What does it mean to live for Jesus?
We had a nice respite from a tough Winter the past two days, and I took advantage of it to wash the salt off the car. I went out today to finish up, and as I started to wash the windows, I found myself praying in earnest, “Lord, get me OUT of this mess”!
I wasn’t referring to washing the car. Life can have a way of getting us off script. Maybe that hasn’t happened much to you, but it has happened so often here that I’ve about concluded that it’s normal. My own scripting must be so unacceptable that it repeatedly needs to be tossed, and I end up with a plot that’s hard to discern, facing giants that I don’t know how to defeat.
And so it seemed natural that I should pray for deliverance – after all, the Bible is full of deliverance. The prayer seemed to come from my heart at first, but then I began to sense an increasingly tinny feel to it that wasn’t right. I saw an old problem: there was no faith mixed with the prayer.
I caught myself. Was this the prayer the Lord wanted me to be praying? Did it glorify Him? Not really. Then the apostles’ prayer in Acts 4 came to my mind.
The scene in Acts 4 is that the nascent church was just beginning to make an impact. The world is absolutely fine with Christians believing as devoutly as they may wish, as long as they keep it to themselves and don’t begin to threaten existing systems. The problem is that Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords that He is, inherently lays claim over all authority, and necessarily will rock every single boat that gets in the way of that claim. Everything that can be shaken will be shaken.
On our side, there’s no arm of the flesh in the confrontation, there is only the proclamation of Kingdom authority in the spirit. The problem is that the world’s systems are inherently unstable and insecure, and therefore cling to their own authority and regard any competition as a threat. So while Jesus’ reign is absolutely benign and wonderful and right, it is perceived malignantly by rival systems.
And so the early church had the audacity to take the Gospel experience out of the four walls of the church and into the streets of Jerusalem. Thousands were quickly converted. And now, Peter and John had very publicly healed a lame beggar on the very steps of the Temple, and even worse, had then used the occasion to pin guilt for killing the Lord of Glory on the powers that be. The religious gatekeepers were not amused.
The apostles were thrown in jail overnight, and called to account the next morning, they boldly testified to the Sanhedrin that there is no other name by which men can be saved but Jesus. The rulers severely warned them to cease their preaching, and then they let them go, but not before the apostles resolutely declared:
“Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” – Acts 4:19-20
An irresistible force had met an immovable object, and impact was imminent.
Now, this is the part that came to me. As soon as the apostles rejoined the church and updated them on the goings on, they all went into corporate prayer. Did they pray for deliverance and an easy path? Or that their opponents would be converted and be nice? No, for none of these things:
They lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit, “‘Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed.
“For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
The first thing we note in this prayer is that the apostles commended their situation to God’s sovereignty. No matter what it looked like, God was in complete control. The nations rage, but it will all prove to be futile. What God has predestined to take place, will take place.
Then the apostles applied the Scripture to their own situation. The powers had been arrayed against Jesus the Anointed, and now they were similarly set against the testimony of Jesus borne by the apostles. And it somehow was all in God’s will.
“And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”
Finally the disciples supplicate. And the sum total of their supplication? That they will be faithful to their calling. They don’t concern themselves with circumstances. They know that if the word is proclaimed, it will not return void. Signs and wonders will accompany, and with the demonstration of divine power will come faith, repentance and conversions. God is faithful, His Word is true, and the power is assured. The only issue at play here was whether the disciples would remain in the battle.
The focus of the prayer was not on self at all, except in the one aspect of the apostles asking for the grace to be true to God’s purposes. As for their own personal fate, the apostles implicitly cast it wholly on God. There is not a word about their own self-interest.
This is the situation of every person who would be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus warned us that the world would hate true followers, just as it hated Him. If we are willing to walk close to Jesus, obedient to the leading of His Spirit, we are going to be placed in confrontations with world systems. These are the “elemental things of this world” that keep people in darkness and bondage, and we will find that vested interests do not want to see these systems exposed and dismantled.
We see this happening time and again in the early church. In Acts 16, for instance, Paul sets a slave girl free of a demon of divination, which had proven very financially useful to the girl’s masters by predicting the future. Hardly happy for the girl’s release, the girl’s owners have Paul beaten and placed in stocks. But the Lord miraculously frees Paul, using the situation to magnify His Name and to protect and grow the church.
And neither is this exclusively a New Testament phenomenon. From Joseph in prison, to Daniel and his friends confronting a ferocious king, God places His most faithful servants in distressful situations in order to accomplish important things that otherwise would not occur.
If there’s any doubt that in putting God’s will before their own the apostles in Acts 4 had chosen the way pleasing to God, the last verse of the passage will dispel it:
And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. – Acts 4:31
So I was out there washing my car, thinking about all this, and I realized I needed to come back to who I am. I decided long ago that my life is Christ’s, but the problem is, there is a tendency for this particular living sacrifice to crawl off the altar now and again. I’m really not big on pain, hardship and uncertainty, so it takes the faithful reminders of the Holy Spirit to refocus me on what I’m supposed to be doing.
I often am reminded of why Paul was so effective. His usefulness to God went far beyond his gifts and talents, great though they were. The key to Paul’s power was his consecration. Look at what the Lord told Ananias about Paul, shortly after Paul’s dramatic conversion:
“He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” – Acts 9:15-16
Paul downloaded the cost of discipleship up front. Getting the counting of the cost out of the way at the beginning freed Paul of the limiting hold of this world, clearing the way for powerful service. Dramatically struck down on the road to Damascus, before he even knew that it was Jesus who had done the striking, Paul understood that God was taking full possession, and that the only viable option was unconditional surrender. He would go on to say:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Gal 2:20
And he would say to us:
For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. – Col 3:3
Paul and the original apostles were specifically chosen for their unique role in the spread of the Gospel and the formation of the church. It may seem that few of us will experience anything on the scale that they did. But every one of us has been specifically chosen for his own unique role in the outworking of God’s purposes, and God’s purposes haven’t changed. Our faithfulness is not judged against someone else’s calling, but rather, against our own.
I’m getting better. I see signs of letting go of things that once held me. But I’m still waiting for the kind of manifest power that the Bible challenges us is possible. Be assured, the Holy Spirit is faithful to bring through anyone who is sincere about getting through. He will perfect the things that concern anyone who draws near, and His power is perfected in weakness. Not self-confidence, but hope in Him is the anchor of our soul.
Make no mistake, there are no excuses. The Gospel hasn’t changed. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. The Gifts of the Spirit will remain until the Kingdom comes in fullness. The unlimited power of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus is just as real and true as it ever was – and just as needed in this world of sin and error.
The only issue is whether we are willing to count the cost, place God’s purposes above our own, and answer the call.