It’s often said, “What you hold in your hand is what you hold in your heart.” Allow me to share a story to help you think about what’s in your heart that anchors you beyond the moment.
Two little girls were counting their pennies. One said, “I have five pennies.” The other one said, “I have ten.”
“No,” said the first little girl, “you just have five pennies, the same as me.” “But,” the second girl replied, “my father said when I come home tonight he’ll give me five pennies, and so I have ten.”
The child’s faith, the trust she had in her father, gave her proof of what she didn’t yet see. She counted it because she believed the promise of her father.
What might we take away from this story? The first girl counted up what she saw, while the other girl had the heart of an investor in something greater than the moment. She chose to invest in her father’s love and word, and that made all the difference!
Her response echoed two basic underlying articles of faith that lie deep within the hearts of those heeding Jesus’ invitation of “Follow Me” (Matthew 4:19; John 21:19).
One is expressed in Hebrews 11:1: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And the other is based on what Jesus Christ told His followers in in Luke 12:32: “Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
How do we count our “heaven-sent pennies” and invest them towards something promised that’s yet to be fulfilled? How do we maintain our hope and trust in the coming Kingdom of God in darkening times?
Time for a reality check
Allow me to be frank: Society is rapidly sliding away from any concept of a sovereign and loving Heavenly Father guiding our lives. The light of Christ and His teachings is being suppressed daily via the impact of social media, academia, the entertainment industry and the passivity of those who claim to be followers of Christ.
After 60 years of this tidal wave of ungodliness, the United States and the rest of the Western world are becoming less anchored to their traditional Judeo-Christian moorings. Religious affiliation is decreasing among younger generations. The number of American adults who describe themselves as Christian has fallen to 65 percent, a drop of 12 percentage points over the past decade. What we see around us can be disturbing and discouraging. But like the little girl in the opening story, we have hope because of whom we know and what we believe.
Are times getting tougher for people of faith? Yes! But as the saying goes, “We’ve seen this movie before.” We need go no further than those initial followers of Jesus who accepted His invitation of “Follow Me” and who believed in His and our Heavenly Father’s promises.
What enabled our spiritual forebearers to become a new kind of community to “proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light”? (1 Peter 2:9). Let’s focus on three observations that will not only help us to cope with the darkness of this age, but brighten our witness of our Master.
We must have undivided commitment
Consider first that Jesus’ earliest followers gave undivided commitment to our Master. Every individual from that time forward has had to personally confront who Jesus Christ is by personally answering the same question He posed to Peter: “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15-16, emphasis added throughout).
Jesus’ question would be shared person by person as this encounter spread across the world of that day. And each hearer had to respond and claim Peter’s answer as his or her own. Each would not only claim who Jesus was but would claim His name as the only name by which men must be saved (Acts 4:12).
This total allegiance caused them to break from many of the cultural norms and expectations of that day, at times alienating them from family members, neighbors, coworkers and governing authorities. Jesus had clearly warned those heeding His invitation of “Follow Me” regarding such trouble, stating, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).
Why all this animosity? Becoming a “Jesus follower” was a totally foreign concept in that day. In the pagan world, embracing a new faith typically did not mean doing away with long-established gods, but rather adding any new divine entity to a rolodex of household deities, perhaps giving them name changes and reprioritized placement on their household altar while mixing new beliefs with old practices. Yet being “in Christ” meant worshipping God the Father and Jesus Christ exclusively—having no other gods at all before the true God (Exodus 20:3).
The statement “Jesus Christ is Lord” is triple-loaded with meaning, declaring that He alone is the Savior sent by the Father, that He alone is the prophesied Messiah and that He alone is “Lord”—Master or King—of our lives.
This put those who followed Jesus into direct confrontation with Rome and its emperor. Since the time of Julius Caesar, an aura of divinity had increasingly developed among Rome’s rulers to the point that the emperors came to be worshipped as gods. At times edicts were issued that incense had to be offered to the emperor as divine. To not do so could cost one’s life. And many Christians were martyred.
Such individuals were plainly focused on something beyond the challenges set before them. They believed in a Heavenly Father who had intervened in their existence and granted them a vision of life to come, assuring them that beyond human imagination are “the things which God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
You may never be led into an arena full of hungry lions as some of them were, but are you willing to embrace that which lies before you by “dying daily” (see 1 Corinthians 15:31), not only to the kingdoms and things of this world more broadly, but especially to the kingdom of self—you and what you desire? Are you holding onto five pennies, or do you carry ten of them that no one can take from you?
We must remember we are not alone
Understand, secondly, that Jesus’ first followers never believed they were truly alone. Why did they feel this way? And what does it mean for us?
On the last night of Jesus’ human life on earth, He offered this promise to His followers: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you” (John 14:18). He defined the nature of His promise just before: “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper [Greek parakletos, meaning “comforter” or “one called alongside for help”], that He may abide with you forever” (verse 16).
Jesus went on to say: “A little while longer and the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you will live also” (verse 19). But where and how? “At that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I you” (verse 20).
Did the original disciples fully grasp Jesus’ statement then? No. They would grow in understanding and experience over time. But here are two things they did know and came to understand more about in the days ahead:
The Spirit of God had descended onto Jesus (Matthew 3:16). It remained with Him, as evidenced by His miracles, wonders and teachings.
Jesus made a promise that something was coming. When it arrived weeks later, they recognized it as a promise fulfilled. The apostle Peter described it as a “gift” granted to those who previously rejected Christ but would now surrender in undivided allegiance to His name (Acts 2:36-38). In the moment of utter personal darkness in coming to grips with what they all had done, God promised to make a “home” in them and remain with them. They would not be alone!
The apostle Paul further defined the presence of this “Comforter” in Romans 8, telling Christians: “You are not in the flesh [that is, controlled by one’s fleshly mindset] but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if any does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His” (verse 9).
He further states: “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit [which] dwells in you” (verse 11). Through Paul here, God puts the exclamation point on Jesus’ words in John 17:22-23 regarding the intimacy between the Father, the Son and us. The “Comforter,” the Holy Spirit, is no less than Their divine essence dwelling in us and guiding our walk towards our “Father’s good pleasure to give” us His Kingdom.
This gift of the indwelling essence of the Father and Son makes all the difference. This spiritual presence moves us beyond fear of the darkness and grants us power, love and soundness of mind (2 Timothy 1:7). This understanding fills in the blanks regarding Jesus’ closing words to His disciples in Matthew 28:20: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Whereas the disciples had walked beside Jesus on the dusty roads of Galilee for three and a half years, He would now walk inside of them wherever they were—and, yes, wherever we are today.
Luke, the Gospel writer and author of Acts, identifies this key element that empowered Jesus’ early followers to not only cope in a hostile world, but to so boldly and mightily give witness to their faith that they were described as “these who have turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6). Luke mentions the Holy Spirit 15 times in his Gospel and 55 times in the book of Acts.
We must make prayer a way of life
Recognize, thirdly, that Jesus’ first followers made prayer a way of life. If the Holy Spirit is the dynamic needle that runs through the book of Acts, then prayer is the thread that binds the fabric of the early Church together with God and before man. The book begins with the disciples and other followers praying with one another in the upper room at Jerusalem. The rest is history.
When Peter and John were later apprehended and then released, the Church met together and praised God for their deliverance. Those gathered prayed regarding the opposition they met with: “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus” (Acts 4:29-30). When they finished, “the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness” (verse 31).
Let’s also consider the account of two men from completely different backgrounds in two different locations praying before the same heavenly throne, with both used mightily by God in expanding His family on earth among Jews and gentiles.
Here we discover Cornelius, the Roman centurion whose manner was “to pray to God always” (Acts 10:2). A few verses later we find the apostle Peter praying on a rooftop porch (verse 9). Their priority of prayer helped prepare them to be used by God to expand the Body of Christ to include gentile believers. Prayer was the doorbell!
Prayer does not always spare us from the troubles of this world, but it does position us before our Father’s heavenly throne. The final words of the deacon Stephen are found in Acts 7:59-60: “And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not charge them with this sin.’ And when he had said this, He fell asleep [in death].”
Stephen echoed the words Jesus spoke at Golgotha in forgiving those who killed Him before He committed His spirit to God (Luke 23:34, 46).
Just before Stephen’s final words above, He moved beyond coping to loudly witnessing that He was not alone. Verses 54-56 paint the picture of union of the throne room of God and ourselves in times of darkness: “But [Stephen], being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’”
Not just coping, but copying Christ
As I noted in a recent column, a startling statement is made regarding the early followers of Christ in Acts 4. Peter and John had been brought before a court to have their witness of Jesus Christ being the foretold Messiah extinguished. The authorities, viewing the proceedings through human eyes, thought they could bully them into submission.
But let’s read the court proceedings in verse 13: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus.”
These were individuals whose complete allegiance was to the Son of God. They believed in the promises of God. And just like Him, they saw things as if they already are. They not only walked before God, but walked with and talked with Him—and He was pleased.
These things allowed them, as they have many others since, to not merely cope with life, but to copy the life of Christ in them. Let us all follow the example of Christ’s first disciples in likewise following Him, allowing Him to truly lead us from within in full assurance of faith. That makes all the difference between five pennies and ten!