In the world in which we live, there are many suggestions on how best to help the church grow.
- Use contemporary music sprinkled with drama and multimedia
- Offer many and varied programs
- Develop clearly defined goals and strategies to meet those goals
- Emphasize the supernatural elements . . . play to experience
- Take a strong political stand
- Be academically precise
- Be “untraditional” and “unconventional”
Each of the people making these suggestions can point to churches that have used these strategies and seen their church grow numerically. But with all this so-called church growth, why is it that the church seems to have so little impact on society?
This morning we begin a study of the Book of Acts. This book is a brief history of the early church (the first 30 years). It is the record of how God took eleven disciples of Jesus and used them to transform the world. That first century church had such an impact that it sent shockwaves around the world. These believers started with no church buildings, no programs, and a very simple strategy: “Tell the world the good news about Jesus.”
In Acts chapter two we are told that their first public church service resulted in 3000 people being added to the church! Acts 2:47 tells us that the Lord added to their number DAILY those who were being saved. These first believers took the gospel throughout the known world without the benefit of television, radio, the Internet, or even the printing press!
As we study the story of the first century church our goal is not simply to learn about our ancestors in the faith. Our goal is to move beyond contemporary gimmicks to find the power and simplicity of the gospel. We want to find what they had.
The book of Acts was written by Luke. Acts is actually the shortened name of the book. It is actually called the Acts of the Apostles, or the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Some have suggested the book could have been titled “The Continuing Acts of Jesus Christ”. Luke was a physician by trade and was known as a careful historian. The details he records in this book have been verified by history and archaeology. He was a companion of the apostle Paul on a couple of his missionary journeys.
The book is addressed to Theophilus. The man appears to be some kind of high-ranking official but we really can’t be certain who he was. The gospel of Luke and the book of Acts are both addressed to Theolphilus (who’s name means “lover of God”).
Act is a continuation of the account given by Luke in his gospel. In a sense you could call the book of Acts, “Luke Vol. 2”. In his gospel, Luke records the birth, life, and death of Jesus. Acts picks up the story where the gospel leaves off.
James Boice gives us an interesting glimpse into this two-volume work by Luke. According to Boice, books at this time were generally written on papyrus scrolls. These scrolls were usually about thirty-five feet in length. A scroll longer than this became too big to carry. The New Testament books of Matthew, Luke, John, Acts and Romans are all about this length. It appears that Luke wished to write a history of Christianity but it took two scrolls to do so. Some scholars wonder if Luke intended (or did) write a third volume picking up where he abruptly leaves off in Acts.
As we look at the first eleven verses of Acts, we immediately see several foundational truths.
THE CHRISTIAN FAITH IS BASED IN FACT, NOT FICTION
After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
In volume one (the gospel of Luke) the author told us that he had carefully investigated everything that he had recorded. He had compiled his history of Jesus from eyewitness testimony. In the letter of 1 John, the apostle John writes,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2 The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3 We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. [1 John 1:1-3]
In 2 Peter, the apostle Peter declares,
16 We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. 19 And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. [ 2 Peter 1:18-21]
Why is this important? It’s important because we live in a day where someone is always dreaming up some new religion. Someone writes a book and a group of people make that book their textbook for a new faith. That’s what happened with Mormonism, Christian Science, Scientology, Islam, and most other religions. Christians set the Bible ALONE as their standard for faith and practice. What sets the Bible apart from all other religious books, and what distinguishes Christianity from all other religions, is it’s factual or historical basis.
The church did not begin with a bunch of people who had a great theory . . . it began because of the compelling facts of history. These men knew Jesus. They saw his miracles. They heard his teaching. They witnessed His death. And they were startled witnesses to His resurrection.
Christianity is the only faith with a founder who has risen from the dead. The resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith. If the factual nature of the resurrection could ever be proved false, Christianity would crumble. But the truthfulness of the resurrection changes everything. James Boice points out the logic,
- The resurrection is a fact. It is attested by hundreds of witnesses and an otherwise unexplainable change in the followers of Jesus.
- Since the resurrection is a fact, it proves that Jesus was divine. He was God in human form.
- Since Jesus is divine it follows that His words are true and reliable.
- Since His words are true, we should follow Him obediently.
Christianity is truth not fiction.
THE CHRISTIAN FAITH IS POWERED BY GOD’S SPIRIT
Jesus told his disciples that they should:
not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. (Acts 1:4-5)
Christianity is about the life transforming power of God! The message of the gospel is that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our sins are erased and we are transformed by God’s Spirit into new people. We do not become gods . . . but we do become empowered, equipped, and led by God’s Spirit.
Please understand, if you think Christianity is about trying harder to be good, you have missed the point. The Bible is clear: we are not good. We are sinful people who have been given new life in Christ. Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20) Christianity is not about what we can do for God, but it is about what God can do in and through us.
The reason the Christian community is weak today is because we have been relying on our strength, programs, and tactics, We spend more time at management seminars than we do in prayer. We do more research on the Internet than we do in the Word of God. We are more concerned with being popular and successful than we are with being faithful. I know it sounds harsh, but is it false? We need to tap into the Spirit’s power. We need to put our faith in His ability and not our own.
THE GOAL OF THE CHURCH IS TO PROCLAIM THE MESSAGE OF SALVATION
Throughout the ministry of Jesus the disciples misunderstood what Jesus came to do. They expected him to establish an earthly kingdom. They believed the Messiah would restore Israel to a world power. When Jesus talked about “reigning with Him” the disciples thought they were going to get patronage jobs in the administration of Jesus! It should not surprise us then, that after His resurrection, the disciples still waited for Jesus to “restore the Kingdom to Israel”.
Jesus wanted His disciples to understand that His kingdom was bigger and better than the kingdoms of the world. His was not earthly kingdom, but a heavenly kingdom. He was not calling them to be ambassadors of Israel. He wanted them to ambassadors of the message of salvation.
This is a message we must hear clearly. Our primary goal is not to change the moral focus of our country. Our primary goal is not to build great organizations or to eliminate the pain and suffering in the world. Our primary goal is not to build a greater America. Our PRIMARY goal is to tell the world about Jesus. Our job is to tell the world about God’s love, forgiveness, and the new life that can be ours through Christ. This message crosses national, political, ethnic, racial, economic, and gender boundaries.
Hear the commission of Jesus:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. [Acts 1:8]
Put yourself in the shoes of the disciples. I don’t know what the disciples were thinking but I can tell you what I would have been thinking. I would have been thinking, “He’s got to be kidding!” “We’re not going to be able to do this.”
The disciples were in Jerusalem as Jesus spoke to them. The surrounding region was known as Judea (kind of like we live in La Harpe and the surrounding area would be West Central Illinois). Samaria was outside of Judea and it was a place Jews tried to avoid. Those who lived in Samaria were thought of as “half-breeds”. They were the product of Jewish/Gentile marriages. They were considered defiled. But . . . they were still better than the heathen Gentiles. When Jesus told them to go to the ends of the earth He was sending them to the Gentile nations. Picture the commission of Jesus as gradually larger concentric circles. It was similar to the effect of a rock being dropped in the water . . .the ripples go out from the point of entry. The rock of the gospel message was dropped in Jerusalem and the ripple of that message was to go out to the whole world.”
If Jesus was talking to you or me He might say, “I want you to take the message of the gospel to your friends and relatives, to the people you come in contact with every day at work and at school. I want you to get outside of your circle of friends and tell everyone about the love of God and the opportunity for a new beginning. I want you to find ways to reach the world.
Think about it. God doesn’t want us to just be concerned about ministry at home. He wants us to reach beyond our “own people”. This is why we give to Missions and why we try to make sure that many of our missions are foreign missions. This is why we put money into a radio ministry and why we have established a web site. This is why I write books and do interviews. This is why people head to Mexico and other places to minister. This is the reason some have established Christian television and radio networks. This is why organizations hold evangelistic meetings. It is not an attempt to be famous . . . it is an attempt to be obedient.
May I get personal? When was the last time you told somebody about Jesus? I’m not asking when you last talked about the church. When was the last time you told someone the good news of the gospel?
At the very beginning of the book of Acts we are told what God wants us to do. He wants us to tell the world about Jesus. Practically, this means we should be more concerned with how we can get the gospel to the people in Iraq than we are with how we can defeat them quickly. We should be more concerned with how to convey God’s love to those who have been cast off by the rest of the world, instead of complaining and gossiping about these people. We should be on the front lines in reaching out to the hurting and helpless in the name of Jesus rather than avoiding these people because they take so much of our time. We should be investing more in ministry than we do in pleasures.
Will it be difficult? You bet it will be. But notice the promise that comes with the command: “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit.” God knows our weakness and He has made provision for it. You may not know what to say, but God’s Spirit does, and will guide you. You may feel inadequate and inept, but God’s Spirit is more than adequate to meet every need. We are to go and share in His power. Our job is to testify, His job is change hearts.
THE CHRISTIAN FAITH IS FUELED BY THE PROMISE OF CHRIST’S RETURN
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” [Acts 1:9-11]
For forty days the disciples had visited with the resurrected Jesus. He had taught them, loved them, and shown them His power and authority and they had relished every minute. Suddenly Jesus began to rise into the air. His friends watched as he ascended into the clouds. Their mouths were open. Even after He was out of sight they kept looking up because I think they knew that when they looked down, a new chapter of their life was going to begin. They were going to have to leave their “comfort zone” and take on the responsibility of representing Jesus in the world.
While still looking up they are joined by two men in white. They asked “Why are you looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back to you in the same way you have seen him go into Heaven” It is apparent that the message in the words was, “Stop looking into the sky and get to work. Time is short. Jesus is going to return and He is going to expect you to have done what He asked you to do.”
The Bible tells us that Jesus will return earth. His return will catch the world by surprise and when He returns the door of opportunity will be closed. It will be too late to introduce our family and friends to the gospel. The time for obedience will have passed.
The promise of the second coming is a great promise but honestly it doesn’t seem to be giving us much incentive. After all, it’s been 2000 years. The sense of urgency, quite frankly, doesn’t seem that great to us. We know we are closer to His coming now than at any other time, but we also know that although His coming could be today, it could also be several hundred years away. Consequently, sharing Christ with others doesn’t seem to be that high on our list of “things to do”. We mean to get around to it but we don’t feel particularly rushed to do so.
This isn’t the way it should be, but we need to be honest. Yes, we can ask, “But what if He DID come today?” But there would still be a part of us that would be saying, “But the odds are, that He won’t. Every generation believed that the coming of Christ was on the horizon. His coming may still be a long way off.”
So, let’s look at it another way. We are not guaranteed one breath in life. We do not know that we will be here at the end of this day. Life is fragile. Even if Jesus does not return for another thousand years, your friends and family members may face the Lord today. EVERY DAY thousands of people die without knowing the saving love of Jesus. Every day people begin their day thinking they have plenty of time but they never see the end of the day. Every day people are consigned to hell because they have not trusted Christ’s work on their behalf. We need to remember that the people God brings our way may not be able to wait to hear the message of salvation.
We need to remember that WE might face the Lord today. Today may be the day when the Lord calls us home and evaluates the work that we have done in His name. Could you stand before the Lord knowing that you had done your best to obey Him? Are you putting your walk with the Lord on the back burner until another day? Is that wise?
We also need to remember that living within the love of Christ is something precious. Every day is richer when we know Him. Every day you and I delay in sharing the message with those we love, we rob them of the joy of living in Christ. We rob from them the peace they could have known. Every day we fail to share the gospel with another we rob ourselves of the privilege of sharing in the work of salvation.
Jesus may return and He may do so very soon. But even if He doesn’t, the reality of life’s fragile nature should fuel our desire to share the gospel with everyone and anyone we come in contact with.
This is just the beginning of the book of Acts but already we should be asking some good questions.
- What is my basis of confidence in the Christian faith? Do I see Christianity as a nice set of ideas or do I recognize it as a faith anchored in fact?
- Am I, are we, working in our power or His? Do we trust our gimmicks or do we trust Him? Do we rely on our abilities or His? How much time do we spend seeking His guidance and strength?
- Have we become distracted from our primary responsibility? When was the last time you shared the gospel with someone?
The health of our church, the strength of the Kingdom, and your personal fellowship with God is not contingent on programs, These things are anchored to how well we grasp and apply the basics of the faith.
When Bill Clinton was elected President of the United States his campaign team had a simple slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid!” It was their way of reminding them that the most important issue to the voters was the economy. If they could gain the voters confidence in this area, they would win the election. And that’s what they did.
Maybe we need similar slogan, “It’s Jesus that matters”. We must remember that it is His work, His power, and His message that matters. These are the things that change lives. This is where our fulfillment will come from. And if we can get that straight . . . everything else will fall into place.