Prison Break

His righteous anger at the one who hurts you is an invitation for you to resolve your anger issue with Him.

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Acts 23:6 When Paul realized that one part of them were Sadducee(s) and the other part were Pharisees, he cried out in the Sanhedrin, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees! I am being judged because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead! ”

 

Have you ever seen Prison Break? This seasonal drama depicts a number of characters always weaved into a plot with the same climax; breaking out. Never have I seen a show that includes more use of this ancient battle strategy: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.  In fact, it’s easy to get lost in the quick formation of alliances between characters who were enemies in the previous episode. Why? To break out.

Sometimes we should employ the same technique.

This passage reveals Paul’s sharp wisdom.  About to face persecution, he realizes he’s in a room with not just one enemy, but two.  The Pharisees are vitriolic because Paul preached Jesus as Messiah.  The Sadducees because Paul preached Jesus as resurrected.  Paul plays on their difference with this ancient wisdom: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Though the extent of truth in that shrewdness varies, it was certainly true that while the Sadducees were hostile to Paul’s resurrection theology, the Pharisees were hostile to their hostility.  In verse 6, he employs his tactic:  “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees! I am being judged because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead!”  He stirs it up between these two sects shifting attention from himself and as the fight ensues, the Romans “rescue him.” (vs. 10)

When we find ourselves trapped in the spiritual prison of our own making, we should remember how Paul handled his captivity here.  We may be in that room with more than one enemy, also.

God and the Devil.

I know.  You’re thinking, “It can’t be.”  But James 4:4 warns clearly he who befriends the world makes himself an enemy of God. Ouch. I’m sure glad it never works the other way around. God never makes himself our enemy, but we can sure make Him ours. Our desires and decisions often put us an enmity with God and when we put ourselves at odds with Him, we willfully and ignorantly tag ourselves, “enemy.”  Peace escapes. Joy’s absent. Blessing is gone. We’re trapped.

Enter stage left, the other enemy.

It’s a pretty common theatre, actually.  People who confess Christ but conform to the world are in no short supply.  This culturally acceptable and sometimes subtle idolatrous betrayal turns our greatest ally into our enemy, instead.  And when the other one comes in, he’s free to wreak havoc.  You have two enemies in the room and the options seem bleak.

I’ve met countless people in the middle of that mess when the marriage is falling apart, when the job is lost, when addiction takes captive.  A common response is

“God’s angry with me.”

Well, maybe. But the devil hates you.

Others say, “I’m angry at God.”

Okay. Be angrier at the devil.

It’s time to employ Paul’s wisdom. The enemy of your enemy is your friend.  When you’re in that pinch and you feel you have no friend in the room, just ask this question: “How does God feel about the enemy of my soul and his plan to steal, kill and destroy everything good in my life?”

His righteous anger at the one who hurts you is an invitation for you to resolve your anger issue with Him.

You may have made God an enemy, but it doesn’t change His nature. His nature is to defend, protect, and conquer.   It’s to bless, embrace, and encourage. He’s a rescuer and a restorer and His heart is to make all things new and all things right.  He wants to be your friend.

He is the greatest enemy of your enemy and you can’t afford to be His opponent. He’s your prison break.

So conform not to this world and neither befriend it (James 4:4), but hate it like it hates you (Jn 15:18-19) and be transformed instead by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2).  Then you’ll know His will for you. It is good, pleasing and perfect.

Uniquely Exclusive

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Acts 22:22 They listened to him up to this word. Then they raised their voices, shouting, “Wipe this person off the earth — it’s a disgrace for him to live! ”

Access to God for all doesn’t devalue personal uniqueness for the one.

With the help of several different people, I’ve finished a mentoring tool called Life Deck.  One of the Life categories in the Deck includes Economics and I pose the question, “If you had the last apple seed on earth, how much do you think it would be worth?” Consider that!  A very limited supply of a high demand product increases its value greatly.  Imagine you’re the owner of that seed.  World leaders, Ivy League universities, highly esteemed scientific institutes, not to mention every farmer would be knocking your door down to make an offer. What wealth and power you would hold in the palm of your hand!

The Bible tells us it was for envy that the Jews crucified Jesus.  Until He came, they controlled a commodity limited to a specific people.  It’s designation to the Jews and more specifically to the Jewish leaders created an elite group who had access to something of great value; God. When Christ arrived on the scene and offered access to God, once and for all, the Jews were maddened!  It was as if someone pulled up in your port with a freight-liner full of apple seeds.  Suddenly, the power and wealth you had in your hand is no longer revered as something invaluable.  A strange envy struck the hearts of the Pharisees and they crucified the Captain of that freight-liner with an intent to then sink the ship.

They couldn’t do it.

In this passage, Paul is addressing his people.  Although an angry mob, he settles them, capturing their attention in Hebrew. He shares his testimony, his encounter with the Messiah on the road to Damascus, the bright light that blinded him.  They’re all listening.  From their perspective, Paul, once a zealot for the Jewish-led persecution of Christians, seems full of a new light and passion. I wonder as he continued sharing the miraculous restoration of his vision at Ananias’ hand, did some in the crowd wonder if this new power might be for them? Could this transformed life be the next evolutionary phase for the exclusive seed they’d held in their hands since Abraham?

Paul wrecks that hope.

In verse 21, he’s clear. The apple seed is for everyone. The next verse? “They listened to him up to this word.”  The mob reverted, “Sink the ship!”

Really? Does access to God for all make the access less valuable? Basic economics would say so. But consider it this way:

All the world has headphones and music is piped in. Every person’s music is limited to percussion instruments. Pianos, drums, xylophones, and the like.  That’s it.  No strings, no horns, nothing synthesized. But yours are different. You’re the only one who has access to the full gamut. Your headphones are the only ones on earth that give the full range of music.  What you hear, no one else hears. It’s exclusively yours.  Back to that apple seed analogy, right?  The value of your headphones is through the roof.  Then, Pandora shows up with some cool app that transforms everyone’s headphones to be just like yours. Suddenly the uniqueness and value of your set bottoms out.

Now imagine you’re walking down the street listening to that Mozart score that used to jazz you up, except now your head is dropped, you’re directionless and apathetic, knowing that what you’re listening to – it’s nothing unique.

Then suddenly there’s a voice that comes in through the earpieces.  It’s one you’ve never heard before and the most shocking aspect is that it speaks your name.  The voice begins to talk with you about things of your past, times you had forgotten, issues of your heart you could never fully understand and reveals aspects of your future you’ve never even considered.  A stranger passes you and in the shock of the moment, you grab him by the shoulder, startling him.  He takes off his headphones.

“Whoa man! What the heck!”

“Sorry, sorry. I just started hearing a voice through my headphones and it said my name and told me…” You share the details of what you heard with this stranger before asking, “Do you hear the same thing in your headphones?” 

“No. Nothing like that. I hear my name, not yours. And the other things you mentioned? They don’t sound like anything I hear.  That’s incredibly unique.

You put your buds back in and bebop down the street with a new energy, realizing no one else has headphones like yours.  And as the Voice continues to dialogue with you, you realize there’s no amount that could ever be offered to cause you to give them up.

The Voice confirms it. You’re one of a kind, specially crafted, invaluable.

Access to God for all doesn’t devalue personal uniqueness for the one. That’s the beauty of a personal relationship with an omnipresent God; it’s priceless for every one even if everyone has it.

Uniquely exclusive.

 

 

 

Religious Freedom

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Acts 21:26 Then the next day, Paul took the men, having purified himself along with them, and entered the temple, announcing the completion of the purification days when the offering for each of them would be made.

…whatever portion of life that is bound to some master, it is a portion that cannot be laid down for the sake of another.

Recently, my wife and I were in a catholic ceremony. What a difference from the typical protestant gathering we’re used to! Smoking incense, candles, holy water and a lot of kneeling reminded me I was really out of my element.  Then, communion time came.  As non-catholic protestants, we were instructed to simply come to the front and cross our hands over our chests to signal the priest to give a blessing rather than the bread and cup. The thoughts that raced through my mind were things like “Why should I? I’m a Christian, too! Never! I’m not going up there!” Truthfully, the relative legalism offended my carnal nature.  But if I’m really free from the law, should it have?

Paul had already made clear that he was free from the law, but in Acts 21 he adheres to it “to win the more.” Did he compromise principle in doing so? No. Compromising principle is to sin in one’s heart and for the one who is free from the law, there is no sin in freely adhering to it. How, in this new covenant in which all things are lawful (1 Cor 6:12) could the law be unlawful? How in this new covenant in which all things are lawful could worship with no instruments be unlawful? Or non-immersive baptism be unlawful? Or a kosher diet? Or for that matter, a protestant in a catholic ceremony?  If I am rigid that I will not do any of these things or any other practices that are not aligned with the new liberty in which I live, then my freedom has become dogma, a human tradition, an idol of sorts.  The sign of liberty idolized is its imposition on another by the one who claims to have it. But liberty can never be imposed. It can only be discovered. And only pride turns the discovery of liberty into dogma. Liberty is not to be worshiped nor imposed but discovered and embraced. It can never be enforced even in one’s own life for the mere posture of submission to liberty begins a process of altering its DNA, its essence, into law.

If we are not free to practice those things to which we are not bound, are we really free?

Now a discussion must be had concerning the connection between liberty and love for it is only in the fullness of liberty that we can choose to make ourselves slaves to men. If we are bound in any way, then we are not free and if we are not free, we are slaves to something and if slaves to one master then how free are we to choose another?  And if we willfully choose to become all things to only some men (but not those under the law), then we have certainly bound love by our own legalism!  So, the fullness of liberty becomes the power to love fully; for whatever portion of life that is bound to some master, it is a portion that cannot be laid down for the sake of another. Herein is revealed the mystery of the apparent paradox, “law of liberty” written twice by James. Both instances are in the context of love.  James is not arguing for liberty to be law any more than one standing under the sun expects to cast a white shadow.  No, his paradox is to bring attention to the religious reader that when law interferes with love, a new way must be sought. This new “law of liberty” is not a law at all, but rather the lawfulness of all things, the freedom of conscience from all guilt, shame, fear and everything else that is self. And there, in that place of absolute stark liberation, love abounds.

That’s the liberty that allowed us to approach the priest with our arms crossed over our chests.  That’s the liberty that worked in conjunction with our love for the Catholics who had invited us.

Those who tout they dawned upon liberty often make it a trophy showcased in spiritual pride, then justify it by demanding that everyone else have the same reward. But for those upon whom liberty dawned, they’re simply set free. There is no trophy, but only love.

 

Blissful Blindness

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Acts 20:22   And now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem without knowing what will happen to me there, [23] except that the Holy Spirit warns me in town after town that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. [24] But I do not consider my life worth anything to myself, so that I may finish my task and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.

…self-preservation is oft the root of denial while self-denial is oft the root of ultimate preservation.

I remember an exciting Saturday night in the Upper Room of our mission years ago. The praise and worship was rich. People were genuinely excited about a move of God.  The room was packed with expectants. One man came up to me and spoke prophetically, “God is pleased with your work and a 2 million dollar donation is coming in for your ministry.”  I haven’t seen that donation yet but I must admit it sure was easy to believe for that! What if God would have spoken to me that night as He did to Paul in this passage? Rather than a promise of 2 million dollars, a one way trip to hardship and persecution?  Would I have believed that so easily? If I’m honest with myself, I probably would have denied it.  Why? Because denial ignores an unwanted end.

Denial is a common psychological response to impending and unavoidable bad news.  A person in the process of failing is heading toward an F. Denial ignores the end. A criminal may maintain his innocence even when proven guilty. Denial ignores the end. A person receives a terminal diagnosis. Again, denial ignores the end.

But denial also fails to mitigate.

Renewed effort. A change in strategy. Revived prayer. There are often ways to mitigate or make the most of an unavoidable situation, if we’re not in denial.

Now put yourself in Paul’s shoes.  God speaks to you in a personal whisper of sorts, “You must go to Jerusalem where you will be persecuted and imprisoned.” What’s your response? “Get that crazy voice out of my head” or maybe you tell Siri, “Navigate me to anywhere but Jerusalem.” Denial. After all, would God ever compel you into harm’s way?

He did Paul.

The Holy Spirit “warns” him in town after town (v 23). It wasn’t a warning that Paul should turn aside or change his direction for He was also “compelled” (v. 22) by the same Spirit to press on toward Jerusalem where that persecution awaited. This truth, that he was both warned but compelled calls for answers to these questions: What then was the purpose of the warning and how or why was Paul able to hear it?

If God’s warning is not for you to engage in evasive maneuvers, what then is it for? It must be for the purpose of preparation, an encouragement to consider how you should respond when the time comes that you must respond, to keep your head up and your eyes open as you enter into that fire to which you’re called.  If denial is a blissful blindness brought on by the subconscious, then it blinds you to the fire you’re facing.  And if you can’t see the fire you’re about to walk into, it’s much easier to believe it’s not there.  But if, in those cases when that fire is inevitable, you don’t believe you’re about to enter it, you sure won’t know what to do when you get there.

If it’s certain you’re going in, don’t do it with your eyes closed.

Paul was getting the warning.  He wasn’t in denial. He knew the fire was ahead.  What was that character attribute of Paul that gave him ears to hear? Why didn’t he fall into denial like most would have?  Paul gives us the answer when he links cause to the effect of finishing his “task” (vs. 24).  “But I do not consider my life worth anything to myself, so that I may finish my task.”

It’s a strange paradox that self-preservation is oft the root of denial while self-denial is oft the root of ultimate preservation. Consider Jesus’ words in John 12:25: He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.  

Paul thought nothing of his life in this world.  His reckless abandonment of temporal comfort and pleasure for the eternal crown of life allowed him to hear clearly what God was calling him into.  In spite of warnings and friends who pleaded with him not to go, he stayed on track with God’s will and entered the fire with his head up, his eyes open and with a determination to glorify God in it all.

Yeah, let’s be like that.

 

No Good Reason

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Acts 19:32 Meanwhile, some were shouting one thing and some another, because the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.

Doing what everyone else is doing without knowing the reason you’re doing it is to subtly slip into a meaningless life full of motion but without depth, passion or color.

The crowds were riled and rushing through the streets toward the coliseum.  The frantic passionate nature of the charge would have made any bystander believe something gravely important was underway. And as more made the decision to join the crowd, the crowd grew leading more to make the same decision – join the crowd.  Scripture records that most of them involved in this protest didn’t know why they were there or why they were shouting, “Great is Artemis! God of the Ephesians!” Simply put, a majority of the people didn’t know what they were doing.

Do you know what you’re doing?

A psychology professor once told me that while at a concert in a football stadium, he was having trouble seeing because the entire crowd was standing. He grabbed the shoulders of the few in front of him and beside him, encouraging them to sit. As they did, those near them also sat. He described the entire stadium coming to sit like a wave.

Sometimes it only takes a few to get something started.  But that certainly doesn’t mean the few are doing something meaningful. If enough people stare into the sky, others will stare, too, straining to see what they think others see. If enough people stand in an elevator facing the wrong way, when the door opens and a person enters, chances are he’ll face the back, as well. These examples are research proven and the videos are interesting to watch.  The subjects who are “fooled” into standing the wrong way in an elevator never seem to ask “Why am I doing this?” What does seem apparent, though, is the question, “Shouldn’t I do what they’re doing?”

No.

It’s hard to resist group tendency. In fact, that crazy question your mom used to ask, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you, too?” may have been meant as sarcasm but might be based in more reality than you thought. It’s not that hard to find yourself doing something centered more on social norm than reason. And chances are, you’re also not asking, “Why am I doing this?”

As leaders, that question should serve as the filter for every decision we make and if we ask it in truth, it will lead us toward truth.

Jogging a trail years ago, I startled a white-tailed deer. His tail shot up warning the others that danger was near.  They all darted in different directions, one of them out into the highway to her demise.  The big problem? There wasn’t any danger near.  The warning signal was based in unwarranted fear.

Many decisions are made in fear, an emotion based on what might be. Those decisions then lead others to fear. We send signals with our decisions. For your decisions to be based on truth or what is rather than what might be, then ask the hard question.

“Why am I doing this?”

It’s not just a good question for leaders to ask.  Why am I going to church?  Why am I still at this job? Why am I still in this relationship?

Doing what you’ve always done or what everyone else is doing without knowing the reason you’re doing it is to subtly slip into a meaningless life full of motion but without depth, passion or color.

I don’t go to church because everyone goes. I go because I love God and His people.  I don’t go to work because I’ve been there for 16 years. I go because I’m loyal and committed to do the best I can for my employer and to provide for those I love.  I’m not in my relationship because the law says to stay married. I’m still in it because I love being with her, I’m committed to her and want her life to be blessed.

Go ahead and look at the rote decisions of your day to day and ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?” It may save you from getting caught up in what the Ephesians did that day; doing what others are doing even when they don’t know why they’re doing it. All for what? No good reason.

Tackle Injustice

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Acts 18:9  Then the Lord said to Paul in a night vision, “Don’t be afraid, but keep on speaking and don’t be silent. [10] For I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to hurt you, because I have many people in this city.”

…your action as a defender and comforter of the weak and overwhelmed may be the payment on a promise God made to someone else.

My wife and I raised our kids in a small town where the major news was a championship football game or a city council decision to modify a park.  Pretty quiet.  It’s a small enough town that when people wave it’s not just done out of country courtesy but familiarity. People know each other.  It’s also the town where people often leave their doors unlocked.  I did that.

I don’t remember what wee hour of the morning it was when my wife startled me out of my sleep, “I think someone’s in our car!”  I leaped to the window and could see the dome light on in my Oldsmobile Firenza parked in the street.  Someone was in our car! I don’t think I’ll ever forget how incensed I felt at the brazen injustice of that trespass.  Compelled by that emotion, I threw on my robe and charged out the front door. I can remember my wife’s bewildered voice chasing me, “James! What are you doing?!”

Halfway to the car, that’s the very question I asked the perpetrator in the most authoritative voice I had.  A man about six and a half feet tall, leaned in the driver’s side digging around my console, quickly stood up.  I was rounding the car without a halt in my pace. We made eye contact. “Oh no,” he said.  “Oh no’s right,” I responded.  I tackled him to the ground and pinned him until the police arrived.

My wife thought I’d lost my mind. “What if he’d had a gun or a knife? You could have been hurt! You should have stayed inside and just called the police.”

Those are all good ideas but something about the injustice drove me to action without much thought of repercussion.

You might have the same visceral response to personal injustice but how do you feel when it’s an injustice against some other person? Would I have been so quick to act if I had seen that man digging around someone else’s car? Probably not. Wouldn’t have felt the same. Wouldn’t have acted the same.

But what does God expect?

In Paul’s vision on this night, God tells him to fear not, that He is with him, that He has many people in the city of Corinth. God’s people were a part of His plan to counter the injustice Paul was suffering! I think it’s fair to shorten that for our own application today: God’s people are a part of His plan to counter injustice.

For a moment, imagine a single mom who’s fled an abusive relationship. She’s found shelter in your community but feels alone and frightened.  God speaks to her in a vision and says the same thing He said to Paul, “Fear not. I am with you and I have many people in this city.” Are you one of those people? Whether you are or not is one thing. Responding to and confronting injustice is another.

Are you a comforter? Are you a defender? An encourager? Are you a support to the weak?

Jesus is on a global mission of justice or justification; to make things right as they should be.  As Christians, we are a part of that wherever we live for as long as we live. Coupling that truth with the Holy Spirit’s conviction may cause you to charge injustice even when it’s an injustice against someone else.

Don’t be surprised if a relative or loved one thinks you’ve lost your mind as you charge out the door. “What are you doing? You could get hurt! Call someone else!”

Just shout back God’s promise, “He has many people in this city. And I’m one of them!”

We are His people in that city and your action as a defender and comforter of the weak and overwhelmed may be the payment on a promise God made to someone else.  Don’t miss the opportunity.

It’s Upside Down!

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Acts 17:6 When they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brothers before the city officials, shouting, “These men who have turned the world upside down have come here too.”

How important for the Christian to awake every morning with right revelation of the world, all of its ways strangely inverted to the truth of God.

Here’s a fact few know. Because of the concave shape of a person’s lens, the light from every image is directed toward the bottom of the retina and the boimage-inversionttom of the image is directed toward the top of the retina. The light actually crosses, inverting the image on the retina. Yep. Everything you see is captured by the retina upside down.

So why do you see things right side up? Because the brain actually inverts your perception so the physical world makes sense. Special inversion glasses can actually invert the image before it reaches the lens, so the lens then re-inverts it projecting it on the retina right side up. Ahh! As it should be, yes? Strangely though, people then see everything upside down! For about three days that is. Then the brain does its handiwork and flips your inverted world right side up again so it makes sense to you. If you’re wondering what happens when the person takes those inversion glasses off days later, you probably guessed it. Everything flips upside down. Dizzy yet?
Here’s the point. If you look at something upside down long enough, it’ll begin to appear right side up. What are you focused on? What pictures does the world cast that are beginning to appear normal or right in your sight? Sexual sin is cast in a normal light by Hollywood. Faithlessness and dishonesty are normalized by many people with power or fame. Political leaders buy into and convince others that redistribution of someone’s wealth to someone less wealthy is just. Pro-choice advocates propagate that life begins at birth. The intellectual elite casts evolutionary theory as fact. Anyone who looks long enough at what the world has to offer is at risk of viewing right side up what God regards upside down.

This is exactly what had happened to the Pharisees in this passage and those who saw things their way. They had taken their eyes off of God and through a haughty, worldly scope had come to view life without the Messiah, without redemption, without salvation as right side up. They had looked at it through their own lenses for so long that upside down appeared as a corrected image. So, when Paul and the others were preaching the truth, a world as it should be, they were accused of “turning the world upside down.”
Are you one of the accused? Or are you living upside down with the rest of the upside down world? Romans 12:2 warns us, “Be not conformed to this world but transformed by the renewing of your mind.” In 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul writes “Look not at the temporal but the eternal.” James 4:4 reminds us that friendship with the world is to be at enmity with God.  God paints quite the picture of contrast between heaven and earth.

What worldliness has become normalized to our senses because we’ve gazed on it for so long? Is our attention on a deviating and drifting culture such that its godless images have begun to appear right side up to us? How important for the Christian to awake every morning with right revelation of the world, all of its ways strangely inverted to the truth of God and to realize every day is a mission in partnership with the One who made it all to turn as many poor souls right side up as possible.

Radical salvation through faith and right revelation through biblical truth – It’s like taking those crazy glasses off. Everything worldly flips upside down… just as it really is.