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When I First Saw the Light

January 31st, 2011 No comments

“One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25)

light in darkness“Excuse me,” an older gentleman said, “but would you mind telling us how it was that you first began to see this truth?” 

Ah, that’s easy. It happened right here in The Library. I was a young man having just begun my journey with Jesus when I was drawn to this place. Once here, I found I never wanted to leave.

But the Lord of the Library taught me that I am to live by these words, not in them; they are to live in me, changing me from the inside out. But that was not what you asked me. You want to know how it was I first began to see the light of this great truth about God’s grace.

Come with me over here and I will show you the Book I was reading when the first ray of this truth shone in my unguarded heart. Let me read to you from The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians; there is a passage I have cherished for many years now:

“I can never stop thanking God for all the wonderful gifts He has given you, now that you belong to Christ. He has enriched your whole life. He has helped you speak out for Him and has given you a full understanding of the truth. What I told you Christ could do for you has happened! Now you have every grace and blessing; every spiritual gift and power for doing God’s will are yours during this time of waiting for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Co 1:4-7 Living Bible)

Something about this verse stopped me in my tracks. What struck me profoundly was the phrase “every spiritual gift and power for doing God’s will are yours during this time of waiting for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

I had heard it said rather cleverly by an older preacher that “G.R.A.C.E. was God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” That always stayed with me. And now, I understood more fully that Grace was the blessing of God enriching my life with “every spiritual gift, and power to do God’s will.”

And what’s more, it is NOW.

The expression, “during this time of waiting for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ” leaves no doubt that this promise is for us today – for Jesus has not yet returned.

My mind raced with the endless possibilities and implications of this. It was then that I undertook a personal challenge to study every reference to the subject of grace in all the books of the Library. And my studies were met with one amazing discovery after the other.

“This changes everything!” I mused aloud to myself. And straightway I began telling everybody I met along the Road. Some saw it for themselves; others did not – or would not. Some had their minds already made up, and were quite determined to dispute the matter. But their arguments were futile; my heart had been awakened by revelation.

I felt like the man who said, “I once was blind, but now I see!”

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The Word of His Grace

January 30th, 2011 No comments

“And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” (Act 20:32) 

old ship at seaLet me set the scene for you. There was a gathering of some of Paul’s dearest friends on the docks of the Ephesian harbor, shortly before was to board the vessel that would take him to Jerusalem – and ultimately to a Roman prison. This would be the last time Paul would ever see these dear friends, and he knew it.

They feared it, and sought earnestly to persuade him to change his mind; to cancel his traveling plans and stay on with them. But, as we saw yesterday, their tender appeals held no power over the greater influence of the Word of the Lord placed upon his heart by the Holy Spirit.

But, surely he could effectively serve the Lord by staying there with them, for Ephesus was an epicenter city – having great influence near and far. Paul could live out his days in peace and prosperity, carried by the love and support of so many to whom he meant so much. Surely his ministry there would thrive!

Yet, Paul was unpersuaded. He leaves them, but he does not leave them empty-handed.

“And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.”

Paul is not pontificating here; he is testifying. There is a difference. One means saying things that are right because they have been studied and learned from books. The other means saying things that are true because they have been lived and proven on the road of life.

Paul knew from firsthand experience the power of God’s grace, and he also knew it would be the only means whereby the leaders and the church in Ephesus would prevail.

Without the empowering presence of God enabling them to be who God created them to be, and to do what God had called them to do – they surely would fall victim to the “grievous wolves” who were poised to enter among them to ravage the flock.

And there were a few even among Paul’s dearest friends who, like Judas at the Last Supper, were waiting for him to leave so that they in his absence could “arise, speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them’ (Act 20:29-30).

Therefore, knowing these things, Paul gave them the one thing they needed most – a blessing of the Grace of God.

He tells them of its power “to build them up, and to give them an inheritance among all them which are sanctified.” And those who took his words to heart found everything he said to be true.

Those who did not heed his apostolic words did indeed fall away. They fell from grace to such degree that the Lord Jesus personally chided them years later in John’s apocalyptic message — “You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen!” (Revelation 2:4,5).

What about you and me? Will we stay the course empowered by the grace of God? Will we be all that God wants us to be, and do all that He has purposed for us to do?

Will we let the Word of His grace build us up, and give us our inheritance among all those who have been set apart for God?

Yes! By the grace of God!

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Looking Forward to a Bad Stretch of Road

January 29th, 2011 No comments

“But none of these things move me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry, which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the gospel of the grace of God.” (Act 20:24) 

compelling purposeThere are some things that require little effort, and yield small results. Many people content themselves to spend their days in just such trivial pursuit. Will you settle for being one of them?

F. W. Boreham wrote, “There is no intellectual stimulant so intoxicating as the formation of a noble purpose, the conception of a sudden resolve, the making of a great decision.” The truly heroic moments in life demand something far more than a casual commitment.

Such a purpose had gripped Paul’s heart and set him on an unswerving mission that would be met head on with much opposition. His dearest friends, the Ephesians implored him to reconsider his decision to go ahead – but their appeals could not mount a credible case in the face of his great faith.

“None of these things move me,” he answered.

Neither tender appeals from loving friends, nor looming threats from vicious foes would back this man down from testifying to the gospel of the grace of God. Os Guinness wrote, “The secret of man’s being is not only to live – but to live for something definite; to find the idea for which one can live…and die.”

Paul knew this firsthand, and standing on the shores of the Aegean Sea ready to sail for Jerusalem, he looked forward in faith to a bad stretch of road – knowing God’s grace was sufficient for it all.

If you’ve been at it for any appreciable length of time then you know by now that this journey with Jesus is no cake walk.

It is not a stroll through the park on a blissful Sunday afternoon. No. The path has many turns – up turns and down turns, ditches on both sides, potholes aplenty, and mounds of debris inconveniently strewn all about. There are setbacks that stall you, and obstacles that intimidate you.

There are bystanders that deride you, backsliders that dismay you, and backstabbers that dishearten you. There are days when you walk with a company of passionate pilgrims who buoy your spirit with renewed aspiration; and then there are the days when you walk the lonesome valley all by yourself. Alone. Sitting in the dark. Eating dog food.

But God’s grace is sufficient.

Paul illustrates for us today the four distinguishing traits of a triumphant faith.

  • First, there is conviction of spirit – “I go bound in the spirit unto Jerusalem.”
  • Second, there is composure of mind – “none of these things move me.”
  • Third, there is commitment of heart – “neither count I my life dear unto myself.”
  • And, fourth, there is constancy of purpose – “so that I might finish my course with joy.”

Paul was an immovable man; unflinching and full of courage. It was he who said, “be not weary in well doing: in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” It was Paul who constantly cheered others on their journey – “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Co.15:58).

And it is Paul who by his own example inspires us today to “testify the gospel of the grace of God.”

Let’s go.

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Bringing Back a Good Report

January 28th, 2011 No comments

“And thence sailed to Antioch, from whence they had been recommended to the grace of God for the work which they fulfilled.” (Act 14:26)

ticker-tape-paradePaul and his companions had set out on a missionary journey from Antioch, empowered by grace; and now, at the end of their tour, it was only fitting that they return and give a report of all that happened.

Luke writes the account for us – “In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers; while they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Paul for the work to which I have called them.’ So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” (Act 13:1-3)

There is always a great deal of fanfare at the outset of some noble campaign; but especially when the cause is directed by God. Thus we may well imagine the high excitement that attended the Christians at Antioch when they heard the Spirit of God tell them to send Paul and Barnabas out on their mission.

They no doubt would’ve watched as the pair faded off in the distance, topping the crest of a final hill, passing from their sight. Their excitement in sending them off could only be matched by hearing the news after some months that they were returning – and would arrive sometime by late afternoon. You know, “when Johnny comes marching home again — hoorah! Hoorah!” Get the ticker-tape ready!

We have here a slight advantage over our Antiochian brothers, for we (through the pen of Luke) have journeyed with Paul and Barnabas, and know full well of all they encountered – and endured.

It is a miracle that they even survived the trip at all.

And what is the news that they bring upon their return? Why, Good News, of course!

There was no chiding, “Thanks a lot for nothing, you guys! You threw us into the open jaws of snarling lions!!” And, neither was there any whining, “We had it really hard; it was really, really bad; somebody give me a hug.” Nor was there any singing of the blues, “Oh, nobody knows the trouble I seen…..”

Instead, they brought back a good report, and rejoiced over all that Jesus had done through them – and TO them during their trip. And why? Because God had covered them with His grace inside His will; and all things worked together for their good.

Every experience in life makes you bitter, or better. The choice is yours to make. And it all depends on where you are standing – inside, or outside, of God will for your life.

Paul and Barnabas, along with their traveling companions, were fully inside the will of God and, therefore, covered by the full measure of His grace for this assignment. So the team returned triumphantly from their journey of faith.

They reported everything the Lord had done, and spent some time resting and being refreshed. And then, far from backing down because of the difficulty of service, they tooled up for yet another journey into the expansive will of God.

Here is it in Paul’s own words – “I am what I am by the grace of God. And His grace given to me was not in vain, for I labored more abundantly than they all; yet it was no I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Co 15:10)

What has God set you apart to do? Have others affirmed it through prayer and support? How is God proving Himself to be with you in your labors? And, who is waiting to hear the good news of all the Lord is doing through you?

“Oh, are you talking to me,” a guy said in the group. “I mean, you are looking straight at me, but it sounds like you’re talking to somebody else.”

You tell me. Am I talking to you?

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Be Strong in Grace

January 27th, 2011 No comments

“Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” (2Timothy 2:1)

“Excuse me, please,” the lady said, still holding in her hands the Book of Paul’s Letters to Timothy. “There is yet another passage that seems to be lifting off the page. Would it be alright if I read it aloud?”

against_the_wind“By all means,” I replied; “Please do!”

Paul writes, “Thou therefore, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” (2Timothy 2:1).

“Whoa,” said a young man with tattoos on his left bicep, “that, like, makes total sense to me now!”

“Explain it to us” I said.

“Well, since Timothy was, like, with Paul through all that crazy stuff that happened to him in those weird cities; and he, like, watched how God’s power carried Paul through it all – he would, like, know that there is only one way any of us can overcome in this world – it is by the grace of God….you know, the power of Christ working in us to do God’s will in, like, whatever situation arises.”

“Well said, dude.” The group chuckled a bit, and the tattooed man, like, smiled.

Seeing this as a “teachable moment” I picked up where the young man left off.

Remember, it was Paul who said to us, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

And he leaves no doubt as to his meaning – “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Php 4:11-13).

I once heard a preacher put it this way, “Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” (Eugene Peterson, in The Message, Php 4:13).

That’s what it means to be strong in grace. It is experiencing the empowering presence of God enabling us to be who God created us to be, and to do what God has called us to do – right where we are.

How ‘bout the rest of you? Are you beginning to see it, too?

A quiet hum filled the Ancient Library. We all were experiencing the presence of the Lord of Grace – feeling His power fill our hearts.

Oh, my!

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The Iconium Miracles

January 26th, 2011 No comments

“So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.” (Act 14:3)

A fortified city in what is modern day Turkey, Iconium (known for its many graven images; from which we get our modern word iconic) became a place in which Paul would experience some of his greatest blessings – and worst persecutions.

It was here that Paul preached the message of God’s grace and saw the Lord confirm the truth of his words by enabling him to do miraculous signs and wonders. Get it? Grace is the power of Christ – and Jesus proved it by unleashing His power in healing, salvation and deliverance.

Paul Heals Cripple at LystraIt was from Iconium that Paul and Barnabas, along with others, traveled to Lystra, a neighboring city, and preached the gospel with unflinching faith. While Paul was preaching, there was in the crowd a man who had been crippled from birth. Paul saw the hand of God touching the man and thus said to him, “Stand up!” And the man jumped to his feet and started walking.

The place went nuts!

Pagans that they were, they began shouting out that “the gods are now among us!” They decided that Barnabas was the Greek god Zeus and that Paul was Hermes, since he was the chief speaker. (see Act 14:12).

When Paul adamantly stopped them from worshipping him and Barney, the fickle crowd shifted; and in a zealous frenzy they stoned Paul, leaving him for dead outside the city walls! (Note to self: remove Lystra from my speaking itinerary)

It was here in the midst of all these astounding encounters that Paul met a young man, a Greek named Timothy, who would become a protégé of the apostle and a future champion of the Church.

Hey, somebody pull from the shelf over there the Book of Paul’s Letters to Timothy.

“Got it right here,” a young lady said.

“Great; Read a passage to us.”

“Which one?”

“Just look at the pages and read to us the part that seems to lift off the page.”

The lady looked for a moment, and then began reading, “But you, Timothy, certainly know what I teach, and how I live, and what my purpose in life is. You know my faith, my patience, my love, and my endurance. You know how much persecution and suffering I have endured. You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it. Yes, and everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2Ti 3:10-12).

Wow. Amazing grace, indeed.

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A Man in Exile

January 25th, 2011 No comments

“When he came to Jerusalem, Paul tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.” (Act 9:26).

Things did not go well for Paul when he started his journey with Jesus. To begin with the apostles were quite reluctant to embrace him without reserve, or to give him access to their “mailing lists.” For all they knew his “conversion” was a ploy to penetrate and decimate their ranks.a man in exile

Clearly the early Church had legitimate concerns about Saul of Tarsus, a man described by Luke as “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord”(Acts 9:1).

This helps us understand the great reluctance of Ananias, the man whom the Lord told to pray for Paul to receive his sight after being blinded on the Damascus Road. “Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.” (Act 9:13,14).

The inference is, “Are you sure You want me to do this?”

Ananias obeyed and prayed for Paul, a singular act of courageous faith. As soon as the scales fell from his eyes, Paul at once began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” (Act 9:20-21).

Paul’s success became such a threat to the religious leaders in Damascus they conspired to kill him. However, the believers in Damascus helped Paul escape in the night. Paul returned back to Jerusalem empty-handed….. but full-hearted.

Luke writes, “When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.” (Act 9:26). And, to complicate matters, not only did Paul find it difficult to get in with the disciples – but his former associates, the religious leaders in Jerusalem, themselves were even now attempting to kill him.

It seemed that the one true friend Paul had during all of this was Barnabas, the Encourager. Working with a group of brothers who could see the truth of Paul’s testimony, they managed to get him out of Jerusalem and back to his home town of Tarsus.

It would take seventeen years before Paul would be brought back into the vortex of the growing Christian community. He was, in effect, a man in exile.

Though forgotten by man, Paul was not forsaken by the Lord. It was during this time that he had visitations from Jesus, and was given the staggering revelation of Grace. Barnabas had stayed in touch with him, encouraging him all along; and he knew firsthand of Paul’s insights into grace.

And now that Barnabas had seen for himself the grace of God in Antioch – he knew that the first person he had to tell was Paul.

Luke writes, “Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Paul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.” (Act 11:25-26)

Amazing grace.

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Grace in a Place called Antioch

January 24th, 2011 No comments

“When he arrived and saw the evidence of the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.” (Act 11:23)

With the massive dispersion of believers throughout the great regions, The Word spread quickly – so much so that other cities began to hear the astounding news of the Gospel. Luke tells us that followers of Jesus traveled from Jerusalem as far as Phoenicia, and Cyprus, and other cities telling the story to an ever-widening audience – with extraordinary results.

Luke writes, “The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21).

Antioch was one of those cities.

News of this awakening among the Gentiles reached the apostles in Jerusalem: and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. Luke tells us that “when Barnabas arrived he saw the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord.” (Acts 11:23)

hand of cloudDon’t miss the connection in Luke’s choice of words. He tells us first that “the hand of the Lord was with them.” (this does not mean there was a big hand floating around everywhere they went). For  then he writes that Barnabas arrived and “saw the grace of God.”  The two are the same. Both expressions mean “the power of God.”

Barnabas saw the grace of God. It was tangible, evidential, palpable. It wasn’t a mere theological concept; it was truth with boots. There was an empowered activity happening in the lives of the Gentiles. It was the grace of God – enabling them to be who God created them to be, and to do what He called them to do.

This proved to be a very important moment in the progress of the Gospel.

Antioch was located on the river Orontes in Syria, north of Palestine. It was considered the third city of the Roman Empire, and has been dubbed “the Paris of the ancient world.” It would eventually become the staging area for the spread of the Gospel around the world. From here, Paul and his companions later went forth on their missionary journeys, taking the good news to the Gentiles everywhere.

What Barnabas saw in Antioch was the power of Christ working in the lives of those Gentile believers of Antioch who embraced the will of God for themselves.

The first thing Barnabas did was to travel to Tarsus and find Paul, that he might bring him to Antioch and see this for himself.

I’ll tell you why tomorrow.

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A Man Full of Grace and Power

January 23rd, 2011 No comments

“And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8)

Yesterday we saw that the Apostles “with great power gave witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33). What do you expect; after all – they were The Apostles. But today we discover that a deacon by the name of Stephen was also “full of grace and power.”

There were some detractors in those first days who sought to undermine the emerging Church. They clearly didn’t stand a chance speaking against the Apostles, but thought they could easily weaken the witness of Stephen.

They could not have been more mistaken.

Luke tells us that they rose up to argue with Stephen, but “were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” (Acts 6:10). The grace of God that was upon Stephen gave him the ability to speak with irrefutable wisdom.

Stoning by Gustav DoreThey then stirred up a handful of scoundrels to say “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” That brought the matter before the Courts, where Stephen was required to make a defense.

Stephen began speaking before the Court. Luke tells us they  “fixed their gaze on him, and all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15). The grace of God gave him the supernatural ability to remain poised in the face of religious insanity.

What follows is one of the single most compelling sermons recorded in Scripture – and that by a deacon! Stephen starts with God appearing to Abraham and moves with sweeping clarity all they way through history up to the present – and charges those sitting in the Council with hardening their hearts to God’s will.

Luke writes, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse.”  (Acts 7:54-57).

They then seized Stephen and took him outside — and stoned him to death. 

Luke writes for us the last words that Stephen spoke – “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” he said. Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he died. (Acts 7:59-60). God’s grace empowered Stephen to face death with unflinching courage and Christlikeness.

This incident triggered a massive persecution against the Church in Jerusalem, scattering disciples throughout the greater region. Ironically, those who sought to destroy the Church only succeeded in making it stronger, and spreading its influence ultimately throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

God’s grace was upon Stephen, even to the very end. God empowered him with His presence to be who God created him to be, and to do what God had called him to do – right where he was.

And Stephen did it well.

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The Ancient Library

January 22nd, 2011 No comments

“Open my eyes that I may behold wondrous things out of Thy Law” (Psalm 119:18)

Entering the great door of the Ancient Library we read these words inscribed in the archway – “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” Psalm 119:18

Be Still and KnowIt is thus understood that we enter these doors with a prayer upon our lips. And right it is that we make such an appeal, for the matters written herein cannot be known or understood apart from that gift of sight and faith which the Lord of the Library alone can give.

There is a timeless beauty inside this ancient place. No cobwebs, nor dust; no musty odor of worn leather or parched paper; for the Caretaker tends to these volumes daily, breathing upon them a perpetual stroke of divinity.

The place is not dark, but full of light; and pulsates with a quietness that seems to carry in its embrace the harmony of a thousand voices which whisper through the ages in all these sacred pages.

“Be still and know that I am God.” It is an inescapable Presence that bids us enter and read.

“Let’s look in the volume of The Book of the Acts of the Apostles,” I say. And no one seems to be in disagreement, for this place has hushed us all into a unified compliance unto something far greater than ourselves.

The Book of the Acts of the Apostles — the man through whom these words were given us is a Greek doctor named Luke, who served as a Historian of those epic events that marked the beginning of the Christian Era. And he writes to a man named Theophilus. His name means “a friend of God.” Is that not you and I? Then may we know at the very outset of our reading that these words penned so long ago, were written with this moment in mind.

“Let’s see what Luke has to tell us about the grace of God,” I say, turning through the pages of his book. And the first reference we find speaks volumes in a single sentence. “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).

Great events have transpired in the past few weeks. Jesus of Nazareth had been executed on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem, and three days later rose from the dead! The band of followers rallied in an Upper Room, where the power of the Holy Spirit fell upon them and unleashed them into the streets. Those who killed the Savior, were now insisting that His followers stop preaching in His name. Their threats were unpersuasive.

There is mysterious power connected with lives that are utterly dedicated to the Lord. Luke captures this and says, “And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all” (Acts 4:33).

Grace, which we know to be the power of Christ to do God’s will, was in full display as the apostles made their case for Christ in the open forum of public discourse. And those who heard them experienced this power upon themselves as well.

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