What happened after the resurrection of Jesus Christ? The book of Acts tells the amazing story of the early church, starting with a small and ordinary band of prayerful disciples that grew into a supernatural movement and shook the known world. In A.D. Acts of the Apostles, Dr. Ron Jones explores what started on the day of Pentecost two thousand years ago and how it continues today.
Jesus the Revolutionary
Well, investors on Wall Street are always looking for the next startup that will explode in growth and produce all kinds of business profits. For example, if you had invested in some initial public offerings many years ago and just bought a few shares of some companies like Microsoft or Apple, maybe Amazon, you know, if you had bought them when they were IPOs, initial public offerings, you’d be very wealthy today. You’d make a lot of money. And investors are always looking for those kinds of opportunities on Wall Street. Well, I want you to imagine for a moment the church of Jesus Christ as an IPO 2000 years ago. There were just a handful of people who thought that it had any chance of getting off the ground, let alone fulfilling and achieving the worldwide impact and vision by its founder. The investors, if we could call them back then, were poor. They were afraid. They were uneducated. And they were powerless against the mighty Roman Empire, let alone the politics of religion that they faced in Jerusalem.
But here we are 2000 years later. The story of what happened following the death, the burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is an amazing story. Some call it a revolutionary story that is worth telling. So much so that even Hollywood has picked up on the storytelling value of the early church and has produced some movies of late about the early church. But long before Hollywood saw the storytelling value of what happened 2000 years ago following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, there was a medical doctor named Luke who thought it was worth writing down, too. All the events that took place in the early days of the early church. And we have a record of what Dr. Luke wrote down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It’s called the Acts of the Apostles. It’s the fifth book in your New Testament, following Matthew, Mark, Luke, John. And then if we went to Romans without Acts, there’d be some parts that are missing. We would need somebody to fill in the rest of the story. And that’s what the book of Acts does for us.
Now, the book of Acts is part of a two-volume anthology written by Dr. Luke. In fact, we talk about it as Luke/Acts. The book of Acts was always meant to be read alongside The Gospel According to Luke. And when Luke wrote these two volumes, you can tell by the introduction to both books he’s writing to a guy named Theophilus. Now, we don’t know much about Theophilus. There’s speculation that he might have been an attorney, and he was a friend of Dr. Luke. And he wanted Luke to use his investigative research skills that he might have learned as a medical doctor and to come up with some proofs, some convincing proofs that what these followers of Jesus, let alone Jesus Himself, claimed was actually true. And if you go to Acts 1:1, you get this sense that these two books go together, because Luke writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus,”—the first book being The Gospel According to Luke—“I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
So in the first book that Luke, which is The Gospel According to Luke, he says, “I dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach.” Well, some people, including the devil himself, thought that when Jesus was crucified, it was the end of the Nazarene. You know, “we put an end to this guy.” No, when He was crucified, buried and rose again from the dead, it’s as though Jesus came out of that grave and said, “I’ve only just begun.” And so Luke writes about the beginning of all that Jesus did and all that He taught, but Acts writes about what He continued to do through the early apostles. And it’s a fascinating ride. It’s a fascinating book.
Now, in one sense, the book of Acts is kind of like a history book. And you’ve got to read it that way. It’s less prescriptive and more descriptive about what happens. We don’t get out theology necessarily from the book of Acts, although there are many lessons that we can learn. And we see the God of the Bible acting out through the apostles that He empowered through the Holy Spirit. It’s more descriptive of what happened, less prescriptive. The prescriptions we get as we read further on in the New Testament. That’s important to understand as you come to the book of Acts and interpret the book of Acts even for our times.
But even though it reads kind of like a history book of the early church, to me it also reads like a revolutionary call to action. A revolutionary call to action. And I want you just to think about that just a little bit. I’ve titled this message “Jesus the Revolutionary.” Now, think of some of the revolutions that come to our mind in history where governments and political systems have been toppled by “We the People” and revolutionaries who rose up. I think of the French Revolution. I think of the American Revolution. And these and other revolutions like it topple governments, overthrow oppressive political systems. There is something in our history known as the industrial revolution. And this transformed the economy of America. And many people believe we are living in a post-industrial revolution age. And over the last 50 or 60 years there has been a technology revolution that has certainly changed the way we do life today with computers and, you know, all that kind of stuff.
But when I say Jesus is a revolutionary, He’s a revolutionary of a different kind. He never commanded an army. He never wrote a book. He never had a family. He never lived in a big city. He never did all the kinds of things you would think revolutionaries do. But His teaching was revolutionary. It was completely revolutionary. Certainly consistent with the Judaism of His day, but He was moving forward the plan of God and the purpose of God and the prophecies of God as they were fulfilled. And He was revolutionary in that sense in His teaching, even though He said at one time, “My teaching is not My own. My teaching comes from the One who sent Me.” And I always keep that in mind as a pastor. My teaching is not my own, certainly if Jesus’s teaching was not His own. We teach and preach the Word of God and the teachings of Jesus. But Jesus was a revolutionary in that sense. A revolutionary of a different kind.
Dallas Willard wrote a book many years ago about the character of Christ in us. And He titled it appropriately, Revolution of the Heart. And in that sense, Jesus is a revolutionary who travels into the deep recesses of the human heart. And His goal is to do more than just rescue us from the penalty of sin and from the power of sin, which He does through His death, burial and resurrection. But His goal is also to give us a new purpose, to revolutionize our mission and even our destiny in life. And He does that in a number of ways spelled out in all kinds of stories in the Gospels and in the book of Acts.
Let me just give you one brief story. Remember a guy named Peter? Peter was a guy we meet in the Gospels, and he was a fisherman. And Jesus met him on the shores of Sea of Galilee one day. And He says, “Peter, I want you to follow Me, and I’ll make you a fisher of men.” That was revolutionary language. “Peter, I’m gonna revolutionize your heart, and I’m gonna revolutionize your purpose, your mission and your destiny in life.” And we know the story of Peter through many ups and down, through even a time when He denied Jesus three times on the night that He was arrested and hours before His crucifixion. But Peter becomes a guy in the book of Acts that God used in a powerful way to carry out His purpose and the mission of God as Jesus gave it to His disciples.
And Jesus is still in the business of revolutionizing hearts and revolutionizing our purpose and our mission and our destiny in life. And the book of Acts is a wonderful story of how that happens. And it’s continuing today. Acts is 28 chapters, but we’re living in Acts 29. We are still the church of Jesus Christ 2000 years later. Name me a company that started and has a 2000-year-old growth curve. You can’t find one. You won’t find one anywhere on Wall Street. But if you had invested…better yet, if you had embraced this revolution known as the church of Jesus Christ, letting Jesus Christ by faith revolutionize your heart, rescuing you from the penalty of sin and from the power of sin, and then allowing Him to revolutionize your vision and your mission in life, friends, that’s the church. That’s the exciting aspect of being a part of this thing called the church of Jesus Christ. And book of Acts tells the story of when the church was in an incubator, when it was just in its infancy and in those early years.
Now, Acts 1:1-11 is the focus of our study this morning. And, yes, it reads a little bit like, you know, a history book. But I find in these opening paragraphs a four-fold revolutionary call to action that still applies to us today, friends. And there are some things…if we’re going to embrace this revolution that’s been going on for 2000 years, this revolution of the heart and of purpose and mission and destiny in life, there are four things that we need to embrace as well.
This call to action, number one, has to do with having confidence in the claims of Jesus Christ. You’ll never embrace, fully embrace this revolution until there is a certainty in your heart about the claims of Christianity and of Jesus Christ Himself. Look at what Luke says in verse 3. He is writing to Theophilus. And he says, “[Jesus] presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Now, again, there is some speculation that this Theophilus to whom he is writing might have been an attorney who is saying, “Luke, my friend, give me some investigative research and give me some proofs about this Jesus and about His followers.” And Luke does his research. He writes The Gospel According to Luke. Now he is writing Acts. And it was important for Theophilus and for anybody else who would read this to know that there were facts that substantiated the claims of Jesus Christ.
Luke says here that after He Himself died and suffered, that He “presented himself alive… by many proofs.” Just circle that phrase “many proofs.” Two other translations of the Bible call them “many convincing proofs.” The old King James translation says “many infallible proofs.” I’ve said for years Christianity is an intelligent faith based upon reasonable evidence. It’s based upon reasonable evidence. It’s based upon many convincing proofs. Not scientific proof. But science is not the end all/be all in proving something. They’d like to think it is. But I’m talking about the kinds of proofs that we find in a court of law. You see, Theophilus might have been an attorney. He used to a different burden of proof, meaning that something is true or not true based upon reasonable doubt. And here is what Luke does. He does his investigative research into the church of Jesus Christ, into this startup called the church, into the claims of Jesus Christ. And he says based on their biggest claim that He rose from the dead, that He suffered and then He appeared alive to His followers by many convincing proofs.
Now, what are some of those proofs? Well, the apostle Paul lists what we call the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in 1 Corinthians 15. He says He appeared to the apostles, to the twelve. He appeared to 500 people at once. He appeared to James, which was the half-brother of Jesus. He appeared to many people. And then Paul says, “And then He appeared to me.” Luke is the one in his gospel in Luke 24 that talks about another post-resurrection appearance of Jesus when He appeared to two men who were walking along a road toward a village called Emmaus. And these two men were dumbfounded by all that had happened during Passover in Jerusalem, the crucifixion of Jesus, this rabbi from Nazareth, and all this discussion now about how He’d risen from the dead. And they were just kind of scratching their heads about that. Jesus comes and starts walking with them and starts having a conversation with them. Finally interrupts the conversation and He says, “Oh you foolish guys, you’re so slow to believe what all the prophets said about how the Christ must suffer.” And the Bible says He took these two men through Moses and through all the prophets, through a journey through the Old Testament, and showed them how everything that had just happened in Jerusalem, about the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, was prophesied through the Old Testament. These guys get to their destination in Emmaus, and they’re, like, “Hey, you know, we need to go sit down and have a Starbucks together and talk about this a little bit more.” They didn’t recognize Jesus attitude. But suddenly their eyes were opened, the Bible says, and Jesus disappears. So that’s a pretty fanciful story. But remember, He was in His glorified body, His post-resurrection body that was not limited by space, time and matter. And what we find in the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus is He could appear here and appear there. Much like, perhaps, we will have capacities in our glorified bodies in heaven.
My point is this. We will never embrace fully the revolution of Jesus Christ and get fully on board with it until we’re convinced of at least the number one claim and the linchpin of Christianity, which is He is risen and He is risen indeed. Are you convinced of that? Convinced of that enough to let Jesus revolutionize your heart but also revolutionize your purpose, your mission and your destiny in life.
I remember when I was in college and just a couple years out of college I came to what I would call a crisis of faith. I grew up in a Bible-believing, gospel-preaching church, and I came to know Jesus as my savior in middle school. But when I was in college and a couple years out of college I knew what I believed, I didn’t know why I believed it. And it brought me to a crisis. And like Luke, I started doing some of my own investigative research. And I investigated the investigators, because there are people who have been investigating this story for 2000 years. And I read books like Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, a former atheist and an agnostic when it comes to the claims of Jesus Christ and then somebody who investigated things. I went and learned from his investigation. I read books by Josh McDowell like More Than a Carpenter and evidence that demands a verdict. I got a hold of anything I could read. I did my own personal investigation, because at that point I couldn’t afford to have a faith that just some preacher delegated to me or that my parents might have had or somebody else. I needed to know that I knew that there were many convincing, infallible proofs. And I went through a season. And you know what? I came out of that believing that this Jesus is who He says He is. And His claim and His followers’ claims that He rose from the dead is true beyond a reasonable doubt. And I joined the revolution.
And my question is, are you there? Are there any lingering doubts? If there are, do your investigation. Your eternal destiny depends on it, let alone, you know, what your purpose and mission is in life. That’s the first call the action. To have confidence in the claims of Christianity.
The second is to connect to the unlimited power of God. Let’s read on beginning in verse 4. “And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’ So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” Let’s stop right there.
It’s clear from the early paragraphs of the book of Acts that anything that looks like explosive growth, the kind of (0:19:00.1) growth that a Wall Street investor would just salivate over, depends on the Holy Spirit. So understand the flow of what’s happening time-wise on the Jewish calendar. There were seven Jewish feasts on the Jewish calendar, four of which we say were fulfilled prophetically at the first coming of Jesus Christ. So during the week leading up to Jesus’s crucifixion you have Passover, Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of First Fruits or the Feast of Weeks. Passover- Jesus died on Passover as the ultimate and final Passover lamb that takes away the sins of the world. The Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated the times when they wandered in the wilderness for 40 years and received the manna, the bread from heaven. Also a picture of Jesus who said, “I am the bread of life,” and so forth. Three days after Passover when Jesus rose from the dead, that was the Feast (0:20:00.0) of First Fruits. Why? Because Jesus, according to the New Testament, is the first fruits of our resurrection. In other words, the first of many more to come. Fifty days later is another feast known as Pentecost.
Now, Luke tells us that these many proofs, the many post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, took place for 40 days following His resurrection. And for 40 days He talked to them about the kingdom of God. He probably corrected some of their misunderstandings about it. But He went around appearing to people and talking to His disciples. Many convincing proofs. Many infallible proofs, Luke tells us. But around the 40th days He ascended back to the Father. That left 10 days until Pentecost. And Jesus told His disciples, “Go to Jerusalem. Sit down and wait.” Now, that’s hard for any of us to do, right? To wait? I don’t like to wait. I like to get up and go. But He told them to wait. Why? “Because you will fail,” is the implication, “apart from the resources of Holy Spirit that will enable you to carry this work out.”
And here we are 2000 years later. And if there’s any sense of a powerless church or you're feeling powerless to live this thing called the Christian life, I’m gonna tell you it has everything to do with your relationship to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit fell upon people in particular places and times in the Old Testament. And Jesus was with His disciples, but He had to ascend to the Father so the Holy Spirit would come to be in the disciples and so that they could connect and activate, as it were, the power of God. Not only to live this thing called the Christian life, but to carry out the bold mission that we’ll talk about in just a moment.
Now, there’s a whole lot of theology that we can get into in the Holy Spirit, and I don’t have time to go into it this morning. We will in coming days. But just understand this. There are two baptisms in the Bible. One is water baptism, the other is Spirit baptism. They both have to do with identification. In water baptism we’re identified with the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus says, “Go into the world and make disciples.” And the first thing you do is you baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. You encourage that disciple to go public with their faith and, as a picture, to identify with the death, the burial and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If the resurrection of Jesus Christ demonstrated the power of God, it was the coming of the Holy Spirit that delivered the power of God to the early church. And the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is one of many ministries of the Holy Spirit, happens at the moment of salvation. When by faith, Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit comes to live inside of you. You’re baptized or identified this time with the body of Christ. Now, the question is, do you have the Holy Spirit? And the answer is yes. If you’re a believer in Jesus Christ, you have the Holy Spirit. He came to live inside of you at the moment of salvation. And guess what? You’ve got all the Holy Spirit you’re ever gonna get. He is the earnest money deposit on our faith. That’s called the baptism of the Spirit.
Now, it’s different than something called the filling of the Spirit. The Bible never commands us to be baptized in the Spirit. You know that? It just happens at the moment of salvation. But Ephesians 5 tells us, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.” That’s a command. If the baptism of the Holy Spirit has to do with content—do you have the Holy Spirit?—the filling of the Holy Spirit has to do with control. Does the Holy Spirit have you? It’s not just that He’s resident in our life, He’s president of our life. And let me just say it again. We will never successfully live this thing called the Christian life, let alone fulfill and achieve the revolution that Jesus envisioned this church to be, apart from the enabling resources of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament warns us against grieving the Holy Spirit, quenching the Holy Spirit, resisting the Holy Spirit. You can have the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit doesn’t have you. It’s about yielding to Him. Letting Him control your thoughts, your words, your responses. Saying, “Lord Jesus, I can’t live this thing called the Christian life. It’s impossible to live. But live it through me, through the resources that You’ve given to me called the Holy Spirit.” You see, friends, answering this call to action not only has to do with being confident and sure of the claims of Jesus Christ starting with His resurrection, but also then connecting to the power source that is in us as believers in Jesus Christ. And this is what Jesus said when He says, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And He says, “You will receive power.” Dunamis. It’s where we get our word dynamite. The capacity to live the Christian life, the power, the dunamis, to fulfill the mission comes through the Holy Spirit. And there is a whole lot more that we could talk about there, but I’ve got to move on.
There is a third call to action, and that is to commit to the bold mission of the church. Let’s pick it up in the middle of Acts 1:8 and read on. Jesus says, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.” And then He goes on to say, “And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” You know, they wanted to talk to Jesus about prophecy and about the Father’s time and the seasons and is this the time for the kingdom to come. And Jesus says, “Listen, it’s not for you to know all of that. What you need to know is, first of all, you're gonna have to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And then when you have the power, then you fulfill the bold mission.”
I remember when I was in seminary one of the first courses that I took was called “Hermeneutics and Bible Study Methods.” Doesn’t sounds like it, but it was a life-changing course to take, one of the first courses you take at Dallas Seminary. And I had the privilege of studying under a legendary professor named Dr. Howard Hendricks. And Dr. Hendricks, you know, taught us how to study the Bible. And he used a process of observation, interpretation, application and correlation to a worldview. What does it say? What does it mean? How does it apply? How does it shape your worldview? And I remember after taking the course I said to myself, “Oh, that’s how they do it.” We have a course here that we teach in the Shores Bible Institute called “How to Study the Bible for Yourself.” And it takes you through that process. You take that course, you’re gonna say, “Oh, that’s how pastor does it.”
It starts with observation. What does it say? And I remember the first assignment he gave to us. He always gave the assignments at the beginning of the class, which got you to class on time, because if you didn’t get the assignment at the beginning of class, you were on your own to get it for the next class. So we were always there at the beginning. And one of the first assignments as he was teaching us how to observe the text of scripture—what does it say?—he says, “Here is an assignment on Acts 1:8. I want you to find 25 observations. Make 25 observations on this verse and bring them with you to class next time.” And we’re, like, wow, 25 observations in this tiny little verse? So we go home. And I, I struggled to make 25 observations on one verse of scripture. And we come back the next time, and he collects all of the assignments. And he says, “Well, how’d you do?” And you could hear these collective groans across this large lecture hall with about 200 students in it. And he says, “Okay. Great. For the next hour make 25 more observations on Acts 1:8.” And we’re, like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” He was teaching us not only the power of observation, but also something about a very important central verse of scripture to this thing called the mission of the church.
He says, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” Don’t try to do this in your own strength. And when you receive that power, then you will be My witnesses.” Now, one of the observations you make has to do with key terms, so I circled that term “witnesses.” That was an observation. He called us witnesses. Again, a reason that some people think that Luke was responding to an attorney’s request for investigative research, he uses this word “witness” that Theophilus would have connected with. We’re witnesses.
Now, there’s always a difference that we need to understand between the spiritual gift of evangelism and being a witness for Jesus. There are some people in the body of Christ who have the gift of evangelism. That is wonderfully seen in the ministry of Billy Graham, you know, crusade, large gathering evangelism. Or a guy like Bill Bright with Campus Crusade. One on one evangelism. Not everybody has that gift, that spiritual gift. But all of us have the responsibility to be His witnesses. His witness. To bear witness to what Christ has done in our life. And Luke says that starts in Jerusalem, goes to Judea and Samaria, and then to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is the bold mission of the church. And always link Acts 1:8 to Matthew 28:19-20, the Great Commission, where Jesus told His disciples, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded to you. And then He says, “Lo, I am with you always.” You link Matthew 28 and Acts 1:8, and you’ll get a sense of what our mission is. What our call to action is. And again, we will never fully receive and embrace the revolution of Jesus Christ called His church until we commit to the bold mission of the church.
What kind of witness are you for Jesus? You don’t have to be a Billy Graham or a Bill Bright. But, you know, in your everyday conversations you’re leaving behind some aroma of Jesus. Maybe just with the checkout person at the grocery store who may or may not know that you’re believer in Jesus Christ. A conversation with your neighbor, your coworker, in the place of influence that God has given to you. Your Jerusalem and my Jerusalem is my family, my neighborhood, my coworkers. Start there. And any time I talk to somebody who wants to go on the mission field, you know, to some exotic place to serve the Lord, you know, I think that’s great. That’s wonderful. And we need that. My first question is, what kind of witness were you for Jesus in your Jerusalem? You want to go to an exotic place in the world and tell people about Jesus. Did you tell people about Jesus in your own neighborhood? How about your own family? Your place of work? That’s where it starts. In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the uttermost parts of the earth.
Some people see this as Luke’s way of giving us an outline for the book of Acts, because the book of Acts starts with the church in Jerusalem. By Acts 28 we’re in Rome, the far ends of the known world at that time. And here we are 2000 years later because disciples of Jesus Christ who took the mission of the church, the bold mission of the church seriously and embraced the revolution, who put this into practice. What kind of witness are you? What kind of witness are we as a church? This is why as a church we say our mission is to glorify God by making disciples of Jesus Christ who go and make disciples. That’s Acts 1:8. That’s Matthew 28 and so forth.
So we’re talking about responding to a call to action here. And we said it starts by having confidence in the claims of Christ, connecting to the unlimited power of God, committing to the bold mission of the church, and then, finally, clinging to the immminent return of Jesus Christ. Let’s finish it up in verses 9 and 10 after Jesus gives them their marching orders. It says, “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” Now, this scene is known as the ascension of Jesus Christ. Probably came around day 40 after His resurrection. And He’s been appearing in a number of places. He’s been talking to the disciples about the kingdom of God, giving them their marching orders again, clarifying any misunderstandings they have about scripture or any of that and preparing them for the coming of Holy Spirit. And then, while they’re standing there on the Mount of Olives just across the Kidron Valley on the other side of the old city of Jerusalem, He starts ascending into heaven. And the clouds envelope Him, and He’s gone. You can just imagine the disciples sitting there with their heads, you know, tilted up like this and their jaw dropped down to their belly button. “Where did He go?” And the Bible says two men, angels, appeared to them and said, “Why are you guys gawking up into heaven? This same Jesus who left you in the clouds is coming again.”
You see, friends, embracing the revolution that is this thing called the early church and the church that we are today has something to do with clinging to the promise of His return. We’ve got work to do. This is not time for laziness. It’s not time for laissez faire. It’s not time to kick back and retire into…we’ve got work to do. And Jesus is coming. He’s coming soon. I talk about clinging to the imminent return of Jesus Christ. You know what imminent means? It could happen at any time. And it’s been imminent for 2000 years. And you say, “Well, when’s He gonna come?” I don’t know. The Bible says a thousand years is like a day, and a day is like a thousand years to God. So in His mind a couple days have passed. He’s in no hurry, right? And it’s not for us to know the day or the hour. And when the disciples even asked Jesus about, “Is this the time? Is this the season when the Father’s gonna fulfill the kingdom?” “Hey, guys, don’t worry about that. You’ve got work to do. You’ve got a job to do. And I’m leaving you shortly here, and I want to make sure you have all the resources you need to carry out the mission.”
And here we are today. Part of what compels me, part of what just gets me up in the morning and gets me excited about fulfilling this bold mission of the church is knowing that any day Jesus could come again. Do you know the next event on God’s prophetic calendar is something called the rapture of the church where we disappear out of this world as believers in Jesus Christ in the twinkling of an eye, the Bible says. And that’s sets a seven-year prophetic calendar that culminates in the second coming of Jesus Christ. You can go to Daniel 7, to Matthew 24, to revelation 19 and read about that exciting event in Bible prophecy known as the second coming of Jesus Christ. And what you find is He comes in the clouds. Because the angels said, “This same Jesus who left in the clouds is coming in the clouds.” And as He left from the Mount of Olives, Bible prophecy says when He return He’ll set His feet right back on the Mount of Olives. Now, if that doesn’t get you excited, if that doesn’t get you out of bed in the morning and say, “Okay. What do we gotta do today, Pastor? What do we gotta do? What’s the mission? What do we gotta do?” Well, it’s real simple. It’s real simple. Make disciples of Jesus Christ who go and make disciples, right? That’s Matthew 28. That’s Acts 1:8. That’s what we’ve got to be busy doing.
Paul writing in the New Testament says occupy until He comes. Get busy and be found to be at work, fulfilling the bold mission and clinging to the return of Jesus Christ. Let me give you one other incentive here. One of the five crowns or eternal rewards that are mentioned in the New Testament are given to those who love His appearing, who didn’t forget what the angels said there. He is coming again. And they live everyday with that sense of expectation. Time is running out. Today could be the day. Where can I be a witness for Jesus today? And, oh, by the way, Holy Spirit, empower me to do that. That’s what we’re called here to do.
And, friends, I would just leave you with this question. Is that enough for you to embrace this thing called the revolution of Jesus Christ, enough for Him to revolutionize your heart from the inside out, but also enough for you to embrace a new purpose, a new mission, a new destiny in life? You’re sitting here wondering, I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know why I do what I do. I’m building my business, my family, my this, that. Listen, make sure that your sense of mission and purpose and destiny in life has everything to do with this revolution that Jesus started 2000 years ago when He walked out of that grave and He says, “I’m just beginning.” And we’re part of that beginning. Let’s keep it going. Let’s make sure it’s healthy. Let’s make sure that when Jesus returns, He finds us busy about the business of carrying out the mission that He gave His disciples 2000 years ago. Amen?
The Power of a Praying Church
Well, the McDonald’s corporation years ago advertised their iconic burger called the Big Mac by saying it was made of this. See if you can say with me. Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun. Wow! Can you believe that? But we remember that. And part of the reason we do is because it was brilliant marketing. What the McDonald’s corporation was trying to do was to single out their burger from every other burger out there. And they said, “Our burger has a special sauce.” Think about it. All the other ingredients anybody could find. Two beef patties, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, sesame seed bun. Anybody can put together a burger like that. “Ours has a special sauce.” The question is, what’s the special sauce? Well, McDonald’s won’t tell us because if the special sauce ceases to be a secret sauce, then it’s no longer a special sauce and every other burger can taste just like the Big Mac, right? I’m starting to sound like a McDonald’s salesman, and that’s not my intention this morning. But you understand what I’m saying.
We’re in a study of the book of Acts. And when I read the book of Acts and I read the story of the early church and its explosive growth, it makes me wonder, what’s the special sauce? What was so special about those times back then? How did these early followers of Jesus who were powerless and penniless and fearful…how did all of this happen? How did it explode in growth? How did it take off in such a way that it even fulfilled the dreams of its founders to have a worldwide impact, and here we are 2000 years later? I mean, most of us have heard stories about companies that started in somebody’s garage and became, you know, a big company, but none that have lasted 2000 years. How did this happen? What’s the special sauce?
Well, a casual reading of the book of Acts leads me to three, kind of, ingredients in this special sauce in the early church. The first, of course, if the resurrection of Jesus Christ. You know, let’s just be honest. The church would have never gotten off the ground, never out of the first half of the 1st century if the resurrection of Jesus Christ had not in fact taken place. And the early apostles were eye witnesses to this. They went around saying, “We saw the risen Christ with our own eyes.” And they went all the way, according to tradition, to a martyr’s death believing that and proclaiming it. So the resurrection message was part of the secret sauce.
The second is the Holy Spirit. He comes in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost, the birth of the church. And what we’re gonna find as we read through the book of Acts just tracing His activities through the book of Acts…you just pay attention to the Holy Spirit. You’ve gotta understand this thing called the church, which we’re still a part of today, would have failed were it not for the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is why Jesus told His disciples, “Go back to Jerusalem, sit tight, wait and pray for the promised Holy Spirit that’ll come not many days from now.”
But, again, reading casually through the book of Acts you notice a third ingredient to this secret sauce. You know what it is from the title of the message, “The Power of a Praying Church.” I’m talking about prayer. The early church was a praying church. And you find prayer mentioned in some way, shape or form 29 times in 28 chapters. That’s, on average, a little bit more than once a chapter we find the early church in prayer. One author says, “Prayer saturates the book of Acts like salt saturates the ocean.” That’s a great analogy. Everywhere you turn the page, the early church is in prayer. And we find them in a prayer meeting in the upper room in Jerusalem right here in the first chapter. I mean, we don’t get 11, 12 verses into the first chapter but that we find the early church in prayer. In chapter 2 we find them praying again. They’re praying before, during and after Pentecost, by the way. This isn’t just a before Pentecost thing or a day of Pentecost thing. Prayer saturates the early church and the story of the early church in all 28 chapters. Peter’s first sermon that we’ll get to in chapter 2, I mean, the response, the powerful explosion and catapulting of the early church from the first day it was born. Yeah, it had to do with the resurrection message that he preached, the power of the Holy Spirit, but the power of a praying church as well. You can’t discount that.
You read on in the book of Acts, and when they face their first conflict with the Jewish leaders we find the early church in prayer. Acts 6, when they’re choosing what we call the first deacons, the apostles said, “We must give ourselves to prayer and to the preaching of God’s Word.” And they established these leaders in the church. Paul and Barnabas later are sent out on their missionary journeys, and we find the church coming together to lay hands on them and to pray them out. Peter is thrown into prison by the opposition to the early church. And what do we do? We find the early church in prayer, begging God to miraculously release him from prison. And the Bible says an angel of the Lord showed up, and there are Paul and Silas singing these hymns at midnight. And the gates open, and it’s just a marvelous scene there.
It’s no secret that the early church was a praying church before during and after the day of Pentecost. And all these three ingredients that are in the secret sauce, by the way, we have them today. We have the resurrection message. We have the resurrected Jesus living in us in the person of the Holy Spirit. The question is, are we a praying church? These three ingredients to the secret sauce are kind of like, if I can change the analogy, a three-legged stool. You take any one of them away, and you have a powerless church. But a church that stays true to the resurrection message, that is filled with the Holy Spirit, and that prays, oh my! Watch out what God does in a place like that.
So I want to talk to you about the power of a praying church. No secret that the early church prayed. No secret that Jesus prayed. That that was an important part of His spiritual discipline. You read the gospel accounts and you pay attention to the disciplines and the activities of Jesus. You’ll bump into Mark 1:35, one of my favorite glimpses into the disciplined life of Jesus. Mark says, “And rising very early in the morning while it was still dark, Jesus departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.” Listen, friends. This is obvious, but let me just say it. If it was important for Jesus, the Son of God, the Son of Man and the Savior of the world, to spend time alone with the Father in prayer, how much more important is it for us? And Jesus told us that “if you want to be one of My followers, you have to deny yourself.” And here we see Him denying His flesh, the extra hour of sleep that He wanted. And He gets up before everybody else gets up. The sun hasn’t even come up. And He wanders off to a lonely place, a desolate place. And He spends time with His Father in prayer. That’s some of the secret sauce of Jesus’s life and ministry. And don’t mistake it.
So much so that the disciples came to Him and said, “Lord, would You teach us to pray?” Not “teach us to teach,” not “teach us to perform miracles,” not “teach us any of the wonderful things” that He did. But, “We’re seeing something secret. You go to secret place, and we’re seeing that as part of the secret sauce of Your ministry.” And so He taught them to pray. Gave them what we call the Lord’s Prayer. It’s really a model prayer, the disciples’ prayer. And if you read about that in Matthew 6 in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount where Matthew records it, you’ll find some words of preface that He gives before He gives them the Lord’s Prayer. He tells them how not to pray in a couple of ways. He says, “Don’t be like the hypocrites who go out into the public places and pray for everybody see them.” He says, “Instead,” verse 6, “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” The secret sauce of the Christian life … Are you ready for this? It’s finding a secret place where the Father will share His secrets with you in prayer. Do you have a secret place like that? A quiet place where you meet with the heavenly Father?
I’m an early riser, which means I’m early to bed. But I’m an early riser, and the rest of my house, they’re night owls, all right. So I get the early morning hours to myself. And I have to fight against every temptation to grab my phone and, you know, social media channels and all that, and for the first moments of my day to grab my Bible and get alone with my heavenly Father. Because I know that if there is anything He ever does through me, the secret sauce has something to do with meeting Him in the secret place and to be a praying person. Same is true with you. Same is true with us corporately as a church. Okay?
Jesus had a secret place, a desolate place that He went to in the early morning hours. He also had a place called Gethsemane. On the night before He was crucified, He went to that secret place, and they found Him there. And He went deep into that place with three of His disciples, Peter, James and John. The disciples had a secret place and a quiet place, too. It was called the upper room. And in Acts 1 we find them, at Jesus’s command, going back to Jerusalem to wait. To wait and pray, to pray and wait. And they were in the upper room. Probably the same room that they acquired during the Passover. We’ll just assume it was that same upper room in the old city of Jerusalem where Jesus met with them on the night before He was crucified. But they go back there to pray and to wait.
And I see in Acts 1 two kinds of praying that we can do and should do. I label the first one this way- the prayer that waits on God. Let’s pick it up in verse 12 and read how the apostles and the early followers of Jesus prayed this kind of prayer. Verse 12, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” Now, a verse or two later Luke tells us that there were about 120 of them in this upper room. Small church. You know, the average church today is a hundred people or less. But this is where the church started, 120 people. And he lists the disciples there. He mentions the women, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Jesus’s siblings. That’s a whole story in and of itself. Now they’re calling Him Lord, not just brother. They’re calling Him Lord and Christ.
But they go to the upper room to pray and to wait. Jesus told them to wait. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m not very good at waiting. I’m the guy that if you’re driving 5 or 10 miles an hour lower than the speed limit in the right lane, I’m the guy behind you honking my horn or speeding around you, saying, “Come on now, get it on a little bit,” okay, because I don’t like … I’m very impatient that way. I don’t like the wait. I’m not very good at waiting. But we’re talking about praying and waiting on God. A late pastor and wonderful Bible expositor named Harry Ironside was reflecting on this scene in the early church. And he says, “When God is going to do something great or do some great thing, He moves the hearts of people to pray. He stirs them up to pray in view of what He is about to do so that they might be prepared for it. The disciples needed the self-examination that comes through prayer and supplication, that they might be ready for the tremendous event which was about to take place- the coming to earth of God the Holy Spirit to dwell in believers and empower them to witness for him.” What a great description of what’s going on here. They were praying. They were waiting. They were waiting and they were praying.
It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you don’t know how long you’re supposed to wait. It turned out to just be 10 days. From day 40 after the resurrection where Jesus ascended to the day of Pentecost it was only 10 days. But Jesus told them, “Go to Jerusalem and wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, the promised one, not many days later.” The hardest thing about waiting is not knowing how long. It’s like your kids in the back seat of the car saying, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” “We’re almost, we’re most there.” Five minutes later, “Are we there yet? Are we there yet?” The disciples were asking the same thing. “Is this the time? Is this the time?” “No, go to Jerusalem, sit there, wait and pray. Not many days from now.” Really? How many days are not many days? That’s what I’d be asking. Because I can read in the Old Testament about people who were sent to God’s waiting room and waited for a long, long time.
Let me give you one example. That’s all I have time for. Abraham and Sarah. Abraham was 75 years old enjoying his retirement in the Ur of Chaldees, modern day Iraq, when God showed up and said, “Abraham, I got a plan for you.” They were childless at the time. He says, “Well, you’re gonna have a child, you and Sarah. But you’re gonna have to leave this place and start traveling toward a land. And I’ll tell you when you get there.” It’s kind of like saying, “You jump, and on the way up I’ll tell you how high.” You know, how about that for walking by faith? So they set out in faith. They left a comfortable, wealthy retirement and set off as sojourners traveling toward this place with a promise they held onto for 25 years. That’s how long they were in God’s waiting room. So when we see the early church being told by Jesus to go and wait in Jerusalem, they go there to pray the prayer that waits on God.
Are you waiting on God for something right now? Maybe for employment. Maybe for a spouse. I don’t know what you’re waiting on right now. I’ve been in God’s waiting room before, and the hardest thing is I don’t know how long I have to wait. But I’m supposed to pray and wait, pray and wait, pray and wait. The hardest thing is that I become impatient, and I confuse faith with wishful thinking. And after a while I say, “Well, I prayed and I prayed, and nothing happened. I guess prayer doesn’t work.” And I give up. I give up after a few days, a few hours, maybe a few weeks.
How do we pray the prayer that waits on God? How do we do this? Write this down. It’s really simple, but it’s complicated. The prayer that waits on God does so expectantly. We pray with expectation. We pray with the expectation … hear me on this … that God has heard our prayer. With the expectation He has heard us because we are children of God and He says, “Come boldly into the throne of grace.” We belong there not because of our own merits, but because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. He invites us in to have a conversation with Him. We pray with expectation that He has heard our prayer and that the answer is on the way. It’s sort of like a pregnant woman. Ladies, mother, do you remember when you first got news that you were pregnant? And then you began to say …maybe the first thing you said to your husband was, “Honey, we’re expecting.” And he’s, like, “Expecting what?” “No, no, we’re expecting,” right? That’s how we describe a pregnant woman who is pregnant with expectation that the child, the promised child is coming. Oh, you have a due date, but you don’t know the exact day and the exact hour. But you pray and you plan and you wait with a sense of positive expectation that that child is on the way. You have … what do you call those things? Baby showers. Yeah, it’s been a long time, folks. We had them way back when. But it’s been … yeah, baby showers you plan. You put together a nursery with your husband. You paint the walls, and you buy little decorations. And you buy a crib. You plan and you order your life with the expectation this is going to happen.
That’s not the way most of us pray though. We lose patience in our praying. The faith that is required to wait on God until the answer comes. And a lot of our praying is wishful thinking. And when it doesn’t happen in our time frame, we give up. We fail in our praying. There’s a great example in the Old Testament of the prayer that wait on God. And this is what Daniel…Daniel 9. And Daniel was fasting and praying, the Bible says, for 21 days. Do you have enough faith to wait on God for 10 days, let alone 21 days, let alone 25 years? Well, Daniel was praying and fasting for 21 days. But the answer didn’t come, and it didn’t come, and it didn’t come, and it didn’t come. The answer came on the 21st day. And the Bible says that the angel of the Lord showed up and said, “Daniel, when you started praying on day 1, we heard you, (0:19:00.0) and we dispatched the answer.” And the angel goes on to describe…and this is one of the wonderful glimpses we have into the heavenly realms and into spiritual warfare. He says, “As the answer was coming, the demonic spirits got in the way and interrupted it. And there was a battle between Michael the archangel and this demonic spirit. And we couldn’t get…but you continued to pray. You continued to fast until there was a breakthrough. And the answer came on day 21.” That’s how we pray as a church that prays the prayer that waits on God. It’s up to Him to determine the day or the hour. We pray and we wait on God for the return of Jesus Christ, but we don’t know the day or the hour, do we? But we are to be the church that is waiting for Him, praying with a sense of expectation. It could be today that the promised return of our Lord Jesus Christ happens. So we pray the (0:20:00.1) prayer of waiting on God, and we do so with expectation.
There’s another prayer that happens as we read on a little bit further. And I call this the prayer for wisdom when choosing leaders. Let’s pick it up in verse 15. It says, “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, ‘Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.’ (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)” Peter goes on to say, “‘For it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and ‘Let another take his office.’ So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.’ And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, ‘You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.’ And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.”
You ever read something and later you discover there is more to this than meets the eye? That’s the way we must read these verses here. It sounds just, kind of like, a church business meeting after prayer meeting, right? We got some leadership issues to deal with here. Peter addresses the elephant in the room. You know, “Judas is not with us.” Luke lists all the apostles in the earlier verses. And if you count them, there are 11, not 12. And Peter addresses that elephant, and he links it to Old Testament prophecy, by the way. That “this was prophesied about one of us,” And Judas was the fulfillment of that. His tragic death…I mean, he betrayed Jesus, regretted it, took his own life. Judas tragic death was prophesied in scripture. And Peter deals with that in the business meeting here.
But then he does some math. He realized we need 12, not 11. Well, why not go forward with 11? Well, maybe he remembers that Jesus said some time during His ministry with the disciples that “One day you all will sit on twelve thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel.” They had 11, not 12. It didn’t take a calculus major to figure that out. And so Peter says, “Now we must find the twelfth apostle.”
Now, here is where it goes from a rather benign business meeting to…I’m gonna take you into the deep end of theology, because there’s more going on here than what meets the eye. Peter does several things. First, he establishes the criteria by which this replacement disciple and apostle would be chosen. Then they pray. And then they do something really weird at the end that I’ll address at the end here. But he establishes the criteria. He says, “The man who is qualified to fill Judas’s role and join us as disciples, he will be a man who has been with us from the beginning, from the beginning of John’s baptism all the way to the ascension.” There was a larger group of followers than just the twelve, and it needed to be somebody who could say, “I was there in the beginning.” And also somebody who could say, “I saw the risen Christ with my own eyes.” Why was that important? Well, because in a Roman culture, the minimum requirement for a credible witness in a court of law was an eyewitness. And this was part of the authority by which the disciples and the early apostles went into, you know, their culture. They could say with spiritual authority, “We were there from the beginning, and we saw the risen Christ with our own eyes.”
Now, when Jesus was here and ministering—you read it in the Gospels—His spiritual authority was challenged many times. People would come to Him and say, “Jesus, why do You say the things that You say, and do the things that You do.” And He would always point to the Father who sent Him, and also to the signs and wonders and miracles that He performed that Old Testament prophecy said would happen Messiah comes. But they challenged His spiritual authority. Prior to the coming of Jesus, the spiritual authority by which God’s representatives came in the Old Testament was what we would call prophetic authority. A prophet of God would show up and say, “Thus saith the Lord.” How did you know whether he was authentic or not? The criteria was 100% of what he predicted in the future must come true. Anything less than that, he’s a false prophet. He spoke with prophetic authority. Jesus spoke with His own authority that He described.
Now we’re about ready to birth the church. We’re about to enter into the apostolic era. And the early apostles went in what we call apostolic authority. “We were there from the beginning. We saw the risen Christ.” And their message and authority was confirmed with signs, wonders and miracles.
Now, friends, we do not live in the apostolic era. Here’s why. There’s not one of us that fits the criteria. We weren’t there in the beginning, from the beginning of John’s baptism. We have not seen the risen Christ with our own eyes. That was the criteria by which an apostle was identified. The era—what we call the apostolic era—ended with the death of the apostles. Today it would be wrong for me to stand up and say, “I’m Apostle Ron.” I would be claiming a false apostolic authority. I wasn’t there. I didn’t see the risen Christ. It would also be inappropriate for me to assume that my ministry should be confirmed by signs, wonders and miracles. That was for the apostolic era.
We don’t speak…the church today does not speak with apostolic authority. We speak with biblical authority. We have what the apostles did not have the 1st century. It was still in process of being written. We stand up and say, “The Bible says…” Okay? We don’t have apostolic authority, but we have the apostolic accounts- the 1st century eyewitness accounts of what happened. And we have the completed canon of scripture.
Now, let me be very careful about what I say here. And I don’t want any misunderstanding here. I am not saying that God is out of the miracle business. He’s not. God can do whatever He wants to do. But you study miracles in the Bible. They appear, they disappear. They appear, they disappear. Moses performed miracles before Pharaoh. But the patriarchs didn’t perform miracles. You know, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph. They didn’t perform miracles. Elijah and Elisha performed miracles. Elisha two times the miracles that Elijah performed. But not every prophet in the Old Testament…in fact, most of them did not perform miracles. Miracles would cease to be special and would not have the ability to point us to something new that happened if they happened all the time. The Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah say when He comes, look for the signs, the wonders, the miracles. And that carried on through the apostolic era until biblical authority was established. Okay? Now, God is still in the miracle business, all right. But not for the purpose that He as during the apostolic era to confirm the apostolic authority of the apostles who didn’t have the full canon of scripture. Does that make sense? You with me so far?
Now, let’s fast forward through church history. Let’s go all the way up to the 16th century when, over time, the church kind of lost its way. We call it the Dark Ages. And the church, quite frankly, became corrupted. And papal authority superseded biblical authority. By the 1600s and the Protestant Reformation it was no longer what the Bible said, it’s what the pope in Rome said. It took the Protestant Reformation to rescue the church from papal authority and restore biblical authority. The Protestant Reformation, one of the cries of the reformers was sola scriptura. It was Latin for “by scripture alone.” They were saying, “Listen, we have lost biblical authority, and it’s been superseded by the pope.” And what the reformers said was, “If it ain’t in the Bible, I don’t care what the pope says.” And they reestablished what we call biblical authority. And the church continued on from then. And here we are today, again, speaking with biblical authority. I’m not an apostle. I don’t meet the criteria. I’m a pastor and a teacher. And you ask me, “Ron, why do you say the things that you say and do the things that you do?” I say because the Bible says. Because this is the Word of God.
Friends, in all of this, you know, theological debate and discussion in the church today, understand this. God would much rather us believe Him because we take Him at His Word than believe Him because we saw some sign or wonder out there or miracle. And you study the life of Jesus in the Gospels. He was very hesitant to perform miracles for people who said, “Oh, You claim to be the Messiah. Prove it to us with some wonder, some sign, some miracle out there.” When the religious leaders did that, He said, “No, I’m not a circus act. But I’ll tell you. I’ll point you to Jonah in the Old Testament. Three days and three nights in the belly of a fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” He used the opportunity to predict His own resurrection and, in a sense, said, “Listen, if you don’t believe Me when I walk out of that grave, no sign, wonder or miracle will get you to believe.” So today and after the apostolic era, after the death of the apostles, the church goes forward in biblical authority with a resurrection story and gospel message, the Holy Spirit living inside of us—now we’re on this side of Pentecost—and the Word of God in our hands. And this is our authority.
Now, one other thought here. There are challenges to biblical authority in every generation. And there are three that I see in our time. One is a continued challenge by papal authority. Now we have the divide between Protestants and Catholics. And the Roman Catholic Church, still papal authority, kind of supersedes biblical authority. The other is when people in our day and age, even Protestants, try to act like the apostles, pun intended. They act like the apostles and assume that their ministry should be confirmed by signs, wonders and miracles. And there is a subtle attack on biblical authority there.
One of the questions we have to ask ourselves when we’re studying the book of Acts, one of the understandings, is that Acts describes a transitional time in the program of God. We’re transitioning from the Old Testament and the time of Jesus’s ministry to the church age. And is the book of Acts at any point…is it descriptive or it is it prescriptive? Does it describe the acts of the apostles, or does it prescribe how we are to act like the apostles? You follow me on the difference there? And that’s an important question to ask in any place, and especially in Acts 1. Because I said when they were choosing leaders, the new leader, the new apostle, Peter does three things. He establishes the criteria for apostolic authority. You have to have been there. You have to have seen the risen Christ. And then they pray.
And then they do something really weird. It’s like they say, “Hey, pull out the bingo cards. Let’s roll the dice.” Because their criteria and their praying brought them to two equally good options- a guy named Justus and a guy named Matthias. They fit the criteria. And they prayed and they said, “Wow, we got these…either one of them would be good.” And they pulled out the dice, and they rolled the dice.” Now, is that descriptive or prescriptive? Should we become the First Baptist Church of the Dice Rollers? Is that how we’re to make decisions today? That’s an important question to ask. No, it’s descriptive. And here is why they did it that way.
Before Pentecost, before the Holy Spirit came, casting lots was a common way to discern the will of God after much prayer. And this is what the early church does. And you see some of this practice at other things even in the Old Testament. But you never see the early church rolling the dice again or drawing straws or flipping the coin to make decision. Never again in the book of Acts do they do that. Why? Because after Pentecost they have the additional resource of the Holy Spirit living inside of them to discern the will of God, whether it comes to choosing leaders or whatever decision they come to. So by Acts 6 when they’re choosing the first deacons, they pray and they look for men who are filled with the Holy Spirit. But there’s no rolling of the dice. There’s no drawing straws. There’s no flipping the coin. And this is important for us to remember. You’ve got to be very careful in how you understand and interpret the book of Acts before and after the day of Pentecost and before and after and during the apostolic era. That’s the deep end of theology for the morning, and I hope I didn’t lose any of you there.
The big picture is this. This church prayed. The prayed. Before Pentecost casting lots was a way to discern the will of God after much prayer. After Pentecost I say the best chance of making a wise decision in the absence of prayer and the absence of the Holy Spirit is not better than a gamble. If you're not going to seek God in prayer and the discernment of the Holy Spirit, then just draw straws or flip a coin and take what you get. But that’s not how we are to discern God’s will as New Testament believers today. We have that additional resource of the Holy Spirit that comes in Acts 2. They were a praying church. They had a resurrection message. We have a resurrection message. They eventually had the Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit. They were a praying church. The question is, are we a praying church? Is prayer more than just something we dabble in? Is it something we are devoted to? I always say we can always do more after we have prayed, but we should never do more until we have prayed. That’s true in your individual life, in my individual life. It’s true of us corporately as a church and important, important lessons for us to take.
The Supernatural Birth of the Church
Vance Havner once that, “We are not going to move the world around us by criticism of it, by conformity to it, but by the combination of lives ignited by the Spirit of God.” That is spot on, and it’s worthy of our thought and consideration this morning. We’ll never, as followers of Jesus Christ, impact or influence the world around us apart from the combination of our lives in this thing called the church and the body of Christ put on fire by the Spirit of God. We’re in a study of the book of Acts, the Acts of the Apostles, and a study of what happened. We’ve been asking the question, what happened after the resurrection of Jesus Christ? Well, the book of Acts tells that story. And we’ve come to Acts 2.
Acts 2 is probably one of the most iconic, epic chapters in all the Bible; first of all, because the story here is very dramatic. It’s just one of those stories and one of those passages of scripture that make us go, “Wow! What really happened here? Not only what happened, but, what does it mean?” But it’s also epic because it introduces maybe a little bit of controversy and debate within the body of Christ in terms of what happened and why it happened and what it means for us today. But I’ve titled this message “The Supernatural Birth of the Church” because Acts 2 describes that- the birth of the church, the ecclesia of God.
You’ve been to a birth celebration before, haven’t you? Maybe your own birthday. Maybe you're too old to celebrate birthdays anymore. I don’t know. But maybe you’ve been to a birthday celebration recently. And besides the cake and the singing of “Happy Birthday” and the guest of honor and all that, what do we think about when we think about birthdays? Gifts. All right. You bring a gift. And on the birthday of the church God brought…He gave a gift to us. And it as the gift of the Holy Spirit. As the church was formed, the Holy Spirit came in a different way than what He came in the Old Testament. Remember, the book of Acts is a transitional time. And we’ve got to understand that we’re in transition in the program of God. The Holy Spirit goes all the way back, you know, before the moment of creation. And in the moment of creation we can find the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit came and He went. He came and He went. He didn’t dwell in believers permanently. He came upon certain individuals for certain tasks at certain times. And this why David, quite frankly, in Psalm 51 prayed, “Take not thy holy spirit from me.” That’s a good Old Testament prayer, but it’s inappropriate for us as New Testament believers to pray that way, partly because of what happened in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came.
Now, there’s a lot of confusion about the ministry of the Holy Spirit. But let’s have no confusion about what happened on that day. Let me read the first four verses of Acts 2. It says, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Now, the words that I just read and the balance of chapter 2 in part is in fulfillment of some prophecy, some predictions that this would take place. And today I just want to only go as far back as a prophecy from a guy named John, John the baptizer, who said in Matthew 3:11, “I baptize you with water,” John said, “but he who is coming after me is mightier than whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.” Of course He is talking about the Lord Jesus Christ. And then he, John, goes on to say, “Jesus will baptize you with the holy spirit and fire.” And that’s what happens in Acts 2. There is a sound like the mighty rushing of wind. It doesn’t mean the place became windy and tornadic. It says it sounded like that. Some of you who live in Tornado Alley or have lived there before, you know you know that a tornado is loud as much as it is windy. And there was a loud sound that got everybody’s attention in Jerusalem.
Keep in mind that this was the feast of Pentecost. Pentecost means 50 or 50th. It’s 50 days after the feast of first fruits, which was the day that Jesus rose from the dead. And then prior to that a few days is Passover, and then also during that time was the feast of unleavened bread. But 50 days after first fruits came the Pentecost celebration. And on the day of Pentecost there was this loud sound in Jerusalem. It was a time when there were tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in Jerusalem. The population had swelled because people from all around the region, different dialects and different regions and different people groups were coming to Jerusalem to celebrate. They hear this loud sound. It rivets all of their attention, and they see the disciples and those early believers, now speaking in tongues. In languages they didn’t know previous to that and in languages that all these different people groups could not understand. We’ll come back to that in a moment.
But what’s described here is actually three ministries of the Holy Spirit. And we could talk long about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, longer than we have time for today. Like when I was in seminary, we would take an entire semester to go through some of us. It was called pneumatology. Pneuma is the Greek word for spirit. Pneumatology is the study of or the theology of the Holy Spirit. So here is a little pneumatology 101, a brief theology of the Holy Spirit. Three ministries that come together here. One is the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit. It comes to indwell believers, to live inside them. The other is the baptism of the Spirit, and the third is the filling of the Spirit. The question that often comes up in Acts 2 and the debate and sometimes the controversy is what is the baptism of the Holy Spirit?
Let me give you a little definition here. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is the supernatural work of God that places the believer into the body of Christ. What happened on the day of Pentecost was the Holy Spirit came as He was prophesied, as He was promised, unlike He had ever come before. He came to permanently indwell all believers. Simultaneous to that, He also baptized all believers in Jesus Christ, and baptized them into the body of Christ. You're not only indwelt by the Holy Spirit, but now you're a member of this new spiritual entity known as the ecclesia, the called out ones or the church of Jesus Christ.
The confusion in my mind often comes over what is the baptism of the Spirit versus the filling of the Holy Spirit. And I alluded to this a couple a couple weeks ago, but this week I’ve given you a chart in your notes there. And I just want to summarize real quickly the very important difference between the two. Number one, the baptism of the Spirit happens once. It happens at the moment of salvation. We’re never commanded, you know, “Be baptized in the Holy Spirit.” It just happens. And like baptism that we’ll talk about in a moment, it identifies us with the body of Christ and places the believer in the body of Christ.
The filling of the Holy Spirit, though, is commanded. Ephesians 5:8, “Don’t be drunk with wine which leads to debauchery, but be filled with the spirit.” “Be filled” is in the imperative form in and Greek language. It’s a command. A baptism is automatic to believers at the moment of salvation. Filling of the Holy Spirit is not automatic, but it is commanded for believers. The question is this. Do you have the Holy Spirit as a believer in Jesus Christ? Yeah, you got Him. You got him at the moment of salvation. In fact, He was the down payment on your salvation. Read Ephesians 1:13-14. He’s called the earnest, like an earnest money deposit in a real estate transaction. It’s God’s way of saying, “I’ve deposited this into your life. There’s more to come.” When? Well, when we see Him face to face. He’s the down payment. He’s also evidence that we are children of God. As the Holy Spirit speaks to our spirit and gives witness to our spirit that we belong to Christ, Romans 8 even tells us, if you do not have the Holy Spirit, you don’t belong to Him. So you try to align that with all these people who are saying that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is something…well, it’s a second blessing. No, it’s not a second blessing. It’s a first blessing. It’s the first thing that comes to you as a gift from God, the gift of eternal life and the indwelling, baptizing ministry of the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation. Do you have the Holy Spirit? You’ve got Him. You’ve got all that’s available to you. That’s the baptism.
The filling of the Holy Spirit is a whole different discussion. The question is, does the Holy Spirit have you? Paul compares it to being drunk with alcohol. He says, “Don’t be drunk with win that leads to debauchery.” What happens when you drink too much wine? Well, that substance controls the way you think, the way you speak, the way you walk. It controls everything about you in a negative kind of way. He says instead be drunk with the Holy Spirit. Be filled or controlled by the Holy Spirit. The baptism asks and answers the question, do you have Him? The filling answers the question, does He have you? Okay. It’s a whole different discussion. And I’ve said for years the most frustrated person in the church today is the person who is a believer in the Jesus Christ but has never learned the secret of the Spirit-filled life, how to be filled with Him, how to walk with Him, how to live by the Spirit. And you’re living by the flesh. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.
But those are the two areas of confusion. You come back to Acts 2. Now we read on in verse 5. And it says, “Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven.” Every nation under heaven. Didn’t Jesus say to His disciples, “You shall be my witnesses to the ends of the earth,”? Well, on the birthday of the church the ends of the earth came to Jerusalem. They were all there. Different nations, different dialects, different tribes, different tongues. “And at this sound, the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?’” That was kind of a tongue-in-cheek way of saying, “Who are these hillbillies, these Galileans, these uneducated, you know, Galileans who are now speaking in languages that they’ve never been to school on?” “‘And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome.’” Hey, I worked on that all week long pronouncing each one of those. Didn’t I do a good job? Didn’t miss a single one of them. Boy, third service, and I’m just going great here. Where am I here? Verse 11, “‘Both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” “They’re just drunk.”
You get the picture? It’s an epic scene. It’s epic because it’s one of the most exciting stories to read about, and it’s epic because it creates a lot of debate and conversation. But there in verse 12 they ask this question- “What does this mean?” That’s a great question 2000 years ago, and it’s a great question now. And I’m so glad you asked it, because I’m going to try to answer that over the rest of our time together. What does this mean? What does Pentecost mean to us?
Well, there are at least four things it means both then and now to believers just like you and me. Number one, it means as a believer in Jesus Christ you have a new identity. Identity. Remember, the baptism of the Holy Spirit places us into the body of Christ and identifies us with the body of Christ.
Now, let’s go to Romans 6. We’re going to go deeper into the New Testament where the eyewitness of the resurrection of Jesus Christ like the apostle Paul and others begin to unpack some meaning that flows out of the book of Acts. Romans 6 is one of those places. Before I read a few verses here, keep in mind there are two baptisms in the Bible. There is water baptism, and there is Spirit baptism. Okay? And both have to do with identifying us with something.
In water baptism, it is a symbolic presentation of a new spiritual reality that is in us. Baptism doesn’t save us. It doesn’t accomplish our salvation. It’s a step of obedience. It’s a way for somebody to say, “I belong to Jesus Christ. I have decided to follow Him.” And we identify with the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. I always like to say that everybody needs to preach at least one sermon. And when you go public with your faith, you get to do that without words. Death, you go under, the burial, you rise again to new life, the resurrection. Okay? It identifies us with the death, the burial and the resurrection of Jesus Christ symbolically.
Spirit baptism identifies us or places us in the body of Christ. And I think Paul has both baptisms in mind in Romans 6 when he tells us he wants us to know something. All right? In his flow of the book of Romans he’s gotten past our sin and the answer to that and salvation in Jesus Christ. Now he’s come to a place in his argument in Romans, his magnum opus of theology where he is speaking to believers. And the first thing he says is, “Do you not know…” Don’t you know this? If you don’t, mark this down. This is something important you’ve got to know. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” In other words, your baptism, Spirit and water, identified you with the death of Christ. “And we were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Again, water baptism, the physical, symbolic expression of a new spiritual reality. Baptism is about our identification in Christ.
Now, further in the New Testament in Paul’s writings, he says human being are identified by one of two persons. You’re either in Adam or you’re in Christ. There is no other option. You’re either in Adam, our spiritual and physical forefather going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. You’re either in Adam, identified with sin, death, separation from God and rebellion. That’s your identify in Adam. Or, because you’ve placed your faith and trust in Jesus Christ, you’re no longer in Adam. You’re in, now, the second Adam, Paul says, who is Christ Jesus. Not identified with your sins, because your sins are forgiven. Not separated from God anymore. You’re reconciled to Him. No longer in darkness, now in light. No longer in spiritual death, but spiritual life. You’re either identified with one or the other. And baptism, both water and Spirit baptism, has all of that in mind. Where is your identity today?
You know, there is a lot of talk today about identity thieves. And maybe you’ve done something like I have to kind of protect your information and your Social Security number, all that kind of stuff from identify thieves. And that’s all a good thing to do. If you do all of that, you still need to understand, your identity was stolen. It was hijacked by the devil. He hijacked Adam’s identity. And we, as his spiritual and physical descendants are identified with Adam until we come to faith in Jesus Christ. And Jesus, through His death, His burial, His resurrection, and then later He ascends and sends the Holy Spirit…our identity has been fixed, as it were. And our identity is now in Christ. And that has a whole lot to do with this thing called the baptism of the Holy Spirit that not only identifies us with the death, the burial and the resurrection of Christ, but also with His church, the body of Christ. This is why Paul would say—and these are identifying words—“I am crucified with Christ, but it’s no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” Paul says, “I’m no longer identified with the old Paul and with the old Adam. I have a new identification in Christ.” And the question is, are you living out that identify in Christ? That’s a big question to ask.
But we’re asking the question, what does this mean? What does Pentecost mean? Well, it means you’ve been given a new identity. Secondly, you’re part of a new unity. A new unity. Now let’s go to 1 Corinthians 12:12-13. (0:19:00.1) Paul says, “For just as the body,”—and he’s referring to a physical body here—“is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” He points to our physical bodies where the neck bone is connected to hip bone and this bone is connected to that bone and all…I messed that all up. For doctors out there, I know. But still, you get the idea. We have many different parts in our body, but it’s one body. Right? One unified body. He says, “So it is with Christ.” We are how are in Christ are part of a body. Now, he goes onto say in verse 13, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” Okay? Notice the unifying language here. One body, one Spirit, one baptism. And circle the word “all.” We were all… He’s writing to (0:20:34.3) believers in Jesus Christ at the church of Corinth. What a messed up church it was. A carnal, fleshy church. And you're telling me that even those in Corinth were all baptized by one spirit into one body? Yeah, because the baptism of the Spirit is not for super spiritual people. Okay? It’s for all believers. And the baptism of the Spirit has a unifying effect that nothing else does. Okay? Make note of that in the language there. Even in Ephesians 4:30 we’re told to work hard to do what? Preserve the unity of Spirit in bond of peace. The unity that the Spirit brings. Okay?
Now, think about this. In Acts 2 you have all the nations of the earth there and 15 or 16 different dialects and tribes and languages and all of that. The representation of this diversity of ethnicities and diversity of languages. And what brings them together is this miracle about languages. Okay? In one sense, what was happening in Acts 2 was the reversal of the judgment that came at the tower of Babel. Now I’m going back to Genesis 11. Remember after the fall and you read the story of the fall of creation and the fall of man. And you’re coming out of Genesis 3. And the evil on the earth just gets more and more profound. So much so that Nimrod comes together and tries to build this tower to the glory of human achievement and to create a one world government with one language and one religion. It was the first time that man, evil in his nature, tried to form this one world entity. And God looked down and said, “No, that’s just a bad thing.” And to put some brakes on the spread of evil and the compounding of evil through the unifying effect of evil, He scattered them and then created a diversity of languages and nations and people groups. And it’s one way that, in God’s overall plan, He retards evil. Okay? Until Jesus came. And through His death, His burial, His resurrection, He dealt with sin. And through the coming of the Holy Spirit, could bring us together again in a unifying way and, how interesting, through the gathering of people through a miracle that had to do with languages. You see all of that?
So what I’m saying is that part of this means is that we are part of a new unity. Are we living out that unity in the body of Christ as best as we could? No, we’re not. Because not everybody who is baptized in the Holy Spirit is walking by the Spirit, quite frankly, and living by the Spirit and being filled with the Holy Spirit. We live today in kind of a divided America. I call it a hyphenated America. You know, African American, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Anglo Americans and whatever else you want to hyphenate yourself and create this divided nation of ours. But, friends, that may be America, but that’s not the church. We are not black Christians, white Christians, yellow Christians, brown Christians, or whatever you want to call yourself. We are Christians. And what unites us is the Spirit of God. Now, do we have to work hard at that? Yeah. Paul says, “Work hard at persevering the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” But the best answer today to racism and all that divides us is the Spirit of the living God falling fresh on His people and living out a unity that the world just marvels at and doesn’t understand. You’re part of that as a believer in Jesus Christ. My question is, are you part of the solution or part of the problem? It all has to do with whether you’re filled with the Holy Spirit. You’ve got the Holy Spirit, but does the Holy Spirit have you? Even controlling your view of other people with other nations, other races, other tribes, other tongues, and seeing them in the beautiful unity of the body of Christ and the Spirit of Christ who lives inside all of us as believers in Christ.
Wow, what does this mean? It means a lot, doesn’t it? It means we have a new identity, a new unity that we’re a part of. Thirdly, we possess a greater capacity. Now I want to go back to Acts 1:8 where the Bible tells us that Jesus said to His disciples, “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.” The word is dunamis. And it’s kind of where we get our word dynamite. When the Holy Spirit comes…and how did He come again? He indwells believers, resident in you. He baptizes you simultaneously placing you in the body of Christ. You’re part of all this now. And if you let Him, He’ll fill you. He’ll empower you. He will not enable you to live the victorious Christian life. The baptism of the Holy Spirit happens automatically. The filling of the Holy Spirit does not, friends. It depends on our yielded-ness. But the power is there.
Suppose you got up in the morning and it was time to, you know, fight traffic and go off to work. And, you know, you got in your garage and you started pushing your car out of the garage. You know, you get it out of the garage. You get it turned. And you’re down the driveway and you’re partway out the street in front of your house, and your neighbor walks out and says, “What in the world are you doing?” “Well, I’m going to work.” And you just keep pushing. Now you’re sweating, you know. You’re tired. And your neighbor says, “Listen, I think there’s an easier way to that. You see this key or see a little button you push in your car? Just push that and…” Vroom, vroom, the HEMI engine, you know, that power under the engine revs up. Just sit here. Just take your foot. Just press on this accelerator. Boom, there you go. That’s the way it is with the Holy Spirit. The power is there.
But the most frustrated person in the world today is not the unbeliever in Jesus Christ who might be mildly aware that he’s apart from Christ. The most frustrated person is the believer in Jesus Christ who now has both the flesh and the Spirit in him. Galatians 5 says the Spirit wars against the flesh and the flesh wars against the Spirit. Anybody who can identify with that war going on in them, say amen, oh my, or me, oh my! It’s a battle like you’ve never experienced before. And until you learn how to access and activate the power within who is the Holy Spirit, you will live a frustrated, discouraged, despondent Christian life. You might even get to the place where you say, “I’m done with this. It doesn’t work.” Why? Because you’re trying to push the car. It was never designed to be lived that way. Jesus even told His disciples, “Hang out in Jerusalem until the promised Holy Spirit comes. If you try to do this church thing in your own strength and in your own flesh,” the implication was, “you’ll fail. You need the enabling resources and power of the Holy Spirit.”
I always think about this when I’m at an airport. And, you know, sometimes you fly into a big airport. And you come in on gate 2, and your connecting flight is in gate 72. You ever been there? And you’re, like, “Oh my.” And you grab your bag or your satchel and…you know, I’m still in pretty decent shape. I can walk the mile and a half to get there. But what I’ve noticed is they’ve put these moving sidewalks in the airport. They’re wonderful. And, you know, you’re walking along, exerting your energy, you know, doing that thing against gravity and all that. And you step on that moving sidewalk, and you’re, like, “Whoa.” You know, you’re just kind of gliding along. And you're waving to your friends over there who are dragging their bag, and they’re sweating and they’re exerting strength. And every time I do that I’m reminded of the Spirit-filled life. That’s the way it’s supposed to be when you’re filled with the Holy Spirit and you’re walking in the Spirit, you're living by the Spirit, you're filled with the Spirit or, as Jesus said in John 15, “Abide in me, and let my words abide in you, because apart from me, you can do nothing.” When you learn that secret, the Christian life is easy. When you try to live it in the flesh, you’re gonna be tired, worn out, struggling, three steps forward, five steps backwards, and about ready to give up. The filling of the Spirit and the power that comes with that is a day by day, moment by moment decision whereby I say yes to the Holy Spirit and no to the world, the flesh, and the devil. It doesn’t happen once like the baptism of the Spirit. It happens many times. And it’s possible that right now you’re not filled with the Spirit because you're filled with your selfish self and your own agenda rather than confessing and repenting of that sin and being filled with the Spirit.
So what we have in Acts 2 on the day of Pentecost…three things happening. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit comes to be resident in them. He also simultaneously baptizes them in the Spirit, places them in the body of Christ, creating this new entity called the ecclesia. But if you read carefully there in Acts 2, it says they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Why? Because they were spending days in prayer, pouring themselves out before God, emptying themselves of self and their selfish agendas and their selfish ways and waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And when He came, they were an empty vessel to be filled with the Holy Spirit. And, boom, the church exploded.
I think it was D.L. Moody or somebody like that who says, “We have yet to see what God can do through a person, an individual, maybe a collective group of people who are fully sold out and given over to the Holy Spirit.” I think we have a glimpse of it in Acts 2. But, oh, that that would happen today in our lives. You’ve got the Holy Spirit. We have the Holy Spirit. We have all the equipment we need. We’ve got a vehicle with a high-powered HEMI engine underneath it. But a lot of times we’re still trying to push and exert in the flesh to live the Christian life and to do the work of the church.
Let me move on. Number four, you’ve also, and finally, been given a new or enhanced ability. The Holy Spirit not only comes to indwell and baptize and fill, but He also distributes gifts, spiritual gifts. And we could talk for weeks about spiritual gifts. Let me just give you a little highlight here. I put them in your notes. There are three central passages of scripture that deal with spiritual gifts. That’s Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12 and 1 Peter 4. There is a list of spiritual gifts in each of those sections of scripture. And you can compile those gifts and, as some have done, categorize them. Some are what we call serving gifts. Some are what we call special, and others are sign gifts. So the serving gifts may be the gift of service, the gift of mercy, the gift of giving, even the gift of leadership, servant leadership, and some others like that. The special gifts are apostle, prophet, you know, pastor, teacher, evangelist. You know, Paul mentions those in Ephesians. And then the sign gifts. The sign gifts have to do with miracles and healing and, yes, speaking in tongues. Brings us full circle to Acts 2. What does this mean, these languages? And what does it mean for us today?
Now, this is where it can get a little controversial, get a little heated. There is debate in the body of Christ. Let me just say there are good, godly people who we’ll see in heaven who have a different view of this. But I alluded to my view and our view just last week or the week before when I talked about the apostolic era and an apostle being defined as someone who was there from beginning of Jesus’s ministry and who visually saw the risen Christ. That was the definition. That was the criteria. And during the apostolic era they spoke with apostolic authority that was confirmed with signs, wonders and miracles. We are not in the apostolic era because the apostolic era ended with the death of the apostles. I’m not Apostle Ron. I don’t speak with apostolic authority. I speak with biblical authority. We have what the apostles didn’t have that was in process at the time, and that is the complete canon of scripture. And God would far more rather you and I believe him because we take Him at His Word than we saw some sign or wonder or miracle. Okay? And we understand that Acts is transitional in that way.
So what about these sign gifts? Again, there is debate. There is honest disagreement on this. It’s not to say that God can’t do, or the question is, does He? Are we in that time where this is necessary to confirm with signs and wonders and miracles and so forth as a common expression in the body of Christ? All of that to say, wherever you are on that, just be humble about it, whatever your position is. But do understand this, and I will say this about speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues in the Bible is always the supernatural ability to communicate a known language not otherwise learned. A known language that is spoken somewhere in the world. Okay? Read the book of Acts 2. And that’s what it was. It would be like somebody showing up on my front doorstep from, let’s say, Paris, France. And he’s never taken an English class. I’ve never taken a French class. He is speaking to me in French. Suddenly I have the supernatural ability to speak fluently in French and speak to him about the wonderful works of God. That’s what was happening in Acts 2. Okay?
So when people today say, “Oh, this is for today,” let’s put it under the microscope a little bit. What is it? Is it the known language miracle that we find in Acts 2? Or is it some incomprehensible gibberish that nobody understands? That incomprehensible gibberish, friends, is not biblical. It’s not even Pentecostal. It’s not the day of Pentecost. You say, “Well, what is it?” Well, you’ve got to ask yourself. Is it of the flesh, or is it of the Spirit? That kind of gibberish…and I don’t have time to go into it all…has it its roots in the pagan religions. And I’d be very, very careful of that. Whether you believe the sign gifts are for today, that’s a good debate to have. But if we’re gonna have that debate, let’s be biblical about it. Speaking in tongues is the supernatural work of God about a known language. Most of what’s happening in that world today in the body of Christ is not Pentecostal in the Acts 2 sense. So we have to be very, very careful of that.
That said, I will also say about that there is no such thing in the Bible about a heavenly language. I don’t know where that rumor got started. I guess it got started in 1 Corinthians 13, which is the love chapter. How we got from love to heavenly language, I’m not quite sure, other than that Paul, using exaggerated language to try to make the point that love is the greatest, says, “Suppose that I speak with the tongues of men and of angels.” And people have taken that and said, “Oh, there’s an angelic language out there.” And they go, “bbbbbb,” some incomprehensible gibberish. Folks, that’s just really bad Bible interpretation. That’s not what Paul’s doing. He’s using hyperbole and exaggerated language to make the point that love is the greatest. So there is no heavenly language. What is known in the scripture as speaking in tongues is a known language spoken somewhere in the world, but, miraculously, somebody who hasn’t had the training in that language is able to speak to somebody about the wonderful works of God in that moment.
But here is the bigger question in all of this. Do you have the Holy Spirit? And if you don’t, the Bible says you don’t belong to God. You’re not part of His family. That’s Romans 8. And what are you waiting for? God wants to give you not only the gift of the Holy Spirit, but He wants to give you the free gift of eternal life. It’s already bought and paid for. And you just come to the cross as a sinner who needs a savior. You say, “I’m still identified with Adam, and I’m living a life of sin and selfishness and darkness and destruction. I was made for something better.” Yeah, you were. And that’s what the cross is all about.
And then if you have the Holy Spirit, does He have you? Can you sing, “You can have it all, Lord, every part of my world”? And those words roll of our lips, but do we really mean it? Or is there some area of our life that’s not rightly related to Him? You know, the New Testament talks about grieving, quenching and resisting the Spirit. And it’s possible as a Christian to live all your life in one of those states because you’re holding onto some of that sin or some attitude or unforgiveness or whatever it is. And you’ve grieved the Spirit and shut down the flow of His power for your life. And that is just a huge discussion to have. But I drop that in and say, listen, let’s learn from Pentecost our new identity, this unity we’re a part of, this increase in capacity. And let’s live that out in a wonderful way and grab hold of the new ability He has given us as spiritual gifts and bless the body of Christ with that.
I’ll leave you with this prayer in Ephesians 3. Paul says, “Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly and abundantly beyond all that we ask or imagine…” Who wants that? I certainly do. Have I got dreams and visions about what my life and ministry could be a part of? Oh my. But I want to tap into Him who is able to do exceedingly and abundantly beyond all that we ask or imagine. And then he goes on to say, “…according to the power that works within us.” We’ll never get there, friends, apart from the Holy Spirit. We have Him. We have the equipment. The question is, does He have us? Are we completely yielded to Him? You can have it all, Lord, every part of my world. And when we get there, oh my, strap on your seatbelts because the church then becomes a rocket to the moon. Let’s pray together.
God, thank You so much for the gift of Your Holy Spirit and the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. You’re such a generous God. And, Father, if there is anybody here today who has never receive by faith that gift of eternal life and the forgiveness of their sins and a home in heaven…Lord, You’ve been stirring hearts this morning, but stir them to the place where they have faith to believe and they say yes to Jesus today as a sinner who needs a savior, coming to the cross of Christ desperate before You. And, Father, make us as believers who are part of this unified body known as the body of Christ, make us desperate for You again, for the fullness of the Holy Spirit that You’ve placed to be resident in us. If You could, You’d make Him president of us. But You’ve given us free will. And that’s a choice we have to make. So search me, Oh God, and know my heart. Try me and know my wicked thought, and see if there is any wicked way in me. And lead me, lead us in the way everlasting, Father. And I pray this in Jesus’s name and for His sake, amen.
The First Sermon
By Dr. Ron Jones
Well, today I’m gonna preach a sermon about a sermon. How’s that for a way to start this morning. I’m going to preach a sermon about the first sermon that was ever heard in the church. And I’m talking about the one that Peter delivered 2000 years ago on the day of Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem. It’s recorded for us in Acts 2 and verses 14 to about 41 or so. But before we get to Acts, as I was studying this week, it made me think—this whole topic did—about the fact that some people…not everybody, but some people say preaching has fallen on hard times. That it’s kind of outdated for our day and age and we need to update the way we communicate in the church and, you know, this preaching…nobody wants to be preached at. Nobody wants to hear a sermon. Even in a lot of churches we talk about message, but not a sermon because that’s just kind of off-putting to people. We need to update things and not preach at people. Maybe we need to have a panel discussion like a talk show on Sunday morning. And when I hear discussions like that or read articles about that, I cannot disagree more. And it’s not because I’m trying to validate what I do, all right. Somebody might be going, “Yeah, the preacher thinks we ought to have a sermon and be preaching.” No, it’s not because I’m validating myself or what my friends and colleagues do. It’s because, as I read the scripture, what I learn is that God always has an always will use the preaching of His Word to do two things- to reach lost people with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and to build up the body of Christ.
Now, there are other ways to do that, mind you. One on one conversation, maybe even a panel discussion. I don’t know. But when it comes to the local church, we talk about the primacy of preaching. It isn’t outdated. It’s the thing we do. It’s the thing God does. It’s the thing that He has put in place as the primary…not the only, but the primary way He communicates to us is through the preaching of His Word. And we see that in Acts 2. We see this in the first sermon that was ever preached. And we see it in verses of scripture outside of Acts 2.
Let me just suggest a few to you. 1 Corinthians 1:21, “God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believed.” Yeah, some people think that preaching is foolishness even for today. Some people think the message of the cross is foolishness. Some people think that preachers are foolish. Okay. I’ll sign up for that. There’s a little foolishness in me. But it was the foolishness of the message preached that God used to save those who believe. Romans 10:17 says, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing,” say it with me, “by the Word of God.” All right? We need to hear the Word of God even as it is preached. Paul said to a young preacher named Timothy, who was about to become the lead pastor of the church in Ephesus. He told him, “Timothy, preach the word.” Preach the Word. Don’t preach your opinion. Don’t preach your advice. A friend of mine posted somewhere on social media this week. He said, “Listen, if you want your church to grow, stop preaching your opinion and start preaching the Word of God.” That goes all the way back to Paul’s instruction to Timothy, right? Preach the Word.
Romans 10:14, the apostle Paul asks these rhetorical questions. “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believe? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” And then 1 Corinthians 2:4, Paul says, “My speech and my preaching were not with persuasive words of human wisdom, but in demonstration of the spirit and of power.” And that’s what good preaching always is. It’s not by might. It’s not by power. Sure, God uses gifted communicators and all of that, but He can use an ungifted communicator because it is by His Spirit. It’s in demonstration of His Spirit and the power of God that flows through. And this is what we see in Acts 2. The result of the first sermon delivered by a man named Peter can only be explained by the demonstration of the Spirit and of power, because 3,000 people gave their life to Jesus Christ on the day of Pentecost, the Bible tells us.
The purpose of preaching is transformation, not information. If all we get to on a Sunday morning is a better understanding of what the Bible said, even in its context 2000 years ago, just a better cognitive understanding of it, we’ve missed the purpose of preaching. A good sermon addresses at least two questions. What does the text say and mean? What does it mean? And to get to what it means, you’ve got to know what it says. But what does it say? And the second question is, what shall we do? Every sermon is aimed to transform us. If you walked into this place just thinking you’re gonna get a little bit of head knowledge about the Bible, learn more about the Bible and about Jesus, but not have it change your life in some way, well, you’re the fool in the room. You’re the foolish person. But we come to the Word of God with the expectation that the Spirit of God will use it to change us and shape us and mold us more and more into the image of Christ and to transform us by the power of the Word of God. And, again, we see this happening in the early church.
Every good sermon needs at least three things. It needs to be clear and simple, easy to understand, even complicated theological ideas. But it needs to be rooted in the text of scripture, and it needs to be gospel-centered and Jesus-centered. That’s the kind of sermon I want to listen to. And that’s the kind of sermon that I want to deliver.
With that in mind, let’s go to Acts 2 where Peter delivered the first sermon. And I’ve got to give Peter credit, because when Peter delivered this message, it’s not like he had 10, 15, 20 hours of his week to study and prepare and to provide some notes. He didn’t have any of that. I mean, he delivered this extemporaneously. He didn’t even wake up that morning necessarily expecting the coming of the Holy Spirit, but He came that day. And suddenly Peter was thrust center stage in Jerusalem, and he preached. And he preached a really good sermon.
Now, I’ve broken up Peter’s message into eight little parts, just mental hooks to hang our thoughts on this morning. Peter probably didn’t intend this kind of breakdown. Again, he’s flowing and he’s going, and it’s coming out the way it’s coming out. But there are at least eight things that Peter lands on here in Acts 2. And beginning in verse 12—let’s go back that far—it says, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.’” Remember, the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost. And the disciples, the apostles began to speak in other known languages, languages that they had not been trained in. That’s the speaking of tongues, that miracle. And people were looking around, and they were saying, “Well, what does this mean?”
And last week we talked about…we went into the New Testament, and we talked about some implications of the coming of the Holy Spirit for you and I as believers in Jesus Christ and what all that meant. Peter goes on to answer that question in verse 14. And the first thing he says it, “Friends, what we’re experiencing today was predicted in the Old Testament.” He frames it in the context of Bible prophecy. Listen to this beginning in verse 14. “But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day.’” That’s 9:00 on our calendar. “‘But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel.’” Now, Peter is going to take them into the Old Testament. Every good sermon needs to be Bible-based, right? What Bible did they have back then? Well, they had the Old Testament scriptures. And they knew those scriptures well. And Peter, you know, is drawing upon this reservoir of Old Testament Bible knowledge. And he’s saying, “Wow, what we’re witnessing today was prophesied. It was predicted by the prophet Joel.”
And he quotes from Joel beginning in verse 17. “‘“And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy. And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day. And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”’” Isn’t that a great text of scripture? And at this point Peter, no doubt, had people leaning into his message a little bit, because, again, they were familiar with the Old Testament scriptures. And now Peter was making application to what they had just experienced to the fulfillment of this Old Testament prophecy.
He frames it in the context of the last days. Did you see that in verse 17? “And in the last days it shall be like this.” You know, a lot of times I have people ask me, “Pastor, are we living in the last days?” Well, technically, yes, because it’s a technical term that started with the birth of Jesus and goes all the way to the end of the age to His second coming. All right? The big question for us is, are we in the final days of the last days? And that’s a whole other discussion, right? Nobody knows the day or the house when Jesus will return. But what happened 2000 years ago was the beginning of God’s final countdown, the last days until Jesus comes again at His second coming. Peter even mentions the day of the Lord in verse 20, again, a technical term that refers generally to that time from the rapture of the church through the Tribulation period and specifically to the day of the Lord when Jesus comes again, His second coming at the end the Tribulation period and at the Battle of Armageddon.
Now, what’s interesting is when he’s quoting from Joel here, all that he says here and all that he quotes up through verse 18 seemed to have happened on the day of Pentecost. You know, “pour out his Spirit on all flesh,” and visions and dreams and prophecies and so forth. All the signs and the wonders and the miracles that took place during the apostolic era. But he goes on to say the prophecy says, “I’ll show wonders in the heavens and signs on the earth below and blood and fire and vapor of smoke,” and so forth. Well, that didn’t happen 2000 years ago, again, an indication that this time frame known as the last days is much more than just the day of Pentecost. This was a starting point, a beginning timeframe. All of the changes in the heavenly realms and in the sky above and changes in the earth and the moon and the son and all of that will happen as we get closer and closer to the end of the age and certainly toward the second coming of Jesus Christ and during the Tribulation period. But Peter says all of this was predicted. This is easily understood in the context and in the framework of God’s plan and the prophecies He’s predicted.
Then he goes on to talk about Jesus. And the first thing he says is that Jesus was attested. Let’s read on in verse 22. “‘Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know.’” He’s reminding them of things that they already know about this Jesus. But he calls Him attested. What does he mean? He was authenticated. He was validated though the signs, the wonders and miracles that even Jesus performed. The ultimate authentication of His ministry and His identity was the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But do you remember the miracles of Jesus? There are many of them recorded in the gospel records, and the wonders and the signs that He performed. John records eight sign miracles in the Gospel of John, a sign being something that pointed to the fact that He was the Messiah.
Do you remember when He started His ministry in Nazareth in the synagogue? He grabbed the scroll of Isaiah, opened it up and read that passage that says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, and he has anointed me to do all these things. To heal the blind, to heal the lame,” and so on and so forth. And He rolled up the scroll, He sat down, and He says, “This day this prophecy has been fulfilled in me.” Okay? A little bit later John the Baptist…remember when John was arrested and thrown in prison and about to be beheaded? And John had a moment of doubt, and he sent word through his disciples to Jesus and said, “Jesus, are you really the one we’ve been waiting for? Are You really the Messiah?” And do remember what Jesus said to John’s disciples? He says, “Go tell him about the miracles, the signs and the wonders and all those things that testify to the fact and authenticate My ministry that I am the one you’ve been looking for.” And Peter just reminds these people on that day. “This Jesus you know about, He was authenticated. He was validated through all of these things. And then He was arrested.”
Peter fast forwards through Jesus’s life and ministry and says in verse 23, “This Jesus delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” I take that phrase “delivered up” to just refer to that time in the Garden of Gethsemane when, well, He was arrested. And that started His journey to the cross. But He wasn’t just arrested. He was, kind of, predestined to be arrested. Isn’t that what he’s saying there? “Delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” Another translation says “the predetermined plan of God.” In other words, it was important for Peter to communicate to these folks and for them to understand that this Jesus who was arrested and crucified, it didn’t happen by accident, okay. It didn’t happen because He got on the wrong side of religious politics. No, He came for the purpose of going to the cross. He willingly went to the cross. In fact, the language here in the original text suggests that God appointed Him to this duty. The word “foreknowledge” suggests God has been thinking about it for a long, long time, since before the foundations of the world. This was part of the Father’s plan. And Peter is trying to frame their present day circumstances 2000 years ago in the context not only of Bible prophecy, but of God’s larger plan and program that He’s been thinking about and putting in motion since before the foundations of the world.
And then He gets on to the crucifixion in verse 23. He says, “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” Now this is where we go, “Ouch,” if you were a Jew, one of the men of Israel and their families listening 2000 years ago, because Peter kind of puts the blame in their hands. Even though he just said, “Listen, this was all part of the predetermined plan of God, but you killed Him, you lawless men.” There was nothing more insulting to a Jew to be a called a lawless person, somebody who didn’t follow the law of God. And it’s a reminder, this interchange of the predetermined plan of God, and yet “you did this and you were lawless,”…it’s a reminder that God has a remarkable way of rolling out His plan, His destiny, and then holding responsible those who carried it out for Him.
Remember the time He did this with Pharaoh? The Bible says He hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but then He holds Pharaoh responsible for what He did with his hardened heart. And you can say, “Well, that’s not fair.” I kind of agree with you. But I’m not God, and neither are you. That’s just how He operates. And it’s that mysterious world of the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. God is able to create free will beings like you and me without losing a bit of His sovereignty and His control. I don’t know how He does that, but we just see evidence of that in scripture, and here is one of those places.
He was crucified, then He was resurrected. And Peter goes into great detail now about the resurrection. Every sermon worth listening to gets quickly to the cross of Jesus Christ and to the resurrection, because this is the central message (0:19:00.1) of the Bible. And in verse 24, Peter says, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death,”—we’ll come back to that phrase in a moment—“because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him…” Now he’s going to go into the Old Testament. Now he is going to root what he’s been saying not just in their experience, but in the scriptures that they know. And he goes back to something that King David, who was a hero to Israel, that King David wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Verse 25, “For David says concerning him.” Who’s Him? Messiah, Jesus. “‘I saw the Lord always before me, for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken; therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; my flesh also will dwell in hope. For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption. You have made known to me the paths of life and (0:20:00.1) make me full of gladness with your presence.’”
Now, that’s resurrection language if you don’t recognize it. That’s an Old Testament prophecy. Not so much concerning David, but concerning the future resurrection of Messiah. Especially that phrase, “For you will not abandon my soul to Hades, or let your Holy One see corruption.” Why do we say that refers to Jesus and His resurrection and not to King David, who penned those words? Well, Peter goes on to explain. Verse 29, ““Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” The reason that wasn’t a prediction about King David is because David’s body is right over here in the tomb, but Jesus’s is not. The Holy One to which David was referring, even though he might not have recognized it at the time, was the Holy One of God, Jesus Himself, whose body did not decay in the grave.
In fact, back to that phrase, “God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death.” Think of the birth pangs of a mother’s womb. The tomb was not a place where His body decayed. The tomb was a womb that gave birth, new life three days later as Jesus came walking out of that grave. What a wonderful way to view Jesus’s death on the cross and, even as He walked into that tomb, as a womb that gave birth to new life. Verse 30, “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses,” Says Peter. “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” I just imagine Peter…you know, the passion flowing through him right now as he gets down to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And he says, “Listen, we’re all witnesses to this. We saw the risen Christ. We were here when He was arrested, when He was crucified, when He was buried, and when He rose again from the dead.”
The most credible witness in the 1st century was an eyewitness. Remember, we talked about the apostolic age and the credibility of an apostle who saw with his own eyes the risen Christ. And Peter gives testimony to that when he says, “We were all witnesses.
And then there is a veiled reference to the ascension in verse 33. “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God.” Well, He was ascended and then exalted. And that exaltation is further described. “Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ Again, he goes into the Old Testament and, with the use Bible prophecy and understanding his times and what’s happening there, he links that to what they’re experiencing. And then he says in verse 36, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
Wow! What a powerful message. And Peter covered a lot of ground in this, but he hit on all the high points, didn’t he? And whether you believed him or not, Peter certainly believed it. But look at the response beginning in verse 37. Remember I said that all great sermons answer at least two questions- what does this mean? And to get to that, you’ve got to know what it says. Read it. Ask the interpretive question. What does it mean? And what does it mean for us in our time frame, right? And then what shall we do? This isn’t just about getting some more Bible information in our minds. It’s about living out the truth.
And I love the way the people responded here. Verse 37, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” What shall we do? What shall we do? Again, my encouragement is always that we’re asking that question. How does this apply to my life? How am I to live differently as a result of the message that I heard today? I understand that sometimes that gets a little bit muddied in my communication and others. But Peter makes it very, very clear here.
By the way, it say, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart.” This is language that describes the conviction of the Holy Spirit. That is one of the jobs of the Holy Spirit. Jesus mentioned this in the upper room in John 16. He says when the Holy Spirit comes, one of His jobs among many is “to convict the world of sin and unrighteousness.” I know some people that say, “You know, I need a religion that is guilt free and without shame.” And I say, well, you’ll never come to the cross of Christ without a conviction of sin. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to speak the truth to us in a way that it cuts our heart.
I think of Hebrews 4:12 when I read their response. “For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, or joints and or marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” My job is not to make you feel guilty or to heap shame upon you. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job, that when our lives are not rightly related to Him, when there is sin in our life…maybe it’s the sin of unbelief. You’ve never repented of your sins. You’ve never come to faith in Jesus Christ. There should be a moment of conviction that “if I don’t get this right, I’m in a really bad spot. I’ve broken God’s laws.” And you come to the cross of Christ as a humble sinner. Conversion experiences that are apart from that, I don’t see that in the Bible. It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to bring godly sorrow to our hearts because of our sin. And 2000 years ago when they heard this message, they didn’t say, “Ah, Peter, whatever.” And they weren’t indifferent. Indifference is a decision. It’s a decision to walk away and to reject the truth that you’ve heard. They were cut to the heart. The Word of God came at them and in them like a surgeon’s knife that cut deep into the joints and and marrow and the sinew of your soul and brought godly sorrow to your heart. Such that you would say, “What shall we do?” And Peter says, “I’m glad you asked.”
Number one, he says you need to turn. He says repent. It’s a word that sounds kind of archaic, doesn’t it? Repent. We heard it at the beginning of John’s ministry and of Jesus’s ministry. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” John the Baptist said. Jesus comes along. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repent is a good Bible word you can’t get away from, and it means “to turn.” Do the 180. Stop going in the direction that you’re going toward your sin and yourself and toward your idolatry. Turn away from idols and turn toward the true and living God. Peter says, “You want to know what you should do? Turn right now. Just stop where you are, turn, and run toward God.
Secondly, testify. He says, “Repent and be baptized…in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Now, baptism is the way we testify, right? It’s the way we go public with our faith, you know, New Testament believer’s baptism. I always say everybody needs to preach at least one sermon, all right. Every Christian needs to preach one sermon. Now, don’t get nervous. I’m not going to ask you to do public speaking or anything like that. But baptism is a sermon, and it’s a very simple three-point sermon. You identify with the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That’s all you’ve got to say. In fact, you don’t say anything. You’re just baptized. You’re identified with the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And what you’re saying is, “I’ve decided to follow Jesus. I unashamedly go public with my faith.” So he says turn and then testify.
Now, back in the 1st century, for you to testify that you were a follower of Jesus Christ and go public with your faith, it meant that your life was probably in danger. And there are parts of the world today where that’s true, that if you go public with your faith in other parts of the world outside of our United States, you know, it may cost you your life. Not so much here in our part of the world, but it might cost you a friendship. It might cost you a promotion. It may send you culturally and in terms of your relationship to the Island of Misfit Toys. You know, you don’t get invited to all the reindeer games anymore because you’re one of those Jesus people. Okay. But you still have to testify. There are no secret service Christians. You can’t be in the witness protection program and be a Christian. You’ve got to testify, all right. And some people say, “Well, my religion is private to me.” No, it’s not. It’s personal. We’re gonna get to that in a moment. But it was never meant to be private. Jesus died for us publicly on the cross, and He expects us to testify, to identify with Him, to go public with our faith. And that’s what New Testament baptism is all about.
Now, at the risk of being tedious here, I know I need to drill down a little bit. Because the implication in Peter’s response here raises the question, is Peter talking about baptismal regeneration? It’s a theological idea that suggests that baptism is required for salvation. And we teach, and the Bible is clear in other New Testament passages, baptism is not required for salvation. Salvation is required for baptism. You’re baptized when you become a believer in Jesus Christ. And we call it believer’s baptism because faith in Jesus comes first, you turn, and then you testify. But it sounds like Peter is saying, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you’ll receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” It sounds like, if we take this as an ordering of events, that you repent, you’re baptized. And when you do those two things, then you’ll be forgiven, and then you’ll receive the Holy Spirit.
We’ve got to be careful with using this phraseology as an ordering of events, because elsewhere in the book of Acts people repented, they receive the Holy Spirit, and then were baptized. We can go to some places in Acts where that happened. So this is not to establish an ordering of events. The other confusion here is around…and this is where I’ve got to get tedious…the word “for.” “For the forgiveness of your sins.” This is where it helps to go deeper into the original language, the Greek language. And you’ll find a little word pronounced eis, often translated “for.” But there are three ways to define eis or to use eis in the Greek language. One, to say “in order to.” In other words, repent and be baptized in order to receive the forgiveness of your sins. That’s one way to understand ice. Another way is “so that.” A third way is “with respect or reference to.” In other words, repent, and then you’re baptized in reference to the forgiveness of your sins. In other words, we would call it a picture, a symbol of what happened to you- the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Baptismal regeneration, which rose sometime in church history, suggests that baptism is required for salvation. We would say in our context, no, it’s not by works, even the work of baptism. And when you have a passage here that in the English is a little bit unclear, what you’ve got to do is go to those clearer passages elsewhere in the Bible where it is clearly stated, you know, the requirement of salvation by grace and through faith alone kind of thing. Not of works, lest any man should boast. And then come back to the passages that are unclear, do a little bit more of a deep dive to understand- are we missing something in the English language here as it was translated? And I think we are here. It’s an unfortunate translation. Peter is not saying that baptism is required for the forgiveness of your sins. So I wouldn’t build a whole theology around baptismal regeneration from this passage for the reasons that I just implied.
Back to what Peter tells them to do. He tells them to turn. He tells them to testify. And then he says to make it personal. He says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you.” It could also be translated “each one of you.” This is a personal decision for you and I to make. Should we respond? Should we be asking, what shall we do? Absolutely. And here is the idea. Nobody can believe for you. And, parents and grandparents, you can’t believe for your kids and your grandkids. This is a personal decision. Not private. You go public. You testify. But it’s a personal decision. When we stand before the Lord one day, it’ll be a personal, one on one conversation. He says, “Each one of you baptized after you repent and do this in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The good news Peter says in a couple of places. Verse 21, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” “Each one of you need to respond, and everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord—here is the guarantee—you will be saved.” And then he says in verse 39, “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Just underline and circle that phrase “those who are far off.” In the New Testament language, that really refers to Gentiles. And Peter wouldn’t come to a full understanding, nor did the early church come to a full understanding of the scope of the gospel to include not just the men to of Israel, which was the audience to whom Peter was talking in Jerusalem in the first sermon. Twice he refers to the men of Israel and their families. He was talking to Jews. Pentecost was the coming of the Holy Spirit to Jews. But the gospel and the Holy Spirit was for everyone, including those who are far off, including Gentiles.
Fast forward now to Acts 10. Peter would have to have the vision. He would travel from Joppa to Caesarea to meet a Gentile Roman official named Cornelius. And it was there that Peter finally realized this is all for the Gentiles, too. And that was the reason why the baptism of the Holy Spirit was delayed until that moment, because word had to get around that this was not just for the Jews. It was also for the Gentiles. And now Peter, you know, a central figure in the church, is face to face with a Gentile who comes to faith in Christ. And the baptism of the Holy Spirit falls on him, too? You’ve got to be kidding me. Well, Peter, you said it back in chapter 2. It’s for those who are far off, too.
And it’s for anybody today who is far away from God. You may be here today, and you just feel so strange in a place like this. Gentiles were considered strangers to the covenant promises of God. Well, we’re all strangers when we’re outside of a relationship with God. This may seem so strange to you, so odd to you to be in a church, to have somebody preaching at you. Maybe you didn’t grow up in a place like this, and you feel far, far away from God. Listen, this is for you, too. It’s for prodigal sons and daughters who are far, far away from God in another country somewhere, extravagantly spending away their life and far, far away from God. On the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came, it was a coming home party for that group of people, too. And it’s a coming home party today. Every week we gather to celebrate the resurrected Christ it’s a coming home party. And it’s a celebration for all who were once far away who are willing to come home by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Let’s pray together.
Father, thank You for this time in Your Word. A lot of ground to cover this morning, but such important ground to cover. And I pray for anybody here today under the conviction of the Holy Spirit who is saying, “What shall I do with this,” that today would be a day they turn. That they turn from their sin, from their wicked ways, from a life of selfishness and godlessness, and turn to the one true and living God who sent His Son Jesus to die upon the cross for our sins and who rose from the dead. Father, how can we not respond? We can’t remain indifferent to it. We have a choice to make today. And if that describes where you are today, let me just encourage you to just reach out to God by faith in the quietness of your heart with words that might sound something like this. “God, You got me today. There is something stirring in my spirit right now making me feel really, really uncomfortable. And I guess it’s that conviction of the Holy Spirit thing, and I want to respond today. I want to say yes to Jesus, place my faith and trust in Him as my only hope for the forgiveness of my sins and for a home in heaven, for eternal life beyond the grave.” Father, however that cry of the heart comes up, I pray that You’d recognize it as faith, and, on the promise of Your Word, grant forgiveness and the gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. And I pray this in Jesus’s name, amen.
ACTS 2:40-47, 4:32-37
By Dr. Ron Jones
I’m reading this morning from Acts 2 beginning in verse 42. It says of the early church that, “They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Well, that passage of scripture I just read, Acts 2:42-47, is probably the clearest and most concicse glimpse we have into the early church 2000 years ago. You can lay alongside Acts 2:42-47 Acts 4:32-37. And these two passages of scripture, again, provide us the best glimpse we have into the activities of the early church. Now, there are a lot of people today, and especially a lot of young people today, saying, you know, “We need to get back to Acts 2. We need to be an Acts 2 kind of church.” And I couldn’t agree more. These passages of scripture give us some sense of how it all began. And from this many Bible teachers and theologians derive from Acts 2:42-47 what we might call the five purposes of the church. You know, the mission of the church is not up for discussion. Jesus gave us the mission of the church. It’s a Great Commission mission. He told His disciples, “Go therefore into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” And then He left them with this promise. He says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And we’ve taken that Great Commission mission, as it were, and we language it this way at Shores. That our mission is to glorify God by making disciples of Jesus Christ who go and make disciples. Every mission of the church should sound like the Great Commission.
Well, likewise, the purposes of the church are not up for discussion. They are self-evidence in how we see the early church operating 2000 years ago. And from these five purposes that I’m going to share with you this morning, we derive as a church our strategy. Not just what we do and why we do it in our mission, but how we do church. And our goal is to be as biblical as possible to align to what we see in scripture. So with that in mind, I want us to dive into Acts 2:42-47. It’s always good to kind of have a refresher as to the purpose of the church and why we’re here. This is a little bit of insider language this morning. If you’re visiting with us, we’re glad you’re here. If you’re not sure about this thing called Christianity and, you know, you’re still investigating Jesus and the gospel and all of that, we’re glad you’re here, too. But this part of our study of the book of Acts brings us to a passage that lends us to a little bit of insider conversation about who are as a church, why we exist, and what our strategy is to carry out the mission that God has given to us.
With that in mind, here is the first purpose of the church that’s self-evident from this glimpse we have of the early church, and I would just describe it as worship. We find the church gathering to encounter God. And I want you to look at verse 44. It says, “And all who believed were together,” and verse 46, “And day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in the homes.” They were together. And this was before the days of technology where, you know, supposedly we can be together in cyberspace. There was no Facebook here where they connected. No, this is face to face togetherness.
Part of what we see as a glimpse of the early church here is the early church in community, experiencing authentic biblical community, the kind of community that brought them together in face to face kinds of relationships. Now, I’m all for the technology of today, but this is the generation that is the most connected technologically than any other previous generation. But we are the generation that least experiences authentic biblical community. And, oh, the irony of that. Mark Zuckerberg would like to us to believe that Facebook is going to replace the church and what little league has done over the last, you know, however many decades and centuries. But not so fast, Mr. Zuckerberg. What the church does in coming together, gathering together in face to face encounters, can never be replaced by technology, no matter how much we love the use of modern technology today.
There is the church gathered and the church scattered. And there needs to be a time—we call it a time of worship on Sunday—where the church comes together and we gather. But notice the early church, they gathered in the temple, and they gathered by breaking bread in their homes. Why do we encourage you to be in worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, gathered as a body of believers, gathered as the bride of Christ, and then also get connected in a life group? Did we just come up with this, you know, as a 21st century way of doing church? No, it goes all the way back to the 1st century. They gathered in the temple, and they gathered from house to house. And so we say gather for worship. Make that a priority in your week. Be here on Sunday to be the church gathered. And then get connected in a life group. As we grow larger as a church, we grow smaller at the same time. And notice, the early church did this day by day. This wasn’t just a weekly thing that they did when they could fit it into their schedules. They were so taken by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it transformed everything they did. They said, “Because of the risen Christ, we’ve got to be together.” And it was the demonstration of the church gathered in this place for worship.
Verse 43 says, “Great awe some upon them.” The fear of the Lord came upon them, “upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” Now, I’ve been saying for a while as a pastor that our culture has changed. And, quite frankly, it’s really hard to prioritize being in church on Sunday. I say that because our culture has changed from a generation ago when the church had the exclusive rights to Sunday morning. Businesses were not open. The Blue laws were in place. There was no kids’ sports on Sunday morning. We had the exclusive rights to it. That has changed in our culture, and now everything is competing for our time seven days a week. There is nothing sacred in our culture about gathering in church on Sunday, which means, as believers in Jesus Christ, we have to work extra hard to make it a priority in our lives.
Hebrews 10:25 suggests it might have been a challenge even 2000 years ago, because the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together as the manner of some is, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.” Now, what day is he talking about? He’s talking about the day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus Christ. He says that there is all the more reason to be together, gathered as a church, because we need to encourage one another as we see that day approaching. Well, friends, we’re 2000 years closer to the day of the Lord, the second coming of Jesus Christ, than the early church was. And given what’s going on in our world today and even in our own culture, there is even more reason for us as followers of Jesus to prioritize our times of worship and our times of gathering. And that’s my challenge to you today. Let’s not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Let’s not allow other things to creep into that time that we prioritize in God’s house. You’re a believer in Jesus Christ. Be in God’s house on Sunday. If it’s not this house, be it another house, another house of worship that preaches the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Find someplace where you can regularly be in church, because your spiritual health and the health of that gathered body of believers depends on it. We need each other. We need to encourage one another. And even your presence and my presence here on a weekly basis does that.
So that’s the first purpose of the church. We gather to worship. Secondly, we gather for discipleship. I say the church now grows to experience the fullness of Christ. Look at it in verse 42. It says, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. Part of what it means to make a disciple of Jesus Christ or to be His disciple, His fully devoted follower, is that a disciple is a learner. You’re under the teaching of God’s Word. And you're in it for yourself. And certainly we do that when we gather for worship and we have a time of preaching, as we’re doing right now, the teaching of God’s Word. But it also happens in another environment we call life groups or small groups. We say life change happens best in the context of community and in the context of a smaller group. And again, this model is the way Jesus discipled His own disciples. He had twelve of them. And He spent time with them in a small group. Oh, He had a ministry to a larger group known as the 70, and He had a ministry to the multitude, but Jesus modeled how this was to take place, how we train fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ.
And we talk about how we have two environments here and a third one that I’ll toss in in a moment. But two main environments where this discipling takes place, where we challenge one another to grow up in our relationship with Jesus Christ. Peter says, “Grow in the grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Don’t be satisfied with spiritual infancy. You know, “Wah, wah, wah, drink my milk, drink my milk.” No, he says go from milk to meat and grow up in your relationship with Christ. And those of you who are more mature need to be discipling those who are new in the faith. This is how it’s supposed to work. And our two environments where that takes place are life groups—smaller context, more organic in the way we do that—and then what we call the Shores Bible Institute on Wednesday nights—more traditional classroom settings where teaching happens for the entire family at all ages.
We’ve been talking about taking that even a step further. In fact, I’ll give you a little insight. I’m working on a discipleship curriculum that I want to bring down to a one-on-one, maybe one-on-two kind of level. It’s been my burden for quite some time when I talk to people in the church. And I say, “Listen, has anyone ever discipled you? You came to faith in Christ at such-and-such date. But did anybody, after that happened, sit down with you and, as kind of a starting point in your relationship with God, walk you through a disciple’s first steps?” A vast majority of people in the church, that hasn’t happened. And we’ve kind of dropped the ball on discipleship. So I’m writing a curriculum. It’s a video-based curriculum where I do some teaching, write some study guides. You’re going to be able to access it online. And the idea is for you to watch the videos—there are seven sessions—download the study guide notes, get into the Word. And then we want to connect you with a discipleship coach in our church family. That might be a staff member. It might be an elder, a deacon, a life group leader, somebody that you can schedule a coffee conversation with around that particular session’s topic. We’ve got to get one-on-one. We’ve got to get one-on-two or three or four. Even smaller gatherings than what happens in a life group. And get about the business of disciples making disciples. You go through the curriculum, you’ll receive a certificate of completion. But better than that, you will now be certified to be a discipleship coach. Okay? Remember, our goal is to make disciples of Jesus Christ who then go and make disciples. And we’ll start with those more mature in their faith who can then offer themselves up as a discipleship coach. We want to get serious about this. Of not only fulfilling our mission, but also as a matter of strategy to disciple people.
The third purpose of the church we just generally call ministry. I look inside the early church, and I see the church giving to serve God and others. Now, before I point you to the verse of scripture I have in mind here in Acts 2:42-47. We can talk about giving in three ways- the giving of your time, the giving of your talent, and the giving of your treasure. And that’s not new to a lot of us. You know, time, talent and treasure. We read Acts 2:42-47, and we can assume the early church gave of their time. They gave of their talent. But what’s emphasized in the text is the giving of their treasure.
Listen to this in verse 45. “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all as any had need.” Back up to verse 44. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” Part of the reason we say this is a picture of biblical community is because when you’re in community with others, you have some things in common. You do life together. And part of what they had in common was there possessions and their financial life. Now, it’s important not to make a mistake here. Some people look at this and say, “Oh, here is justification for socialism and communism.” No, no, no, no. You get a big F on your theological paper if you go there. And here’s why. Socialism and communism are ways of redistributing wealth through the involuntary coercion of the government. Okay? We’ve got a segment of our society today that says, “Yea, socialism, yea.” They haven’t got a clue as to what they’re talking about. You want the government coercing your possessions and then redistributing them? I don’t.
And, by the way, that’s not what the early church was. What you have here to the contrary is the voluntary, spontaneous, contagious generosity of God’s people. Generosity that was so taken up by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, it transformed every aspect of their lives, even how they viewed their possession. And when they saw somebody in need, they said, “Listen, it isn’t mine to begin with. It belongs to God. What can I do to help you?”
Now, turn to chapter 4 and beginning in verse 32. Now we’re ready for this second glimpse inside the early church. Look at it beginning in verse 32. It says, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.” Not communism, not socialism. This isn’t involuntary government coercion. This is spontaneous, voluntary, contagious generosity. This is a group of people who have become so taken by the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the reality of the risen Christ that they move from an ownership mentality to a stewardship mentality. Hardest thing in the world to happen as you grow up in Jesus is to say, “This wallet of mine doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to God.”
You know, I always tells couples that are about to get married and we have the financial conversation…I say, “Listen, you know, you're about to merge your lives, and you’re about ready to become one flesh. You need to become one financially, too. You need to look at each other and say, ‘What’s mine is yours, and what’s yours in mine, and what’s ours is God’s.’” “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it and all who live in it,” Psalm 24:1 says. “‘The silver and gold belong to me,’ the Lord God Almighty says,” Haggai 2. I can go on and on and on and on to establish how we are stewards of what God has entrusted to us.
What I’m saying (0:19:00.0) to you is this. If you’re relationship with Jesus Christ and your understanding of the resurrection of Jesus Christ has not impacted you to the point where you are now overflowing in voluntary, spontaneous, contagious generosity, something is missing in your relationship with God. You read on in the early church here. “With great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
And then there’s an example. “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the (0:20:00.1) apostles' feet.” Yeah, Barnabas was Mr. Encouragement. Why? He encouraged people with his resources. Listen, if you have an ownership mentality, you’re probably missing out on opportunities to be an encouragement to somebody out of the resources that God has entrusted to you. We are stewards, ladies and gentlemen, not owners. And part of the purpose of the church is to do ministry. To grow in the grace of giving, 1 Corinthians 9 says. How far have you grown in that? In the last six years or the last six months or the last six weeks. Some of you haven’t grown much.
I’m going to get in your grill just a little bit, if you don’t mind, all right. It’s budget time at the church. I didn’t plan this message because…I mean, we’re just in a study of the book of Acts. But we’re in that two-month cycle where we’re evaluating the budget for next year and so forth, going to finance committee, all that kind of stuff with the elders. It just grieves my heart every time we go through this process and we say there’s not enough. We are tight, tight, tight. And I know because of studies that I’ve read…and not much has changed over the years. The average church-going person today gives about 2.2 or 3% of his income to the church, far short of a tithe, which is 10% and what I believe is the starting point in our giving. The minimum expression of generosity found in the scriptures is a tithe. We are well below that on average in the church. Not just here, but across the country. Also when you compare what the IRS says the average American gives to charitable causes, it’s around 2%, too. You know what that says? First of all, it tells me that most churches like ours are underfunded. And most church-going people who claim to be followers of Jesus are no more generous than the average pagan that never darkens the hall of the church.
If that stings a little bit, okay. All right. Here’s…and I’m in your grill right now. Here is for some of you, some of you who walk in here, and you never put anything in the offering plate. Or what you do relative to your income and what God has entrusted to you is nowhere close to a tithe, and it’s time to step up. It’s time to step up. We will never achieve the mission that God has given to us as a church continuing to underfund this local body of believers. We will continue to struggle. We will continue to be understaffed. We have a great staff of people, many of them doing the jobs of one and a half to two people. But if all of us did our part…we’re not talking about equal gifts. We’re talking about equal sacrifice. You say, “I’m not Barnabas. I don’t have land to sell.” I don’t care. Wherever you are.
Eighty percent of our giving, our business office tells me, comes from people 50 and above. Young families, hello. All right. And I’ve heard all the excuses. I’ve lived through all the seasons of excuses. You're not going to reach a time where you can afford to tithe. It’s going to be a step of faith. Listen, I’m in my 50s. It’s the most expensive time of Cathryn and I’s marriage. We have two kids in college right now. But it’s not an excuse to cut back on our giving or to stop giving. Because we decided a long time ago Jesus is going to be number one in our life. We decided a long time ago Jesus is alive, and this has to transform every area of my life, including my finances. We put Jesus number one. You can’t say He’s number one in your life, be first in your life, if He’s last in your budget. You just can’t do that, friends.
And it’s just time for us to have a little conversation here. Okay. Give me the freedom as your pastor to get in your grill a little bit and to bring to some level of awareness what’s happening across the body of Christ, not in Atlantic Shores, but in churches all across America. We are wealthy. But it’s a prioritizing decision in all of our lives as you steward those resources before the Lord. And you’ll never—just trust me on this—you’ll never get to a point where you say, “Oh, now we’re wealthy, and we have all this surplus.” God will make sure that it’s always a step of faith. And you take that step of faith, and then watch Him grab hold of your economic plan. And you’ll be amazed at what He does. If you can’t trust Him with a tithe, He says, “Put Me to the test. And put Me to the test, and see if I won’t open up the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing to you.”
Quite frankly, Cathryn and I—with not just two kids in college, but two kids in private college—I don’t know how we make ends meet, okay. Some of it is planning over the years, but we didn’t plan enough. It’s a lot more expensive than we thought. But God is still number one. We haven’t reduced our giving. And I’m not asking you to do or challenging you to do something that I’m not doing myself and haven’t lived through, young people and young families, the decades that you’re just starting on. You can do this, because it’s a step of faith. And then let God take care of the rest.
He can make 90% of what you bring in go a whole lot farther than you or I can make 100% or, most Americans, 110%. Seventy percent of Americans today are living paycheck to paycheck and don’t have $500 in the bank. Are you kidding me? And no wonder people are reaching out for a handout from the government. That’s not the American dream, a handout. It’s a hand up, okay. And that’s called opportunity. But the church is not about the American dream, but we’ve brought that mentality into the church. And there are a lot of people walking into the church saying, “It’s fine if somebody else tithes. Let them give their tithe plus mine, and I’ll just hang out and enjoy all of this.” I’m not talking to visitors. I’m not talking to unbelievers still investigating Christianity. We’re having a family talk, okay. We’re having a family talk. We’re in this together. Not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice. And we do that, we all do our part, oh my, what God will do. “Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly and abundantly beyond all that we ask or imagine…” And, believe me, as a staff we’re dreaming about a lot. But God says, “Yeah, I tend to pay for this through My people. Because that intersection between your faith and your finances, I’m trying to shape them into the image of my Son. And I’m using that little stuff called money to teach them about faith.” And some of you need to grow in that area. And I’m just encouraging you there today.
Let’s move on to purpose number four. We have worship. We have discipleship. We have ministry. Here’s one. How about evangelism? Look inside the early church. The church goes to enlarge His reach. Why the word “go”? Well, it gets back to the mission of the church. Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Implied in that is sharing the gospel with lost people.
By the way, one of the things that we say about a life group here at Shores…you say, “Well, what is a life group? What do we do in a life group?” Well, we SERVE. It’s an acrostic that spells S-E-R-V-E. S stands for spiritual formation. That’s a Bible study and prayer time that you have together with a small group of people. E stands for evangelism. You see, our life groups, our small groups, are not just holy huddles. We get outside of ourselves. We get outside of the four walls of the church, and we think strategically about, how are we going to reach other people for Christ? How are we going to do evangelism in our neighborhood? In our community? R stands for recreation. I find that people who play together, recreate together, they have deeper experiences and expressions of community. V is volunteer. Volunteer on the campus on the weekends. It takes an army of volunteers to make all this happen. But we also encourage you to volunteer in your community. Volunteer at the soup kitchen. Volunteer as a coach in the little league. Volunteer. Be the hands and feet of Jesus somewhere in your community. And build relationships of integrity with people who don’t know Jesus so you have an opportunity to share Jesus with them. And then E is kind of a catchall for extending care to one another. When life falls out from under you, you have a medical issue or a family crisis, you’re connected in community with others who know you and love you and can respond, extending care, extending compassion through local outreach and local compassion projects, and extending to the ends of the earth. That’s called missions. And we do all of that as we do life together in life groups. All of that to say the E is about evangelism. The church that goes.
Verse 47 says, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” They were giving birth to new believers in Jesus Christ. That should always be a way to measure how healthy our church is. How many people came to faith in Christ this year? How many people have we baptized? I know the answer to that question in so many churches is a big goose egg. And the church has become a fortress and a big holy huddle and a group hug for the already-convinced. And they’ve lost their passion for lost people outside the four walls of the church- their neighbors, their communities. May we never lose that passion.
There is an interesting, kind of, math lesson in the book of Acts. It says in Acts 2, you know, on the day of Pentecost Peter preached his message. And “the Lord added to their number daily those that were being saved.” A little bit later in verse 47, “He added to their number those who were being saved.” Actually, earlier they added 3,000 people. And then he goes to talk in chapter 5 and in chapter 6 about how the Lord was adding to…and then by chapter 9 or so, it just simply says the church multiplied. And I love that change in the equation there. They didn’t get to calculus, but they got from addition to multiplication. Why? Because disciples were making disciples. A professor of mine in seminary said years ago, “You can either have a ministry of addition or a ministry of multiplication.” And it’s all about disciple-making and disciples making disciples.
Here is the fifth and final purpose. We call this fellowship. The church, I say, is full of grace. We’re a grace-filled community. Verse 42 says that, “They devoted themselves to the fellowship.” That word “fellowship” is a rich word in the original language, the Greek language. It’s the word koinonia. Maybe you grew up in a church where they had the Koinonia class. You know, most churches did. And it’s a wonderful word. It describes more than just a Facebook kind of connection. It describes more than just saying hi to your friend once a week. They did life together. They had deep, deep relationship. They took the relational risk to do more than just walk into church five minutes after the worship gathering started and, you know, scoot out the door five minutes before the end. They took that next step, and they gathered not just in the temple, but also house to house. And they got to know each other and do life together.
One author described two kinds of churches. And I like her analogy here. She say some churches are like a bag of marbles. You know, the marbles are kind of hard and cold. And they’re beautiful on the outside. And if you shine the light in just so, they’d sparkle a certain way. But, you know, when you shake up that bag, they kind of clack and clutter and clink with each other. Some churches are like that. She says other churches are like a bag of grapes. And those grapes, you know, when you shake up that bag and you look on the inside, it doesn’t always look all that pretty because they’re softer. They’re more malleable. And now some of the juices are beginning to flow out. But, oh, wouldn’t you much rather have a bag of grapes than a bag of cold, hard, clanking marbles? Let’s be that kind of church that’s a bag of grapes. That’s willing to be, kind of, broken bread and poured out wine and juice that flows into each other’s lives. Because there is something about how God uses us. The iron sharpening iron. The grape juice…and I’m mixing my metaphors here…but the grape juice seeping into the lives of one another. And He uses that to transform us into the image of Christ even more and more.
Friends, what I’m trying to say to you this morning with as much passion as I can is, you know, about 30 or 40 years ago there were some visionary people who came together in this part of Virginia Beach. And they planted a church called Atlantic Shores Baptist Church. They had all kinds of dreams about what this could be. And they made some sacrifices back then of their time, of their talent, of their treasure. They gathered together. They were the church. They built a gospel outpost here at Atlantic Shores and here in Virginia Beach. And this place has shined brightly like a gospel lighthouse for almost four decades. Some of you were around during that time, perhaps. Most of us were not. Most of us are sitting here enjoying the fruits of other people’s sacrifices of time, talent and treasure. But here we are as the stewards of this industry in this time. There is no guarantee that this church will be here for the next generation. No guarantee it’ll be here for your kids, for your grandkids, or for other lost people in community once we’re gone. If you have any doubts about that, just travel to Europe and visit the empty cathedrals that have been turned into museums and schools and, now, many of them mosques. It’s because there was a generation of Jesus followers who took their eye off the ball. The mission, why are we here, the purpose of the church, and do we have a strategy that aligns with God’s purposes to do this thing called church.
We are the generation that has to own this with our time, with our talent, with our treasure. I make no bones about it. It’s going to take some sacrifice to keep this going, as it takes in any church. Because we the people…we can’t just live off the momentum of 30 years ago. Every generation has to come along and own it and be the church, be the lighthouse now and in this community. And make sure that we pass this on to the next generation. Not a church that’s just surviving, but one that’s thriving and reaches even more people for Jesus Christ. And we pass it on from generation to generation until Jesus comes. That’s the deep desire of my heart, and I know it is for yours as well. And I thought it would just be good for us to come back as we study the book of Acts and take this little glimpse inside what happened 2000 years ago, review the purposes of the church. Let’s just review them quickly. Worship, discipleship, ministry, evangelism, fellowship.
Here is what we’ve done at Atlantic Shores. We take that, and we’ve turned it into a strategy we call our five G’s- gather, grow, give, go, and do it within a grace-filled community. Can you say that with me? Gather, grow, give, go, and within a grace-filled community. You remember the five G’s, and you’ll be well on your way to understanding what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it, and how easy it is to plug in in these various ways as we carry out our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ who go and make disciples.
The Beautiful Miracle
Well, book of Acts is the action book of the New Testament. It’s that place where the acts of the apostles are recorded, thus the name. Where we learn how the early church and the early followers of Jesus put their faith into practice or their faith into action. Dr. Luke is the human author, and he did a great job researching the history and giving a detailed record of the account of the acts of the apostles. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit he penned this book. And he tells us in chapter 2, and also in chapter 4 as we mentioned last week…he gives us a little glimpse into the early church and to this early faith community. And he says that they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching—they were people of the Word of God and people of the Book—to the apostles’ teaching and to the prayers and to the fellowship and the breaking of bread. And then Luke goes on to tell us that there were many signs and wonders that were performed by the apostles.
Now, we don’t have a record of all the miracles that were performed during the apostolic era, but we have a record of at least the first one. And it’s in Acts 3. And I call it the beautiful miracle because it took place 2000 years ago at the gate Beautiful. Now, scholars are a little perplexed as to which particular gate into the temple area that was. But in the text here, it is referred to as the Beautiful Gate.
And let me read a portion of the story beginning in chapter 3 and verse 1 so we get a sense of what’s happening here. It says, “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple. Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!’”
Now, as the story goes, Peter and John and were on their way to the temple at the ninth hour of the day. That’s 3:00 in the afternoon by our clock and how we measure it. It was customary for the early Jews to make their way to the temple three times a day- at the third hour, the sixth hour, and the ninth hour. And reading this about Peter and John, it gives us some indication that they were still practicing Judaism. Remember, Acts is a transitional book. And it took some time for the early apostles to understand the full implications of the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and even the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. And so it shouldn’t surprise us that they kind of went back to kind of doing what they’d always been doing and what the Jews had been doing for centuries leading up to this time. They went to the temple three time a day to pray because that’s where God was. And it took them some time to understand, again, the full implications of all that had happened, and to understand what you and I kind of take for granted today 2000 years later with the full canon of scripture and Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that tells us, as believers, your body is now the temple of the Holy Spirit. And you can pray anywhere at any time and God is with you. Jesus came from heaven to earth and was with His disciples. That’s one level of intimacy, right? But then He died and was buried. He rose again. He ascended to the Father. And He had to ascend to the Father to send the Holy Spirit, who is not just with us. He is in us, a whole deeper level of intimacy. And He is with us, and He’ll never leave us and He’ll never forsake us. And our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. But it just took some time for them to fully understand and grasp all of that. Nothing wrong with them going to the temple three times a day, as was their habit.
The ninth hour is also a reminder of what happened on the ninth hour of Jesus’s crucifixion. As best we can tell, He was probably on the cross that fateful Friday by 9:00, the third hour of the day, all the way through the sixth hour of the day to the ninth hour of the day. And it was on the ninth hour at 3:00 p.m. where He gave up His last breath. And the Bible says He spoke His last words from the cross, a cry of victory, when He said, “It is finished.” And He hung His head and gave up His spirit. Not a cry of defeat. If it were a cry of defeat, He would have said, “I am finished.” But He said, “It is finished,” the Father’s plan, “The redemption that I was purchasing, it is finished.” And so I suspect that Peter and John had some memory of that as they went to the temple at 3:00 in the afternoon at the ninth hour.
And when they were there, they arrived at the temple at the same time that a group of friends are bringing a poor, lame beggar who had been there all his life. And he had been there for a very, very long time. He was a common person, you know, doing what beggar’s do. Back in that time they would come, and they would sit outside of the temple. And they would beg for alms. They would beg for money. And we have every reason to believe that this beggar was probably there when Jesus visited the temple. But it begs this question. Why didn’t Jesus heal him? Why didn’t Jesus heal him? I mean, if Jesus walked into the temple and saw the same guy begging for alms, why didn’t Jesus heal him? Because Jesus didn’t heal everybody He came in contact with. He healed people for a specific purpose in a specific way and, oftentimes, at a specific time. And His goal was always to impact their spiritual life and their eternal destiny. But physical healing was not always His goal. And so this man was at the temple even through the time of Jesus.
But it kind of reminds me of the guy that Jesus healed, the blind man, remember, at the pool of Bethesda in John’s Gospel. And when the disciples saw this blind man, they said, “Hey, Jesus, who sinned? This man or his parents?” And Jesus said, “No, you’ve got your theology all wrong. It’s not that somebody sinned and that’s why he was born blind. He was born blind so at this time I could heal him and God would get the glory.” Regardless of whether you receive your healing or when it happens, God’s great events always have a timing to them. And the timing of this poor, lame beggar’s healing was to bring God glory at a time when the early church needed to learn some lessons. And he’s going to become a picture for us of how ministry would happen in the times of refreshing, as Peter later refers to it. The times of the apostolic era and through the church age, leading up to the second coming of Jesus Christ is a picture of how ministry would take place. And there are some lessons that we learn not only from the miracle, but also later from the message that Peter preaches.
You see, Acts 3 contains a miracle on the front end followed by a message. It contains a wonder, a sign, followed by a word that Peter delivers. It was a sign and then a sermon. And there are some lessons to learn from the sign. There are some lessons to learn from the sermon. So let’s dive into that.
Let’s read on…or actually take a look at the first lesson from the sign. And that is that we are poor, lame beggars apart from Jesus Christ. All of us are. We’re poor, lame beggars. Now, if we were there that day, there might be some pity or some sympathy that rises up in us looking at this man’s condition. And we feel sorry for him at some level because he is physically disabled. Ah, but be careful. You can be physically able and spiritually disabled. You can be physically disabled and spiritual abled. But even worse than being spiritually disabled, the Bible goes one step further and says apart from Jesus Christ we’re not just spiritually disabled. No, we’re dead in our trespasses and sins, Ephesians 2 says. And this man, if we’re not careful, we’ll see a physically disabled man and think of ourselves as, I’m doing okay. I’m not physically disabled. I don’t have the challenges that he had. And yet, apart from Jesus Christ, you’re still a poor, lame beggar who is dead in his trespasses and sins.
And it’s kind of a reminder to me, this story is, of the old saying that Christianity is just one poor, lame beggar telling another beggar where he can find food, all right. That’s all we are. Apart from Jesus Christ we’re poor, lame beggars. But we found the bread of life one day. And our job is just, as poor beggars, to tell another beggar where they find food.
Diagnosis is always the first step to healing. That’s true physically. It’s also true spiritually. And the diagnosis of our spiritual condition, it’s very important as we look at the pages of scripture. And through this man’s life we see what is true of him physically is true of us spiritually. We are all poor, lame beggars apart from Jesus Christ. This is why Jesus said His first beatitude, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Blessed are those who come to understand their spiritual bankruptcy and their spiritual disability, even their deadness in their trespasses and sins, and cry out to God for mercy. That’s the first lesson we learn.
Secondly, we are all outsiders and far from God until we come to the cross of Christ. So picture again this poor, lame beggar. He comes to the temple that day as he did every day for many, many years. And his friends sit him outside of the temple. There’s no indication that he had ever been in the temple before. He was an outside, not an insider. And he sat there, strategically positioned for all the insiders who would come to the temple and the throngs of crowds of people that would pass by. And he would beg for alms, and he would be for some help, given his physical condition. But he was an outsider.
And he reminds me a little bit of the little boy in the Christmas movie. You know, the kid who comes from the wrong side of the tracks, and he’s poor. But he’s standing outside of this restaurant, and he kind of does this to the window pane to look in a little bit more. And he sees all these nicely dressed people having nice conversations and eating this delicious food. But he is on the outside. He’ll never get in on the inside. He’s poor. He’s not one of them. And that’s kind of the description of who we are apart from Christ.
In fact, the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians reminded them of who they were and their spiritual state before they met Christ. Ephesians 2:12-13, Paul says, “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you were who were once far off,”—I love this—“have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Isn’t that great? Paul is writing to believers in Jesus, and he says, “Don’t forget where you were. You were once outsiders, strangers, aliens, separated from God, far off, having no hope in this world. But now, by the blood of Christ you’ve been brought near.” I mean, that’s a reason to sing and dance and shout, “Hallelujah!” because of what Christ has done for us. You’ve not been brought near, I’ve not been brought near because of my good works, no. But by the blood of Christ, by the redeeming and atoning blood of Jesus Christ are we made right with God. And we go from being in darkness to light, from being outsiders to insiders. And this man, at some level, is a picture of the person who is on the outside and alienated from the promises of God.
Third lesson we learn is that our spiritual need is greater than our physical wants. Now, he came to do what every beggar does. He came to the temple to beg for money. He thought his greatest need was physical. He was looking for a handout. But what he learned that day was his greatest need was spiritual, and he got a hand up, not a handout.
Peter comes, and John comes to the temple that day. And I’ve got to give them a little bit credit because they didn’t do probably what everybody else did, which was kind of walk right past them as they went into the temple, maybe flipping a coin their direction as they did. No, if you read the story carefully, they made eye contact with this guy. Now, let’s just be honest with ourselves. You know, when you pull up to that interesting and there is a homeless person standing on the corner of the interesting with a sign that says, you know, “I’ll work for food,” or some story that they’re telling there, what do we normally do? And don’t lie to me. You’re in church this morning, all right. We avoid eye contact, don’t we? Because we’ve learned if you make eye contact, oh, they might come over to the car.
I remember my first job out of college took me to New York City. And I would walk every day from my apartment through Grand Central Station to midtown Manhattan. And I had never seen this before, but I am stepping over homeless people in the middle of New York City. And there were all these business people in suits and ties and power dresses and all this walking just right past all these homeless people, never making eye contact, not treating them like human beings. Peter and John didn’t do that. I’ve got to give them credit. They’re going to temple that day to pray, but they had enough awareness to say, “Here is a child of God created in the image of God.” They make eye contact with him. And as soon as they make eye contact him, I suspect that his hopes, you know, rose up. And he thought, I’m gonna get something today. But look at what Peter said to him. “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” He didn’t get a handout. He didn’t get, you know, his physical need met that day, but he got a spiritual need met. He didn’t get a coin tossed to him. He got eternal life. And Peter healed him and…well, let’s read on to see what the reaction was.
“And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up, he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.” Boy, what an understatement. Filled with wonder and amazement. We would say they were blown away because here’s this guy they’ve walked past for days, weeks, months, even years on the their way to the temple. And now he is dancing. He’s leaping. There must have been something wrong with his ankles or his feet, maybe some deformity that he was born with. But now he’s not just walking into the temple. He’s running into the temple. He’s dancing. He’s leaping. He’s praising God. He’s creating not a small commotion, because now everybody’s head is turning to this man. They all recognize him as the man who was hanging out by the Beautiful Gate.
All of this is a reminder to me that ministry is first person and one to one before it ever becomes large scale. And even when it becomes large scale, you know, we have a little saying around here. As the church grows larger, it needs to grow smaller at the same time. And to never get so big where we look past the individual needs of people. And Peter and John are a great example of that.
But it’s also a reminder to us that the primary ministry of the church is spiritual, not physical. Some churches, some ministries have devolved into what we might call the social gospel. The social gospel is an attempt to apply Christian ethics to social issues of poverty and crime and poor nutrition and education, maybe even war and so forth, while downplaying the doctrines of salvation, heaven and hell, and the future kingdom of God. Here me when I say this…and please don’t misunderstand me…but a soup kitchen will never save a soul unless you use that soup kitchen to also feed them the bread of life, to introduce them to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve served at a lot of soup kitchens. But I’m not interested in serving at one that doesn't also introduce them to Christ. Jesus fed the 5,000, but it was a (0:19:00.0) setup to the teaching that followed, where He proclaimed, “I am the bread of life. I’m the solution to your real problem. You had hungry bellies yesterday, but, no, your real problem is you need to feed on Me. Eat My flesh and drink My blood,” He says. The most satisfying thing is life is not what feeds the flesh but what feeds the spirit. And we need to remember that. This is a stark reminder that the social gospel is not enough and our primary purpose in ministry is to point people to their eternal hope in Jesus Christ.
Now, all of this led to a sermon. Keep in mind that now all the heads are turning. And all the attention now is turning beyond this man to Peter and John. And the crowds are beginning to swell around Peter and John. And they’re thinking, wow, these guys are all that. (0:20:00.0) And Peter and John begin to resist the applause of the crowd and the allure of the crowd. Let’s pick it up in verse 11, where it says, “While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: ‘Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?’”
Now, I love what Peter is doing here, because he is deflecting the adoration of the crowd. And he kind of reminds me a little bit John the Baptist. Remember when John the Baptist came along? The crowds were pressing him and saying, “John, are you the one we’re supposed to be looking for? Are you the long-awaited Christ? John, you’re looking a lot like the Messiah these days.” And John could have gone home and looked into the mirror and said, “Well, I’m looking a little Messiah-like. Maybe I ought to run with this a little bit and see where it takes me.” But he doesn’t do that. John says, “I’m not the one.” And he compares himself to the friend of the bridegroom. He says, I’m not center stage. I’m not the one in the spotlight here. And he says of Jesus, “He must increase and I must decrease.” Now, it takes a strong core constitution of character to resist the allure of the crowd who want to give you the glory and say you're the man or you're the woman, and to say, no, it’s all about Christ. And Peter does this.
It goes on to say in verse 13, he says, “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him.” Now we’re fully into the word and the message. We’ve gone from the sign to the sermon. Verse 14, “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are all witnesses,” he says. “And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.” I mean, if Peter had read, you know, Dale Carnegie’s book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, you know, he didn’t learn much from it. Because while he had the adoring attention of the crowd, he kind of pokes them in the eye and pokes them in the chest a few times. And he says, “You denied the servant. You delivered the Holy and Righteous One. You killed the Author of life.”
And it brings me to the first lesson from this message, this sermon that he delivers. And that is that there is power in the name of Jesus. He attributes three names, three Messianic names from the Old Testament- servant, Holy and Righteous One, and the Author of life. You can go into the Old Testament, and in the Messianic passages these three names are attributed to the Messiah. He says that was Jesus. He pokes them in the eye, kind of kicked them in the chest a little bit and says, “You killed him. You killed Him.”
And then he wraps all of that up in verse 16, and he says no, this guy who was healed, you know, was healed by the powerful name of Jesus Christ. Do you believe in the powerful name of Jesus Christ? Do you believe there is power in the name of Jesus? I certainly hope you do. I went back this week and thought a little bit about the name of Jesus. Remember, at Bethlehem the angel of the Lord came to Joseph and said, “You shall name Him Jesus.” The name was given to Him, the name of Jesus. Later at the commissioning of the disciples, the Great Commission, Matthew 28, Jesus says, “All authority has been given unto me in heaven and on earth. Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” The name of Jesus has all authority and is powerful. And then in Acts 4:12, Peter says, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” There is power, saving power, in the name of Jesus. And then Philippians 2, verses 9 and following, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus,”—listen to this—“every knee shall bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” It’s a powerful name. Every knee will bow. Everything that can be named must bow to the name of Jesus Christ one day. And there is power in the name of Jesus Christ to break every chain, to move every mountain, to heal every disease, and to rescue every lost sinner. Let’s never forget that, friends. And the power in our ministry is to exalt the name of Jesus Christ and to point people to Him. There is power in the name of Jesus.
Secondly, Peter goes on to say there is proof in the facts of history. In all of this, he talks about the Messianic promises. He talks about the powerful name of Jesus. He says, “You killed the Author of life whom God raised from the dead.” You know, the early apostles never strayed far from the resurrection of Jesus Christ or to reminding people that they were witnesses of the event. He says, “God raised him from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” There is proof in the facts of history. The most credible defense for any witness in the 1st century in a court of law…and it’s true in our courts today…it an eye witness. If you don’t have an eye witness to what happened, what you have is circumstantial evidence. And the facts of the gospel and the credibility of Christianity is not based on circumstantial evidence. It’s based on eyewitness accounts. “I saw him with my own eyes,” the early apostle says. And they wrote it down. And we have the accounts. Why do critics attack the Bible and say it is unreliable? Well, they want to criticize and attack the eyewitness accounts. But the New Testament story and the Bible itself is highly credible because he says, “We are witnesses of this.”
All of that to say you won’t find fairy dust and unicorns and fairy godmothers in the Bible. I was watching a news organization this past week. And the story was about how there was a group of people out there, if you can imagine this, who are not offended by some of the fairy tales that we’ve grown up with, like Little Red Riding Hood. You know, you’ve got to be kidding me. Get over yourself if you're offended by Little Red Riding Hood. But the lady who was defending the fairy tales we grew up, she says, “Yeah, and it’s just like some of the stories in the Bible.” And I said, oh, no, no, no. Do not compare Little Red Riding Hood to the Bible. There’s not fairy godmother. There is no fairy dust. There are no unicorns in the Bible. The Bible is based on credible witnesses. The stories you read in the Bible are made up of real people who lived in real places at real time in real history. This is what gives it credibility. But the critics want to say, “No, it’s all fairy tales. It’s fantasy. They’re fables.” No, there is power in the name of Jesus. There is proof in the facts of history and in the facts of the gospel.
And then Peter goes on to say there is more proof in fulfilled prophecy. He goes on in verse 17. “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled.” What’s he talking about? He’s talking about all the prophets in the Old Testament who spoke about the coming of Messiah. And those prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He goes on to say, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” Wow, what a sweeping journey through the plan and program of God from the Old Testament Messianic prophecies to what he calls the “times of refreshing,” the times of the apostolic era and even the church age in which we are in up until the time when Jesus will come again. I mean, Peter covers all of it. This is some deep theology here. And he says over and over again according to the mouths of prophets that predicted all of this.
By the way, why is 25% of the Bible when it was written predictive and prophetic in nature? Well, in part because it’s one of the ways God adds credibility to His Word. He is a predictor of the future. And He holds Himself to a standard that says it needs to be 100% correct 100% of the time or it’s a false prophet and a false prediction. But we can have confidence in the gospel, not only because there is power in the name of Jesus and there is proof in the facts history. There is more proof in fulfilled prophecy. Peter goes on…and I don’t have time to read it all, but he mentions Moses. He mentions Samuel. All of it in the Old Testament. He is speaking to the men of Israel who knew the scriptures well. And he says, “You guys should have known this. There is no excuse here.”
But if you go back to verse 17, he says, “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers.” After Peter pokes them in the eye and kick them in the chest a little bit, he softens his rhetoric here. It may not sound like it to you, but in the Old Testament they understood sins to be willful based on knowledge of God’s law, and also sin that was not willful but based upon ignorance. Now, we say in our judicial system that ignorance of the law is no excuse. It’s the same thing when it comes to God’s law. Ignorance of God’s law is no excuse. It may mean that the consequences are different than the person who knowingly and willfully disobeys God. But he refers to them as ignorant. I’m a little perplexed on that, because he just got done telling them, “You should have known this. You know the scripture well, men of Israel. You knew the Old Testament prophecies, but somehow you missed it.” Ignorance is when you don’t know what you don’t know. And it’s possible that some of us here today don’t know what we don’t know because we’ve heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend. But the Bible is just full of fantasy and myth and fables. No, it’s not. It’s not. It’s not Little Red Riding Hood. There is power in the name of Jesus. There is proof in the facts of history and the facts of the gospel. And there is more proof in fulfilled prophecy. This Bible is about real people in real places in real time in real history. But you can continue in your ignorance if you’re not careful, not knowing what you don’t know. It doesn’t absolve guilt before a holy God. We just need to understand that. And He is calling Peter as He is calling his brothers and sisters, these men of Israel and their families, to repentance. He says in verse 19, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out.”
Peter’s reference here to the times of ignorance remind me of what the apostle Paul said later in the book of Acts 17 when he made his way to Athens, that city of great Greek wisdom and understanding and knowledge. And he says to them, “The times of ignorance God overlooked. But now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” To repent. It reminds me of what Jesus said from the cross. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I think the scariest place to be is you don’t know what you don’t know. Maybe because you’ve never done the research yourself, and you’ve heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another liberal friend who has an agenda to try to undermine the gospel. Study it for yourself, friends. Study it for yourself. We’re here 2000 years later because the resurrection of Jesus Christ happened. And if it didn’t happen, smart people 2000 years ago would have discredited it then. But here we are.
And so what’s our response to all this? Well, Peter calls them to repentance. Not to a social gospel. He uses the healing of this poor, lame beggar. Well, God uses it to create a platform for the preaching of His Word and the calling of people to the cross of Christ to repent, to turn from their wicked ways, and to receive the forgiveness of their sins, the blotting out of their sins. Friends, that’s why the gospel is good news. Because you’re not defined by your past. Your failures are not fatal. They were taken care of at the cross of Christ. And then the penalty of our sin was paid for in full. That’s the reason we can dance and leap and praise God and go into the presence of God, just like this lame beggar did, with great confidence that we are children of God by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
By Dr. Ron Jones
I’ve got a question for you this morning. What is the greatest threat to your faith? I’m going to broaden it a little bit. What’s the greatest threat to the Christian faith? Now, some of us might say, well, liberal theology is the greatest threat. And we could have a good conversation about that. Certainly in every generation we need to fight for the purity of the gospel and contend for the orthodoxy of faith. Even Jude tells us in his New Testament postcard, he says we need to “contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints.” Why? Because in everything generation there is, we might say, a theological creep. And we drift in one direction or the other direction. So that’s a certainly a reasonable threat to consider. Others might say an oppressive government that wants to take away our religious liberty. That’s the greatest threat to our faith. And we could have a good conversation about that one, too. Still others might say, no, I think it’s complacency in the church that is the greatest threat to our faith, and possibly so.
Well, we could go on and on maybe answering the question. Here’s my answer to it. I’ll just cut to the chase here. The greatest threat to our faith in my estimation is fear. Just good, old fashioned fear. Because fear is the antithesis of faith. That’s why over and over again in the scriptures, and certainly in Jesus’s conversations with His disciples, He said to them over and over again, “Fear not.” I mean, it’s the most widespread and commonly articulated command in scripture is to fear not. Why? Because we’re so easily given to fear, and fear will eclipse our faith at any moment. So I think it’s one of the greatest threats to the faith in any generation when God’s people are taken up by fear.
Whoever said that Christianity is for wimps never read the book of Acts, because what I read in the book of Acts are stories about fearless people, fearless people who went into the 1st century convinced that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. And they never let a single bit of fear eclipse their passion for that. And that wasn’t always the case. Let’s be honest. The apostles, the disciples, when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, they were all a bunch of fearful cowards. They ran into the dark of the night and ran away. And even Peter, who followed Jesus all the way to Caiaphas’s house as he was warming himself next to the open fire pit there and somebody challenged him. “Hey, weren’t you with the Galilean? Weren’t you with this Jesus?” He was all caught up in fear, denied Jesus three times, even, you know, dropped a cuss word in there. He was full of fear. But the Peter we read about in the book of Acts is full of holy chutzpah. I mean, boldness. There’s not a bit of fear in him. And you’ve got to ask yourself the question, what changed between the Peter on the night Jesus was arrested and later crucified, and the Peter that we read about in Acts 4?
Let’s pick up in chapter 4. And chapter 4 continues the story of chapter 3. Last time, if you remember, Peter and John were heading to the temple at the ninth hour to pray. And they get there, and there’s this lame beggar sitting outside the temple begging of alms as he’s been doing for years and years and years. And they make eye contact with him and have a conversation with him. And they heal the man. And he goes from being a lame beggar to walking and talking and jumping up and down and praising God. And he makes his way into the temple and creates not a small uproar. And all the people, their heads are turning, and they’re like, “What’s going on here?” And they finally gather around Peter and John and all that.
Well, chapter 4 continues. And it says, “As they were speaking to the people,” Peter and John,” the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening. But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” Now, what was happening in the early chapters of the book of Acts and with the early church was nothing less than a spiritual movement that had great momentum. On the day of Pentecost, do you remember, 3,000 people came to know Jesus Christ as their Savior. Now, by chapter 4, just two chapters later, the number is up to 5,000 men, not to mention their wives and their families. Multiply that, you’ve probably got a church close to 15,000 people by Acts 4. I mean, this movement is uncontained, and it’s beginning to threaten the religious leaders. And when they hear about this lame beggar who is healed, they conspire with themselves, and they come together and try to come against Peter and John and the apostles, threatening them, opposing them.
The early church faced intense opposition from at least three sources. And they’re mentioned here in verse 1. It says that “the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them.” The priests, of course, were responsible for daily worship and had great influence over the people. The temple guard, the captain of the temple guard, he was sort of like the chief of police. You know, the temple had some treasures that needed to be guarded, and it had a guard for it. This could have been people that came to even arrest Jesus there in the Garden of Gethsemane, some of them. But, you know, when the captain of the temple guard shows up, it’s like the chief of police knocking on your front door. It’s not a good day when that happens. And then with that, the Sadducees, they made up a portion of the Sanhedrin, which is sort of like the religious congress. The Sanhedrin were religious aristocrats; very wealthy, politically powerful. They didn’t believe in the supernatural. They were sort of like deists in the early stages of the American Revolution that they believed in a supreme being, but they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead and the afterlife and all those supernatural things. And these are three groups of religious people that came against Peter and John. Intense opposition.
By the way, in my 20+ years in ministry, the greatest opposition I’ve ever faced is from religious people. And I shouldn’t be surprised, because this goes all the way back to the 1st century. Now, we’re beginning to face a little bit more opposition from the culture, but, sad to say, a lot of opposition comes from within the circles of religious life. The priests, the temple guard, the Sadducees and all them rise up against Peter and John. They're threatened by some of the things that are happening and they amp up their own threats and their own opposition.
It says in verse 3 that, “They arrested them and put them in custody until the next day, for it was already evening.” I just imagine the text message that Peter sends to his wife and his family. “Honey, I’m gonna be home a little bit late tonight. Thrown in prison. Hug the kids. I’ll be home as soon as I can.” You know, it’s just one of those days. And it says they threw them in prison, interesting, until the next day, for it was already evening. Why? Because Jewish law forbid any trials at night. Well, they tried Jesus at night because they were so intent on rejecting Jesus and getting Him up on the cross that they cast aside their own Jewish laws during that time. But now they’re back and following their Jewish laws. They find it convenient to put Peter and John in prison.
And we pick it up in verse 5. It says, “On the next day their rulers and elders and scribes gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family.” You may remember that it was Caiaphas who was the high priest during the time of Jesus. And the Bible tells us that when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, they first took Him to Annas. Annas was Caiaphas’s father-in-law. And he was sort of the mafia don. The office of high priest had become highly political with the Jews and the Romans and all that. And Annas held that position for many, many years until he fell out of political favor, but somehow still maintained control. And he passed on the office of high priest to his kids and, eventually, to his son-in-law, Caiaphas.
Annas was the one who held the franchise, we might say, on the sale of animals at the temple. When you came to worship at one of the feasts and, you know, you walked into the temple, you had to have your animal with you, that spotless lamb. Well, Caiaphas conveniently sold them. He had the franchise to that. You may remember that when Jesus overturned the moneychangers and, you know, all of that, well, He took a direct shot at Annas’s bottom line and his franchise business. And so when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, they first took Him to Annas…I just call him the mafia don…and then to Caiaphas. Well, they’re back at it again. There’s Annas. There’s Caiaphas, and John and Alexander are probably extended members of Annas’s family. They're controlling all of this. They’re the intimidation force. And they’re going to deliver all kinds of intimidation and threats against Peter and John.
Verse 7, “And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired,”—now comes the inquisition—“‘By what power or by what name did you do this?’” Can you imagine such arrogance? I mean, here it is, a spiritual movement where tens of thousands of people are now following the risen Christ. And they’re so intimidated and so threatened by it. Verse 8, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’”
Way to go, Peter. Holy chutzpah, Batman. I mean, where did he come up with this? Is this the same Peter who denies Jesus three times, warming his hands next to the little fire pit outside of Caiaphas’s house, as cowardly as cowardly can be? Now Peter, after having been thrown in prison, come out and speaks truth to power. Do you have enough holy chutzpah, enough holy boldness to speak truth to power when the situation comes your way?
You know, I know Jesus told us to count the cost when following Him, but He never told us to consider the consequences. And it takes boldness to live that way. To cast consequences aside and just live for Jesus and speak for Jesus. Peter was thrown in prison, you know. “Honey, I’ll be home when I can.” I mean, the consequences are irrelevant to him because he’s so convinced of the risen Christ. Anytime the early apostles speak, they aren’t far from Jesus and the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And I love what Peter says in verse 12. If you’ve not memorized this verse of scripture, you need to commit it to memory. This is one of those scripture memory verses. Hide it in your heart, because this is so important to have right at the edge of your lips. “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name given among men under heaven by which we must be saved.” You know, Peter gets a few pokes in the eye, a few kicks in the chest, you know. He says, “You crucified Him. God raised Him from the dead. This is the stone that was rejected by you. And let’s make no mistake about it. There is no name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved than the name Jesus, who is the Christ.” Again, that’s the some holy chutzpah. That’s some holy boldness. And you can’t read tone in the black and white pages of scripture. Having chutzpah and boldness for Jesus doesn't mean you have to be ugly with people. He just speaks truth, I want to suggest, rather calmly, speaking truth to power and just lets it sit where it is.
Well, they're reaction is predictable. Verse 13, “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. But seeing the man who was healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to leave the council, they conferred with one another, saying, ‘What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’” Let me rewind that and read that again. “‘But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.’” People have been trying to silence free speech for 2000 years and free speech that gives way to religious liberty.
And don’t think it’s strange, friends, that we’re living in the same time. We have enjoyed these United States of America, and embedded in our Constitution and Declaration Of Independence and our Bill of Rights and all that this idea of the freedom of speech. But now we have people labeling some speech as bad, you know, as hate speech. Anytime you start to single out some type of speech as bad and you say you can’t do that, you’ve lost free speech. Free speech is either free or it’s not. And obviously the apostles were not abdicating for our Constitution and all of that, but free speech and religious liberty go hand in hand. And we’re living in a time where people are trying to silence free speech and trying to silence and take back and remove some of our religious liberties. And what I’m just suggesting to us all today is that it’s going to take some holy chutzpah, some holy boldness from the church of Jesus Christ to stand up, to not be ugly…you don’t have to be ugly…but to speak truth to power. And this is what Peter models for us so beautifully.
Verse 18, “So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, ‘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.’” You know, they just went to their eyewitness reports here. Christianity, friends, is not based upon circumstantial evidence. It’s based on eyewitness reports. When you don’t have an eyewitness in a court of law, then you have to work with circumstantial evidence and, you know, you can build your case and get to guilty or not guilty based on reasonable doubt and all that. But when you…what a prosecutor or a defense attorney wants is an eyewitness. Because an eyewitness who saw this with their own eyes is stronger than any case built upon circumstantial evidence.
Christianity, friends…and this gives us confidence; it gives us a little chutzpah…is not based on circumstantial evidence. It is based on the record of the eyewitnesses who saw the risen Christ and then wrote down their story and their account. He says, “‘For we cannot but speak of what we have seen and what we have heard.’ And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people, for all were praising God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old.”
The question is, how do you and I get such holy boldness? I think these are times…we’re living in times where we need the church of Jesus Christ not to cower in fear, not to (0:19:00.1) give in to the political correctness of our day, trying to force us to, you know, tamp it down just a little bit. “Don’t say Jesus is the only way; make Him a way. You know, just make Him more palatable, and that’s fine.” By the way, when we say Jesus is the only way, that He’s “the only name given among men under heaven by which we must be saved,” all we’re doing is echoing what Jesus Himself said and what the early apostles said. We didn’t come up with this. We’re just in a long line of the orthodox Christian faith where Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father but by Me.” Or as the apostles said, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” We either believe that and have the holy chutzpah to say it, or we cower in fear and lose so much of the gospel in our culture.
Well, how do you get (0:20:00.1) holy boldness? I’m going to give you three ways that I think are self-evident from the story here, even as it continues in chapter 4. Number one is to pray for it. Pray for holy boldness. As it says in verse 24…let’s actually start in verse 23. “When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord…’” And they begin this prayer that goes all the way down to verse 29. It verse 29 it concludes. “‘And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.’” They were in prayer. And it’s no secret that the early church was a praying church, and we see this in Acts 1 before the day of Pentecost, on the day of Pentecost, even after the day of Pentecost they were praying. And when Peter and John were finally returned to the people, the people held a prayer meeting. And they prayed again. And they prayed that God would give them the boldness to speak His Word. Where you start in all of this is you pray for boldness.
You may have a personality that’s a little bit like, maybe, Timothy in the New Testament, a little more timid. You say, “Boldness just isn’t me.” I get that. I understand that. Paul had to encourage Timothy a little bit. Remember, Timothy was a young man that he was about to install as the lead pastor at the church at Ephesus, a church that Paul planted along the western coast of modern Turkey. A wonderful church in a very cosmopolitan city. You and I would have loved Ephesus. We would have loved the church in Ephesus. Paul was there for three years, and then he put Timothy in as the lead pastor. And in his first chapter of his first letter, he says to Timothy, “God has not given you a spirit of fear and of timidity but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” You kind of get the sense that maybe Timothy was shaking in his sandals a little bit. He was a little bit timid. Maybe it’s because he was young and he was stepping into the leadership role. But Paul says, “Listen, that timidity, that fear in you, that’s not of God. He has given you a spirit of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
So maybe you feel a little bit like Timothy sometimes. Pray for boldness. Pray for God to superintend the natural personality that He’s given to you so that when you’re in a conversation with maybe a member of your extended family or a neighbor or a coworker and it’s a time where you need to speak a little truth to power or you need to stand up to say a word on behalf of Jesus and the gospel, you have the holy chutzpah at that moment to speak the truth. Pray for that boldness.
I think it’s interesting…hold your place here in Acts and go with me to Ephesians 6. I find it very interesting that the apostle Paul even asked the church at Ephesus to pray for him that he would have boldness. Acts 6 beginning in verse 18, “Praying at all times in the Spirit,” Paul says, “with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.” And then he adds this personal note. He says, “And also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” Paul is concluding a discussion about spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6 and how we fight spiritual battles. He talks about arming yourself with the armor of God. And then he concludes by talking about warfare prayer. And he adds in there that personal note. He says, “By the way, will you pray for me? That God will give me boldness as I speak the mysteries of the gospel.” Paul? Paul asking for boldness? I mean, come on, the most bold guy we read about in the New Testament is the apostle Paul. Even naturally, personality wise, he was a pretty bold guy before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. I mean, he was a bold terrorist, tearing apart Christian families and churches. But Paul found it necessary to pray for holy chutzpah, for some holy boldness. And if Paul needs to pray for that, how much more those of us all these years later. So it’s simple, but just pray that God would give you boldness in that moment when it’s needed.
Secondly, tether yourself to the Word of God. Let’s go back to Acts 4. And beginning in verse 24, it says, “And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, ‘Sovereign Lord…’”—here begins the prayer—“‘who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit…” Now they’re going to go into the Old Testament and to the book of Psalms, specifically, Psalm 2. “‘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.’” Verse 27, “‘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.’”
Now, that’s a powerful prayer. And it’s filled with a lot of good theology and references to a specific passage of scripture. There are some lessons just in how to pray here. They start by addressing the Lord as the sovereign Lord of the universe. They talk about how whatever His hand and His plan had predestined to take place. They were convinced that God had not lost control. That He was the sovereign Lord. And they believed in the sovereignty of God while at the same time not absolving themselves of human responsibility. And therein lies an important balance between the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. If you go in one direction too far or the other direction too far, you’re going to get imbalanced in your theology. But they were rooted in their understanding of the sovereignty of God and in His hand in history and the predetermined plan and all of that, while also having a good understanding of human responsibility. As they went back to Psalm 2 and talked about “why did the Gentiles rage” and the nations rage against Your anointed. Had some application for King David in the time in which it was written. But later, and certainly in Acts 4, they understand that to be a Messianic prophecy and the nations raging against the Lord’s Anointed, even Jesus Himself.
I mean, this is a prayer that is rich in theology. It is rich in God’s Word. I just say when you’re looking for some holy chutzpah, make sure you’re standing on the Word of God in terms of how He has revealed Himself. And you’ll always find boldness there. I’ve found over the years that even in preaching my boldness increases in direct proportion to how closely I stick to the Word of God. If I drift into personal opinion and all that, I’m not as bold. I’m not as confident. But I can stand on the Word of God. I can stand on what He says. And I can always know that I’m praying the will of God when I pray the Word of God, as they did here. Their prayers were dripping in scripture and in their understanding of who God was and how He revealed Himself and how He works in today’s world. I think this contributed to their boldness.
So if you’re looking for some holy chutzpah, if you’re looking for some holy boldness, pray for boldness, tether yourself to the Word of God, and then, thirdly, be filled with the Holy Spirit. Look at it in verse 8. Let’s go back there, the first time Peter speaks. He is released from prison. He is standing before this supposed intimidation council. And it says, “Then Peter,” verse 8, “filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” I’ve underlined that phrase in my Bible, “filled with the Holy Spirit.” Remember just real quickly, they were baptized in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, okay. All believers are baptized in the Spirit. You get the Spirit at the moment of salvation. And they were identified then as members of the body of Christ. That’s the baptism of the Spirit. We’re never commanded to be baptized in the Spirit, but we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit in the book of Ephesians. And the filling of the Spirit doesn’t have to do with whether I have the Holy Spirit. It’s whether the Holy Spirit has you. In that moment where you need that holy chutzpah, where you need some boldness, are you filled with the Holy Spirit? And just because you were filled yesterday doesn’t mean you’re filled today. Because you can grieve, quench and resist the Holy Spirit just like that. And so it’s a day by day, moment by moment decision where I must yield myself to the Spirit of God. And I think if you read this story, what you find is Peter and John…they were thrown in prison the night before. And what are they probably doing? I’m just going to speculate here they were praying. They might be singing some songs of praise as Paul and Silas did when they were in prison. They’re yielding themselves to the Holy Spirit. And when that moment came to speak with some holy chutzpah, Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, filled up with the Spirit, prayed up and tethered to the Word of God…oh my. Look out, council, here comes Peter. And don’t underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to even transform your personality that might otherwise be timid into a bold communicator for the Word of God where people go, “What is that all about? Never seen that before.” And we say that a little bit when we see the Peter of the book of Acts compared to the Peter who is outside of Caiaphas’s house, in a cowardly way warming his hands next to the fire pit.
And so in verse 31, “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.” My prayer for us, friends, is that in the times in which we live, you know, that they call for the same holy chutzpah today that the church had back in the 1st century. And this isn’t complicated. You pray for holy boldness. You tether yourself to the Word of God. You get filled with the Holy Spirit. And then you say, “Lord, when and where? I’m locked and loaded, and I’m ready to go.” And being bold for Jesus doesn’t mean you have to be ugly or difficult. Sometimes you just speak truth in a very calm kind of way, tethering yourself to God’s Word, and you watch God work.
Money, Lies, and the Fear of God
By Dr. Ron Jones
Well, Wall Street is the place where many investors go to boost their profits and to increase their wealth. Most investors know that when you go to Wall Street you can find one of two kind of market conditions. One, of course, is you’re in a bull market. The other is a bear market. We’ve all heard of the bulls and the bears. The bull market, more generally than not, is a time of optimism, a time of increase in profits and prices and all of that. The bear market just the opposite of that- a time of pessimism, a time when prices and profits and values are decreasing. But sophisticated investors know that during a bull market, where everything is up and to the right, there are times when the market corrects. Doesn’t means that it’s going into a bear market. It requires 20% correction sustained for three months before analysts say, “Now we’re in a bear market.” But a bull market kind of goes up and down and up and down. And there are sometimes corrections in the market. And you have to kind of, you know, deal with the corrections and have the stomach for the corrections. But overall in the bull market, everything is up and to the right and going well.
We’re not here to talk about Wall Street this morning. I say this because a few weeks ago when we started our series in the book of Acts, I said the start of the early church…if it were a stock, it would have been a great one to buy. Because as an initial public offering, boom, this thing exploded. And we had 3,000 people come to Jesus Christ on the first day on the day of Pentecost, the first sermon that Peter preaches. Two chapters later he preaches his second sermon, and the scripture says 5,000 more were added. I mean, this stock is off into the stratosphere. And then we come to chapter 5 of the book of Acts, and there is a correction. There is a correction. Something happens that makes everybody go, “Whoa, wait a minute. Are we in a bull market, or is this the beginning of a bear market,” spiritually speaking. I’m talking about Acts 5 beginning in verse 1. It says, “But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, ‘Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.’ When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him. After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.’ And she said, ‘Yes, for so much.’ But Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Behold, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and breathed her last. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband.” And here is the understatement of the year. “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”
Wow, what a story. Everything was going great in the early church. Thousands…some even estimate tens of thousands when you add in the women and children, tens of thousands of people coming to faith in Christ. I mean, this is an incredible ride. And then this happens. A correction. The judgment of God falls upon this couple named Ananias and Sapphira because, well, they lied about something. They engaged in deception. We would call them the first hypocrites of the church posing to be something other than what they really were. And it all had to do with the donation that they made that they lied about.
I remember back in 1986 Alan Greenspan was the fed chairman during the Reagan years. And the economy was doing really, really well, and everything in the market was up. And when the fed chairman spoke, Wall Street typically listened. And Alan Greenspan dropped a couple of words into a speech he was giving that made all of Wall Street kind of wake up and go into shock. He described the market as having a characteristic of irrational exuberance. I don’t know If you remember that or not. But, you know, when Alan Greenspan said that, the shockwaves rolled across Wall Street. He was saying the market was too hot. It was a bull market, but it was too hot, and everybody put on the brakes. Well, I wonder sometimes when I read Acts 5 whether the Lord God of heaven was looking down and seeing a little bit of unholy and irrational exuberance the church, and He had to correct the church. He corrects them.
It reminds me of 2 Timothy 3:16 that tells us that “the Word of God is inspired, that all scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for teaching, for reproof and for correction.” And sometimes we need the Lord to correct us. Hebrews 12 calls it the kind of discipline that a father would give to his children. A good Father, a good, good, Father disciplines His children and corrects His children. And Hebrews 12 says if you’re not a child of God, maybe one of the indications that you’re not is you’ve never been disciplined or corrected by the Lord. But if you’re ever been on the receiving end of the Lord’s discipline and correction, that is an indication you are, in fact, a child of God, because a good Father does that just like an earthly father corrects and disciplines his kids.
Well, the early church was receiving the Lord’s correction, His discipline. And it was a sobering, sobering moment. Can you imagine arriving to church that day and they’re carrying out two dead bodies? And you’re, like, “What’s going on here? What’s with the hearse out there?” And you learn about this couple named Ananias and Sapphira who made a donation. They sold a piece of property, and they brought the proceeds. They gave it to the church, but they lied about the cost of that property and how much they made and how much they gave. And the Lord said, “No, we can’t allow such hypocrisy and such deception to corrupt the body of Christ in that way.” Again, it’s a sobering, sobering story. And it puts the brakes on a little bit, you know. In the midst of this bull market, as it were, there’s a correction, a correction that comes to the church and to the body of Christ.
Well, what can we learn from this today? I think there are four lessons that I just want to share with you this morning. The first has to do with generosity in money. Remember, this is “Money, Lies, And the Fear of God.” Generosity is evidence of real faith. And I really don’t want to say a whole lot more than that other than to point out the fact that this story about Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5:1-11 stands in contrast to what we read in chapter 4 and verses 32 through the end of the chapter, verse 37. Because chapter 4 verses 32-37 gives us another glimpse into the early life of the early church. And it’s all about the generosity of the church. They were generous. They had things in common. They took care of one another. And then it highlights one man’s generosity. It says in verse 36, “Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.” And we say, “Way to go, Barnabas.” Mr. Encouragement, the son of encourage that he is. He encourages people by his generosity.
And the way Luke arranges this material under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is meant for us to compare and contrast what Barnabas did to what Ananias and Sapphira did. Because we learned this about Barnabas at the close of chapter 4. Chapter 5, we get the Ananias and Sapphira story. And the not-so-subtle implication is be like Barnabas, not Ananias and Sapphira, all right. Generosity was what characterized the early church. Their response to the resurrection of Jesus Christ impacted their personal economy. How could it not? You’re on the receiving end of the grace of God and His generosity toward you in Jesus Christ. That should at some level produce a different response in the way you manage the money that God has entrusted to you. If you’re not becoming more and more generous with what God has entrusted to you, you need to examine yourself and examine your response to this thing called the gospel and the grace of God.
It makes me think of the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19. Remember wee little Zacchaeus? He was a chief tax collector, the Bible says. A chief tax collector. I take that to mean he had other tax collectors working for him, kind of had a franchise business. And he was very rich, the scripture says. The way they collected taxes back then—you know, the Roman government—was that the tax collector would get what was due Rome, and then they would put a premium on top. And if you were a really good tax collector, you got a pretty good premium for yourself. And Zacchaeus had done a good job with that and all the other tax collectors that worked for him. And he had become a very rich man. But one day Jesus was coming through town. And wee little Zacchaeus climbed up in that sycamore tree to get a view of Jesus. He was taken by him. He invited Jesus over to his house for dinner. And Jesus said of Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to your household.” Jesus looked at Zacchaeus and recognized saving faith in Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus response was, “Lord, half of my goods I will not give to the poor. And if I’ve defrauded anybody in my business, I’ll restore them fourfold.” When Zacchaeus met Jesus, it transformed his finances, his personal economy. And that’s all I really want to say about this.
As we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, although the primary reason the judgment of God fell and the correction came was not that they were lacking in generosity…it was because they lied. Although that’s the primary reason, there is a lesson in generosity here because of the relationship to the Barnabas story here.
There is a second lesson, though, I think we can learn from this. And that is that integrity matters. This was the primary reason that judgment fell upon Ananias and Sapphira. Not because they should have brought all of the proceeds, but because they lied about what they brought. And God doesn’t put up with such things. Peter said to Ananias in verse 3, “Why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? You have not lied to man; you’ve lied to God.” I mean, Peter just elevates the seriousness of what had happened here. Like Barnabas, Ananias and Sapphira had a piece of property. Like Barnabas, they sold that piece of property. Barnabas brought the proceeds in full. That was his choice. There was no obligation to bring all of it. Ananias and Sapphira sold a piece of property, brought the proceeds to the apostles and made them believe that here was the price that they sold it for and they brought all of the proceeds. The reality was, no, they sold it for much higher price and brought only a portion. Now, there was no obligation for them to bring all of it or any of it for that matter. Giving in the New Testament is voluntary. It should be a voluntary response of our faith and our response to the generosity of God and the grace of God in lives. But there was no obligation for them to sell this piece of property and bring all of the proceeds. But when they did, they said, “Boy, we want some of the accolades that Barnabas got.” And they lied about it. And Peter says, “You’re not lying to me. You’re not lying to all your brothers and sisters in Christ here. You’re lying to the Holy Spirit. You’re lying to God, and we don’t stand for that around here.”
I remember when I was in seminary one of my professors reminded us many, many times that ministry is a character business. It’s a character business. And it made all of us just kind of, you know, press the pause button a little bit and say, you know, “Can I really enter into this thing?” You can go be a widget seller or be in some kind of business out there, be a scoundrel, you know, just kind of walking carefully the line between something that is illegal and unethical, you know. You never fall into the illegal side, but, boy, you just wonder how ethical this is. And you can do your business that way and be successful and make a lot of money and be just fine. Not in the ministry. It’s a character business first. Whether you’re vocationally in the ministry as I am, or whether you're a volunteer in the church, it’s all a character business. And integrity matters. Integrity, character, yes, competence. I could hire somebody or find a volunteer who has great character but no competence, and there is one problem you have there. Or you have the opposite, you know, somebody with great competence but lacking in character. Boy, that’s a train wreck waiting to happen. It’s a character business, and integrity matters. Not perfection, because none of us is perfect. But a person of integrity deals honestly with his mistakes, with his sin. Keeps short accounts with God in confessing his sin and repenting of it.
And this is the example that we even have in the Old Testament with King David. And we’re all familiar with David’s shortcomings, right? But Asaph, one of the other psalmist, writes this about David. Psalm 78:73, “So David shepherded them according to the integrity of his heart, and he guided them with his skillful hands.” There is character and there is competence. Boy, that’s when you know you’ve got a leader. Whether it’s a paid staff member or a volunteer, when you have both character and competence, you’ve got a winning combination there. And we’re all growing. David made his mistakes. But the New Testament assessment looking back on David was that he was a man after God’s own heart. You say how can that be with the whole Bathsheba thing? Because eventually he dealt honestly with his sins. He was forthright about it. And he took his consequences, as it were, and he got right with God and confessed to sins. And not a perfect man, but a blameless man. A blameless person is somebody who deals honestly with his sins. And this is how we maintain our integrity. That’s an important lesson here. Ananias and Sapphira lied. And this was the beginning of something great in local church. And if the Lord looked the other way on this, there’s no telling how that would have eventually corrupted the entire church.
Here is a third lesson that I jotted down this week, and that is that the devil is always looking for an opportunity to attack. Notice back again verse 3 Peter says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart?” Isn’t it interesting that Peter introduces the devil into the mix here. Peter is seeing with spiritual eyes. He is seeing what the apostle Paul wrote about in Ephesians 6, that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Our enemy is not one another. It’s not a physical person. But we wrestle against principalities and powers, against the rules of darkness of this world. Peter saw this as an attack on the church from a dark spiritual realm from Satan himself. And it’s just a reminder to all of us that the devil is always, always looking for an opportunity to attack.
Peter tells us in 1 Peter 5:8, “Be sober-minded and be watchful; your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour.” And he has you in his crosshairs and your family. And he has this church, and he has me and all of our volunteers, all of our pastors, all of our leaders. He is looking for an opportunity. And he is always collecting opposition research on us. He knows our weaknesses. He’s not omniscient, but he’s been around for a long time. (0:19:00.1) And he practices his craft. The Bible tells us to be aware of the schemes and the strategies of the devil. Well, one of the things that he does is he collects opposition research on us, and then waits for just the perfect time to attack.
This happened with Jesus. Remember when he went out into the wilderness? Fasting for 40 days and 40 nights prior to launching His public ministry. And at the end of that 40-day period of time, the Bible says He was hungry. And that’s when the devil shows up. And he tempted Him in three different ways. And every time, you know, Jesus said, “No, it is written, it is written, it is written…” He dealt with that temptation by pulling out His sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. And He defeated the devil in all three of those temptations. And then the Bible tells us in Luke 4:13, “And when the devil had ended every temptation, he departed from Jesus until an opportune time.” He’s opportunistic that way. Always looking for the right opportunity to attack. And this is why we need to be sober. We need to be watchful. We need to be vigilant. Even when everything is going great in the church and you feel like you’re in a bull market, spiritually speaking. Wow, you look around, everything is wonderful. The fellowship is sweet, lots of people coming. Boom, the devil attacks. And this is what happens in the early Christ. Three thousand people come to know Jesus on to day of Pentecost. Five thousand people the next time Peter preachers. Boom, Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira. And it’s a sobering moment. It’s a correction the Lord brings to the church. And you just have to remind yourself the devil is always looking for those opportunities.
The fourth and final lesson is this. God is holy and He is deserving of our reverence. We call that reverence the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord. Twice in these verses it references this. The latter part of verse 7, “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard these things.” Yeah, fear because they’re like, “Wow, this is a sobering moment to see these two dead bodies walked out of the church. What happened?” And they begin chatting about it. But also I take this to mean that the fear of the Lord came upon the people. When the Lord disciplines us, when He corrects us, it’s not out of anger. It is because He is a holy God. And to be holy spiritually is to be healthy spiritually. And if there is any unholy, irrational exuberance in our lives or in the church, He is going to correct it. He is a holy God. And He says, “Be holy as I am holy.” You can’t continue in this way and be healthy spiritually. We’ve got to be holy. And He is a holy God, deserving of our respect. And that’s what the fear of the Lord is. It’s that awesome respect we have for God and who He is and how He’s revealed Himself in scripture and the commands He gives us. An awesome respect that we have for Him, such that it changes the way we live. Rather than going this way, we repent and we turn the other way. And the Bible says over and over again in many places that the fear of the Lord is a good thing. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
Later in Acts 9, I believe it is, it says, “The church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” God’s blessing will fall upon a church that fears Him and respects Him and what He has revealed of Himself in scripture.
It shouldn’t surprise us really that this correction happens. You know, again, a sophisticated investor on Wall Street knows that, even in a bull market, the corrections will come. That normal and natural, even in a bull market. And it’s really normal and natural when God is doing something new and big. You go back into the Old Testament when they completed the first Tabernacle. Leviticus 10 tells us there was a correction that took place. They had finished the building of the Tabernacle. And they were getting ready to worship. Two of Aaron’s sons…Aaron was the first high priest. He was the brother of Moses. And two of his sons, Nadab and Abihu, come to that first worship experience. And the Bible says they brought what’s called strange fire. We don’t know exactly what strange fire was, but it was some kind of unholy exuberance that those two young boys brought. And the Lord killed them. Wiped them out right there. The death of Aaron’s sons, who worshiped the Lord in some unholy way at the first worship service at the brand new opening at the Tabernacle. “We’re going to correct that right now,” the Lord said.
And then do you remember the time when the Israelites were crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. Joshua was leading this. And they begin to overtake some of the cities. One of the largest ones was Jericho. And they march around the city of Jericho those seven times. And on the seventh day they march seven times and shouted. And there was this great victory when the walls of Jericho come down. And then a chapter or two later they go up against this little city over here called Ai. And Joshua says, “Oh, we don’t need to take the entire army up there. It’s just a tiny little city up there.” So they took a smaller army. They go up there, and they get there pants beaten off. You know, they’re just obliterated by the little army of Ai. And Joshua and the guys come back, and he’s kind of got his tail between his legs. And the Lord is saying, “Get up off the ground, Joshua. Why are you crying out and bellyaching to Me?” And what they learned is there was a guy named Achan who had stolen some of the items in Jericho that were not to be taken. And he hid them in his tent. There was sin in the camp. And the Lord says, “That’s why you went up to Ai and you were defeated.” And the story of Achan…they stoned him. I mean, it’s a sobering moment. I mean, anybody would just say, “Wow, the Lord was pretty severe in all of this.” He is a holy God. He is holy. He is righteous and deserving of our respect. If He says, “When you go up to Jericho, don’t take any of the spoil for your own,” that doesn’t mean take a little bit for yourself. And the Lord says what He says, and He means what He says. And sometimes a correction needs to happen.
It happened when they built the first Tabernacle. It happened when they crossed over into the Promised Land. It happened as the early church began. When the Lord is about to do something big, a little correction might come. And that happens in your life individually, in your family individually, in mine individually. It happens corporately in a church as well. Is it a time to believe, if it happens, wow, this is all over. We’re in a bear market. Everything is going down, down, down, down, down? No, you know what I’ve discovered in more than two decades of ministry? God’s church is resilient, incredibly resilient. Because Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Oh, the devil will look for an opportunity to attack, yes, but he won’t prevail. He may win a battle, but he’s not going to win the war. Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Not, “I will build your church,” not, “You will build my church,” but, “I will take full responsibility for building my church, and I will do it My way.” And sometimes, as a good, good Father—like an earthly father lovingly corrects his children—sometimes He corrects His own children by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
And this is what’s happening in Acts 5. It doesn’t mean the church is over. Much to the contrary. Now the church is better prepared to go into the future. And beyond Acts 5 we find the church growing and multiplying because great fear has come upon them. Great respect for God and who He is and what He has said in His word.
Hebrews 10:31 does say, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Hebrews 12:28, “Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken. And thus let us offer to God acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.” And a lot of times we don’t like to hear that. You know, as believers in Jesus we want to hear that He is a good, good God who loves us but is never going to correct us, never going to discipline us. Well, that’s not the God of the Bible. That’s not even a good earthly father. A good earthly father will see something that his child is doing that’s wrong and will correct that child, disciplines that child and lead that child forward in love. And this is what God does to His church, even though this story of Ananias and Sapphira.
And for me, this little story about money, lies and fear of God is just a reminder again. This is His church. He will build His church. He will build it His way and on His terms. And we do best when we follow in obedience to Him and when we respect Him and fear the Lord. It’s the beginning of wisdom, and it’s the beginning of great things that happen in our lives individually and in our families and in the church as well.
Obeying God Not Man
By Dr. Ron Jones
Well, we are in a study of the book of Acts. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve really enjoyed this study. I’ve enjoyed going back 2000 years ago to remind myself and all of us as to how it all started. Sometimes it’s hard to get a sense of where we are today as the church without going back to learn again and refresh our memory as to how it all started. And, boy, did it start with a bang, didn’t it? Acts 2, Peter preaches his first sermon. The Holy Spirit comes on the day of Pentecost, and 3,000 people come to know Jesus Christ as their Savior. Two chapters later Peter preaches his second sermon, and 5,000 more people come to faith in Jesus Christ. Kind of reminds me a little bit of the horse Justify yesterday at the Belmont Stakes. I don’t know…I’m not a horse racing guy. I don’t gamble, all of that. But I love a good sporting event, and especially when a Triple Crown is about to be won. And beautiful thoroughbred animals, these horses they are. Well, here is Justify. He’d won the Kentucky Derby. He won the Preakness, and now the Belmont Stakes. And they were all in the gates. The gates came open, and he flew out of that gate and took the lead in a mile and a half race and didn’t look back. And he won the Triple Crown. That was amazing. And the early church kind of reminds me of that. Out of the gates fast and furious and explosive growth. And then we come to chapter 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira.
And it was a sobering story. We said it was a correction that God brought to the early church. It was a story of this couple, this husband and wife named Ananias and Sapphira. They made a donation to the church and, well, they lied about it. And Peter and the apostles confront them separately and said, you know, “You didn’t lie to us. You lied to God. You lied to the Holy Spirit.” It’s a serious and sober and somber event. You read the story, and Ananias and Sapphira died that day. Can you imagine coming to church and you see a hearse outside? And they’re wheeling out these two bodies. I mean, all of that momentum in the church, it seems like it’s threatened to come to a screeching halt in Acts 5:1-11. But we learned some things from that story.
Now we’re picking up the story in verse 12. And here is what we discover. That little correction that took place in the first 11 verses didn’t stop the momentum of the church one bit. Let’s read on. “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon's Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”
This reminds me of when Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Even a little correction, a very serious and somber one that came to the church in the early part of Acts 5. It didn’t stop God’s plan. Everybody just needed to take a deep breath and realize God was still on the throne. He was still in charge of His church. People were still coming to faith in Christ. And what we read about here is that many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. A supernatural demonstration of the power of God was taking place, and there were at least three results from this that I read about in just these verses.
Number one is salvation. People were still coming to faith in Jesus Christ. It says there that “more than ever…more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” We’ve gone from actual numbers—3,000, 5,000—now to “more than ever.” Some scholars believe the early church was as many as 15 to 20,000 people gathering there in Jerusalem in a very short period of time. And so when there is the clear demonstration of the power of God, well, salvation is taking place.
There is also superstition that kind of creeps in here. You see what’s happening? It says here that “many signs and wonders were done regularly among the people by the hands of the apostles.” Notice, not everybody in the church had the supernatural gift of healing and signs and wonders. This is the apostolic age. It was coming through the hands of the apostles, just those 12 who were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. And during the apostolic age, signs and wonders were used to confirm and affirm the message. But something was happening here. People were beginning to hear about all the healings. And they were lining up outside the temple and in the city streets of Jerusalem. And some people were saying, “Hey, if you just lie right here, Peter might come by. And his shadow might fall on you, and you’ll be healed.” Now, read the story carefully. It doesn't say that was happening. It says that people were saying it was happening. It was a superstition that arose.
You remember in the Gospels, you know, Jesus was always careful with miracles. He often said to the person who was healed, “Shh, don’t go tell anybody.” Why would He do that? Because He knew of our tendency to take a miracle and turn it into a superstition. And the superstition would then supersede the message. The message is always more important than the miracle. Don’t ever forget that. And He kind of tamped down and did privately some miracles. Certainly some publicly, but He was always hesitant to let the miracle supersede the message, which was far more important. We see superstitions today. Every once in a while I hear about…I guess they call them Weeping Marys, you know, somewhere in some part of the world, maybe South America or some place. And it’s a rock formation or something that kind of looks like a face of Mary. And thousands of people will migrate to those places. It’s not faith. It’s really bordering on superstition.
And this was happening in the early church with regard to Peter’s shadow. But when you have the powerful demonstration of the power of God, as was happening here, salvation experienced mixed in with some superstition, the third thing that I see here is a confrontation coming. And we read about it in verses 17 and 18. “But the high priest rose up, and all who were with him (that is, the party of the Sadducees), and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison.” We’ve gone from a correction in the church…it was off and running, right, to the races and going really well, a correction with the story of Ananias and Sapphira, the clear demonstration of the power of God and the continuing of God’s plan, and then the confrontation that comes from the Sadducees and the high priests, who were going to tell the apostles once again, “Stop speaking in the name of Jesus.”
And all of this is a reminder to me of something that the apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians about. Just kind of a background understanding of what’s happened here. Paul said in his letter to the Ephesians 6:12, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Friends, when there is the clear demonstration of the power of God, expect salvation. Expect some kind of weird superstitions to threaten and creep into the church. But also expect confrontation. Confrontation from the culture. Gospel ministry is full of confrontation. We don’t like to think of it that way, but it’s all over the book of Acts. And the Sadducees and the high priests threw not just Peter, but all of the apostles, all 12 of them, in prison over this. It’s not the first time they went to prison. It won’t be the last time they were thrown in prison because of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. But all of it is tantamount to spiritual warfare, okay. We don’t wrestle with flesh and blood. Their enemy was not the Sadducees and the high priests. There is a spiritual battle going on, and Paul pulls back the veil, as it were, and gives us a picture of that.
It leads me to say this, friends. Our broken world will never make sense to us until we look behind the visible to see the invisible, to see the spiritual battle that is taking place. If we don’t understand there is a spiritual battle going on, we will always fight confrontation and battles like this in the flesh rather than using spiritual weaponry, armoring ourselves with the armor of God, as Paul talks about in Ephesians 6, and using spiritual weaponry, the first of which is prayer and the Word of God and all of that to fight spiritual battles.
So with that as a background, let’s just kind of work our way through the story a little bit. This confrontation comes because of jealousy on the part of the Sadducees there. It says that they were filled with jealousy, and they arrested the apostles and put them in the public prison. They are intimidating them. They are threatening them. They finally arrest them. And, again, it’s not the first time Peter was arrested, and it won’t be the last time. I gotta wonder what Peter might have said to his wife that day. I can just picture him texting his wife, “Sorry, honey, I’m going to be home late for dinner tonight. Thrown in prison again.” I mean, what a challenge it is to do gospel ministry here, even as it trickles into this family. You know, it had to impact the family in that way. And all of the apostles thrown into prison here.
It goes from this jealousy and intimidation and arrest to what I call a supernatural prison break. And here is where I love the story. Verse 19, “But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out, and said, ‘Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.’ And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and began to teach. Now when the high priest came, and those who were with him, they called together the council, all the senate of the people of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, so they returned and reported, ‘We found the prison securely locked and the guards standing at the doors, but when we opened them we found no one inside.’ Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were greatly perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. And someone came and told them, ‘Look! The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.’ Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but not by force, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people.”
I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall. I mean, this is where I chuckle a little bit, because this was a supernatural prison break where the angel of the Lord in the middle of the night let Peter and the apostles out. It’s not the story we always think about, you know, when we sing the Amy Grant song, “Angels watching over you.” That’s about a different prison break later in the book of Acts. But this is the first one. We don’t talk about this one very much.
But here Peter and the apostles were in the prison. The angel of the Lord shows up and lets them out. The irony here is that the Sadducees are all part of the confrontation, and the Sadducees didn’t believe in the supernatural. They didn’t believe in the resurrection. They didn’t believe in angels and demons and, you know, the heavenly places and the invisible realm and all that. I just find that very ironic in the story, because the angel of the Lord is front and center here. And the next morning they all get up, and they have this council meeting. And they say, “Go get the prisoners.” And they go. And it’s all locked. But they open it up, and they’re gone. That’s the funny part of it all. I would have loved to have seen the perplexed look on all their faces. And as they’re discussing this, somebody walks in the room. And he says, “Well, they’re back over there at the temple in Solomon’s portico, and they’re saying the things that we told them not to say.”
By the way, when the church faced confrontation here from the culture, the angel of the Lord didn’t say to them, “Now, you need to organize a protest and a boycott. You’ve got to get after these guys because they're getting in their way.” You know what the angel of the Lord told them to do? Just go back and be at the church. Just go back and proclaim the message- Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead. Just go be the church. And they had found this little place over here called Solomon’s portico. Let’s just call it a room or an outdoor area in the temple that they had kind of carved out for themselves. And it was the place that the early church met when they met in the temple and then, you know, from house to house later in the week. They returned to that place, and they just started doing church. How powerful is that? And the guards and the council walked down there. And they didn’t want to make a scene because they were very concerned about all of the political things going on between the Jews. And they didn’t want a bad word to get back to the Romans. So somehow they coaxed the apostles back to meet with the council.
So we go from jealousy and intimidation and arrest to a supernatural prison break, and then to more threats to their freedom of speech. Watch it in verse 17 here. Listen to this. “And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, ‘We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching, and you intend to bring this man's blood upon us.’” This is not the first time, but at least the second time…and I’ll say it in just our 21st century language…they’re threatening their freedom of speech. They're saying, “We told you not to speak in the name of Jesus and to tell that story about Him being crucified and rising again. We told you not to do that, but here you are again.”
And you know what Peter said? He says, “You know, you're right. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that and we won’t do that again.” Not at all. This is…you’ve just got to go three cheers to Peter and the apostles here. And it’s where I get the title of this message, “Obeying God Not Man,” because Peter says in verse 29…it says, “But Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than men.’” We go from threats to freedom of speech and all of that, now to Peter and the apostles making a decision to stand strong, to stand strong and to say, “No, we’ve got to draw a line in the sand here. We have to obey God and not man.” And then Peter goes on to say this. He says in verse 30, “‘The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.’”
Now, Peter was not an educated man. He was a fisherman. And these Sadducees and the high priests, they were the religious elite. They were not only well educated, but very, very wealthy and very, very well connected politically. And they kind of looked down their noses at little old Peter the fisherman and those apostle, not educated men. But, you know, I’ve got to give Peter credit here. Full of the Holy Spirit, he always had the right words to say, and at the right time. And he stood with courage. And I’m going to say even with a little bit of kindness. I don’t see any ugliness. He’s just speaking the truth. And of course we don’t know the tone, but don’t impose a nasty tone or anything like that in it. You know, he stood with courage and just spoke the truth to power. How much courage does that take?
And maybe in your life you’ve got a line that’s being drawn in the proverbial sand. And the question is, are you going to obey God, or are you going to obey man? Will you have the courage to stand up for the truth and obey God and not man? Or will you cave in to the pressure there? This confrontation here reads almost like today’s newspaper. Because, friends, there are (0:19:00.1) challenges to our freedom of speech and the exercise of religion and all of that today that we have to deal with even as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And what I’m just suggesting, what I’m taking from this 2000-year-old story and how it applies to me and to us today is I’m praying that God would give us the courage and the kindness to obey Him and not man and to take a stand where we need to take a stand.
You say, “Pastor, how do we do that? Where do we do that?” Well, just by way of application, I can think of at least three cultural confrontations that are taking place today that you might have experienced individually as a follower of Jesus. Certainly the church as a whole in our culture is facing. And we need the courage and, yes, the kindness at the same time to say, “Listen, this is our story and we’re sticking to it.” That’s kind of what Peter said. This is my story. This is our (0:20:00.1) story. We’re sticking to it. Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins. That’s what we’re all about. And we’re not going to back down from proclaiming that. In fact, we invite you to be a part of that because this has changed our lives. We are eyewitnesses to this event. Where do we need the courage to obey God and not man today? Let me suggest three ways.
Number one, obey God and not man when it comes to life. And I’m talking about defending life in the womb. This has been a cultural confrontation with people of faith and the church for more than generation. And we need some continuing courage. I don’t know if we’re reaching a tipping point or not where a majority of Americans, you know, say, “Listen, we’re going to defend life from the moment of conception. We have murdered 50+ million babies since Roe v. Wade. There was a fight in the British parliament a century or so ago over slavery. And there was a guy named William Wilberforce, a member of parliament, who courageously…and with kindness…but courageously stood against slavery in Britain. And William Wilberforce is the one that history points to because of his tenacity, because of his commitment, because of his, “I’m just not gonna back down on this. This is my story and I’m sticking to it.” And finally slavery was gone in Britain. We need some William Wilberforces in the church today. When I was a pastor in Washington, D.C., I met a couple of congress people, the names that you would probably recognize. One in particular I had lunch with five or six times. And I remember him telling me that every year that he was in congress…and he was there for a long time…he introduced legislation to defund Roe v. Wade to defend life. And he was just drip, drip, drip, drip, drip, year after year after year. If I mentioned his name, you would recognize him. And he is still at it today. And are we reaching a tipping point?
As a church, we need to stand strong and say we’re going to obey God not man. There have been some businesses, well known businesses when it comes to health insurance and all of that, that say, “We’re going to obey God and not man.” It takes courage, courage mixed with kindness, to come face to face with this kind of confrontation.
Here is a second area. Obey God and not man when it comes to marriage. Phew! Is it heating up in our culture or what? We’re going through a cultural revolution when it comes to the definition of marriage, let alone what male and female means. I was in Atlanta this past week, and I had the opportunity to not only gather with my family, but I officiated at a family wedding. And that’s always a little interesting because, you know, you’re an uncle and you’re a pastor at the same time. And you’ve got your big brother sitting down in the front row kind of looking at you, like, “Little bro, don’t mess this up. This is my son.” But we had a great time. And my nephew is an officer in the United States Navy in the nuclear sub program. Wow! He’s a smart kid, and he married his college sweetheart. But we had a great family time. But I’m finding more and more as I do weddings today that I will work into kind of my introduction and welcome just an understanding of what marriage is. And at some point I say, you know, God is the author if marriage. God created marriage. He created us for relationships- a relationship with him vertically, a relationship with one another horizontally. And the most precious relationship that many of us have is that horizontal relationship that we call marriage. And God gave us and created marriage to glorify Him and also to give us enjoyment and all those kinds of things. And marriage is a picture of Christ’s relationship with His church. There is a mystery there, and so on and so forth.
And I’m saying more and more that God and God alone, who created marriage, reserves the right to define marriage at any time, at any place to any people and in any generation. It’s His deal. We used to have a saying in Texas, “Don’t mess with Texas.” It was kind of a “don’t litter” thing. Well, listen, don’t mess with marriage. It’s God’s deal.
The biblical definition of marriage is one man with one woman in a covenant relationship for one lifetime. Here is what happened a generation ago. We tinkered with the “one lifetime” part. And no fault divorce became the law of the land. And the ripple effect of that through our nation and through the fabric of our families and community has been devastating. Now we’re tinkering with the “one man with one woman” part. And I say strap on your seatbelts, friends. It’ll be another generation before we feel the full effects of the messing with God when it comes to marriage.
And my question is, will we obey God and not man as the church? Do we have the courage and, yes, the kindness at the same time to say, “No, I will obey God and not man.” Peter had been thrown into prison how many times? And I just think about the ripple effect to his family. Do we have the courage to take the stand for truth in a kind way, but to stand for truth? I hope that we do.
Here’s a third area that I’ll touch on. Obey God not man when it comes to life, when it comes to marriage and, finally, when it comes to the gospel, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The message that the early apostles proclaimed—Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins—this was their story and they were sticking to it. But so many Christians easily kind of waffle. And, you know, the culture would like for us to say that Jesus was a way and mitigate the exclusivity and the uniqueness of the gospel. But that’s not what Jesus said. It’s not what the early apostles say. You just go back a chapter in chapter 4 and verse 12, and Apostle Peter says of Jesus, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. No other name means no other name. And it echoes what Jesus said, that, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father but by Me.” We don’t say that with unkindness and meanness in our heart. We say it because it’s true.
But will we as a church…and every generation has to fight for the purity of the gospel. Don’t forget that, friends. And it’ll come with great confrontation. Jude told us to “contend for the faith that was once delivered to the saints,” that faith that was delivered to the saints 2000 years ago. There is a battle, a spiritual battle going on for the purity of the gospel. And we have to stand as a church with courage and with kindness that it’s Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins. He ascended to the Father, and He is coming again. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it, right? Amen.
Obeying God and not man takes courage, takes kindness. And I pray today that we have both in full measure to be able to just be the church that God has called us to be in what is sometimes a hostile culture. But take courage, friends. It’s been that way for 2000 years. It was that way for the early apostles. And they took great risks for the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Sometimes those risks will come down to a relationship between a neighbor or a friend or maybe a job you may or may not get or something. Have courage. Say it with kindness. But be the church where you are. We don’t just go to church. That’s an event. We are the church. And you as a believer in Jesus Christ and I, we’re expressions of the church seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days out of the year in some area. The place that you live, the place that you work, the place that you have influence that I’ll never have influence. And you may be the only expression of the church in that area. And there comes a time where you have to take a stand and say, “I’m going to obey God and not man.” And I just pray that God will give every one of us the courage and the kindness to do that.
Putting First Things First
By Dr. Ron Jones
Problem solving is something that every leader has to learn how to do well because problems arise in any organization. Whether it’s a business, in the marketplace, or in the military, even in a ministry setting, the leader or leaders in those organizations need to know how to problem solve and to even expect problems to arise and to know how to get after those problems in a way that moves the organization in a positive direction. With that in mind, we shouldn’t be surprised as we’re studying through the book of Acts that a problem arises in Acts 6.
And let me just summarize where we’ve been so far in our study of the early church. And I’ll say it again. Acts 2, the Holy Spirit comes and Peter preaches his first sermon. Three thousand people come to know Jesus on that birthday of the church. Two chapters later he preaches his second sermon. Five thousand more are added. That’s just the men. Add to that the women and children, and what you have is an early church that is explosive in growth. And with that growth in the early church, as in your business or in any organization, what we learn is that problems do arise. And we learn a very important principle in any organizational leadership or dynamic. And that is that growth brings its own set of problems, doesn’t it? You may notice as a business. Maybe you know it as a military leader. Perhaps you know it as a ministry leader. Growth brings its own set of problems, and this was true in the early church.
Let me read Acts 6:1-7 so we have a context for our discussion today. It says, “Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.’ And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.” And now verse 7, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
Again, the early church was exploding in growth. And growth presents its own set of problems, and a problem arose in the early church. Let me try to explain what was happening. At this time in the early church, it was a Jewish thing. And it was a Jerusalem thing. We don’t get to the Gentile expansion of the church until Acts 10. Right now it is a combination of Hebrew-speaking Jews. And what we learn from the text here, there was also a group of Greek-speaking Jews. The Hellenists are known as the Greek-speaking Jews. And a complaint arose in the early church coming from the Hellenists that the Hellenist, or Greek-speaking, Jewish widows were being neglected in the daily distribution.
Now, 2000 years ago some of the poorest people in society were widows because the law did not allow, when a husband died, for the transfer of assets to his wife. And so that’s just the way it was in this culture 2000 years ago. And so a widow in this culture became one of the poorest and most dependent people. And the early church and the apostles had some kind of means to address those needs. They called it the daily distribution. It was a food distribution to widows, and it was given to the Hebrew-speaking Jewish widows. But somebody noticed that the Greek-speaking Jewish widows were being neglected. And they brought the complaint to the early apostles.
Now, notice it was a complaint. And complaints arise all the time in any organization. If I had a dollar for every complaint that has come to me over the years in 2 ½ decades of ministry, I’d probably be a wealthy man. We don’t have a complaint department in the church. A complaint department is usually an invitation to receive a complaint without a solution, right? That’s how a lot of complaints come. And this is how this complaint came. Not all complaints are illegitimate complaints. Some complaints are very legitimate that were maybe resulted from an oversight in the administration and organization. And that was the case here. The apostles didn’t intend to neglect the Greek-speaking Jewish widows, but that is what had happened. And somebody brought that complaint, which was an indication of discontent and dissatisfaction somewhere in the body of Christ there. They brought this to the attention of the apostles.
Again, it shouldn’t surprise us. It’s not a cause for alarm. If handled properly, it shouldn’t stop the growth and the forward progress of the gospel. But it is a reminder to us that in any organization—in a business, in the military, in a ministry setting, even in your own home—complaints arise. Problems arise. And every leader needs to know how to address those complaints and address those problems.
I jotted down this week three different categories where the problem might me. It may be a people problem or a processes problem. Or it could be a problem related to our priorities. And every time we have a problem or a complaint that arises in the church, we need to determine the legitimacy of it. And we also, then, may need to look…is it a people problem? Do we have the right leaders in place? You know, the old adage, do you have the right people on the bus, and are they sitting in the right seats on the bus?
Is it a processes problem? Do we have an administration or organization issue that we need to address? Something that might have worked when we were this size organization, but is it working as we’ve grown and expanded? So we look at processes. Maybe our priorities are out of whack in some way. This gives us an opportunity to identify primary and secondary tasks. To ask the question, what is most important, and what cannot and must not be sacrificed? What is our mission? What is our vision? What is our strategy? And are we pinpointing that in a very efficient kind of way?
All of these kinds of organization questions come up to a leader or a group of leaders when a complaint or a problem arises. And I hear some people from time to time that say, “I love God, and I love Jesus. But I don’t want to be…I don’t get into that organized religion thing.” And I kind of jokingly say, “Well, would you rather have disorganized religion?” And I don’t mean that in a provocative way. But the God we serve is a God of order. And the body of Christ is a living organism, right? We’re a living organism, the body of Christ. But every living organism, whether it’s a single cell or a complex organism, is miraculously organized by our Creator, right? You can look under a microscope and see a single cell, a living organism. That biology, the anatomy, the physiology is highly, highly organized. And so every organism, including the body of Christ, needs organization. And when problems arise, when complaints arise, we need to look inside the organization in terms of people, processes, and even priorities, and introduce some positive changes that help us get down the road. Even to look at, hey, is there some of the status quo we need to do away with so we can move forward in a positive way because, well, the ministry has changed or the organization has changed? All of these kinds of things leaders in ministry, in business, in the military…even dad, as a leader in your home, you have to address complaints and problems that arise.
Now, how do we do that? Well, as I read this simple text, Acts 6:1-7, I just jotted down a seven-step problem-solving strategy, for what it’s worth. And we’re going to learn from the apostles how they went after this. Now, let me say this on the front end, because I’m going to give you this on the back end. I’m going to tell you why it is absolutely critical we get this right in the church. I’ll give you the reason why at the end.
But for now, step number one to problem solving and prioritizing in the church I call identification. You have to identify the problem, clearly identify the problem in any organization- ministry, marketplace, military, wherever you are in leadership. The complaint comes. The problem arises. In this case it was a legitimate complaint- the neglect of the Greek-speaking Jewish widows. But you have to clearly identify the problem. You’ll never be able to solve a problem you cannot clearly identify. It was easy to identify the problem here. And verse 1 tells us about the neglect in the daily distribution. But any time you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s always a good time to say, have we clearly identified the problem? Or is there something underneath all of this? Is there something that is disguising…maybe a peripheral issue that is disguising what the real issue is? You know, when you’re trying to solve problems in a marriage and you're doing marriage counseling, the problem that you’re dealing with is not always the real problem. And a skilled marriage counselor is going to dive in a little bit deeper into both the husband and the wife to discover what the real problem is.
And here is where you need to take some time. Don’t rush through the first step. Don’t rush through the first step. Clearly identify the problem. It’s a good time to do an agenda check, too. You know, if you're a leader in an organization and a problem arises, a complaints arises, is there anybody in and around that problem or complaint that has a personal agenda, hidden or not? And it’s a good time to just press the pause button and ask the question, have we clearly identified the problem? Are there any agendas here that we need to deal with before we go on to presenting solutions? So step number one is identification.
Step number two is clarification. Identifying the real problem is going to lead to a clarification of roles and responsibilities within the organization. And this is what happens in Acts 6. Look at it in verse 2. It says, “And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said…” Let me stop right there. Notice what is happening here. The twelve, who are the apostles, summon the full number of disciples. I take that to mean they got the entire church together. Thousands of them into one place to deal with the problem. There was something at stake here, and they needed to handle this problem correctly. So they get everybody together in one place, and they said, “All right, we see the problem. We’re going to stop doing everything we’re doing as apostles, and we’re going to go over here and serve tables.” Is that what they say? Not at all. Here is what the apostles said. “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” And verse 4, “But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
I take this to be the apostles’ coming to that moment of clarification. We have a problem over here. “We have a complaint. It’s a legitimate one that we need to address. But it’s not one that we should drop everything that we’re doing…in this case, the time that we take to devote to prayer and to the ministry of the Word…to go over here and serve in the food distribution.” It was a clarification of their roles and responsibilities. It was the apostles putting first things first in terms of what they were to do as leaders in the church.
I remember years ago one of the first churches I served…this goes back 15, 20 years ago…I arrived. And that week the chairman of the deacons called me. And he says, “Hey, I want to take you to lunch, Pastor, and welcome you to town and all that.” And I said, “Great.” We went to lunch. And no sooner did we sit down than I kind of sensed there was a little bit of an agenda. He says, “Pastor, I’m going to pay for your lunch today, but don’t get used to it. This is last time I’ll probably ever pay for your lunch.” And I thought, okay. I said, “Well, thank you. I didn’t expect you to pay today, but thank you for doing that. And I appreciate your generosity.” And he went on to take out a list, a very long list, of what he thought my job was, and began to tell me, you know, “We expect you to do this and this and this.” A lot of things that he was doing as the chairman of the deacons, now, boom, “It’s on you, Pastor.” And we had a very interesting conversation about my job description, my biblical job description. I took him to Acts 6, and we also went to Ephesians 4 where it talks about how God gives the church prophets and evangelists and pastors and teachers to do all the work of the ministry. Is that what it says? No, it says for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry.
And I learned a long time ago my job as a lead pastor is that I’m kind of a player/coach. And I have certain roles and responsibilities that are primary to me and to what we do as a church. But my job also is to equip and to train and to mobilize the saints for the work of ministry. One person can’t do it all, and you can’t hire enough pastors to do it all. And, thankfully, we get that here, because we have hundreds and hundreds of volunteers that we are equipping and training and mobilizing into ministry.
Well, my chairman-of-the-deacons friend years ago didn’t quite understand that. And he, kind of, you know, ruffled himself toward the end of the lunch. And he just says, “Well, okay. But we all know that it’ll just take some time for you to become the pastor we all want you to be.” Whoo, okay. Duly noted. And we went from there. But it was a clarification, a time for clarification in roles and responsibilities.
Third step is delegation. Once you’ve identified the problem and you’ve clarified roles and responsibilities, now as a leader you need to employ the fine art of delegation. Look at how it falls out in chapter 6 and verse 3. The apostles says, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” You know, the apostles could have looked at this said, “Well, we’re going to do the job of seven men.” Maybe the leader, maybe Peter said, “Okay. I get the problem. I’m going to drop all of this.” And he tries to do the job of seven men. Or he could get seven men to do the job. And every leader has to come to that crossroads in his leadership. Are you going to learn the fine art of delegation and raising up other leaders? Or are you going to try to do the job of seven people and flame out somewhere along the way?
You know, Moses had to learn this in the Old Testament. Exodus 18 is a case study in the fine art of delegation. Moses was the leader of nearly 2 million Hebrews traveling through the wandering wilderness on their way to the Promised Land for 40 years. And early on in all that, in Acts 18—two chapters before he went up Mount Sinai and brought down the Ten Commandments—here is Moses sitting on a chair. And there were hundreds, if not thousands, of people lined up to have a word with Moses to ask him to solve some issue that arose in their tribe or their community. And read Exodus 18. Moses’s father-in-law named Jethro sees this. And he pulls his son aside, his son-in-law, and he says, “Son, you’re going to have to figure out a better way to do this. These people can’t stand in line for hours and hours and hours to get a word with you. You’re going to have to find captains of five and captains of 50 and captains of hundreds to handle this.” And many people, even business leaders, look at the advice Moses got three to four thousand years ago in the middle of the Sinai Desert from his father-in-law Jethro as, wow, what a business principle. The fine art of delegation. And that’s what Moses did. He found captains of 5 and captains of 50 and captains of 100. (0:19:00.0)And he led the captains while the captains led everybody else. Otherwise Moses would have flamed out in the middle of the desert. The fine, fine art of delegation.
By the way, Acts 6 is the place where we often say these were the first deacons in the church. These seven men whom the apostles raised up, trained, equipped and appointed a task- the daily distribution, to tweak that—these were the first seven deacons. Why? Because the word diakonos in some form appears three times in these seven verses. And we often point to these as the first deacons. It’s not until later in the New Testament, 1 Timothy 3, where the apostle Paul writes and lays out specific instructions and qualifications for at least two offices in the (0:20:00.1) church- the pastor/elder and the deacons and the qualifications that go with that. But here we have an example of delegating to a group of men here who can take on the task. I’ve always said the question is not, was the pastor there or the pastors there in solving some problem? The question is, did the church respond? Did the church respond? If you always want the pastor to be there or one of the pastors, then we need to keep this to about 150 people. But once the ministry grows larger, we equip the saints. And the bigger question is, did the church respond to a particular need, not one particular person? And that’s just an organizational thing and an administrative thing and a leadership thing that a lot of smaller churches have to grow through to even get to size of the church that we are.
So we have identification. We have clarification and delegation. Then comes qualifications. Back to verse 3, “Therefore pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” Here is the beginning of the qualifications of leadership. There are at least three that they mention here. These need to be people—and men, in this case—who had a good reputation in the community and a good reputation amongst the rest of the brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. They also need to be men who are full of the Holy Spirit. They have demonstrated they understand the spiritual life and how to walk by the Spirit and live by the Spirit and be full of the Spirit so they can make Spirit-filled decisions. And they need to be men of wisdom, people who have demonstrated a certain life skill to not just have knowledge, but to apply knowledge and, yes, even biblical knowledge to certain situations in a wise sort of way. It’s the beginning of what is later flushed out in the New Testament in terms of the qualifications of a leader.
And I would just encourage all of us, as we do in this church, to pause and make sure we don’t hopscotch over the qualifications when we put a leader in place. You ought to see the application that we send to prospective elders and deacons. The vetting process. It’s about six pages they have to fill out when they’re nominated from you, the church family. They go through a vetting process to make sure that they qualify, you know, they meet the qualifications of a deacon or the qualifications of a leader. And we’re not looking for perfection. We’re looking for direction in a person’s life. Do they meet the qualifications?
Even if you're a business person, don’t skip over it. Don’t be in so much of a hurry to hire somebody or put somebody in a position that you don’t take the time to, you know, look at their qualifications. Because a bad hire, well, down the road will be worse than just taking the time to hire the right person or put the right leader in place in a volunteer organization. And the apostles did that. They set the tone for that. They delegated the responsibility. And they said to the church family, “You come up with seven men that meet these qualifications and bring them to us. Because the church is going to respond here to this very legitimate need, this complaint that you brought to us. And we’ve got to get the right leaders in place.” I learned a long time ago, everything rises and falls on leadership and having the right leaders in the right place at the right time. And if you rush that process too much, oh, the ripple effect of that can be devastating. The wrong hire in a business can cost you momentum in the marketplace and cost you tens of thousands of dollars because you didn’t have the right person in place. Some of you business leaders understand that.
Step number five is what I call installation. I could also call it affirmation, because we read on in verse 4, “And what they said pleased the whole gathering.” Let me just pause right there and just say this. Three cheers for the early church. Here there was a problem, a complaint that didn’t have a solution attached to it. It was just a complaint. And the apostles get after it. They bring everybody together. And the solution pleased everybody. They came together in unity as a body of believers. “And they chose,”—and here is the list of men—“Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.”
This is the installation of leaders. They prayed over them. They laid hands on them. We do that with our deacons, with our elders. We have a process of affirmation. We also have a process of ordination. Just recently we ordained into the ministry two men, two men on our staff and in our leadership pool that went through the ordination process. And they came before an ordination council that grilled them on their theology and all of that. And we had a celebration last Sunday night during vision night about the ordination of two men. But along with that, the affirmation of deacons and the elders. In the business world we call this the onboarding process. It’s one thing to hire a leader who is qualified to bring him onto your team in terms of the marketplace or the military, even the ministry. How you onboard them needs to be well thought through as well. How you introduce them to the organization and position their roles and responsibilities. And we see a model of this in the early church.
By the way, these seven people, interesting names here. Stephen, who was the first mentioned, is going to take center stage in the story starting in verse 8 of chapter 6 and all the way through chapter 7. Stephen becomes the first martyr in the church. Philip, we read about his ministry as time goes on in the book of Acts. And he has a great ministry in different places as he is sent out. The rest of the names, we never hear from them again. And that’s all right. We assume that they faithfully served behind the scenes. They weren’t looking for the spotlight. They weren’t saying, “Hey, look at me.” They were doing what, in this case, deacons do. They serve the body of Christ, and they bring a servant’s heart and servant leadership to the organization. And that’s all part of the installation and affirmation.
Step six, I would say, is implementation. How do you put…now that you have the leaders in place, how do you put the plan in place to address the problem? And we don’t have specifics on what happened here. But we can only assume that now there was an implementation plan to get after the neglect in the daily distribution.
And then step number seven I call multiplication. This gets to the effect, the positive effect. Look at it in verse 7. “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Now, this is one of those summary statements that we often come across in the book of Acts. I think of Acts 2:47, “And the Lord was adding to their number daily those who were being saved.” And statements like that are all throughout the book of Acts, sort of a summary statement of what was happening in the early church.
In this case, I see three things that were happening. Number one, it says “the word of God continued to increase.” That’s an interesting way to phrase it. Because up to this point, what we’ve been hearing is the number of disciples were added or increasing. But here Luke says “the word of God was increasing.” Because at the center of this problem and discussion in how to solve the problem was the priority of prayer and the preaching of God’s Word. And the apostles put first things first in terms of their role and their responsibility and how important it was that the ministry to the Word of God went forth efficiently and effectively. And the proclamation of God’s Word was center stage.
And Luke says the Word of God increased, that word that Jesus compared to a seed. Remember the story about…the parable of the soils and the farmer that went out and scattered his seed? And Jesus compares the Word of God to a seed. And what was happening here was nothing interrupted, nothing got in the way of the proclamation of the Word of God. And the seed continued to go out, and it landed on fertile soil. And it took root, and it grew up to harvest of spiritual fruit in people’s lives. That’s how I understand that. And that’s always a good thing.
And then it says, “The number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.” There is a math shift here. We’ve gone now from addition—“The Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved,” Acts 2—now to multiplication. Wow, I mean, they are getting after it in a way that you can’t even count here. You’ve got to go after it with a different math angle. And here we are 2000 years later. We’ve gone from addition to multiplication to, I don’t know, some measure of calculus. This is a worldwide enterprise where still the church of Jesus Christ is making disciples of Jesus Christ who go and make disciples. And we’re a part of that today, and that’s exciting.
And then the third thing that happened, “A great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” This is an indication of something new and fresh that God was doing. Scholars believed that there were as many as 8,000 priests that served in the temple in Jerusalem on a regular basis. And if you remember, the early church met over here in a place called Solomon’s portico. It was a section of the temple that they had found a place to gather as the early church. They probably outgrew that at some point and were spilling over into other aspects of the temple. But as they gathered as the church in the temple and during the week from house to house…remember that pattern from Acts 2? As they gathered in the temple there were some priests that took note of what was going on. Priests who were still caught in the legalism of Pharisee-ism and all of Judaism that had gone off in the wrong direction. And look what God is doing. He is reaching into that group of people.
You know, God loves to do new things, doesn’t He? Don’t get too settled into this world. Because as I read the Bible and the last book of the Bible, there is coming a new heaven, a new earth and a new holy city Jerusalem. God loves to do new things. “Behold, I am doing something new,” He says in the Old Testament. 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If any man is in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things are passed away; all things are becoming new.” You’re not an improved version of yourself. You’re a brand new creation in Christ. And God loves to do new things. And then problems arise in the church, when a complaint comes, if handled properly, it’s an opportunity for God to show up and do something new and to expand the gospel.
Now, to the comment that I made at the beginning of the message where I said I would tell you why it is so, so critical to get this right in the church…it’s critical to get it right in your business. Don’t miss me here. Because if this gets messed up, it could mean a loss of momentum in the marketplace, a loss of money, loss of…all that kind of stuff. But here is the reason why it is so critical to get it right in the church. For the sake of the gospel. For the sake of the gospel. Before you bring a complaint, before you raise an issue or a problem, first of all, have a solution. And just remember that whatever you drop in to the discussion there will either have a positive or negative effect on the gospel, the advancement of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
My son is an intern at a church in Chicago this summer. He is heading into the ministry. He is at a tiny little church of seven campuses and 15,000 people in the Chicago area. He’s one of 75 interns at that church, summer interns. And he called me up and, after two days of orientation, he says, “Dad, this is ministry on steroids.” And he says, “The culture here is so defined.” I said, “What do you mean by that?” He says, “Well, here is what they told us on the first day. They said, ‘We expect perfection. We settle for excellence because we do this for the sake of the gospel.’” Wow. And that’s bled through the entire staff, interns, even down to lay leaders. We expect perfect, but we settle for excellence because we do this for the gospel.
Oh, friends, I hope we have a high and holy expectation of ourselves, that what we do as a church either positively advances the gospel or it doesn’t. We’re never going to achieve perfect. We won’t have perfect leaders. Direction, not perfection, right? But when problems arise, when complaints come, we can learn something from the early apostles that handled it well. And look at the results in verse 7, the multiplication of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The church didn’t skip a beat here. It kept on growing. And here we are 2000 years later. Thank God for how the apostles handled it. Not perfect men, but men who were full of the Holy Spirit and men who thought this through. Men who put first things first in terms of their own roles and responsibilities, raised up leaders to handle a legitimate issue, delegated authority to them, implemented it. I mean, job well done. Job well done. And we applaud them for a job well done. But let’s go and do likewise. Amen? For the sake of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The First Martyr
By Dr. Ron Jones
Well, the Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is a Christian classic. I have a copy of the book in my library, and maybe you do as well. Maybe you have heard of the book. It recounts the lives, the sufferings and even the triumphant deaths of Christian martyrs down through the ages. And it traces the roots of what we would call religious persecution. The author is a guy by the name of John Foxe. He was a 16th century reformer. And he himself was forced to flee the persecution of Queen Mary as she set out to silence people during the Protestant Reformation who had a different theological thought or a different theological idea. Foxe carefully compiled the stories of many martyrs who lost their lives for the sake of Christ during that time in church history. Names like John Wycliffe and John Huss, William Tyndale. Martin Luther was on the receiving end of religious and theological persecution. Thomas Cranmer and many, many others.
A guy named Tertullian, who lived many centuries before the Protestant Reformation is the one who is noted for saying, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And it is. Blood is all over the Bible from the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament that prefigured the coming of Christ to the blood of Jesus from the cross. And then as the early church is getting started in Acts 6 and Acts 7 we have the first drop of blood from the first martyr in the church. Some people say Jesus was the first martyr. I don’t like to put Him in that category. He wasn’t a martyr. He willingly went to the cross. Let’s not forget that. Nobody nailed Him there. Physically, yes, but that was all part of the Father’s plan. So let’s not put Him in the category of a martyr. But Stephen died for his faith in Jesus Christ. And we’ll talk more about that in just a moment here.
In Acts 6 and 7 Stephen takes center stage. And Stephen is one of the seven deacons that are mentioned in verses 1-7. But before we get to his story, what happened to Stephen is a sobering reminder of some words that Jesus spoke to His disciples on the night before He was crucified where He was in the upper room with them. And He was having a very intimate conversation with them. And in John 15:18 Jesus says to His disciples, “Listen, guys, if the world hates you, just remember that they hated Me before they hated you.” Pretty sobering thought there. He goes on a little bit further in chapter 16 and verse 2. And He says, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Now, put yourself in the place of the apostles and the disciples there. You know, you might be thinking to yourself, as I would, what have I gotten myself into here? And we went from this enterprise about the Messiah. And we thought He was going to overthrow Rome and all of that. Now You’re talking about the world hating us and the world kicking us out of the synagogues and the world killing us because we’re one of Your followers? Well, keep that in mind as we go to Acts 6 and 7, because this is the sobering story that reminds us of what Jesus told His disciples back then.
Let’s pick it up in verse 8 of Acts 6. It says, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.’ And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”
Well, again, Stephen is one of the seven deacons that were mentioned in Acts 6:1-7. He was among the men who were tasked with the responsibility of overseeing the daily distribution of food to the widows and making sure that the Greek-speaking Jewish widows were included in that. You remember that from our last discussion. And Stephen, you know, gave himself fully to that ministry. But his ministry was larger than that. In fact, verse 8 tells us that, full of grace and power, Stephen was doing great wonders and signs among the people. This is the first time in the book of Acts that anybody outside of the 12 apostles were performing signs and wonders and miracles. Later we’ll find that Philip was given that divine enablement as well. And as he went out into Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts, Philip performed signs and wonders, too. But Stephen ministry was larger than the daily distribution, and God gave him the ability to perform signs and wonders to confirm the message that he carried with him about Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead. And as Stephen went around, he would visit the synagogues. Some scholars believe there were as many as 8,000 synagogues in the area at that time. And one of them was a synagogue called the Synagogue of the Freedmen. We believe that these are probably people who were in slavery in Rome at some point and somehow achieved their freedom. They made their way to Jerusalem. They found themselves with a common experience, and they decided to form a faith community and to start a synagogue. And these were kind of the Libertines, the Freedmen. And Stephen would show up there.
Now, it was common in a synagogue that it was often a small community center as well as a gathering place for followers of faith. The synagogue was kind of in a U shape, and people would sit along the edges. And during their worship service and their worship time anybody could really stand up and say a word from God. And so Stephen would arrive at this particular synagogue, and he would stand up and testify to the risen Christ. And he was so powerful in his grace and delivery that it says here, “They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” They didn’t agree with him. In fact, they didn’t like what he was saying. But they couldn’t win the argument either. And it’s not to say that Stephen was argumentative. No, he was full of grace, the scripture says. He was able to make the argument for the risen Christ in a gracious kind of way and in a way that nobody could dispute.
So what do you do when you’ve kind of lost the argument and you don’t know what to do? Well, bring on the false witnesses. And that’s exactly what they did. They disputed with Stephen. And they said, “If we can’t beat him in the argument, then we’re just going to fling a bunch of stuff at him and destroy his credibility.” And so the scripture says that they instigated men to bring false witnesses and false accusations against Stephen. Some of those false accusations accused him of blasphemy. Other accusations accused him of speaking out against “this holy place,” which was probably a reference to the temple, which the Jewish people revered in a very, very pious kind of way. And that he spoke out against the Law of Moses. I mean, I just read all these accusations. And Stephen is on the receiving end of this vicious attack, this vicious, false accusation. They’re coming after him. And it sounds a lot like how they came after Jesus, doesn’t it? I mean, they brought on the false witnesses. They accused him of blasphemy. They even accused Jesus of saying He was going to tear down this temple and rebuild it three…you know, that kind of thing. They bring a similar accusation against Stephen for speaking such blasphemous words.
It says in verse 15, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face as like the face of an angel.” I mean, here is Stephen on the receiving end of all this. And he is arguing his point for the risen Christ. And his face is shining like an angel. They had just accused him of speaking against Moses. But wasn’t it Moses who, when he came down from Mount Sinai after having been in the presence of God, didn’t Moses’s face shine with the shekinah glory? He had to veil his face his face was shining so much. So how ironic that they’re accusing Stephen of speaking against the Law of Moses, but his face shined just like Moses’s did. And don’t think that they didn’t make that connection somehow.
Chapter 7, Stephen is now before the council, this austere prideful group of spiritual leaders who are now going to interrogate him. And as was the custom and as was their law, Stephen had an opportunity to stand up and make his case. And he does that beginning in chapter 7 all the way through about verse 53. And I won’t take the time to read it all. I encourage you to do that because it’s a fascinating review of Israel’s history, but it’s also a damning indictment of the national sins of Israel. And you would think that Stephen knows exactly where these men are going. They’ve brought him before the council. They’ve accused him just like they accused Jesus. They brought the false witnesses just like they did to Jesus. He knows what their end game is. And you would think that Stephen would take an approach that says I’m sorry and apologizes a little bit just for the sake of self-preservation. But he doesn't do that. And I’m not suggesting that he was antagonistic. I’m not suggesting that his tone was anything other than gracious because, well, the scripture says he was full of grace and the power of the Holy Spirit. But sometimes the truth hurts, doesn’t it. Sometimes the truth stings. He uses this opportunity not to preserve himself and his life, but to call the spiritual leaders into account by naming their national sins.
Let me give you some highlights here. In verses 1-8 of chapter 7, he lands upon their spiritual pride. Their pride as a result of being connected to this guy named Abraham. And he goes all the way back in history, and he talks about Abraham. “Brothers and fathers,” verse 2, “hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’” And he tells this story of father Abraham who was settling into his retirement there in the Ur of Chaldees, which is modern day Iraq. Abraham was a pagan worshipper, and God called him out of that pagan environment to follow Him. He said, “I’m going to make a nation of you, Abraham.” Abraham and Sarah were old, beyond the child-bearing years. And it took faith to believe that. It took faith to leave the comforts of their retirement and to go to a land that, well, the Lord would tell him when they showed up. It’s kind of like, “You jump, and on the way up I’ll tell you how high,” kind of thing. And Abraham sets out in faith. And Stephen talks about the covenant that God made with him and the promised child. He mentions the patriarchs- Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and then Joseph. But all of this is to point a finger of blame and to say, “You are so full of spiritual pride, you’re more interested in your physical heritage to Abraham than a personal faith.”
And then he goes from that spiritual pride to a jealousy and a rejection of the leaders that God had sent them in the Old Testament. He says in verse 9, “And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh.” He tells them the story of Joseph. And you remember Joseph was one of 12 of Jacob’s son, and he was kind of Jacob’s favorite. And all of Joseph’s brothers grew jealous of Joseph, and they sold him into slavery to that Midianite caravan that took him to Egypt. And Joseph was rejected by his own brothers. He was sold into slavery. Then he as falsely accused of sexual harassment in Potiphar’s house with Potiphar’s wife. He’s thrown into prison. Ah, but what man meant for evil, God meant for good, right? That’s the story of Joseph. And God resurrected him out of the prison and out of the pit. Joseph becomes second in command, a prime minister of Egypt second only to Pharaoh. And God gives Joseph a dream about seven years of famine that are coming. And he wisely stores up seven years’ worth of grain so that when the famine comes, the world literally comes to Joseph’s feet for food, including his own brothers and his father Jacob. The whole point is that Joseph was rejected. He was a rejected deliverer.
And he goes from Joseph then to Moses, who was also rejected by his own people. Verse 35, “This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush.” And Stephen is just kind of, you know, with grace and with great power in the Holy Spirit, naming the national sins of Israel, “your spiritual pride, your jealousy. You rejected every leader God sent to you. You killed the prophets. And, oh, by the way, you killed Jesus, the Son of God,” is the implication here.
He doesn’t stop there. He goes on to talk about their disobedience and their spiritual debauchery. He goes from Moses into the story about the golden calf. Remember when Moses was up on Mount Sinai? And he gets the Ten Commandments, and he’s coming down the hill. His face is shining with the glory of God, but he hears something down below. A party going on. And it’s all these people who grew weary of waiting for Moses because he’s been up there for 40 days. You’ve got to be kidding me. And they throw together all their gold, and they build a golden calf. Moses’s brother Aaron participates in it all. He gives credence to it all. And Moses walks into this debased, pagan worship. He takes the Ten Commandments, the tablets, and dashes them against the rock in anger. And Stephen reminds them of this story as an indication of just their pagan disobedience.
He goes on in verses 44-50 to talk about the temple that started as the tabernacle under Moses in the Old Testament, and then later under Solomon became the temple. And the temple was destroyed, and a second temple was built under Zerubbabel. His whole point in this is to say, “You’ve turned the temple of God into an idol and have missed the whole understanding that now we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. God doesn’t dwell in buildings, but He dwells in our hearts.”
And then finally in verses 51-53 he just pours kerosene on this by telling them how they continually resist the Holy Spirit. Verse 51, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.” Phew, that is a lot to digest. And you would hope that as Stephen delivered this defense that it would bring the religious leaders to a point of repentance, a conviction in their spirit that as they hear this very well-articulated review of their spiritual history and their national sins, that they would say, “You know, you are absolutely right.” And they would fall down on their face before God. But they didn’t.
Read on verse 54. “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he (0:19:00.1) said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” What a scene. The first drop of blood from the first martyr in the church.
A lot of things happening in those verses that I just read. As Stephen was done with his defense (0:20:00.1) and the anger, just the seething anger comes at him and they rush at him, he gazes up into heaven and he sees the heavens open. God gives him a vision. And he sees the risen Christ standing at the right hand of the Father. And he says, “Look, look at what I see.” He verbalizes that. It makes them even more made. But do you remember what Jesus said to Pilate? You know, “There will be a day when the Son of Man will come and the Son of Man will be standing at the right hand of the Father.” Stephen gets a glimpse of that.
His words are not full of bitterness toward these people. I mean, here is a man who was full of grace and the Holy Spirit. And on the receiving end of this seething bitterness and anger and this…just all this stuff coming at him, he had the presence of mind and really the presence of the Holy Spirit to say words very much like Jesus said when He was nailed on the cross. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He knew it was the end. And he even had the wherewithal to say, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Wow, what a moment there. You want to know what it looks like when somebody is fully submitted to the Holy Spirit and He’s all in with God? Here is how you respond in a moment like that.
The Bible tells us that those who were throwing stones at him, some of them came up and said, “Hey, I need to take off my jacket so I can throw a little bit harder.” And they laid their coats at the feet of a guy named Saul, who later became the apostle Paul. But before Paul became Paul, he was a 1st century terrorist. He was the Osama Bin Laden of his day. He was carrying around orders from the religious leaders and from Rome to persecute and kill Christians. And the Bible says in chapter 8 and verse 1 that Saul approved of Stephen’s execution. A little bit later when Paul comes to faith in Christ…or rather Saul comes to faith in Christ on the road to Damascus…and we read through the rest of book of Acts the great travel journeys and missionary journeys of the apostle Paul, he never forgot this incident. He never forgot the hardness of his own human heart that would approve the execution of a man like Stephen.
One Bible teachers and commentator says these words as it relates to Stephen’s stoning. “You wonder what kind of world we live in when good and godly men like Stephen can be murdered by religious bigots. But we have similar problems in our enlightened age today. Taking hostages, bombings that kill or maim innocent people, assassinations, all in the name of politics or religion. The heart of man has not changes, nor can it be changed apart from the grace of God.” And that’s an important thing to remember as we look at Stephen’s life and his death.
Well, what are some lessons that we can learn from Stephen and lessons that we can learn from church history? Lessons from the martyrs, I call them. I’ve got three of them that I want to share with us this morning. Number one is expect persecution. As followers of Jesus, expect persecution.
Hold your place here in Acts 6 and 7, and go with me to 1 Peter 4. And the apostle Peter, as he is writing to brothers and sisters in Christ who are following hard after Jesus in the 1st century but doing so at great cost, he talks about the sufferings of Christ. And he says these words in verse 12. “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you as though something strange were happening to you.” Do you think it’s strange that the world hates you or hates us because we name the name of Jesus? Jesus told His disciples, “If the world hates you, just remember, they hated me before they hated you. And the point is they really don’t hate you. They hate Me. And they hate you because you're a follower of Mine.” That’s not going to change. Don’t ever think that if you just say it a little kinder or you do this or you…that the world is going to applaud us because we are followers of Jesus. No, everything in the world that is anti-Christ hates Jesus. Just despises Him. And you as a follower of Jesus and I as a follower of Jesus, sometimes we’re on the receiving end of that. It’s called persecution. It’s called a fiery trial that is sent to test us. And Peter just says don’t think that’s a strange thing that is happening. We’re in enemy territory. Do you know that? This world is not our home. We are citizens of heaven. We have dual citizenship. We are citizens of this earth and citizens of this country, but our citizenship is in heaven. We are behind enemy lines on the front lines of spiritual warfare. And the enemy is after us- the world, the flesh, and the devil. So don’t think it’s strange, but expect persecution. Expect persecution. We may never receive the kind of persecution that threatens our very life, that brings a drop of blood from us like Stephen or other martyrs in church history, but there are other things that we may end up sacrificing because we are followers of Jesus. I just say expect persecution.
Number two, glory in the sufferings of Christ. Let’s read on in 1 Peter 4. Verse 13 he says, “But rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.” Now, if you and I were writing a sentence, we wouldn’t put words like “rejoice” and “be glad” in the same sentence where you find the word “sufferings.” That just doesn’t seem to go together, does it? But Peter does that. There is a glory in the sufferings of Jesus Christ. It reminds me of what the apostle Paul said in his letter to the Philippians when he said, “I want to know Christ.” Paul had such a passion to know Christ, to know Him intimately, to know Him deeply, to know Him better and better every day. And he says, “I want to know him in the power of his resurrection.” Amen, right? We all want to know that. We all want to know the power of the resurrected Christ in our life.
And then he goes on to say something that I wish he didn’t say. “And to know him in the fellowship of his sufferings.” What does he mean by that? What does Peter mean by glorying in the sufferings of Christ? I don’t want to suffer. Do you want to suffer? Of course not. We don’t want to sign up for that. But Paul says there is a fellowship. There is an intimacy, an intimacy with Jesus when we suffer in some way like Him. It may not be a drop of blood that falls. Maybe it’s mistreatment, misunderstanding, false accusation, and the list goes on and on and on. Being pushed out of a friend group. Maybe not getting the job and the promotion that you would like to get. Why? Because you're a follower of Jesus. And nobody may ever say it that way, but, you know, you’re kind of like Rudolph with his big red nose, saying, “I’m a Jesus follower.” And you don’t get invited to all the reindeer games. You’re an outcast because you’re a follower of Jesus.
Again, it may never come to the point where we live where we must give our very lives for Christ. But make no mistake about it, the persecuted church of the 21st century, oh my, friends. Some people estimate that there are more Christians around the globe that are losing their lives for the cause of Christ on the receiving end of religious persecution than ever before. And we’ve seen some of the heads of our brothers and sisters in Christ being lopped off all because they called themselves Christians. Peter would say, Paul would say there is a glory in that. There is a fellowship in that. Just like somebody who has been through cancer has a spcial intimacy with somebody who is now going through it can say, “I’ve been there before.” Or in a military sense, it’s a foxhole experience. “You know, we served in this battle together. We were in the foxhole together, and we are brothers and sisters for life, this troop.” And so it is when we experience some of the mistreatment and some of the sufferings of Jesus Christ. It’s as though Jesus says, “I know exactly how you feel. I’ve been there. Come in a little bit closer. Let’s talk about this.” There is an intimacy that we share with Him.
So glory in the sufferings of Christ and desire to know Him, even, in the fellowships of His sufferings. Don’t despise sufferings for the cause of Christ. Now, if you suffer because you're a jerk for Jesus, okay, you bring it on yourself. And Peter mentions that in 1 Peter 4. He’s not talking about being a jerk for Jesus or something else. But just for saying, “I’m a follower of Jesus and here’s why,” and being able to speak the truth to power and in uncomfortable situations, but doing it with grace and in the power of the Holy Spirit, it may cost us something. And if it does, glory in that, because you get to share in an intimacy with Jesus that maybe you’ve never been able to share before.
And then finally, number three, offer yourself to God as a living sacrifice. Now I’m in Romans 12, and let’s just stop off there real briefly. Romans 12:1, Paul says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” What’s he talking about here? Well, again, not all of us are ever going to experience the loss of life or be called to be a martyr, a drop of blood that falls from us because we are followers of Jesus. Maybe that will never happen to us. But we are called to, according to Romans 12:1, is to be living sacrifices and to offer ourselves up to Him. To say, “Lord, here I am. Here is the totality of my being and even my body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Use me in any way You can to advance the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, even if it means a drop of blood from my body. But even if it doesn't, I offer myself to You as a living sacrifice. I’m all in, God. I’m all in.”
The problem is most of us play the Christian hokey pokey. We put our right foot in and pull our left foot out. Put our left foot in. We shake it all about. But we’ve always got one foot in and one foot out, don’t we? We’re always kind of hedging our bet a little bit. “No, I don’t want to speak too loudly about Jesus. It might cost me something out there.” And God is looking for people who are all in, living sacrifices, and saying, “Lord, this is the way I worship You today. I call You my Lord and my Savior from the top of my head to the bottom of my feet to the tip of my fingers and toes. I’m all in, a living sacrifice. Use me to advance the cause of Christ and to advance the gospel in this generation.”
Stephen did that. Stephen never hedged his bet. And you know what happened? This is great. Let me just give you a glimpse into chapter 8. It says, “And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Up until chapter 8, the early church was a Jewish thing and a Jerusalem thing. And it exploded in growth. But what happened was they kind of got comfortable in Jerusalem. They kind of got comfortable in their faith and comfortable in their meeting in the temple and house to house and in their padded pews and all of that. And they forgot that Jesus said to go make disciples of all nations and that He gave them the strategy- first in Jerusalem, and then Judea, and then Samaria, and then the uttermost parts of the earth. They kind of forgot the latter part of that. And as they grew comfortable where they were, the early church threatened to just stop in Jerusalem.
So what did God do? He turned up the heat. It was persecution that came to the church, scattered everybody into Jerusalem and Judea and the uttermost parts. He says the apostles stayed back in Jerusalem, but everyone else, scared for their life, scattered to the four corners. And that’s how the gospel grew.
You and I wouldn’t even be here today if the persecution hadn’t come. And I wonder today…you know, we get a little bit nervous about the hostility against the Christian faith growing in our culture today. But you know what it does? It draws a line in the sand as to those who are true believers and are not. Some people say, well, you know, church attendance is going down across America today. No, I think what’s happening is the people who are just really not on board are drifting away. And it’s becoming more and more popular to say, “I don’t have any faith affiliation.” And even those who are closet atheists and agnostics are becoming loud and proud about it. And when the persecution comes, what you're left with are those who are all in. And they’ve been all in from the beginning. And what happens is the church grows. And it expands. It’s persecution that made that happen.
So my question for us today is this. What are we willing to sacrifice for the cause of Christ? What are we willing to sacrifice to advance the cause of the gospel? Are you all in? Or are you doing the Christian hokey pokey with one foot in and one foot out, hedging your bet and saying, “I’m not quite sure about all this”? Today is the day to just…both feet in and your entire body. And just say, “Lord, here I am as a living sacrifice. I’m not a citizen of this earth. I’m a citizen of heaven. I’m yours. I have decided to follow Jesus. I made that decision a long time ago, and there is no turning back. There is no turning back. Today is the day when I say again I will worship You as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. I am Yours, oh Lord. Just do with me as You will, and I’ll leave the results to You.” Amen?
Overcoming the Powers of Darkness
By Dr. Ron Jones
Well, when we travel to Israel, one of the places that we go is in the northern part of the country in the northern Galilee region. It’s called Caesarea Philippi. We go there for a number of reasons, but primarily because that’s the place in Mark 16 that Jesus took His disciples to and made the first mention of this thing called the church. The first time the church is ever mentioned in the Bible is in Matthew 16. And Jesus and His disciples were there in Caesarea Philippi. Now, Caesarea Philippi was known as a pagan worship site. And the place where we go and the rock formations there, we walk around and we just imagine the darkness of the place, spiritually speaking. Pagan worship back then often devolved into gross immorality and even child sacrifice. It was a very spiritually dark place. And it makes you kind of wonder why did Jesus take His disciples there to introduce to them the ecclesia, the called-out ones or the church. It was there that Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” And they said, “Well, some people think You’re Elijah the prophet or Jeremiah or just a good guy and a great prophet.” And then He turned the question on them, and He says, “Well, who do you say that I am?” And this is where Peter gets an A+. He said the right thing that day. Mr. “Open Mouth and Insert Foot” Peter, he had the right answer. He says, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus affirms Peter. And He says, “Peter, you're exactly right. And upon this rock, the rock of your confession,” He says, “I will build my church, my ecclesia.” First time they had ever heard that word. “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
Many people believed that Caesarea Philippi and this pagan worship site and the gross immorality and the child sacrifice and all that went on there, they thought they were standing before the gates of hell itself. And I believe Jesus brought the disciples there to cast the vision for this thing called the church that began in Acts 2 to remind them that you’re going against the powers of darkness. That the church would be a shining light in the midst of a spiritually dark world where the powers of darkness will come against you. Later in the New Testament the apostle Paul in Ephesians 6 says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world.” And it’s the 5th or 6th time in the book of Ephesians that he mentions the heavenly realms, that invisible world. Invisible to the naked eye, but it is as real as the person sitting next to you. We don’t wrestle against flesh and blood but against the powers of darkness in the heavenly realms. And Jesus takes them to this place…it was known for being a spiritually dark place…I believe to remind them that when this thing called the church happens and when you guys leave this thing called the church, just remember, this isn’t a Carnival cruise ship you're on. It’s a battle ship. You’re on the front lines of spiritual warfare as the powers of darkness come against us.
Well, that’s the backdrop in my mind as we come to Acts 8, where the powers of darkness raise up against the church. You may remember last time we were in Acts 6 and 7. And that’s the story of Stephen, the first martyr. The first sign of persecution that comes to the early church. The first drop of blood that falls aside from the blood that shed from Calvary and from the Lord Jesus Christ. The first drop of a martyr’s blood was from a guy named Stephen. And we’re inspired by the stand that Stephen took in Acts 7 as he made his defense and took those leaders on a journey through the sins of the nation. And they picked up their stones and executed him.
And Acts 8 the gospel begins spreading beyond Jerusalem. And the powers of darkness emerge there. In Acts 8, the persecution instensifies. And we said last time that this was part of God’s plan altogether. In Acts 1:8 He says, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts.” But up until this time, they just were kind of hanging out comfortably in Jerusalem. And things were going great, and the church was exploding in growth. And who wouldn’t want to just hang out in Jerusalem, the holy city of Jerusalem, that beautiful city. But they had grown comfortable. And the execution of Stephen turned up the heat, such that everybody scattered, all except the apostles. Everybody scattered in fear, and they went out into the regions of Judea and Samaria, and even to the uttermost parts of the earth. So a shift takes place in Acts 8. And the mission expands to the next concentric circles that Jesus gave to His disciples in Acts 1:8.
And I say the gospel spreads beyond Jerusalem as the powers of darkness emerge in three ways. Number one, a guy named Saul ravages the church. Let’s pick it up in chapter 8 and verse 1. “And Saul approved of his execution.” Whose execution? Well, Stephen. There was a guy named Saul. I call him Saul the terrorist because that’s exactly what he was in the 1st century- a 1st century terrorist who invoked terror and brought terror to the hearts of Christians, pulling them out of their homes and taking them off to prison. Saul was the one who heartily approved of Stephen’s execution and stood there on the side and said, “Hey, I’ll hold your coats over here while you take off your cloak so you can get a better throw of the stone toward Stephen.” That was Saul. A Pharisee of Pharisees. Educated at the feet of Gamaliel. He was well on his way to becoming one of the great Pharisaical leaders in Judaism.
It goes on to say, “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Can you imagine? Saul was ravaging the church. The word “ravaging” there in the original language pictures a wild beast tearing apart his prey. This was later the apostle Paul. But before he became the apostle Paul, he was Saul the terrorist, heck bent on destroying the church of Jesus Christ. And I’m getting ahead in the story here, but in Acts 9 this Saul, while he’s on his way to Damascus, meets the risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he is gloriously transformed, and we know him as the apostle Paul. The apostle of grace, we call him.
Turn with me to 1 Timothy 1:12-13. And this little confession by Paul or testimony by Paul, the apostle now, reminds me that he never forgot the man that he once was, this violent terrorist. He says to Timothy, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has strengthened me because he considered me faithful, putting me into service. Even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor, yet I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.” We know Paul the apostle as the apostle of grace I think, in part, because sometimes our appreciation of grace of God is in direction proportion to what we know to be true about ourselves before we met Christ. And Saul the terrorist was a dark, dark figure. So much so that a lot of people in the early church just didn’t buy into the fact that, you know…this is Saul. I mean, he had come to Christ? Imagine if I said, “Hey, next week Osama Bin Laden will be here as our guest speaker. He became a Christian last month.” You’d go, “I ain’t coming there. There is no way we’re going to take that kind of risk.” And that’s the way they responded. It took years for some of them to accept that Saul the terrorist had really been transformed by Jesus Christ. And Saul never forgot who he was. Oh, he rested in the grace of God and in the mercy of God, but he says, “I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent aggressor.”
How would you fill in the blanks there? How has God gloriously transformed you by His grace? What would you say “I formerly was…”? Have you seen the darkness in your own heart? I don’t believe you can ever really truly be born again and receive the good news of Jesus Christ until you’ve received the bad news about yourself. That all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. That the human heart is sick and desperately wicked, the Bible says. Who can understand that? Saul lived with that every day. It was so stark, the contrast between the light of Jesus Christ and the gospel that came into his heart and the dark, dark person he was before. But it’s true of all of us, the stain of sin and the darkness of sin on the human heart.
So darkness emerged in that way with Saul. Darkness emerged in a second way as a guy named Philip travels to Samaria. Now, you remember Philip? Philip was one of the seven deacons in Acts 6. We call them the first deacons that are nominated and put into service there. And Stephen was one of them. Philip is one of them. And, by the way, I literally laughed out loud when I was reading some of this at home. My wife was sitting there. And it just tickled me that here we are. Acts 6 we have seven deacons. By Acts 8 two of them are gone and one of them is dead. Oh my goodness, right? It just happens that quickly. Philip is gone. Philip is scattered now. He has left Jerusalem. And he has ended up in a place called Samaria. And now he is preaching the gospel. I give Philip credit. He didn’t go into hiding. He didn’t go into self-preservation mode. “Oh, I’m scared. I’ve got to be silent over here.” He goes into hiding…no. He just goes to Samaria, of all places. We’ll talk about that in a moment. But he is still preaching the Word of God. And as he preaches the Word of God, the darkness of hell just cries out.
Let’s read on beginning in verse 4. “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits,”—in other words, the demonic forces of darkness—“crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.” The demonic forces did not like what Philip was doing. They never do when you're faithful to the preaching and the teaching God’s Word. It stirs up the powers of darkness in a way that…just get ready. It’s going to come against you. And it did to Philip.
It’s interesting that Philip went to Samaria. Why is that so significant? Well, first of all, Jesus said, “You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and then Judea, and then Samaria, and then the uttermost parts of the earth.” You may have heard it sometime in your experience in the church that the Jews didn’t like the Samaritans. That’s kind of an understatement. They hated them. They despised them because Samaritans were kind of a mixture of ethnicities- half Jews and half Gentiles.
And it goes way back in Jewish history, back to the time of just after the reign of Solomon. And it was around that time that the kingdom of Israel split into two kingdoms- a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. The northern kingdom was made up of 10 of the 12 tribes. And the southern kingdom was made up of two of the 12 tribes, Judah and Benjamin. And the northern kingdom assumed the name Israel, and the southern kingdom took on the name Judah. And they existed as a divided nation for about 200 years. And in time the northern kingdom, oppressed by the Assyrians and kind of beat up by the Assyrians and others, began to intermarry with the Gentiles. And they formed this group known as the Samaritans. The Jews called them half breeds- half Jews, half Gentiles. And the racial tension and the racial animosity was enormous. And it was building up for more than two centuries.
On top of that, Solomon built the temple. It was destroyed in 586 B.C. when the Babylonians came in. After the 70 years of Babylonian rule, Zerubbabel comes in, and he rebuilds the walls and the temple. And a second temple is built. But the Samaritans never accepted the second temple of the first temple that was built in Jerusalem. And they built their own temple in a place called Mount Gerizim. And there was this racial tension and this tension over who had the real worship site. Was it the temple in Jerusalem? “No, no, no,” said the northern kingdom, “we have our temple on Mount Gerizim.” And this has been going on for years. Such that, at the time of Jesus, the racial tension and the racial divide was so stark that if a Jew wanted to go from here to here, they could go straight on through Samaria. But they wouldn’t do that. They would travel way, way around the nation and go way out of their way not to set foot into Samaria. So you can imagine when Jesus said to His disciples, “You will be my witnesses with the gospel in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria.” Are You kidding me? You want us to take this to the Samaritans? They called the Samaritans dogs. The racial tension was that big.
Persecution comes to the church, the comfortable church in Acts 8, and everything changes. And Philip, one of the deacons, goes to Samaria. Three cheers for Philip. And he preaches the gospel there. And all of the powers of darkness, the unclean spirits and the demonic forces wail and moan and cry out against him. People are freed from the bondage of demonism and all of that. And good things are happening. By the way, I wrote this down this week. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the antidote to racism. It was back then, and it still it today, friends. And in every generation racism rears its ugly head. Just remember, it’s the gospel of Jesus Christ that is antidote to that. It’s the answer to it. And we’ll never be free of that darkness in the human heart that compares and contrasts on the basis of ethnicity or skin color or something like that until the light of Jesus Christ chases that darkness away.
So Philip preaches in Samaria, and the demonic forces come out crying. Here is a third way that darkness emerged. We pick this up in verse 9. Simon the magician comes on the scene. This is a great story. This is the quirkiest story in the world, but a fun one to get after here. Let’s pick it up beginning in verse 9, “But there was a man named Simon,”—this is in Samaria—“who had previously practiced magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he himself was somebody great. They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they paid attention to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip. And seeing signs and great miracles performed, he was amazed.”
So Philip shows up in Samaria, and there is a guy there named Simon the magician. And Simon the magician was more than David Copperfield who had some tricks in his pockets and some illusions. In biblical times the magicians were a mix of tricksters and demonic forces at the same time. Think back in the Old Testament when Moses showed up in Pharaoh’s court and used his staff to perform certain signs and wonders before Pharaoh to convince him to let the Hebrew people go. Well, Pharaoh over here had his own set of magicians, and they weren’t just tricksters. (0:19:00.0) They were deeply embedded in the occult and in the demonic. Beware of a person like that, friends. Beware dabbling in the Ouija boards and the horoscopes and the psychics and the psychic hotlines and the tarot cards and all of that, and even in the magical arts that often times gets mixed in with the demonic.
I love a good magic trick and the sleight of hand and all of that, but Simon the magician was more than that. And Simon the magician had developed this following, almost this ministry in Samaria where everybody called him Simon the Great. There was no giving of glory to God in Simon’s ministry. There was no pointing of people to Jesus. He was Simon the magician, the trickster, and behind a lot of his tricks were the powers of darkness. Listen, this stuff is real. C.S. Lewis was the one who said, “We make two (0:20:00.1) mistakes with the devil and his demons. We give them too much attention, or we don’t give them enough attention.” Too much attention says there’s a demon behind every bush. Be careful with that. But for you to completely ignore the powers of darkness, oh, we do that to our peril. And Simon the magician was…he was the guy. He was the Great.
And Philip comes along, and he’s not developing a following of himself. He’s preaching the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and risen from the dead. And people were getting saved in Samaria. Getting saved out of the darkness of demonic forces and all of that, and the unclean spirits were crying bloody murder “that you would come here and preach this Jesus.” And the gospel was winning. Heaven was winning, and hell was losing. And Simon watches this, and he says, “Wow, I want some of that.” And Luke tells us in Acts, “Even Simon himself believed and was baptized.” And I think Luke meant every bit of that. But as you read the story on you wonder whether it was a genuine profession of faith. We’ll get to that in a moment. But Simon, before he believed…whatever that means…was a trickster. He was a phony.
I wrote this down this week. Phony ministers elevate themselves above the ministry. Always be careful of that, friends. That’s not to put down any leader that is out front or in the spotlight. That’s just part of leadership. But leaders in the church need always be pointing you…and I hope I always do a good job of that…pointing you to Jesus Christ. Don’t look at me. I’m as flawed as flawed can be, all right. I’m a sinner saved by grace just like you are. But phony ministers…and there are a lot of them even today. You don’t have to go back 2000 years ago. You just look around. Phony ministers always elevate themselves above the ministry, and that was Simon. Simon the Great, you know. And it’s just a little word of warning there.
So three aspects of the powers of darkness emerge. What do we learn from all of this even as we unpack the story even further? Let me share some what I call lessons from the dark side here. Number one, keep speaking the truth in the power of the Holy Spirit. How do you overcome the powers of darkness? Well, you speak the truth. You speak the truth in love. You speak the truth in the power of the Holy Spirit. This is exactly what Philip did and what the apostle did.
Look at Acts 8:4. “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Never underestimate the power of the Word of God and the power of truth. We speak the truth in love. We don’t want to become a stumbling block to other people and the way we deliver the truth. But we speak the truth. And we’re not afraid to speak the truth to power, right? We learn that from the apostles in so many ways in the book of Acts. Again, I applaud Philip and others who, out of fear, yes, were scattered from Jerusalem by the persecution. But they didn’t go into hiding. They didn’t go into self-preservation mode. They kept preaching the Word of God. And the powers of darkness can’t stand against that. Elsewhere in the New Testament it says, “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.” And we move into ministry, even as a battleship going into the front lines of spiritual warfare, with the confidence that greater is He that is in us—that is the Holy Spirit; that is Jesus Christ—than he that is in the world, the devil. Heaven always wins and hell loses as long as we stick to the truth and the preaching of God’s Word. That’s why Paul said to Timothy, “Preach the word.” Preach it in season and out of season. Preach it when their ticking ears want to hear something else. Preach the Word. You have nothing else to do but to preach the Word of God. And that’s important for us to remember. Whether you’re a preacher, or you're just a follower of Jesus Christ, speak the truth. And speak it in love, but speak and stand for the truth.
Number two, remain open to what God is doing. Let’s pick it up in verse 14. It says, “Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent to them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, for he had not yet fallen on any of them, but they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they laid their hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit.” Interesting what’s going on here. Now, all that was happening in Samaria under Philip’s ministry, word gets back to Jerusalem. It gets back to the apostles, to Peter and to John. And they come to check it out for themselves, because they’ve got to be scratching their heads a little bit, thinking, Samaria? The Samaritans? They’ve received the gospel? Maybe they flash back to the time of the ascension when Jesus said Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts. But they went to check it out for themselves. And I give Peter and John and the others credit that they kept an open mind and an open heart to what God was doing here. That the gospel would even expand beyond the racial boundaries and the racial and ethnic animosities that had grown up over the centuries.
And God was doing something new here. He was doing something out of the box. Out of the confines and the comforts of Jerusalem and what they had come to expect there. God was doing something new here. And I just say one of the ways to overcome the powers of darkness is to just be open to what God is doing. Open to the something new that He might be doing in your life and in my life and in our ministry together. And let’s not get locked into a box that might have been built because of our own prejudices and all of that kind of stuff. Remain open to what the Lord is doing.
And when they came there, what they discovered was that they had accepted the gospel but the Holy Spirit hadn’t shown up. Isn’t that interesting? And when the Lord is doing something new in the book of Acts, what He does is He delays the coming of the Holy Spirit until Peter and John and some of the other apostles could get there to see for themselves that the Holy Spirit fell upon the Samaritans. And later in Acts 10 even the Gentiles received the Holy Spirit. And the Lord seems to delay for His own purposes 2000 years ago…to delay the coming of the Holy Spirit. It’s almost like a second Pentecost in Acts 8 and again in Acts 10 so that the Lord could make the undeniable point that the gospel is not just for Jews in Jerusalem. All the way back to Genesis 1, “Abraham, you will be a blessing to the world.” And this Jesus, who was a Jew, who died on the cross for our sins, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, came to bring the gospel to everybody. For God so loved the world. And back then, that meant the world in Jerusalem, Judean, and even that ethnically tainted and a world that was full of animosity, in Samaria.
And so don’t understand this to mean that there is…you know, some people say there is a second blessing in the coming of the Holy Spirit. You know, you get your salvation here, and later comes the Holy Spirit. No, these were unique times that required the unique movement of God to make a point to the early apostles. This is for the Samaritans. Later, this is for the Gentiles, for the entire world. And He waits until Peter and John make their way there. And they see that they received the gospel. They were baptized. Wow, they see and experience with their own eyes, even the Holy Spirit falls upon them. So be open to what God is doing.
Number three and finally, take the risk to expose false professions of faith. Let’s read on in verse 18. It says, “Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money, saying, ‘Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.’ But Peter said to him, ‘May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.’ And Simon answered, ‘Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may come upon me.’”
Now, here is Simon the magician. Luke said earlier he believed and was baptized, but this little exchange gives some Bible teachers a moment of pause to wonder. Was his profession a false profession of faith? You know, just based maybe on intellect. You know, “I’ve checked the box on the theology of Jesus here. Yeah, I believe He was risen from the dead.” But there was no true born again experience in Simon, because Peter kind of gets in his face and pretty much tells him, “Dude, you ain’t right with God.” And it took a lot of courage from Peter to do that, but there was so much at stake here. Simon the magician couldn’t creep in here and try to buy the gift of God with money and just advance his own greatness as he had done with the magical arts.
And it’s a reason for all of us to do what the New Testament tells us to do, and that is to examine ourselves to make sure we’re in the faith. Some of the most haunting words you’ll read in the New Testament are found at the end of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount where He says, “And in that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we do great and mighty works in your name and even perform miracles in your name?’” And He says, “I will say to them, ‘Depart from me. I never knew you.’” Is Simon the magician maybe an example of that, who made a profession of faith? But it wasn’t real. It wasn’t saving faith. It wasn’t the kind of faith that God recognized that led to a born again experience that transformed him from the inside out. That’s possible. I don’t want to be too hard on Simon. I don’t know his heart and only God is His judge. But that little exchange gives us reason to pause and reason for us to examine ourselves and to make sure we’ve done more than just give intellectual assent to the gospel.
It reminds me of James 2:19. James says, “You believe God is one. Good for you. Even the demons do that, and they shudder.” James says even the demons have right theology. They believe God is one. But don’t applaud yourself for just checking the box on the right theology, because the demons know as much, if not more, than we do. They’ve read this book. The devil knows this book well enough to twist it and to manipulate it like he did with Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Did God really say…?” He’s a deceiver. He’s a liar. He’s a murderer from the beginning, the Bible says. And we as believers in Jesus Christ need to remember we’re operating in a world that is very dark. We’re on the front lines of spiritual warfare. Can easily be deceived by a Simon the magician or somebody else unless we know the Word of God. And let’s not be deceived in our own hearts. Simon might have thought he was right with God but really wasn’t. And, again, I don’t want to put too much fear in our hearts, but the Bible does say examine yourselves to make sure you are in the faith, because how easily the human heart is deceived. It is desperately wicked. Who can understand it except that the light of the gospel comes?
And verse 25 tells us that at the end of the day heaven wins. The gospel advanced even on the front lines of spiritual warfare. “Now when they had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.” Well, hip, hip, hooray! Three cheers for this. Now we’re getting back to the mission- Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. This gospel was for everybody, including you and me 2000 years later. Here we are. Had it gotten locked down in Jerusalem, had the persecution not come, had the apostles not opened up their heart to the new thing that God was doing and the very expansive thing that He was doing, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here today as followers of Jesus Christ. The good news, friends, is that greater is He that is in us than he that is in the world. Heaven always wins. Hell loses. But we’re in a battle zone. We’re in a dark, dark world. And the powers of darkness will fight, fight, fight against every advancement of the gospel. And that’s why we put our hands to the plow and we don’t look back. And we put our faith and trust in Jesus Christ. And we walk by grace and through faith, periodically remembering who we were, just like the apostle Paul did- a blasphemer, a persecutor, a violent aggressor. But, oh, by the grace of God and His great mercy I am who I am today. And I have set my face forward. And I’m traveling toward the celestial city, to that city whose builder and maker is God. And I’m not turning back. No, I’m not turning back at all. And I’m ready for the battle. I’ve got my spiritual armor on. I realize this is a spiritual battle, but greater is He that is in me than he that is in the world. This is the way we live the Christian life. And I pray that all of us today would just come with that mindset to who we are as a church and to glory in how the church of Jesus Christ advanced. “I will build my church,” Jesus said, “and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Isn’t that good news, friends?
By Dr. Ron Jones
I’m reading from Acts 8 beginning in verse 26. “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ This is a desert place. And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’ So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading? And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’ And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.”
Nicholas Herman never set out to become known worldwide by the Christian community. He was born in poverty. And for that reason he chose to enter the military, where he was guaranteed daily rations of food and a small income. He fought in the Thirty Years’ War and was injured. And after the war he served for a short time as a valet, and then later joined the Carmelite Monastery in Paris, where he took a name for himself. He called himself Lawrence of the Resurrection. His friends knew him as Brother Lawrence. And maybe you recognize that name in church history. Brother Lawrence is famous for living his life in the presence of God and practicing the presence of God. While he served at the monastery, he mostly served in the kitchen doing what we would consider to be menial tasks. Later in his life and ministry he repaired sandals. But in 1691 Herman Nicholas died in relative obscurity, but we know about him today. He is famous in church history because of the letters that he wrote to people who asked him for advice and for counsel. And from those letters we get some sense of Brother Lawrence’s intimacy with God and how he practiced the presence of God.
I would say that Brother Lawrence lived his life coram deo. Do you know what I mean by that? It’s a Latin phrase that means “in the presence of God” or “before the face of God.” To live your life coram deo means to embrace every moment knowing that you are in the presence of God and under His watchful gaze. It means that whatever you are doing and wherever you are doing it, you know that you are in the presence of God and you are under the watchful gaze of an omniscient God. And I believe living life that way, like Brother Lawrence did—in the presence of God and doing everything, every task of every day, every moment of every day, realizing you are in the presence of God, under the watchful gaze of God—living your life that way will produce an intimacy with God. It did for Brother Lawrence. And as people read his letters that he wrote to other people, they just got a sense of a communion and a union and an intimacy that Brother Lawrence shared with the Lord, even as he did his tasks in the kitchen and mended those sandals later in life.
But I believe that living your life coram deo—in the presence of God and before the face of God, where you are, whatever you are doing…not just when you are in church, no, but wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, because we serve an omniscient and omnipresent God—living your life that way will also produce what some people call and I’m calling today divine appointments. Philip lived his life that way. The text that I just read in Acts 8:26-40 tells the story of a guy named Philip who, in my estimation, reminds me of Brother Lawrence in the sense that he lived his life in the presence of God and made himself available to go and do whatever God told him to do at any given moment. And he answered what we are going to discover today to be a divine appointment.
What is a divine appointment? I define it this way. A divine appointment is a meeting with another person that is supernaturally and unmistakably scheduled by God. Remember, Philip was one of the original seven deacons that we read about in Acts 6. And when the persecution came to the early church, he along with many others were scattered from Jerusalem. And Philip ends up in Samaria. And following his ministry in Samaria, the Bible tells us that the angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Philip was up here in Samaria. And ministry was booming. I mean, people were coming to know the Lord. And things were going great. I mean, the gospel had come to, of all people, the Samaritans. Peter and John made their visit from Jerusalem to verify all of this and to verify that the Holy Spirit came to rest on even the Samaritans. And this was kind of place and the kind of ministry that a guy like Philip would say, “Man, I just want to settle down here and do life and od ministry here, maybe even plant a church, become the pastor of the church or, at best, the chairman of the deacons.” A great place to serve.
But this strange request comes from the angel of the Lord to leave that place in Samaria and travel south past Jerusalem and then toward this place called Gaza. Now, we hear about Gaza all the time in the news, the Gaza Strip. When we go to Israel, we don’t go anywhere near the Gaza Strip because of all the terrorist activity in and around there. There are terrorist organizations lobbing rockets from Gaza. It’s just a short distance into Jerusalem. You don’t go down there today. But in Philip’s time this was a beautiful place along the Mediterranean coast. But it was a desert place. Who is in Gaza? That’s like saying, you know, the difference between Dallas and Waxahachie, Texas. I mean, who is in Waxahachie and who wants to go there? I always pick on the Waxahachians. I know that. But, I mean, Gaza was just this out of the way place here. And it didn’t make human sense or any human rationale for Philip to leave a place where ministry was booming to go to Gaza except that he lived his life coram deo, in the presence of God and under the watchful gaze of God. And Philip remained sensitive and available to follow the Lord at any moment and at any time.
I want to suggest to you, friends, if you and I live our lives coram deo, two things will result. Number one, we’ll develop a greater intimacy with God just like Brother Lawrence did. But also if we live our lives that way we will experience the Christian life as the adventure it was meant to be. Because when you’re living your life in the presence of God, every moment, every day yielded to Him before the face and the gaze of an omnipresent God, who knows where He is going to send you next? Who knows what conversation He might have for you? A divine appointment over here where the watchful eye of the Lord—the eye of the Lord that goes to and fro across the whole earth, a God who is always at work to bring people to faith in Christ—He sees somebody over here. He saw an Ethiopian who was traveling by chariot from Jerusalem to this desert place toward Gaza. And He said, “Hey, Philip, you available? I’ve got an appointment for you down here.”
And what I want to talk to you about today is what it looks like to live your life coram deo, in the presence of God. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing. Not just when you are in church. Oh, I know we all understand we’re in the presence of God at church. But I’m talking about tomorrow morning when you go to the office. I’m talking about whatever you’re doing this week that you are living in that constant awareness and that constant sense of yielded-ness to the Father, who at any given moment would nudge you in some way and say, “I have a divine appointment for you.” How do you do that? What does that look like?
Well, as we go back through the story here, I wrote down five words that kind of characterize this coram deo life I’m talking about and the divine appointments, how we respond to a divine appointment. And the first word that comes to my mind is the word sensitivity. It takes a sensitivity to the spirit of God and, as we’ll find out here in a moment, even to perhaps the angel of the Lord nudging you in a direction. Acts 8:26 says, “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” Again, an unlikely, unusual request from a human perspective. But God was at work. God had scheduled an appointment for Philip, and it was an appointment with this Ethiopian man who was traveling from Jerusalem down to Gaza. And this man had some questions. But I find it interesting it was the angel of the Lord that said this to Philip.
Now, I don’t know what you’re theology of angels is, but it’s a fascinating study in the scriptures. We know from a reading of scriptures that angels exist and that they are created beings that exist in heaven and are part of God’s worship team, if you want to call it that. But Hebrews 1:14 tells us that angels are also ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation. God dispatches His angels across planet earth. We read about some of those experiences at various places throughout the Bible. Certainly, the angel Gabriel shows up to Mary in the Christmas story and so forth. But God is still in the business of dispatching His angels and, as I understand it, probably in human form.
Hebrews 13:2 says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers,”—listen to this—“for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” That’ll just send chills up and down your spine. What’s that all about? Makes you think twice about being rude to that stranger, right? You never know. Maybe God has sent an angel to nudge you in one direction or the other. I don’t want to get too deep into this. I actually wrote two chapters in my book, Mysteries of the Afterlife, about angels and related two stories of my own where I think back over the last 20 or 30 years where I wonder, was that an angel of the Lord, because it was a really interesting experience that I went through. It could be. The scripture certainly gives us the room to be able to envision that we might have encounters with angels just like Philip did 2000 years ago. It was the angel of the Lord who said to Philip…now, we don’t know whether he heard an audible voice. We don’t know what kind of manifestation of an angelic being it was. We don’t know much more about the experience other than the fact that it was the angel of the Lord who said, “Philip, we have an appointment for you. Need you to rise up from Samaria here, and there is a guy down there somewhere between Jerusalem and Gaza who is riding a chariot. He has been in Jerusalem worshiping the Lord, and he has some questions. And we need you to go down there.” Actually, Philip didn’t get that kind of detail. I’m pulling in detail from the rest of the story here. It was just, “Rise and go.”
And what I’m suggesting here is there is a sensitivity, a sensitivity that we need to the leading not only of the angel of the Lord, but also to the Spirit of God. Look at verse 29. “And the Spirit said to Philip…”…now he is down near Gaza. “The Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over and join this chariot.’” Do you have the kind of sensitivity to the Spirit of God where, if the Spirit of God would nudge you in some way…I call them the inner promptings of the Spirit. I’m not talking about, you know, hearing the voice of God or something like that. I’ve never heard the audible voice of God. But has the Spirit of God ever nudged me or urged me to go here or there or yonder? Absolutely. And when you’re living your life coram deo, when you’re living your life in the presence of God, when there is not a single moment that passes that you are not walking in the Spirit, in step with the Spirit, abiding in Christ, life becomes an adventure this way. When the Lord, who is always working, and His eyes are running to and fro across this whole earth, they call upon you or you or me and say, “I have an assignment for you down here. I see something that you don’t, but I need you to go from here to here.” Or, “I need you to walk across the street to your neighbor who is cutting the yard and being a conversation with that person.” Or, “That person who is sitting next to you on the airplane who is reading that book, you need to begin a conversation with that person.” Are you living your life with that kind of sensitivity? If you’re quenching the Spirit, grieving the Spirit, resisting the Spirit, you’ll never have that kind of sensitivity. But if you're walking by the Spirit, living by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit of God, not only do you enjoy an intimacy with God, but the Christian life becomes the kind of adventure that, when you’re sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, this is fun stuff. You never know what’s going to happen. You may have scheduled your day, and I may have scheduled my day. But a divine appointment…not a divine interruption, but a divine appointment comes that maybe you never anticipated on your schedule today. It takes a sensitivity to the Spirit. Philip had that.
Secondly, it takes availability. Look in verse 27. It says, “And Philip rose and went.” Again, Philip…he could have argued. But we have no indication of that. He didn’t sit down and say, “yeah, but, Lord, you know, things are going so well here in Samaria. Why don’t I just stay here and settle in? I mean, ministry is booming here.” He didn’t negotiate. He didn’t resist in any way. It just simply says he went. He was sensitive to the leading of the Spirit, in this case the angel of the Lord as well. And he willingly obeyed because he had already settled the matter that, “Lord, I’m yours. And I’m available to go anywhere, any place, any time You’ve made an appointment for me.”
I remember when I was in seminary. I was finishing up my master’s degree at Dallas Seminary. And Cathryn and I married in August, and I had one more semester left, a fall semester. And we began the process of saying, “Lord, all right. Where would you have us to serve in our first ministry?” And we had that attitude that we’re available to go anywhere. And I give my wife credit because she is a Texas girl. And she had been in Texas all her life, in Dallas, Texas. She went to Baylor University. She was as Texas as Texas can get. And you can take the girl out of Texas, but you can’t take the Texas out of the girl. But the first church that invited us to come and meet with the search committee was located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And it was December. And we got on the plane. And with great enthusiasm, as much as we can muster up, we said, “Lord, all right, here we are,” heading out on this trip to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We met the search committee at the airport. All 10 or 11 of them showed up. Nicest people you could ever imagine. Looking back…and we hadn’t had much experience with search committees and all of that, but they did a (0:19:00.1) great job introducing the church to us and courting us and all that kind of stuff. But I remember sitting out in the parking lot at the Sioux Falls airport. And they were all huddled up. And they were talking about the heat wave that had just come through. It was 10 degrees, and my wife and I are just shivering over there, all right. We had a great weekend.
Now, it didn’t turn out that the Lord confirmed a call to this place, but we were available. And we were willing to go. In time He took us to Houston. We packed up a U-Haul, and my wife cried all the way from Dallas to Houston. She’s not only a Texan, but a Dallas girl. And to go to Houston, oh my. Ten years later when He called us someplace else, she cried leaving. Because when you put parameters around where the Lord will lead you and you say things like, “Lord, I’ll follow You wherever, but just don’t send me to Africa,” here is what I’ve learned. (0:20:00.1) The Bible says God gives us the desires of our heart. It doesn’t mean that your desires are aligned to His will yet. But in time, when your desires and my desires align to His will, then He gives us the desires of our heart that He has placed in our heart. And if it’s Africa or Gaza or South Dakota or wherever it might be, you’ll be so excited about going there by the time you get there.
And that’s the way it was for me when I went into the ministry. I resisted it for a long time. I said, you know, “God doesn’t need another professional. He needs a few good laymen, and I’m happy to serve that way.” And I had my hands out like this, giving God the Heisman, you know. And over time I said, “Okay, I’ll entertain a conversation.” By the time it came I was running toward it. And I’ve been doing this for almost three decades. I can’t imagine having a desire to do anything else but this. But there was a time when I resisted that.
It could be as simple as resisting…“Lord, You want me to go across the street and have a conversation with my neighbor about Jesus? Are You kidding me?” Are you grieving the Spirit? Are you resisting Him? Are you quenching Him? Or are you living your life coram deo, in the presence of God, under the watchful gaze of an omnipresent God who, at anytime, anywhere can say, “I need somebody over there. Now, who is available? Who is available?” Are you sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit? Are you living your life yielded to Him and available, even to go to Gaza of all places to talk to one person about Jesus?
The poet once described this struggle this way. “Disappointment? Oh no. His appointment. Change one letter, then I see that the thwarting of my purpose is God’s better choice for me.” And that’s a wonderful way to live.
Sensitivity. Availability. Now we head on down to Gaza. And the next word that comes to my mind is initiation. Philip has traveled that route from Samaria down through Jerusalem and on this desert road to Gaza. And he sees an Ethiopian man. He is described in the text here as an Ethiopian eunuch, “a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all of her treasure.” Probably the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia. A very high-ranking man in the Ethiopian government. And he was traveling in a chariot, which meant he was probably very wealthy, or he had such a high ranking position that he got a great company car because not too many people traveled this way.
And Philip overheard him reading from the prophet Isaiah. It says in verse 30, “So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he said, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’” And the Ethiopian invited Philip to come up and sit with him. It seems like a simple exchange here. But because Philip was sensitive to the leading of the Spirit, because he was available, now he finds himself down in Gaza and he has to initiate a conversation with the man.
I remember years ago Dr. Bill Bright wrote a book called Witnessing Without Fear. And he landed upon something. Because sometimes one of the greatest fears for us as followers of Jesus is to initiate a conversation with somebody about Jesus. We fear that maybe the conversation will go in a direction that we’re not trained or able to handle. Or maybe they’ll get mad at us and reject us. But, friends, back it up here. When you’re living coram deo, when you’re sensitive, when you're available and when you respond to the Lord…the Lord has already been preparing the heart. The Lord is already doing something over here. He sees what you and I don’t see. He just needs an available person to go. And you can initiate a conversation about spiritual things and about Jesus without fear. Why? Because the Lord has already gone ahead of you. He had already gone ahead of Philip. Here is this Ethiopian. He’s got his Bible open. He must have bought a scroll somewhere in Jerusalem, another indication that he was probably a wealthy man. He had a copy of the scriptures, a scroll. And he was reading from Isaiah.
And here is how Philip initiated the conversation. He asked him a question. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Friends, never underestimate the power of a question. I was thinking about that this week. And I was reminded of all the questions that Jesus asked people to initiate a conversation with them about spiritual things. There are over a hundred, maybe hundreds of questions that Jesus asked. Like, “why does this generation seek a sign? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are you hearts hardened? But who do you say that I am? For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? And which of you, being anxious, can add one cubit to his span of life? Where is your faith? What do you seek? Do you love Me? Do you know what I have to you? Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not what I tell you?” Jesus asked all kinds of questions, didn’t He? It’s a fascinating study in the Gospel accounts, all the questions that Jesus asked people as a way of initiating a spiritual conversation with them. And that’s all you have to you. That’s all we have to do is start the conversation.
Sometimes we’re afraid to start the conversations and initiate it because we’re afraid they’ll ask us a question that we can’t answer. You know what my favorite thing to do…favorite thing to say if I don’t know the answer? I just say, “That’s a great question. And I don’t know the answer. It’s not on the tip of my tongue, but I have some places I can go to do a little research for you. How about if we meet again and we talk about the answer to that question?” There is not a question that anybody has asked or is asking today about the Christian faith that hasn’t been asked over the last 2000 years. There aren’t any new questions. And somebody has probably answered that question or a form of it. Okay, you go back and do a little bit of research, and you make a second appointment with the person. And you continue the conversation. Don’t feel like you have to have three seminary degrees to begin the conversation. Just ask the question. Find a question to ask. If you’re sitting down next to somebody on an airplane and their reading a book that you know is written by maybe a pastor or an author, “Hey, what book are you reading? Tell me about it.” And you’re into the conversation. You can find all kinds of ways. When you’re sensitive, when you’re available, you can find all kinds of ways to initiate the conversation.
The fourth word I wrote down is explanation. The story goes on to say in verse 32, “Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.’ And the eunuch said to Philip, ‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus.” Well, where was this scripture located? Well, we know it was in Isaiah, and specifically it was Isaiah 53, the great messianic prophecy. And the Ethiopian was asking the question of the ages that Jews and Christian have been discussing for 2000 years. Who was the prophet talking about in Isaiah 53? Somebody in his time? Maybe himself? Or was this a prophecy concerning the coming of Messiah? And did Jesus Christ fulfill this prophecy? That’s a pretty deep theological question to get around. I’ll grant you that.
But here is what I want you to notice. Philip kept the conversation about Jesus, and he started with this passage. Did you know you can start a conversation about Jesus anywhere in scripture and make a beeline to the cross? Because this entire book we call the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is about Jesus Christ. I could even take you to Genesis 3 and give you a gospel presentation. Because the first gospel is found there, or at least allusions to it. And I know that may involve a little bit of study. My point is simply this. Keep the conversation about Jesus. And wherever they are in the text of scripture, make it about Jesus. And get to the cross as quickly as you can. They may want to take off in different tangents. And you don’t want to be rude about that or dismissive about that. But always bring the conversation and the explanation back to Jesus. That’s the starting point from anyplace in scripture.
So we go from a sensitivity and availability to initiating the conversation, having a time of explanation. And there may be some time where you go and do some study. And you come back with an explanation. That’s fine. It continues the conversation. You made a second appointment.
And then finally there is implementation. Let’s pick it up in verse 36. “And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him.” Here this Ethiopian heard about Jesus. And the assumption here is that he expressed faith in Christ. He knew enough that baptism was a first step. And he says, “What prevents me from being baptized?” And Philip takes him down into the water and baptizes him right there on the spot.
Now, if you're reading the text carefully and depending on your translation, verse 37 isn’t there. Some translations insert verse 37, which says, “And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he answered and said, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” The translation that I’m working from, the English Standard Version, doesn’t have verse 37. Why? Because scholars have indicated that the earliest of manuscripts don’t have verse 37, probably inserted by a scribe later to help explain why we jump from the conversation to baptism. And usually in your Bible that verse is in brackets. And there is a little notation there to let you know that, through what we call the science of textual criticism—that is, studying the manuscripts that we have as far back as we can go…we want to be honest and upfront about this—verse 37 typically isn’t there. But the insertion there doesn’t change the story. It doesn’t change any theology. It was inserted to help with the flow of the conversation here.
That said, Philip takes him into the water, and he baptizes them. I call it an implementation step because this Ethiopian has believed and is now taking what I call one of the first steps of the disciple. Whenever you see people baptized in the New Testament, they’re baptized immediately after they believe. Why? Because Jesus said in Matthew 28, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism doesn’t save us, but baptism is the public profession of your faith. It’s the first step that you take as a believer in Jesus Christ to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ. I have decided to follow Him. There is no turning back. There is no turning back. And I’m going public with my faith.” I always like to tell baptism candidates every Christian needs to preach at least one sermon. And it’s not a verbal sermon. It’s a pictorial sermon. It’s your public profession of faith. And we talk about the death, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Buried with Christ unto death, rise again to newness of life. Shortest sermon you’ll ever hear, but the most gospel-centered one. And it needs to happen as soon as you believe.
Now, some of you maybe have never been baptized as a believer in Jesus Christ. Okay. What are you waiting for? We have a baptism service a little bit later this month at the beach. And we’re going to be baptizing people at the beach. People who have professed faith in Jesus Christ who are going public with their faith, unashamedly saying, “I have decided to follow Jesus.” And maybe you grew up in a tradition where baptism was practiced in a different way. Maybe you were sprinkled as an infant or something like that. Did you know that baptism by immersion was the practice of the church for the first 1200 years of church history? And then we started debating about what baptism meant and all of that. Even the translation of the word “baptize” comes from the word baptizo in the Greek. There was so much debate over how we did baptism and what it meant, they didn’t translate the word. They transliterated the word. Because the word baptizo literally means to dip, to sink or to submerge. So that’s why we practice believer’s baptism by immersion. Again, a gospel presentation, a sermon. Buried with Christ unto death, rise again to new life. You’re identifying publicly with the death, the burial and the resurrection.
And I say this is a step of implementation that Philip was involved in. He didn’t stick around to fully disciple the Ethiopian. We assume that God had other plans and other people to be involved in the disciple-making process there. But Philip got the process started. He implemented. Now he’s got a believer in Jesus Christ. What are the first steps? Ah, the first of the first steps is baptism and going public with your faith. And the Ethiopian did that.
It says in verse 39, “And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.” And Philip makes this kind of large sweeping movement through Jerusalem down to Gaza and then up the Mediterranean coast. And he lands in Caesarea. Elsewhere in the book of Acts it looks like Philip stayed there for most of his life in Caesarea, which is not a bad place to hang out. It’s right on the Mediterranean coast there. Those are some nice digs. A lot better than the desert place in Gaza, so God took care of Philip here, a man who was sensitive and available to take the divine appointment. And then the Lord moved him up the coast, and he preached his way all the way to Caesarea. Just like John and Peter came from Jerusalem to Samaria and then preached their way all the way back through the Samaritan villages all the way back to Jerusalem.
It’s coram deo. It’s living your life in the presence of God, before the face of God, not just for an hour every week, but every moment of every day, whatever you’re doing where you're doing it, saying, “Lord, what do You have for me today,” keeping in step and in stride with the Spirit of God, who may nudge you with one of those inner promptings of the Spirit that says go talk to this person or that person. What an adventure life becomes. What an exciting adventure the Christian life is. Because you never know who God is going to send you to today. You never know what divine appointment He’s made for you when you're sensitive and available and willing to initiate a conversation.
Before I finish, you know, some of you may be here today, and maybe you identify more with this Ethiopian. You’ve come to a place of worship like he did to Jerusalem, and he walked away with some questions. No doubt he had heart all the buzz about the early church in Jerusalem. Maybe he had some initial conversations, bought himself a Bible, started reading it, but just didn’t understand some things. And you’re like that Ethiopian. You need somebody to sit down with you and maybe clarify some things about Jesus and about Christianity and the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a good time and a good place to do that. And in just a few moments we’re going to give you an opportunity to do that, to have a conversation with somebody before you leave today that can clarify some things.
Philip was sensitive and available to this divine appointment, and because he was, it changed this Ethiopian’s eternal destiny. And that’s what is at stake, friends. Whether you identify more with Philip today or the Ethiopian, what’s at stake in all of this in this coram deo lifestyle, in this thing that makes you available for divine appointments, somebody’s eternal destiny is at stake. And that makes me want to take all of my plans and submit them to the Lord, all my scheduling. You know, the Bible says in Proverbs 16:9, “A man plans in his heart, but the Lord directs his steps.” And I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those planners. I plan my work and work my plan. And if I’m not careful, sometimes I’ll see a divine appointment as an interruption in my day. No, it’s not an interruption. It’s an appointment that the heavenly Father has said is more important than whatever appointment I have on my calendar and in my schedule. And the same is true for you and for me. For every divine appointment there is somebody’s eternal destiny that hangs in the balance. Let’s be sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, even open to the ministry of angels among us, and be available for God to send us anywhere, anytime at any moment to carry out the Lord’s work and embrace that as the adventure that it is.
Transforming a Terrorist
By Dr. Ron Jones
Well, by definition the word “sincerity” means the absence of deceit, the absence of hypocrisy, the absence of pretense. And for that reason, sincerity is an attractive virtue. In fact, we use it every time we engage in some formal correspondence. When was the last time you wrote a letter and you signed it “sincerely yours”? Or as I learned this week, the Brits, they sign it “yours sincerely.” They’ve got to be different, right, or we’ve got to be different from them. But we’ve all done that before, “sincerely yours.” It’s a nice way of just saying that what I said to you in that letter comes from a heart absent of deceit, absent of hypocrisy. Some people say that sincerity is all you need when it comes to religious belief. That it’s not important what you believe as much as it is just being sincere. That that’s what you need is just to be sincere before God, and He’ll take care of all the rest. The problem with that is you can be sincerely wrong. And maybe we’ve all had that experience where you believe something, and you found out later, well, it wasn’t exactly like that or it wasn’t true. The danger with sincerity is the highest virtue is we can be sincerely wrong.
Nobody was more sincere in his faith than Saul of Tarsus. If you would ask anybody…did Saul of Tarsus believe what he believed to be true? Was he zealous and passionate and sincere about his Judaism? Did he believe that what he was doing by breathing threats and taking murderous action upon the early church…did he believe that he was doing the work of God? Absolutely. In all sincerity he did. Saul of Tarsus, the terrorist from Tarsus 2000 years ago. And I don’t use the word “terrorist” as hyperbole, as exaggeration in any way, shape or form. That’s exactly what he was- a religious zealot, a religiously motivated terrorist breathing threats, bringing murderous action upon the church of Jesus Christ 2000 years ago, starting with affirming the martyr Stephen. Remember, it was Saul of Tarsus who stood there like a valet at a hotel holding your coat. And he affirmed those stones that were thrown at Stephen, the first martyr. That was Saul of Tarsus.
From that point forward, persecution broke out in Jerusalem, and the early church scattered to Judea, to Samaria, ultimately to the ends of the earth. But some of them went all the way to Damascus. And Saul of Tarsus caught wind of that. He knew that there were some followers of the way. They weren’t called Christians yet, but followers of the way, no doubt called that because of what Jesus said about Himself, that, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” and no man comes to the Father but by Him. But some of those followers of the way had scattered all the way to Damascus, 140 miles from Jerusalem, a six to seven day journey by foot all the way to Damascus.
And the Bible tells us in Acts 6 that Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus with some letters in his hand. You see, he needed additional authority granted to him by the chief priests to go up over Mount Hermon and down into what is today modern Syria to the city of Damascus in order to carry out his terrorism. And he had those papers in hand with the Bible tells us in Acts 9 Saul of Tarsus got stopped in his tracks.
And Acts 9 contains the greatest story of religious conversion in human history. Nobody would have ever thought that Saul of Tarsus would come to faith in Jesus Christ. That’s like saying Osama Bin Laden or Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is going to come to faith in Christ next week. Nobody would have thought that. You’ve got to be crazy. These men are sincerely and religiously zealous about what they believe, and they believe they are doing the will of God by persecuting Christians. And this was Saul, Saul the terrorist of Tarsus 2000 years ago.
Well, what did Saul learn on the road to Damascus? And what can we learn from his story? I’ve read the story hundreds of times perhaps, just like you. And I tried as best as I could to come at it from a fresh perspective this week. And I wrote down seven unmistakable things that Saul learned on that road to Damascus that day. That on whatever road you’re on or whatever road I’m on are important for us to learn as well.
Number one, Saul learned you are no match for the power of God. Look at it in verse 3 and 4 again. It says, “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice.” The power of just a light that shone on Saul. Now, some people say—some historians and even meteorologists say—that the journey to northern Israel…to the Mount Hermon area and then over Mount Hermon, down into the valley and off into Damascus…that from Mount Hermon on the weather can get really frightening. It’s maybe a little bit like Tornado Alley in Oklahoma. It’s just the weather capital of the United States. The weather is really weird there. This is kind of like that. Lightning storms were frequent in the area. But I don’t think this was a bolt of lightning. It certainly wasn’t a spotlight. This was the kind of light from heaven, the scripture says, that stopped Saul in his tracks, probably, we might say, the shekinah glory of God, just the manifestation of the presence of God in such a profound way that it stopped Saul in his tracks and reminded him, “Saul, you are no match for the power of God.” Saul might have thought he was all that, but he learned on the road to Damascus he ain’t all that. God is all that, and God showed it in a very dramatic way.
Chances are you and I are not going to have this dramatic of an experience when we come to faith in Jesus Christ. But God showed Himself in a very dramatic way to Saul that day and reminded him that he is no match for the power of God. Pharaoh learned in the Old Testament he was no match for the power of God. The prophets of Baal learned in Elijah’s time that they were no match for the power of God. And here Saul of Tarsus learns that he is no match for the power of God. It’s a good reminder for you and me. We’re not match for Him.
Secondly, Saul learned he was spiritually blind. The Bible goes on to say in verse 7, Acts 9, “The men who were traveling with [Saul] stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Underline that phrase “although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing.” You know, it’s possible to have your eyes wide open, to have physical sight and yet be spiritually blind at the same time. And I believe this whole experience that Saul of Tarsus went through was God’s way of saying to him, “Saul, you’ve had perfect physical sight all this time, but you have been spiritually blind.”
And spiritual blindness is one of the conditions that the Bible warns us about over and over and over again. Jesus even illustrated it in one of the miracles that He performed in John 9 where He healed a man who was born blind. Do you remember the story where the disciples come to Jesus, and they’re kind of asking all the wrong questions? They say, “Hey, Jesus, here is this man born blind. Who sinned, this man or his parents?” They had a real narrow theology about pain and suffering in this world. And Jesus says, “No, you’ve got it all wrong, guys. It’s not that his parents sinned or that this guy sinned and that’s why he was born blind. It was so the glory of God could show up at this moment.” And He healed the man who was born blind. And from that day forward, you know, all of the religious leaders were questioning the man and bringing him before the council and making him testify. And he says, “I don’t know what happened. I just was…once I was blind, but now I see.” And that was his testimony. And it was not only true of him physically, but it’s true of every believer in Jesus Christ who comes to faith in Jesus Christ. The scales come off your eyes. And you were once spiritually blind, but now you see.
Helen Keller, the famous blind person, said, “There is something worse than being blind. It’s having sight but no vision.” I’ll turn that around a little bit and say there is something worse than having physical sight. It’s having your physical sight, perfect 20/20 vision perhaps, but being spiritually blind. And the miracle of faith in Jesus Christ and the conversion that that brings about in a person’s life is going from spiritual blindness to spiritual sight, from spiritual darkness to spiritual light. And this was true of Saul of Tarsus. It was true of John Newton, who penned “Amazing Grace.” Do you remember those words? “I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind…I was a blind slave trader thinking that I was doing what was right, but I woke up one day and met Jesus Christ. And I realized just how blind I was and how arrogant I was in my spiritual blindness.” This was Saul of Tarsus. Any of this ringing true in your own experience? You're no match for the power of God. And you realized before you came to faith in Jesus Christ or perhaps even at this moment before you even meet Jesus, you're as spiritually blind as blind can be.
Third thing that Saul learned was that God knows him by name. In verse 4 the first words that he hears…he hears a voice, a voice that was not recognizable to him at first, and I’ll explain why in a moment. But the voice said initially two words, “Saul, Saul.” Now, when you’re mama called your name once, you came running as a kid, right? Or your daddy, you know, when he…he or she calls your name twice that means you're either in trouble or they're trying to get your attention. “Saul, Saul…” At a very basic level, what it means is God knows your name, Saul. He knows your name. He knows you personally. He not only knows your name, but He knows your whereabouts. He knows everything about you. He is intimately acquainted with your ways. “Saul, Saul, I know you by name. And, Saul, I know exactly where you’re going. I know those letters you have in your hands. I’ve been watching you closer than what you think. I know you by name, Saul.”
In John 1 there is a story about a guy named Nathaniel that met Jesus. He’s one of those disciples we don’t know a whole lot about, maybe one of the quieter disciples. But his friends Philip first tells Nathaniel about this rabbi from Nazareth that they think is the Messiah. And Nathaniel is the one who famously said, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Because Nazareth had the reputation of being on the other side of the tracks. And when Philip said to his friends Nathaniel that this rabbi named Jesus from Nazareth might be the Messiah, he said, “Ah, you’ve got to be kidding me.” But one day Nathaniel was walking toward Jesus. And Jesus looks at Nathaniel and says, “Ah, Nathaniel, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit, a sincere man, sincere in your faith, sincere in your Judaism.” And it kind of threw Nathaniel back a little bit. He’s like, “Who is this guy who can look inside my heart and tell me I’m a sincere man?” And Jesus looks at Nathaniel and says, “Oh, Nathaniel, before I even met you I saw you sitting under the oak tree over here.”
Now, they didn’t have social media 2000 years ago. I walked into church this morning and somebody made a comment about where I was earlier this week and said they were there about an hour later. And it kind of made me feel a little creepy, but I remember I posted something on social media. That’s the world in which we live, right? Well, they didn’t have that 2000 years ago. But Jesus had enough insight to know who Nathaniel was, what was in his heart, where he had been. And it put Nathaniel back a little bit, because it was the first time anybody knew him for who he really was.
How easy it is for us to put these protective layers around us. We have a lot of acquaintances, don’t we? We have all these followers, you know, on Facebook, on Instagram, all these friends. But not really. We have a lot of acquaintances, but we’re good at putting these protective layers around us to protect ourselves from anybody knowing the real us. Well, I’ve got news for you today. God knows your name. He knows everything about us. He knows where you’ve been. He knows the desires of your heart. He knows the intent of your heart.
Hold your place here in Acts 9, and let’s go to the book of Psalms, Psalm 139. I love Psalm 139. It’s one of my favorite in the psalter, and partly because it’s just good theology written in Hebrew poetry. And it highlights really three aspects of God’s nature: His omniscience, we say- He knows all things; His omnipresence- He is everywhere at all times; and then His omnipotence- He is all powerful.
It starts with His omniscience where the psalmist says, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar. You search out my path and my lying down and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” And then the psalmist says, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” He goes for omniscience now to omnipresence. “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you.” And then David goes on to talk about the power of God, and all of it was a comforting presence to David.
But maybe you're not David. Maybe you're Saul. And you learned God knows your name. You learned that GPS doesn’t stand for global positioning system, but God’s positioning system. He knows everywhere you’ve been and where you’re going. And that’s not a comfort to you. It’s a haunting realization to you. It’s haunting to everybody on this side of the cross until they come to faith in Christ and surrender to Him. It stopped Saul of Tarsus in his tracks for God to say, “Saul, Saul.” “Who is this who knows me? Who is this who calls out my name?” And he fell on his face before God.
Here is a fourth thing that Saul learned. Your battle is with Jesus. “Saul, Saul,”…and then here comes the question…“why are you persecuting me?” And Saul answered back “Who are you, Lord?” Now, be careful, because I know most of our translations that word “Lord” or that title is capitalized, leaving us the impression that Saul might have recognized this to be Jesus. And he is calling Him Lord. Actually, the translation could just as easily be “sir.” “Who are you, sir?” He hears this voice.
And then Jesus identifies Himself. He says, “I am Jesus,” and then repeats the question…or the statement this time (0:19:00.1), “whom you are persecuting.” “Saul, whatever issue you have with these early Christians, the way-goers, the people that you're going after in Damascus…whatever issue you have, your issue is with Me. Have I got your attention?” And this is true of anybody who is maybe mad at God or disappointed with Him in some way. Usually we aim our anger or disappointment maybe at a church that hurt us or an individual Christian or those rightwing whatevers. No, your issue is not with any of that or any of those people. Your issue is with Jesus. Take it up with Him. He says, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He made it very, very personal. You see, one day every one of us will stand before Jesus, either as our Savior (0:20:00.0) or as our Judge. And today is the opportunity to decide which one He will be to you.
It’s interesting that the apostle Paul never forgot this experience, this dramatic experience on the road to Damascus. And he frequently throughout the rest of the book of Acts and as he ministered would come back to this experience. You just read through the New Testament, and Paul, by way of sharing his personal testimony, often went back to this story of his conversion. Two occasions are found in Acts 22 when he is making his defense in Rome, and elsewhere in Acts 26 when he is making his defense before King Agrippa II.
And in 26 and verse 14, Saul remembers something that Jesus said to him that Luke doesn’t record. Saul remembers it this way. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me, and why are you kicking against the goads?” Now, anybody in the 1st century would understand very quickly what a goad was. An ox goad is a long stick that has a point on the end. And if you’re plowing your fields and you’re using a couple of oxen to do it, if those oxen are not doing it right or if they’re kind of getting lazy or tired, you would goad the ox. You would stick that pointed end into their back hind to kind of goad them to go a little faster or a little bit straighter. And some ox will kick against the goad. They don’t like being goaded, so they kick back. And when they do, sometimes the goad goes a little bit deeper into the flesh. And Jesus says to Saul, “Saul, you’ve been kicking against My goad for years. Why are you doing that?” And Saul’s memory of this suggests that Jesus had been after him not just on the road to Damascus, but for years and years and years. I mean, as Saul as breathing his threats, as Saul was holding the coats of those who threw the stones at Stephen…we don’t know exactly where, but we know this. God is coming after us, right? The hound of heaven, one poet said years ago. He’s like the hound of heaven that just keeps pursuing us and keeps pursuing us and keeps pursing us, goading us on occasion and goading us again.
And the Lord is saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? And why, after time after time after time after I’ve been goading you, why do you keep kicking against Me?” What a great question that is for anybody here today that’s still, after repeated goading from God, kicking against Him. You’re kicking against Him. Your battle is with Jesus. And because He loves you, friend, He is going to keep coming after you. And sometimes the goading gets painful. I know it does. But it’s because He loves you so much. He loves you enough to understand that where you are right now is a lot worse than being in relationship with Him. And He has eternity in view, and so He is going to keep goading and keep goading until you stop kicking against Him and you surrender to Him.
The fifth thing that Saul learned- Jesus is alive. Say that with me. Jesus is alive. This Saul had been, with all sincerity and with all religious zeal and passion…he firmly believed that this Jesus who died on the cross went into the grave and that was the end of Him. He thought that all this talk about a resurrection was silliness. And for that reason, he believed that he was doing the work of God. He had read the Old Testament. He was an expert in the Law, a Pharisee of Pharisees, having learned under the feet of Gamaliel. And he knew that the Old Testament said, “Cursed is the one who hangs on a tree.” And for the Jews, they could never imagine their Messiah being crucified on a cross. What they missed in the Old Testament, even in Isaiah 53, is that He would first come as a suffering servant, yes, cursed of God, receiving the curse that belonged to us and paying the penalty for our sins. And then He would rise triumphantly from the dead, ascend to the right hand of the Father, and remind us, “I’m coming again, this time in victory and to set up My kingdom rule.”
But Jesus is alive. The reason we call Saul of Tarsus later the apostle Paul is because one of the criteria for an apostle is that he has seen the risen Christ. And Saul of Tarsus experienced and saw the risen Christ that day in an unmistakable way. We don’t call anybody an apostle today. The age of the apostles has passed because, well, none of us has visually seen or experienced the risen Christ in this way. Just as a reminder, Romans 10:9 tells us, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” The resurrection is everything, friends. And I hope you’ve come to that place of settled conclusion in your heart that Jesus is alive. And if you haven’t, study the evidence for yourself. Don’t take my word for it. Certainly take the Word of God for it, but examine it. Put yourself on the jury and examine the evidence. And ask yourself, can you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ after examining all the evidence? And can you believe beyond a reasonable doubt? And the answer is yes. But you've got to come to that settled conclusion that Jesus is alive and He will gloriously save you.
Sixth thing that Saul learned that day is God has a plan for your life. Look at it in verse 6. Jesus goes on to say, “But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” In other words, “Saul, I’ve got a plan for you. I’ve got a plan for you.” A little bit later down in verse 15 He goes on to say that this Saul “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.” Big picture here. God has a plan for your life. And He has a plan for you and for me just as He had a plan for Saul for the remainder of our time that He sovereignly chooses to leave us on this earth. Otherwise He’d take us to heaven right away, right? There is no other reason for us to be here other than to fulfill the plan that He has for us and for us to carry out the mission that He has given to us as believers in Jesus Christ. Eight words, one mandate that no follower of Jesus can ignore. “Go therefore and make disciples of Jesus Christ.” Of all nations.
And that’s why we’re here. And God has a plan for your life, and He has a plan for my life. One of the famous kind of ways of sharing the gospel says God love you and has a wonderful plan for your life. I agree with every bit of that. I’d probably take the word wonderful out, because the plan that God had for Saul involved a lot of suffering and pain. Jesus said, “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” I know nobody wants to sign up for that, but just remember three S’s associated with being a follower of Jesus- self-denial, suffice, and perhaps even suffering. Jesus said, “If you want to be my disciples, deny yourself, take up your cross daily and follow Me. Follow Me even into an experience of pain and suffering.” Certainly the apostle Paul did. And tradition tells us that when he was in prison in Rome, that Nero finally sent the orders to sever Paul’s head from his body. And believe that’s the way the apostle Paul died. But he was a chosen instrument of God, to “carry My name before the Gentiles.” And the apostle Paul, who was formerly Saul of Tarsus, the terrorist of Tarsus, became God’s instrument for carrying the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
What plan does He have for your life? You may have lost all sight of that. You may have lost all hope. You say, “Well, God doesn’t have a plan for me. I don’t know what my plan is.” Well, remember the words of Jeremiah 17:9 to the nation of Israel when they were in their Babylonian captivity and they had lost all hope, maybe all vision for God’s plan. He says, “I know the plans I have for you, plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” They couldn’t see that in the circumstances that they were in, but it gave them enough hope to live another day and to get themselves to God and to that future and to that hope.
The Bible says in Proverbs 16:9, “A man plans in his heart [or a woman plans in her heart], but the Lord orders his steps.” What plans do you have? What agendas do you have that are governing your will to where maybe you’ve been kicking against God’s plans a little bit? But it’s time for you say, “Not my will, but thine be done.” It’s time for you to pray, “Thy kingdom come and thy will be done.” It’s time for you to take the plans that you have for your family, for your career, for your future, and hold them loosely, because you’ll never experience the thrill of fulfilling the purpose for which God created you and walking in His plan until you let your fingers gently unfold, and say, “Father, take it all. Take it all. Our Father, who art in heaven, thy kingdom come, thy will be done. You take my plans.”
It’s interesting in verse 6 there, “But rise and enter the city.” And Jesus says, “You will be told what you are to do.” That made me pause this week, and it made me think, you know, up to this point in Saul’s life nobody told Saul what to do. Saul told Saul what to do. He was the captain of his own ship. Nobody told that man what to do. And the arrogance with which he went breathing murderous threats. But in the life of every believer in Jesus Christ there comes that moment of surrender where you say, “Not my will, but thine be done. God, I’ve been trying to control my life up to this point. Now You tell me what to do.” Have you reached that point, friend? You’ll kick against the goad every time until you reach that point of complete surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, we call Him Lord, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And we imagine a little throne that He sits on. But there is only one throne in our heart. And we crawl up back on that throne as often as we can. And we say, “My kingdom come, my will be done on my little corner of the earth.” And the Lord is waiting for us to say, “No, Lord. You tell me what to do.” It’s a moment of surrender to the plan that God has for your life.
There was a seventh thing that Saul learned that day, it’s important for us to learn, too. And I would say it this way. The church of Jesus Christ is now your family. And I want us to pick it up in verse 10 of Acts 9. The story goes on to say, “There was a disciples at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying.’” I’ll bet he was. Saul was praying like he’d never prayed before. “‘And he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.’” You can’t blame Ananias for asking the question. Verse15, “But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for 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.’ So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”
Go back to verse 17 and circle the words “Brother Saul.” That’s family language. Ananias is one of the unsung heroes in the New Testament. It’s probably not the Ananias of Ananias and Sapphira that we read about earlier in the book of Acts. This is Ananias of Damascus. An Ananias that was probably in Jerusalem. And when the persecution came in Acts 8, he, along with many others, scattered into Judea and Samaria. It’s how the gospel began to spread into other areas. And Ananias and many others ended up in Damascus. This is the only thing we read about of Ananias in the scriptures. But Ananias, though hesitant to reach out to the infamous Saul of Tarsus, becomes the instrument that God uses to welcome Saul into the family of God. Do you understand the risk that he took and even the depth of what he was saying when he said, “Brother Saul”?
I remember years ago the first church that I served in Texas, it was one of those brother/sister churches, you know. There were some people there, good people, lovely people of God, who would refer to me as Brother Ron and Sister Cathryn. And we’d smile. It’s kind of a cultural thing in some churches. We don’t necessarily do that here. But if we did, it’s very biblical. Because throughout the New Testament we are brothers and sisters in Christ. We are part of the family of God. That’s powerful, friends. If you call God your Father and Jesus Christ your Savior, you’re my brother. You’re my sister. And you're welcome in this family. Don’t let anybody tell you different, all right. You’re welcome in this place. Even if you don’t call God your Father and Jesus your Savior, you’re welcome to come here and investigate Christianity. But especially if you call God your Father and Jesus your Savior, we’re family, friends. And with that comes all the blessing of family life and the challenges, too. And don’t look at me like you don’t have challenges in your perfect family, okay.
About a month or so ago we had a Jones family reunion around my nephew’s wedding. And it was a great time for family to get together. There were two members of our extended family that hadn’t talked to each other for years. And we were all kind of wondering, you know, leading up to this. We knew one was coming. We weren’t sure the other was coming. But about a week before got word that both of them were going to be there. And then we were all kind of, like, “Shh, don’t draw attention to it. Just let it all happen and see if they talk to one another or maybe avoid each other.” We didn’t know. But God did a wonderful thing, and He brought those two extended family members together, and they had a great time. And they're now talking to each other more than I talk to them on a regular basis. And it’s great. Why? Because we’re family. And you don’t give up on your family. It’s the only family you’ve got.
And maybe because we come from broken families and strained families, our understanding of the depth of the theology of what it means to be part of the family of God is fractured in some way. And so we have these protective barriers around us. And “so-and-so hurt me years ago.” You haven’t talked to them in years. Are you kidding me? They're part of your family. “I’m leaving this place.” Are you kidding me? You can’t give up on your family. And I know the family of God is broader than just one church. But every part of the family of God expresses itself in a local setting we call our church family, right? I hope that means something to you. All the blessings that come with family life and, yes, all of the challenges. And we have to work through those things, right? No church is perfect. I’d mess it up if I went to a perfect church, and so would you.
But Ananias reaches out to, of all people—are you kidding me—Saul of Tarsus? And call him Brother Saul. And I tell you this. It changed Saul’s view of the church he was persecuting. I think the guy just had to have melted in the presence of those words. And all the caricatures that he had of the church and the people of the way and the people that he was persecuting, that just all went aside when he met one person, with Ananias that spoke to him with grace and called him Brother Saul. Oh, that that would be true in this family of God, let alone the family of God worldwide. That we would be quick to welcome people into the family of God who call God their Father and Jesus Christ their Savior. We are children of God by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. “To as many as received Him,” that is Jesus, “to them He gave the right to become children of God.” What a powerful image that is, and one that we need to take to heart with us.
Few of us will ever experience the dramatic road to Damascus thing that Saul of Tarsus did. But don’t think that your conversion to Jesus Christ is any less miraculous. Maybe you’ve been kicking against the goad for many years. And there has been circumstances maybe that you call your road to Damascus where the Lord humbled you enough to where you said, “Lord, tell me what to do. I’m tired. Oh, I’m tired of trying to figure this out myself.” And you’re humbled. You come to the cross of Christ. And what you find are the doors of heaven swinging wide open. Wide open to somebody who calls Jesus Lord. And the doors of this thing called the church that you thought was this evil entity…the doors of the church opening wide. And you’ve got a big family you knew nothing about. Maybe you get to experience what it means to be part of a family like you’ve never experienced before. And may all of us in faith in Christ act like brothers and sisters. You don’t give up on your family, do you? No, I mean, you mend ways and make it happen. You act like the family that we are, because there ain’t nothing more important than family, right? And especially the family of God.