in heaven: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments” (v. 13). These are Paul’s copies of the word of God. He is still studying, still growing, still seeking God. So should we. And we’ll redeem what time remains.


Where is your jail cell today? Where do you feel discouraged and defeated? Perhaps you’ve heard of Satan’s garage sale. He had all his tools on display and priced: anger, murder, hate, lust, gossip, and the rest. At the end of the table lay an unnamed tool more worn than all the others, but priced highest of all. Someone asked him, “What tool is that?” He said, “Discouragement.” “Why is it priced so high?” “Because no one knows it’s mine.

We’re in all in jail together. Know that your Father didn’t bring you this far to leave you, so don’t blame him. Instead, read his mail to your soul. Expect your parole, any day now. Redeem your time by loving others and loving him.

You’ll say with Paul: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever” (v. 18). And you’ll find joy in a jail cell.

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.

Here’s what they did.

Seek the power of the Spirit (v. 8)

The key to the boldness and victory which Peter and John won comes early: “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them . . .” (v. 8). He remembered well Jesus’ promise that the disciples would receive power in the Spirit, and then they would be his witnesses (Ac. 1:8). He knew what we must remember: we cannot fulfill the purpose of God without the power of God. Ephesians 5:18 commands us to be filled with the Spirit as a daily decision and experience. Every single day we are to yield ourselves to the Spirit’s direction and empowering, to seek his help, to submit to his control.

Peter did so here. Luke doesn’t describe the steps Peter took, but we can imagine them. He and John knew they were being called before the highest authorities of the land, and had a sense of what was at stake. So, before they went to stand for God, they first stood with him. They sought his help. They did what the church would soon do: pray for boldness and power, and experience the help the Spirit gives (Ac. 4:29-31).

You and I must do the same thing. Before you teach this lesson this week, you must first seek the help and power of the Spirit. Your words cannot change a single heart or life. Nor can mine. Only the Spirit can work through us to effect significant and eternal transformation. Before we can fulfill the purpose of God, we must first submit to his power.

Turn challenge into opportunity (vs. 9-10)

Spurgeon was asked the secret to great preaching. His answer: take a text and make a bee-line for Jesus. Whenever you and I are challenged to stand for Christ, tempted or tested in our faith, persecuted for our convictions, we have a golden opportunity to turn temptation into triumph. Here’s how.

Begin with the issue at hand (v. 9). Peter found common ground in the issue before the court—the miraculous healing of the crippled man. Name the problem, the accusation, the test or temptation. Start there.

Then find a way to glorify Jesus (v. 10). Show the critic what the Lord has done for you; use the temptation to become more holy in the area where you are tempted, with the help of God; stand up to persecution with public faith in Jesus. Turn the focus from yourself to your Father.

Now, share the gospel clearly (vs. 11-12). Peter quotes Psalm 118 to show his Jewish critics how Jesus’ ministry fulfilled their Messianic promises. Then he called his critics to faith in their Messiah.

What an amazing turnaround! Two fishermen, called before the highest authorities in the land, end their court appearance by inviting their accusers to share their faith. Peter, the man who cowered before a serving girl before Pentecost, is now empowered to stand up to the greatest power in his nation. What Jesus’ Spirit did for him, he will do for us.

If you will stand for Jesus no matter what, you will find in him all the courage and strength you will need to be faithful. His will never leads where his grace cannot sustain.

Expect victory (vs. 13-22)

The results of this first legal defense of the faith were remarkable. The authorities could not attribute the persuasive power of these men to their rabbinic training, for they had none (v. 13). Rather, they knew they had been with Jesus, and that the One they proclaimed had somehow done an indisputable miracle (vs. 13-14).

So they took the only option open to them. They could not deny the miracle; to imprison the men was to risk the wrath of the populace; but they could not allow this “heresy” to continue. And so they “commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (v. 18). We assume they assumed that the disciples would be grateful for such a finding by the court, that their freedom would be worth its silence. They were wrong.

One of the most powerful and dramatic passages in all the Scriptures comes next: “Peter and John replied, ‘Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard'” (vs. 19-20). They did not directly refuse the order of the court. Rather, they made clear that they were responsible to a higher authority. Men who had earlier met behind locked doors for fear of these authorities now stood boldly on their faith. We think of Martin Luther, before the emperor and his court, announcing his decision to continue his Reformation: “Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.” He always does.

Frustrated, the authorities were forced to release the two (vs. 21-22). And victory was theirs, a triumph which would be crucial to the future of their movement. By the time the authorities chose to bring persecution against the Christians, they had already grown too powerful to be stopped. Their army could not be defeated. Today there is no Sanhedrin. But you will teach the same message Peter and John defended in Jerusalem. And billions will join you in your faith.

When we pray for God to heal a person miraculously and then are astonished when the healing comes, we demonstrate that our faith was less than bold. The other extreme is also to be avoided: we cannot obligate God by our faith. He will do his will. But we should not be surprised when that will leads to what we call a “miracle.” There is no such thing with the Lord of the universe.

A tavern owner built a bar down the street from a local church. The church met to pray that God would destroy the tavern. That night a lightning strike burned the bar to the ground. The tavern owner sued the church. The church argued its innocence. The judge was right: “The tavern owner has more faith in God than the church.” When you stand in the purpose and power of God, victory for the gospel is assured.

Pray for boldness (vs. 23-31)

Peter and John immediately reported to the church; the congregation raised their voices together in united worship. Quoting Psalm 2, they rejoiced that their Lord was more powerful than their adversaries. Their new faith had been proven divinely powerful. Their movement would be divinely protected. Their work would be divinely prospered.

But only if they would do together what Peter had done personally—seek and trust the continued empowering of the Spirit of God. The believers prayed for boldness, miraculous power, and the glory of Jesus (v. 29). When last did you make this your prayer? When last did you lead your class to do the same? Will you this week?

Here is the response you can expect: “the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (v. 31). God will still “fill” and empower every Christian who seeks his help and will stand for his word. He still uses every disciple who will be used. No exceptions are found in our text, or our lives. Nothing in our past can keep his Spirit from using us in the present. Failed, flawed, cowardly men and women became the leaders of the most powerful movement in spiritual history. Now you and I are called to join them.


The invitation of this week’s study is quite simple: will you and your class pray for the power of the Spirit to make you bold for Jesus? He is waiting for his people to make this request their passion. And to empower such people for eternal purpose.

When Jim Cymbala became pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle, some 20 people typically attended the mid-week prayer meeting and not many more the weekend worship services. God spoke to Jim’s heart, leading him to make that mid-week prayer service the “engine” of the church. Today more than 2,000 meet each Tuesday to pray for the power of God to fall on the church. I’ve joined them in that service, and was profoundly touched.

When last did you pray for such power for your faith family? For yourself? We have not because we ask not (James 4:2). If we ask, we will receive (Matthew 7:7).

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.

A wealthy home will have articles of gold and silver—candlesticks, silverware, fine china, expensive furnishings and rugs. It will also have articles of wood and clay—in the first century, these would be serving utensils and vessels used by the slaves, and the facilities for personal functions. Some are “noble,” some “ignoble.” One article cannot be both. To be fit for the Master of the house, the article must be clean, holy, useful, prepared for the good works for which he intends the possession.

How do we make sure we are clean, holy, useful, prepared for the good works for which God intends us? Flee the evil desires of youth, “lusts peculiar to youth” (v. 22a). Paul probably has in mind sexual temptations, insecurity, immaturity, and so on. To know if there are “evil desire” you must flee, ask your Father.

In their place, “pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart” (v. 22b). Measure your every action by these questions: is it right? Does it honor God? Will it promote love and peace? Will those who have pure hearts affirm it? Avoid godless desires, and you’ll avoid the ditch of the soul.

Avoid godless arguments (vs. 23-26)

Now Paul moves to the enemy’s last strategy. If he cannot get us to use godless language or pursue godless desires, he’ll entangle us with those who will. He’ll catch us with “foolish” (lacking character) and “stupid” (lacking education or knowledge) arguments.

How do you know that an argument is foolish and stupid? If it “produces quarrels” (v. 23). If it divides the family of faith. Satan always attacks the church first at the point of unity, from Ananias and Sapphira to the present. Jesus prayed that we might be one, so the world would believe that the Father sent his Son (John 17:21). He taught us, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love one for another” (John 13:35). Arguments which divide the people of God are condemned by the word of God.

How do we respond to them?

“Gently instruct”: “gently” means to refuse to seek revenge, but to keep your emotions and pride in check; “instruct” means to speak the truth.

Be gracious: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone” (Colossians 4:6). Take the high road.

Go to them: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you” (Matthew 18:15).

Refuse to be drawn into conflict with them: “Avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because they are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned” (Titus 3.9-11).

Ultimately, seek their restoration. Pray that God will lead them to repentance, so that they come to their senses and escape the trap of the devil (vs. 25-26).

“Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name” (Malachi 3:16).


It comes to this: be Christlike. Ask of every word you are about to speak or hear: would Jesus say this? Ask of every attitude and desire: would Jesus pursue this? Ask of every argument you are tempted to begin or enter: would Jesus do this?

God’s purpose for every one of us is that we be “conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29). Do you find in your language or heart places where you’re not like your Lord? Where people do not see or hear Jesus in you? Where you’re outside the word and will of God? Those are the places where you’re in the spiritual ditch today.

So ask for help. Don’t try to climb out yourself, because you can’t. Here’s where Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code is at its most damaging: it is happy to make Jesus a model and example, but it refuses him the divinity and present power which can help us follow him successfully. He’s not just a standard—he’s a Savior. Your living Savior, today.

So ask him to forgive you. If you have wronged a person and confessing would help them, go to them. Ask the Spirit for the strength to get out of the muck and mud you’re in. If you’re not in the ditch, renew your commitment to the standards we’ve discovered today, lest you drive off the mountain. That’s a slippery slope you don’t want to find.

In 1865, the Secret Service was established; its founding purpose was not to protect the president but to fight currency counterfeiting. Lately it’s been busy in this regard. The new $20 bill was released this past fall, with new color schemes and background art. New $50 and $100 bills will be released next, as the Treasury continues to respond to counterfeiting techniques. But the criminals always have an answer. They “leech” the bills, bleaching out the ink and replacing it with higher currency features. Or they digitally reproduce them.

And so banks still teach their tellers to fight counterfeit bills the way they always have. They give them so much time with the real currency that they can spot a fake the moment they see or touch it.

Let us pray.

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.

And they knew that the power of God was available to them now, in the Holy Spirit. An exploding star is one of the greatest forces in the universe, but it’s not available to us. This power is, but only because of the Incarnation and indwelling Spirit. At Christmas God relocated. Now he lives in our hearts. His power is available to all who will fulfill his purpose.

Think of that hurting friend you visualized a moment ago. What specific needs or problems does that person face? Likely, these issues transcend your ability to help fully. The person may face cancer or heart disease, financial loss, marital tension, family struggles, substance abuse. One of the main reasons why Christians don’t get more involved in the hurts of our neighbors is that we don’t know what we could do to help. Their needs transcend our resources.

But not God’s. Identify that hurting person by name, then offer him or her to God in prayer. Seek the Father’s help and hope. Ask the Lord to show you how you can help, where you can serve, what you can say. Believe that God will work through you to do far more than you can do in your own ability. And he will.

Touch the hurt (v. 7)

Now we come to the last component in their ministry and ours: get involved personally. Touch the hurt, ourselves: “Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up” (v. 7a). The Jewish theology of Peter’s day dictated that a person born with physical limitations was under the judgment of God. When the disciples met the man born blind they asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). No self-respecting Jew would touch this man. Toss him a coin, perhaps. Offer a sympathetic look or word. But don’t touch him. He is a spiritual leper.

But Peter and John learned from Jesus to touch the hurt. They watched him befriend despised publicans and prostitutes, Gentiles and Samaritans. They watched him touch leprous flesh and blind eyes and dead bodies. He broke their every stigma regarding human pain. Now he calls his followers to do the same.

When I taught world religions at Southwestern Seminary, I compared Christianity to other faiths through this analogy. A man fell into the depths of an abandoned well, and could not get out. A Hindu master stopped by, looked into the well, and told the man, “If you are faithful in the well, in the next life you will escape it.” Then he went on.

A Buddhist teacher told the man that his wrong desires had produced this suffering, then he went on by. A Muslim imam stopped to tell the man that it was the will of Allah that he be in the well, then he passed by. A Jewish rabbi told the man that he was being punished for his sins by falling into the well, then he walked on. A Confucian scholar told the man that if he had not tripped, he would not have fallen into the well.

Then Jesus of Nazareth saw the man in the well, and Jesus climbed into the well with him.

So must we. Think of your hurting friend. How can you get involved? Perhaps something as simple as a note, an e-mail, or a phone call would bring welcome encouragement and hope. You don’t have to know what to say—your presence is typically all a hurting heart requires. Job’s friends were doing well until they started talking. People in pain will seldom remember all you say, but they will always remember that you cared enough to come, to write, to be there. To touch their hurt.

Ken Medema, the blind Christian songwriter and singer, sees more with his heart than most of us do with our eyes. In one of his songs, he warns: “Don’t tell me I have a friend in Jesus until you show me I have a friend in you.”

Expect good results (Acts 3:7—4:4)

When Peter touched the hurting man, and not a moment before, “instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong” (v. 7). Luke uses medical terminology found nowhere else in the Bible to describe the way the crippled man’s bones were regenerated and renewed. His response was typical of many who have been touched and healed by the power of Jesus: on his new feet he went into the temple courts, “walking and jumping, and praising God” (v. 8). Jesus touches our bodies so he can touch our souls.

Now the man became his new faith’s best salesman: all the people saw him walking and praising God, recognized him from those years he could do nothing but beg, and “were filled with wonder and amazement and what had happened to him” (v. 10). I’ve discovered that my status as a vocational minister makes it easier for some to dismiss my story as professional. But when a person is genuinely transformed by the grace of God, and has no reason to tell the story except that it is true, such an account can be more powerful than any church program or worship service.

When you and I see the one, trust the name, and touch the hurt, God uses us to change lives. Then those changed lives change other lives, and the multiplication process begins. The ripples touch all shores. And the Kingdom grows.

The astonished crowds gathered at Solomon’s Colonnade, a large porch which ran along the wall of the outer court of the Temple. Here everyone could gather—Gentiles, women, Jewish men. No better place could exist in Jerusalem for fulfilling the Great Commission in the city.

Peter would not miss such an opportunity. He repeated the same basic outline we find in other sermons and witnessing encounters in Acts: the people killed Jesus (vs. 13-14); God raised him back to life (v. 15); and this living Lord is now powerful to save and to heal (v. 16). These same facts still pertain to every person you and I will meet today. Jesus died in our place, for our sins, paying the penalty for our sins. He rose from the grave, and is alive to save and help us now.

The apostle then offered the crowds the same opportunity to experience the healing grace of God as the crippled man found (vs. 17-26). He began with his own extension of grace: “I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders” (v. 17). Then he built a bridge from their faith to his, citing the prophets, Moses (v. 22), and Abraham (v. 25). He closed with a word of encouraging hope: “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways” (v. 26).

His method still works. Build a personal relationship of grace; use common ground to build a bridge to the gospel; and invite the person to experience God’s grace.

When we are faithful to serve others in Jesus’ name, some will reject our ministry (Acts 4:1-3). If they persecuted Jesus, they will persecute his followers (cf. Matthew 5:11-12). As the African proverb has it, when elephants fight, the grass always loses. But the enemies of truth cannot prevent its spread: “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand” (v. 4). With their families as well. When we serve as Peter and John did, their God will use our ministry as he used theirs.


What Peter and John did for the crippled man and crowd, Jesus now stands ready to do for you and for me. He sees you, as you read these words. His name and power are sufficient for your every need. He stands ready to touch your hurt with his Spirit. And he calls you to share his love with the crowds and the individuals you can influence. The miracle of Acts 3 can be our daily experience, when we make its model our own.

The story is told that George Truett was on his way to his study at First Baptist Church in Dallas one Monday morning when he happened to notice a young boy sitting on the steps of the church. Something bade him stop and talk with that young man. He asked him if he went to church. “Yes sir,” he answered. “Where?” “Here, sir.” “Oh, then,” Dr. Truett said, “I’m glad you’re a Christian.” “Oh, I’m not, sir.” “Why not?” “No one’s ever told me how to become a Christian.” Dr. Truett was astonished: “You mean in all this time, hearing me preach every week, you’ve never known how to be a Christian?” “No, sir.” Then and there, Dr. Truett explained the gospel and led the boy to Christ.

Who next in the routine of your life will take a step towards Jesus because of you?

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).

Third, consider the discipline of fasting. This is the practice of abstaining from the physical for the sake of the spiritual. Fast a meal a week, then a day. Turn your hunger into prayer and worship. Begin to declare your independence from physical appetites.

Last, get the help of others. If this is a persistent problem, ask people you trust to pray fro you. Seek professional help if necessary. Err on the side of seeking more help than you may need.

And know that your Father cares about every part of your life–body, soul, and spirit. He will help you win the victory through Jesus Christ your Lord.

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.

Third, know the results of sexual sin. Financial ruin often results: “Keep to a path far from her, do not go near the door of her house, lest you give your best strength to others and your years to one who is cruel, lest strangers feast on your wealth and your toil enrich another man’s house” (5.8-10); “A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth” (29:3).

Public ruin is inevitable: all will see your sin: “I have come to the brink of utter ruin in the midst of the whole assembly'” (5:14). Her husband will seek revenge without mercy (6:30-35). And we will repent when it is too late: “At the end of your life you will groan, when your flesh and body are spent. You will say, ‘How I hated discipline! How my heart spurned correction! I would not obey my teachers or listen to my instructors” (5:11-13).

In fact, we may die: one lured into sexual sin is “like an ox going to the slaughter, like a deer stepping into a noose till an arrow pierces his liver, like a bird darting into a snare, little knowing it will cost him his life. . . . Many are the victims she has brought down; her slain are a mighty throng. Her house is a highway to the grave, leading down to the chambers of death” (7:22-23, 26-27).

Fourth, refuse sexual temptation when it first appears: “Do not lust in your heart after her beauty or let her captivate you with her eyes” (6:25); “Keep to a path far from her; do not go near her door” (5:8); do not even go in the direction of her house (7:6-9). It will never be as easy to refuse this sin as when it first attacks.

Fifth, stay in love with your spouse. Choose him or her: “Drink water from your own cistern, running water from your own well. Should your springs overflow in the streets, your streams of water in the public squares? Let them be yours alone, never to be shared with strangers” (5:15-17).

Rejoice in the one you married: “May your fountain be blessed, and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, a graceful deer—may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. Why be captivated, my son, by an adulteress? Why embrace the bosom of another man’s wife?” (5:18-20). And meet your spouse’s needs: “Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up: a servant who becomes king, a fool who is full of food, an unloved woman who is married, and a maidservant who displaces her mistress” (30:21-23).

Sixth, fear the punishment of God: “A man’s ways are in full view of the Lord, and he examines all his ways. The evil deeds of a wicked man ensnare him; the cords of his sin hold him fast. He will die for lack of discipline, led astray by his own great folly” (5:21-23).

Last, stay close to your Father. God will give you the strength to refuse this sin every time it attacks. Start the day in prayer and Scripture. Worship your Lord with your faith family. Spend the day in the presence of God. And he will give you the victory.

Richard Dobbins is founder of “Emerge Ministries,” working with pastors who have fallen into sexual sin. He states that every single one of these pastors has one thing in common. In the days, weeks, and months leading up to their moral failure, not one of them had maintained a consistent time of daily devotions.

God is ready to give you the victory over this persistent and deadly sin. Turn to him today.

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).

Work diligently: “A wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down” (14:1); “Finish your outdoor work and get your fields ready; after that, build your house” (24:27).

Work while you can: “Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest” (6:6-8); “Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations. When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field. You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed you and your family and to nourish your servant girls” (27:23-27).

Claim God’s blessing on your hard work: “He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment” (12:11); “Diligent hands will rule, but laziness ends in slave labor” (12:24); “The sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” (13:4); “All hard work brings a profit, but mere talk leads only to poverty” (14:23); “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor; stay awake and you will have food to spare” (20:13).

The writer continues: “The plans of the diligent lead to profit as surely as haste leads to poverty” (21:5). “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He will serve before kings; he will not serve before obscure men” (22:29). “He who works his land will have abundant food, but the one who chases fantasies will have his fill of poverty” (28:19).

“Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; coneys are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings’ palaces” (30:24-28).

Work with God

How do we keep hard work from become damaging stress? By working hard, but working with God.

So surrender daily to God’s purpose for that day. Heed Romans 12.1-2: “I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his god, pleasing and perfect will.”

God has a will for our lives every day. We must seek it and surrender to it daily. How do we seek God’s will for each day? Listen to him, ask him to speak through circumstances and others, begin the day with him.

Said the poet:

I met God in the morning when my day was at its best,

and his presence came like sunrise, like a glory to my breast.

All day long his presence lingered. All day long he stayed with me.

And we sailed in perfect calmness o’er sometimes troubled sea.

Other ships were torn and battered. Other ships were sore distressed,

but the winds that seemed to drive them brought to us a peace and rest.

So I think I’ve learned the secret, learned from many a troubled way,

you must seek God in the morning if you want him through the day.

Ask God to empower you to fulfill his purpose for your life. Paul could testify, “To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Colossians 1:29). God’s will never leads where his power cannot sustain. Jesus told his followers, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name” (John 15:16).

How do we experience his power every day? Refuse self-sufficiency, believe by faith that he will empower us, and stay connected to him by abiding in him.

Are you surrendered to the power of God today? Pray to that end. Then work hard as God works. This is his word with regard to each of the deadly sins, and each opportunity of the day before you. Your Father is your partner, and your friend. Depend on him all day long.

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).

If you had eyes to see spiritual beings, you would see angels around you as you read these words. Elisha’s admonition to his frightened servant is still God’s word to us: “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). After the prophet prayed that the Lord would opened the servant’s eyes, “he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (v. 17). Those horses and chariots are still real today.

If you will serve God faithfully, you can count on angels to protect and serve you. Already you have likely experienced their help in ways you could not see and did not recognize. When we are with the Father in heaven, perhaps he will give us opportunity to look back over our lives and rejoice in all the ways his angels cared for us.

Obey God rather than men (Acts 5:25-32)

Next we come to one of the clearest proofs of genuine transformation in all the apostolic record. Remember that only John had even the courage to appear at Jesus’ crucifixion; Peter had cowered before a serving girl on the night of his Lord’s arrest; the disciples before Pentecost met behind locked doors for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).

Now their worst fears have come to reality. The Sanhedrin knows each of them by name, has already arrested them, and plans to bring them to punishment and probable execution. They are on the nation’s “most wanted” list, with no legal options. They have one more chance to retreat from danger, with the likely result that the Jerusalem officials would allow their safety in obscurity.

If you were in their circumstances today, what would you do? Would you return to the scene of the crime, the headquarters of your adversaries, and continue the very activity which led to your arrest? The apostles did. The Spirit who empowered them at Pentecost changed them forever. Frightened fishermen had become emboldened prophets. And world history would never be the same.

We should pray for such courage: “We must obey God rather than men!” (v. 29). The apostolic witness was consistent and powerful, centering always in the risen Christ and the opportunity for forgiveness he alone provides. Their message should be ours every time you teach and I preach. Those who hear us may never have another chance to come to the One we proclaim. And God will always protect and empower those who glorify his Son.

The text nowhere claims that the apostles performed their ministry without fear. A common spiritual mistake is to confuse the presence of fear with the lack of faith. Genuine faith is not the absence of fear, but the decision to obey God no matter how afraid we are. If we’re not afraid, we need little faith.

Return to that place in your life where you are afraid to serve the Lord. Name that fear. Trust it to God in faith. Follow your Lord even though you are afraid. Only when you step out of the boat can you walk on the water.

The old axiom is still true: “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. And there was no one there.”

Expect divine help from unlikely sources (Acts 5:33-39)

We have already seen how God will use his angels to protect his people. Now our story shows us that God can use humans as well as spiritual beings to advance his Kingdom. We expect him to employ the apostles to his Great Commission purpose, but not the greatest scholar among their Jewish opponents. “Straight licks with crooked sticks” is a proverb and a fact of spiritual life.

Gamaliel was the finest scholar in Israel. A Pharisee and legal expert, he may have been the grandson of Hillel, one of the two most prominent teachers in Jewish history. The school founded by Hillel typically interpreted Scripture in a moderate and practical manner, in contrast to Shammai’s more literal and demanding approach. And so Hillel’s school came to prominence and popularity in first-century Judaism.

Gamaliel was at least the recognized leader of this movement, a kind of “denominational” official and key advisor in Israel. Saul of Tarsus’s resume featured the fact that he had once been a protégé of this great scholar: “Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today” (Acts 22:3). Saul’s subsequent persecution of the Christian movement showed that Gamaliel’s teachings could easily lead to the severest rejection of Jesus’ teachings and followers.

Now this respected spiritual leader, a kind of Billy Graham to his people, stood to speak. A word from him would likely lead to the execution of the leadership team of apostolic Christianity, and the direst consequences to their movement.

Gamaliel cited the revolutionary movement of the otherwise-unknown Theudas (not the one mentioned later by Josephus), and its dispersion. He also mentioned Judas the Galilean, whose revolt against paying taxes to Caesar was described by the Jewish historian Josephus. His rebellion likewise came to nothing (vs. 36-37). His point was simple: “if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (vs. 38-39). He was more right than he knew.

And “His speech persuaded them” (v. 40). God used a man none would have counted a friend of the Christian movement, to help preserve its leaders and maintain its growth. If our Lord could use such an adversary to become an unlikely ally of his people, know that he can use any person and source to further his Kingdom.

No one is beyond the redemptive grace of God. And no situation is beyond his redemptive power. If your fear to serve God has its source in a Gamaliel, know that your Father is more powerful than any adversary. The bumper sticker speaks truth: “God + 1 = majority.” Always.

Conclusion (Acts 5:40-42)

The protection God gave his people did not mean that they would not suffer for their faith. Their flogging (v. 40) was a severe torture in which the cat-o-nine-tails, nine long strips of leather imbedded with sharp pieces of rock and shell, was whipped across their backs 39 times. Often such abuse led to permanent damage or worse.

Despite such persecution, the apostles “left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (v. 41). What a transformation from cowardice to courage. If you and I can grow to the place where we welcome persecution as an honor, knowing that our Lord considers us strong enough to face such suffering for his Kingdom, realizing that we threaten the enemy enough to force such antagonism, we will have grown mature indeed. And our church will be as powerful and significant for our Father as was theirs.

Water on a grease fire only spreads it. Persecuting true followers of Jesus only strengthens their resolve and ministry. Tertullian was right: the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Rather than dissuading their proclamation, the Sanhedrin’s abuse led to the opposite response, as the apostles “never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (v. 42). In public and private, in the temple and from house to house, nothing could stop their army from becoming the most powerful spiritual movement in human history.

Now God stands ready to use us as he used them. Where are you afraid to stand for your Lord? Where might your class members face such fear in their lives and faith? The angels of God stand ready to protect us; the Spirit of God stands ready to empower us; the providential work of God will employ unlikely sources to aid us. All that remains is for us to step forward in faith, no matter our fears.

I will not forget the time a noted pastor spoke to one of my seminary classes about the power of God and told the following story. A member of his congregation was jogging through a city park one night. She sensed a dangerous presence, and prayed quickly and earnestly to God for his protection. Nothing happened to her. The next day she read in the newspaper that another jogger, running through the same park, had been attacked. She went to the police with her story, and agreed to testify in the assailant’s trial.

A lawyer asked the man if he had seen the woman running earlier through the park. He said that he had. The attorney asked why he had not attacked her. He replied, “I started after her, but suddenly a giant man appeared at her side, running with her, and scared me away.” She never saw him, but he was no less real.

Who’s at your side today?

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