The Beginning of The Church

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Most of you will know our vision as a church for the next 20 years: Under God, it’s to grow to become a church of 5,000 with another 5,000 in church plants. Currently, we’re just a church of a thousand with another 200 in one plant – so how realistic or unrealistic does that vision sound to you? Or take a smaller example – the Christianity Explored ‘taster sessions’ we had back in January. We were challenged to pray and work for 300 to come, when our previous biggest had been just 80. Again, how did that sound to you before the event (when in fact 250 people came)?

The point is: our vision for what could happen will start in one of two places. It’ll either start with what is already happening and imagine just a bit more. Or it’ll start with God and what he wants to happen and can make happen – i.e., with God’s plan and God’s power, our theme tonight. And where our vision starts will make all the difference to what we end up attempting for the Lord – as individuals and as a church. Which is why we need the book of Acts – which we’re looking at in this new series. Because it’s the record of the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church right from the start. And although it’s not a blueprint of what we should do, it is a vision of what God wants to happen and can make happen. E.g., the chapter we’re looking at tonight ends with 3,000 people coming to faith after which it says:

“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (2.47)

Don’t you wish that could be said of us? That in the ‘Vicar’s Note’ in this month’s newsletter you could have read, ‘March has been a quite remarkable month in which we’ve seen someone become a Christian every day’? (in that reserved, British sort of way we say things here). Well, God inspired Acts to make us want to see more happening, and ask, ‘Why are we not more like that? And how can we be?’ So would you turn in the Bibles to Acts 1, and as you do, can I say: the Bible passages for each sermon are on the program card, so it would help to read them over before you come. Can I also say: many people find it helps to bring a pen and note down what most strikes them from God’s Word, so they can remember and act on it – and I’d encourage you to try that. And can I also say: if you’d like to read something alongside this sermon series, I’d recommend The Message of Acts by John Stott in The Bible Speaks Today series (IVP).

Now, this time last year, we looked at chapters 1-4 and I’ve been asked to remind us of their message before we do 5-7. So I’ve chosen chapter 2 – because we didn’t do it in detail last year and because it’s one of the most important in the Bible. So let’s set the scene. Look down at Acts 1.1-2:

1 “In my former book [i.e., Luke’s Gospel – Luke wrote both his Gospel and Acts. ‘In my former book], Theophilus [who was the person he dedicated it to], I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2until the day he was taken up to heaven...”

The implication being: that Jesus’ resurrection and return to heaven didn’t mark the end of his work but just the beginning. Putting it another way, his finished work of dying and rising for our salvation was just the beginning of his work of calling people across the world and down the years to receive that salvation. And during one resurrection appearance, the Lord Jesus tells his disciples that’s the work he’s now going to do through them. Look on to verse 8 – he says:

8 “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you [so there’s God’s power]; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [and that’s God’s plan]

Chapter 2 says more about both God’s plan and power, so

First, GOD’S PLAN (verses 1-13)

And God’s plan is simply this: that all people, everywhere, should hear that Jesus is Lord. Look down at Acts 2, verse 1. The disciples have been told to wait in Jerusalem for the moment when they’ll receive the Holy Spirit. And this is how it happens, verses 1 to 3:

1 “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.”

Now that word ‘tongues’ could equally be translated ‘languages’ – just like I might say, ‘English is my tongue.’ And that’s what’s going on here: the Holy Spirit enables them to speak instantly and fluently, in a whole lot of other languages. On a holiday to Mallorca I once bought a book called Instant Spanish and needless to say the result in me was anything but that. Whereas the miracle here was that the Holy Spirit did give instant and fluent Italian, Arabic, Persian – every language of the pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost. So read on to see the effect. The disciples have by now poured out onto the streets and verse 5 says:

5 “Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs – we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues [ie, languages]!" 12Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, "What does this mean?" 13Some, however, made fun of them and said, "They have had too much wine."” (verses 5-13)

So what does it mean? Simply this: it’s a miraculous foretaste of what God wants his church to be doing until Jesus comes again. Namely, telling all people, everywhere that Jesus is Lord. Crossing ethnic and religious and language barriers world-wide and telling all people that the risen Jesus is their rightful Lord, and that they need forgiveness for ignoring him and a fresh start in relationship with him.

So it was, simply, a miraculous foretaste of what God wants us to be doing – only we can’t expect the miraculous bit (the gift of instant fluency in other languages) as a general rule today. What we expect today is to have to learn those other languages by hard graft in order to go and tell many people about Jesus. So, e.g., we support Alan and Ritva Brown, who are translating the Bible into the Kovai language in Papua New Guinea. And I’m sure they’d have loved the gift of instant fluency in Kovai. But that’s not what we’re to expect. I have heard recent testimonies of missionaries being temporarily enabled to speak another language as in Acts 2 – and have no reason to doubt them. But we’re not to expect that as a general rule. Which is why some of us need to learn another language and move to another part of the world to tell people about Jesus. Is that what God is putting on your heart? It’s also why those of us who can speak another language need to see that as part of God’s gifting of us to tell others about Jesus, and we should be asking, ‘How and where am I going to use that gift for Christ?’ Don’t just sit on it! It’s also why those of us who don’t move must be supporting those who do – like Alan and Ritva Brown (and you can read about our world-mission partners in the booklet Serving the World 2007/8, from the Welcome Desk.) And it’s also why we invest so much in international ministry here – because every year, without us having to move or learn another language, God brings us people from all over the world, who’ve learned our language, and whom we can tell about Jesus in English. But the most obvious thing to say is that before any of that, God wants each of us to be trying to tell those immediately around us – in our own place and our own language.

Now I’ve begged the question of what these disciples were actually saying. In the end of verse 11 the crowd says:

“... we hear them declaring the wonders of God...”

And in the OT, that phrase refers back to God’s saving work in the exodus. And I reckon that, after forty days of Jesus appearing and explaining his death and resurrection, these disciples could only have been declaring God’s saving work through Jesus. And I guess that what Peter says in the second half of chapter 2 probably spells out what they were all going on about in the first half. So just turn over to verse 32. Peter talks to the crowd about Jesus’ life and death and then says, verse 32 to 33:

32 “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we [ie, those first eye-witnesses] are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”

So what will tell the world that Jesus is risen and rightful Lord of all? Well, verse 32, the eye-witness evidence of the apostles will tell them – which is now on paper in the New Testament (NT). But not only that. In verse 33, Peter says that what the crowd is now seeing and hearing – namely, believers being public and passionate about their faith in Jesus – is also evidence: evidence that Jesus is alive and has come into their lives by his Spirit. So, evidence on paper and evidence in person.

And leading one of our Christianity Explored groups has reminded me how those two strands of evidence point to Jesus as Lord. You need the evidence on paper – so Christianity Explored looks through Mark’s Gospel, and at the start of the course that’s the focus of most of the questions: ‘Is it true? How do you know? How can you possibly believe in miracles and the resurrection?’ And so on. But as time goes on, more questions get asked of you, the evidence in person: ‘So, how did you come to believe? What do you mean when you talk about a ‘personal relationship with Jesus’? How has God changed you – and couldn’t it just be explained away as self-improvement (like someone dieting)?’

So we have the evidence on paper that Jesus is risen and therefore Lord; and we are the evidence in person that he’s alive and comes into peoples’ lives by his Spirit. And God’s plan is that all people, everywhere hear and see that evidence.

Now most of us knew that already. But we need to hear it again and again because we get so discouraged in this area. Because at any given time, our friends and family and neighbours don’t by any means all want to hear about Jesus And if we take our cue from what they seem to want, we’ll give up trying to talk to them and give up inviting them to things and give up praying for them. Instead, we need to take our cue from what God wants – and whoever it is we’re trying to tell about Jesus, we need to keep saying to ourselves, ‘God wants them to hear and therefore I’ll keep trying.’

Now I guess many of us would say, ‘I want to be part of that plan. But I’m not very good at it, and I’m often held back by fear. So what about this promise of ‘power’ to be his witnesses?’ So,

Secondly, GOD’S POWER (verses 14-21)

And the power that helps us overcome our weaknesses and fears in this area is the presence of the Holy Spirit. Because he creates the faith in us that gives us both the desire to witness and that ‘sixth sense’ that the risen Lord is with us and will help us and can use us. So look on to verses 14 to 18:

14"Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: "Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! 16No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
[And then he quotes from the OT prophet, Joel.]
17 “'In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.”

Now in the OT, God gave his Spirit to just a select few – like Joel – to reveal himself to them (through things like dreams and visions). And that moved them and fired them to speak to others out of that personal knowledge of God they’d been given (i.e., to ‘prophesy’). But Peter’s saying that on the day of Pentecost, a new era began, verse 17 and 18:

17 “'In the last days [ie, between Jesus’ first and second comings] God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people...and [end of v18], they will prophesy.”

I.e., the time is over when God gave that personal knowledge of him to just the select few among his people. Instead, now, all of us who are believers have the Spirit equally and can have the same very personal knowledge of God as each other. Now you may be thinking, ‘Well, I’m a believer, but I’ve never had dreams and visions, like v17 – God’s never revealed himself to me like that.’ Well, join the club. We have to realise that Joel was using categories from OT time to talk about how God would reveal himself in NT time – because those are the only categories he knew. But living in NT time, we know that God now reveals himself not through dreams and visions but as we hear the gospel and as his Spirit opens our eyes to see that Jesus is Lord.

And Peter’s saying that when the Spirit does that in people, end of v18, ‘they will prophesy’ – i.e., it inevitably moves them, fires them, to speak for Jesus, as this lot were doing in Acts 2. And that’s certainly my experience: once the Spirit had brought me to faith, I found I had a real desire and sense of responsibility – even compulsion – to tell others about Jesus. And I take it that’s the kind of power (or ‘fire’ or ‘drive’, whatever you want to call it) that Acts 1, v8 is on about. However (as you’ll know if you’re a believer), that doesn’t make being a witness easy or mean we always take the opportunities we should – or that we’re the most ‘powerful’ witnesses we could be. And that’s for the simple reason that there are opposing powers at work – like being too swallowed up in Christian circles; or lack of love for people; or fear of how they’ll react. Those things can dampen and even smother our witness – like a bonfire heaped with wet leaves. But if you’re born again, you will find in your heart that desire and sense of responsibility and even compulsion to tell others about Jesus – and that’s the power, the fire, the drive, that Acts 1 and 2 are on about. If we didn’t dampen down the Spirit’s work like that, I guess we’d be a bigger church and growing faster – to put it negatively. But putting the positive: if we didn’t have the Spirit’s work, this church wouldn’t even exist.

Now we can make two mistakes about this work of the Holy Spirit.

One mistake is for believers to sit around thinking that we don’t yet have this power and need to ‘wait’ for it to ‘come’ somehow before we do anything. And if you look back to Acts 1.4 (and half-way through the verse), you’ll see that Jesus does say to his disciples in one of his resurrection appearances:

“Do not leave Jerusalem but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water but in a few days, you will be baptised with [i.e., receive] the Holy Spirit.”

On the strength of which, some people say, ‘That shows we should wait on the Lord for his Spirit and not do anything by way of witness until he’s come.’ So imagine a group of Christians in a prayer-meeting, waiting on the Lord. And this guy knocks on the door, comes in and says, ‘I’m so glad I’ve found you. I’ve been looking everywhere for a church because I really want to become a Christian but I don’t know how to…’ And one of them says, ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t think we can help: we’re still waiting for the Spirit.’ Now that’s an extreme illustration, I know. But it makes the point that it’s a totally wrong application of Acts 1 and 2 to say that believers today should wait for the Spirit and not do anything by way of witness until he’s somehow ‘come’ – for the very simple reason that he has already come. We couldn’t be believers unless he’d already come into our lives and created faith in our hearts. Whereas back in Acts 1 those first disciples were caught in a totally unique position: Jesus had died, risen and appeared – and they now believed in him as Lord. But they hadn’t yet received the Spirit because Jesus hadn’t yet returned to heaven to give the Spirit. So their waiting to receive the Spirit was because of that unique moment they lived through; it’s not in any way a model for believers today. And, I should also says, nor was their experience on the day of Pentecost a model for every conversion today. Traditional Pentecostal churches (and many other ‘charismatic churches’) have taught that everyone who receives the Spirit will speak in tongues as a sign that they’re now a genuine Christian. But that again is a totally wrong misapplication of Acts 2.

But back to the main point. Which is that if we’re believers, we need to realise that we do already have the same Spirit as they did; that he can make us witnesses like they were; and that he isn’t prompting us to wait – he’s prompting us to act. And you’ll know that experience if you’re a believer. You’ll know what it’s like to be prompted to get to know your neighbours better. Prompted to sort your priorities out. Prompted to think who you can invite to the next Christianity Explored ‘taster session’. Prompted to take your courage in your hands and speak for Jesus when an opening in conversation suddenly comes. And so on. Now of course there are times when it’s wisest to wait in witness and not say too much (or even not say anything for the time being) – especially with people closest to us, like family. It’s just this idea of ‘waiting for the Spirit’ that isn’t right. Because he’s prompting us to act. Which is why we should welcome structured things like Christianity Explored and invitation services and CU missions and so on. Sometimes we don’t like them because they challenge us and make us feel guilty for what we’re not doing. And you also hear people say, ‘If we were all really on fire for the Lord we wouldn’t need those things – they’re a bit unspiritual’. Whereas in fact the Spirit uses means: he uses those things to help us actually do what we want to do. That’s certainly my experience: that he prompts me through those things – through the challenge, through any sense of guilt that I’m not doing what I should be – so that I end up actually doing what, deep down, I want to be doing.

So, one mistake is to think we don’t yet have the Spirit’s power and need to wait for him somehow before we act. But the other mistake is to think there’s no more power to be had – no more to pray for, no way of becoming much better and bolder in our witness. And that isn’t right either. And as I said at the start, the book of Acts is meant to leave us asking, ‘Why are we not more like that – more bold, more fruitful?’ And that should lead us to pray for more, as they did. So just turn over, lastly, to Acts 4. This is where we left off last year. Opposition to their witness has begun. So from now on in Acts we meet the big opposing power of fear - fear that I won’t say it right; fear that I’ll get out of my depth; fear of what people will think of me; fear; fear of how they’ll react. Well, look how they prayed in the face of fear, in Acts 4, verses 29 to 31:

29 “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30[And] Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." 31After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.”

So although we receive the Spirit once and for all, and don’t need to ask repeatedly for him to ‘come’, we do need to ask repeatedly that he’d do his work in us – of strengthening our faith and our conviction that the gospel is true; of strengthening our love for the Lord and our willingness to look foolish for his sake; of strengthening our love for people around us, so that we put concern for their salvation above our own comfort. As the apostle Paul wrote:

“For God did not give us a Spirit of timidity, but a Spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1.7)

So the answer to feeling fearful is to pray like they did in Acts 4. And my experience – from doing Parish Visiting to preaching at invitation services, from one-to-one conversations to leading Christianity Explored – is that the battle to overcome fear is won in prayer beforehand. And it’s not so much that the Spirit removes your fears, but that he gives you that sense that the risen Lord Jesus is with you and will help you and use you, which empowers you to act despite your fears. And in my experience, as here in Acts 4, the Spirit emboldens groups of people through group prayer – which I think is a big weakness of our church. And down the tracks, I’d love to see us having, before each Christianity Explored taster session, a prayer-meeting just for that – to pray concertedly for the inviting and the beginning of it and the long-term fruit of it.

So that’s the message of the beginning of Acts. It’s about God’s plan – so that if you ask the question about anyone, ‘Does God want this person to hear that Jesus is Lord?’ the answer is, ‘Yes.’ And it’s about God’s power in the presence of his Spirit. So that if you also ask, ‘Can he use me in that?’ the answer’s the same: he can, and if you step out in witness, he will.

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