“Is it a sin to feel fearful about being separated from our loved ones when we die?” As I replied to this thoughtful question in our summer study group, my seven-year old daughter’s small hand shot up to comment. Her innocent confidence in Jesus - much like the Apostle Paul’s cultivated over a lifetime of faith - demonstrated hope that was real.
Saul of Tarsus was a star pupil of Gamaliel, the renowned Jewish Rabbi. Yet, unlike his teacher, Saul favored a more hands-on approach to dealing with followers of “The Way”. When the Jewish ruling council advanced from beating the apostles to stoning Stephen, Saul sought and received permission to run down Jesus’ scattered followers. Men or women, it made no difference: these blasphemers had to be stopped, and the Law of Moses was clear on the penalty.
“I persecuted this Way to the death, binding and delivering to prison both men and women,” he would later remember (Acts 22:4). Yet, he could still honestly say, “I have lived my life before God in all good conscience up to this day” (Acts 23:1). Saul really thought he was doing the right thing.
Until he met the risen Jesus, which changed everything! Rather than blaspheming the Law, the claims of Jesus’ resurrection fulfilled it. As someone wanting to live right before God, what he needed to do next was clear. Ananias told the humbled Saul, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know His will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from His mouth; for you will be a witness for Him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:14-16).
Even after becoming the Apostle Paul, he never forgot what he did as “foremost” among sinners. Even if it was in ignorance, he had been “a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent” (I Timothy 1:13). Yet, he didn’t live in the past: “But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life” (I Timothy 1:16).
By his faith in Christ, Paul was able to move beyond his past. Paul’s life mattered, and his example invites us to live meaningful lives, too.
The Apostle Paul sat in a Roman prison, swept up in Nero’s fierce persecution of Christians. Imprisonment – and worse – was nothing new to Paul. As Jesus told Ananias decades earlier, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16).
Paul certainly had suffered for the cause of Christ. Yet, as he told the Colossians during a previous imprisonment, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of His body, that is the church” (Colossians 1:24). Anything was worth it for Jesus and His body; but, this time was different, as he wrote to his “beloved child” in the faith, Timothy (II Timothy 1:2).
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come” (II Timothy 4:6). Paul had no doubts about the life he lived, and he was ready. He knew that the Lord had rescued and would still rescue him, though this time by bringing him “safely into His heavenly kingdom” when Nero’s sword fell (II Timothy 4:17-18).
Knowing this, Paul had something important to tell his “beloved child”. He prayed for Timothy “night and day” (II Timothy 1:3). He wanted to encourage and by God’s grace strengthen Timothy to follow his example and stand firm in his faith, no matter what may happen.
Do you know what else? This dad also just really wanted to see his child. “I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy…Do your best to come soon…When you come…Do your best to come before winter” (II Timothy 1:4, 4:9, 4:13, 4:21). Can you feel the urgency and emotion in Paul’s words? He was ready to go be with Jesus. Until that time came, though, he wanted nothing more than a few more moments with his beloved child.
May we all follow his beautiful example. May we be children who fill our parents – biological or otherwise – with joy. May we be parents who cover our children in prayer, set them an example worth following, and let them know how much it means to us to see them for as long as we can.
How did the church grow in the first century? They didn’t have books on church growth or social media strategies. They couldn’t hire consultants, build buildings, or add coffee bars.
Each member believed and obeyed the good news about Jesus, and they lived out their hope every day. They “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”, spending each day “praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:42, 47). While everyone they met didn’t join them, “the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women” (Acts 5:13-14).
How does the church grow today? Don’t be fooled: the answer has not changed. The answer is, was, and always will be Jesus! “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied” (Acts 9:31).
“Fear of the Lord”: we recognize our need and seek the grace and forgiveness found only in Christ, obeying His good news and seeking to become like Him. “Comfort of the Holy Spirit”: we keep in step with the Spirit God gave us as a gift when we were baptized, following His lead and bearing His fruit. When this is true, we are built up, and the church grows.
For the past seven weeks, we have sought to grow as witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection. We’re praying for the lost. We’re preparing the reason for the hope that is in us and how it shows Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. We’re seeking the opportunities God is providing for us to plant and water, trusting He will give the growth and fill us with joy as we work with Him.
There are lost souls all around us. God is already working for them. Now the only question is, will we?
Over the past several weeks, we have been getting prepared and empowered to be witnesses of Jesus. This isn’t something we do on our own: God is with us. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that some planted, others watered, “but God gave the growth” (I Corinthians 3:6).
Consider how Jesus changed an entire Samaritan village by speaking to a woman at a well. His disciples were shocked to see them talking, but Jesus put it all in perspective in John 4:35-38:
“Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest. Already the one who reaps is receiving wages and gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together. For here the saying holds true, ‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor. Others have labored, and you have entered into their labor.”
When we aren’t focused or feel fearful to share, we just might be overestimating our role and underestimating God’s: “For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building” (I Corinthians 3:9). Do we realize how much God wants every person we encounter to be saved? They are experiencing hurt from sin and seeking hope for life. Through their experiences, God is preparing them. We just need to work with Him by planting and watering!
You can listen to our sermon and then print and complete this post to start applying it. This week, will you start asking the person serving you at a restaurant or store if there’s anything you could pray about for them? If they seem uncertain, prompt them by asking about things they are especially thankful for or a little worried about for them or their family. Listen respectfully to what they say; and when you hear something that intersects with your own life – especially your reason for the hope that is in you – briefly share it. (Last week, Ashley, the kids, and I connected with our server over parenting and homeschooling, as an example.)
If we will just plant and water, God will give the growth.It is His field, after all.