Lessons From The Past
On Sunday we concluded our study over the book of Acts. Fifty-seven sermons, which equates to more than a year's worth of Sunday mornings, spent studying the history of the early Church. At first glance, this may seem like a strange part of the Bible to devote so much attention to. Sure, devoting a year to one of the gospels; or to a theological and doctrinal treasure chest, like the book of Romans; or maybe even the Psalms may seem reasonable. But studying a boring old history book...why???
The great American poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, once said, "I have great respect for the past. If you don't know where you've come from, you don't know where you're going." There is great wisdom in those words. So often in today's culture of short attention spans and instant gratification, our churches seek to cater to the culture rather than being a transformative influence on it. We spend so much time and energy trying to develop new and novel ways to draw people in. Rather than simply teaching the truth of God's word and trusting in its power to work in people's lives, we too often trust in our own ability to do ministry well.
In light of this reality, there is much we can learn by looking back on what was the single greatest period of Church growth in all of history. What lessons does the past have to teach us in our context today? How can something so old and outdated still be relevant for us?
I've often times spoken of my affinity for the ministry of an organization named 9 Marks. Founded by Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington DC, and based on a "manifesto" he wrote back in the late 90's, the biblically based and practically rich teaching and ministry of 9 Marks has been incredibly beneficial to many churches and pastors (including myself) over the last 20+ years. I think that in his "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church," Dever captures and summarizes the ministry model we find in the book of Acts. In other words, he isn't "reinventing the wheel," rather he is championing the practices that have effectively grown Christ's kingdom for over 2000 years.
The nine marks that we find as the foundation of the early Church, and present in healthy churches today are:
1. Expository Preaching
Romans 10:14 says, "How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?" The early Church was boldly and unapologetically proclaiming the truth of God's word. From Peter's sermon at Pentecost, to Stephen's bold preaching to the angry mob, to Paul's powerful teaching to the Gentiles, the book of Acts is full of powerful preaching. However, these preachers didn't impact and persuade crowds with clever words, engaging stories, or flashy gimmicks. They simply shared God's word and trusted in its promise to not return void. We need more preachers who are faithful and devoted students of God's word, not more witty and entertaining orators.
2. Biblical Theology
Andy Stanley, a megachurch pastor in the Atlanta area, caused quite a stir among evangelicals last year when he said that Christians needed to "unhitch the Old Testament from their faith." We all love the grace-filled message of the New Testament. So much so that we often choose to pretend the Bible begins with Matthew and ends at Revelation. The problem with this popular practice is that it robs the hope and power of grace we so cherish of its foundation. The Bible is the story of Jesus from beginning (Genesis) to end (Revelation). We cant adequately appreciate any one piece of the story without understanding it in light of the whole. We often forget that the preachers and teachers of the early Church (including Jesus himself) were leading people to faith largely with a Bible that consisted only of the Old Testament. Most of the New Testament writings weren't written and circulated until much later in the first century.
3. The Gospel
The gospel is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). In other words, it is the good news that Christ lived a perfectly righteous life in obedience to God, and willingly traded his righteousness for our sinfulness, in order that we might be reconciled to God on his behalf. This is the greatest news the world has ever heard! So, why do we so often believe that we need to add something to it in order for it to be effective in transforming lives? Again, the apostles and the early Church leaders trusted in the finished work of Jesus Christ to accomplish the work of salvation, not the creativeness of their own ministry.
When and where the true gospel is being preached, lives are being transformed. We see this truth in spades throughout the book of Acts. Sometimes it's one (the Ethiopian eunuch), sometimes a whole family (Cornelius and the Philippian jailer), and sometimes it's thousands (Pentecost). Regardless of the size of the crop, when gospel seed is sown, we are sure to reap a harvest.
What started in Jerusalem and the surrounding area in Acts chapter 1, had reached all the way to Rome (the most powerful and influential city of its day) by Acts chapter 28. That didn't happen by accident. Early Christians, living in obedience to the Great Commission, took the gospel to the far reaches of the ancient world, and beyond. Are we actively living on mission and boldly sharing our faith today? So often we make excuses for why we don't share. The early Christians shared their faith under constant threat of persecution and even death. So, what's our excuse???
In our digital age, church membership has come under assault. Often, people think that reading books or listening to sermon podcasts has eliminated their need to belong to a local body of believers. The book of Acts demolishes that nonsense. Of course belonging to a local church family provides fellowship and Christian community, both vitally important elements of a healthy Christian life; but even more so, it provides accountability and the opportunity to serve (and to serve with) others. Jesus' glory is most fully displayed upon the cross. In his upside-down kingdom, where the last is first and the first is last, his power and majesty is manifest for all to see in his humiliation and death for sinners. The same King who washed the feet of his disciples, went even further in suffering death on their behalf. When we submit our lives to Christ, in the context and community of a local body of believers, when we sacrificially serve others and place their needs and well-being above our own, when we share of our time, talents, and treasures, we are reflecting the image and glory of Christ in us. You just can't get that online...or anywhere else for that matter.
A true sign of genuine love for another is the willingness to step into the mess in hopes of saving them. Discipline, perhaps because it is so often done poorly or wrongly, is far too commonly seen as a hurtful and negative thing. However, discipline, as administered by the church in the lives of its covenant members, is always intended to build-up and not to tear-down. It is messy, painful, and unpleasant (because sin is all of those things), but it is a necessary part of a healthy church. The art and practice of healthy church discipline that we see displayed in the early Church, as documented in the book of Acts, is something that we desperately need to resurrect in our modern churches if we want to see our people live healthy and joyful Christian lives.
The book of Acts starts with Jesus, one man, and ends with churches scattered across the ancient world. Jesus' plan and model for growing his kingdom was then, and is still today, based on a process of replication. That is, Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the proclamation of the gospel, is transforming people into his image. Scripture tells us that Jesus was the creative power that established the entire universe. In the same way, he is the re-creative power that is redeeming and restoring it unto himself. This process of replication and multiplication is discipleship. It is how Christ built the early Church in Acts and it is how he is continuing to build his Church today.
Last, but not least, all great movements need structure and leadership. All of us are called to lead in areas of our lives, but some are called to lead in special ways for the benefit of the Church. We see men and women, in the book of Acts, faithfully obeying the call to lead. Godly leadership begins with God. A good leader must first and foremost be a good follower...of Christ. We see this so often displayed in the life and ministry (even as recently as the story of the shipwreck in Acts chapter 27) of the Apostle Paul. His strength, power, and wisdom as a leader was fueled by his faith in Christ. Too often we try to lead in the church according to what we think is best, or what the world is telling us makes for good leadership. If we want to have healthy churches, we need to model our leadership not after the new and popular worldly trends, but rather after the faith of men like Paul.
I pray that our study over Acts has been as fruitful, challenging, and convicting for you as it has for me. What better way to develop a passion and vision for ministry that will drive us into the future, than by taking the time to carefully and methodically walk through the history of the early Church!
If you missed this week's sermon (or just want to listen again), follow the link below to listen. Or subscribe to our podcast in iTunes.
Part 57 - The Conclusion Of Acts
Questions discussed in this sermon:
1. Why is Paul bit by a snake?
2. How does the book of Acts conclude?
3. Why is the book of Acts so important to study?
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