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Archive for Acts

 

On the surface we would believe that the early church in Acts was blessed with outstanding growth due to the anointed preaching of the apostles; their balanced practices that would evolve into much of our church programming today; and a talented and committed membership base. Only when we gaze beneath the surface do we discover that the church was framed in the midst of adversity.

 

The early church had to deal with persecution enacted by religious leaders and later, the Roman government itself. The church had to confront hypocrisy within its own ranks as certain members chose to seek reputation enhancement over character development. But in Acts 6 we find the greatest challenge of all…the question concerning what kind of church they were going to be.

This weekend in worship I framed the conversation by describing the difference between a battle ship and a cruise ship. I’ve not been on a battle ship, but it appears that everything about a battle ship and everyone on a battle ship is there in support of the mission. From the crew to the bridge, every person has an assignment that relates to the mission. Every function is evaluated in light of the mission.

A cruise ship, on the other hand, is about the comfort of the passengers. Passengers pay the fare to receive first class service, food, and entertainment. The experience is wonderful, but it’s all about the passengers.
The difference between the battleship and the cruise ship is the nature of their mission. What if the early church would have assessed their needs and their size and determined to make their mission about their “passengers” instead of staying on point with regards to their mission? It could have been disastrous! Yet many churches face the temptation to focus inwardly on the care and comfort of their members versus reaching out to their communities and the world.
What did the apostles do when they faced the problem in Acts 6 regarding food distribution to the Greek speaking widows?
The first thing they did was to guard their unity. We find the apostle’s concern for the church’s unity implied in the text. In the New Testament, unity refers to “thinking in the same direction.” In other words, unity means that everyone is on the same page, thinking the same thoughts.
The second thing the apostles did was to retain their focus. Verse two made it clear that the primary focus of the church was and would continue to be the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Third, the apostles involved their membership. They didn’t assess the problem at hand and minimize it or act as though it didn’t exist. No, they developed a plan of action and sought the community’s participation in selecting people of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom to engage the need. Ministry has an important role in the church, but like football, the purpose of ministry within the body is to get the members back on the field of play where they can continue to participate in the broader mission of the church.
Next, they adjusted their organization. They made a systemic change that would serve the mission by serving the people on mission.
Finally, they increased their influence. This simple process enabled the church to continue its growth and extend its influence to the point that even Jewish priests were converting to faith in Christ.
As I prepared and delivered this message this weekend, I was amazed at the maturity and wisdom of the apostles who led the early church. I was even more impressed by their unwavering commitment to the mission of the church. When given the choice between remaining a battleship or becoming a cruise ship, they got it right. I hope we will too.
Categories : Acts, Gospel, Mission, Purpose
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2010 has had some interesting religious story lines thus far. Heated debate has lit up the phone lines over controversial topics such as whether it’s appropriate and sensitive to build a mosque at “Ground Zero” in New York City or whether Florida pastor Terry Jones exercised proper judgment by promoting that he would burn copies of the Koran on September 11. Add to this the report by Mark Hanson last week in the Des Moines Register that the American Atheists organization has selected Des Moines as the site of their 2011 national convention, and you have the kindling to start a fiery conversation regarding the nature of religious liberty in America today. You can find the article by clicking here.

Last weekend in worship I shared a lengthy passage from Acts 5:12-42, and shared some thoughts regarding the ancient text vis a vis our contemporary cultural landscape. Here are six things I think that have helped me wrap my mind around some of the current issues:

1. The Christian community has got to do more than pay lip service to religious liberty in America. My pedestrian understanding of religious liberty is that Americans are afforded freedom of worship, freedom for worship, and freedom from worship. In other words, I can worship as I see fit, you can worship as you see fit, and if it’s your preference, you are free not to worship at all. When Westboro Baptist Church (Fred Phelps) picketed our church and four others in 2006, they were exercising their freedom of speech and worship. Were their methods tactful, tasteful, or sensitive? No. Did they have the right to do so? Yes. Let’s make sure that our conversation about the mosque at ground zero doesn’t confuse religious liberty in America with what is sensitive toward the victims and their families of 9/11. I believe its two conversations.

2. The Christian movement in history flourished most during times of persecution and religious plurality. Through my preparation of my present series from Acts, I have cited on two occasions the work of Rodney Stark, who, before taking his present post at Baylor University served as professor of sociology and comparative religions at the University of Washington for 32 years. In his book The Rise of Christianity, Stark writes that by the middle of the fourth century, Christians comprised some 56% of the entire population of the Roman Empire. Such impressive growth of the movement happened, in part, through at least five emperors who ruthlessly tortured and killed Christians. Had the first generation of believers following the resurrection of Christ been afforded the protections that we possess in postmodern America, where we spend more annually on pet food than missions, would we know the gospel today?

3. Fear is bad form for the Christian. I think the most disturbing aspect of the present conversation is that it is heavily peppered with fear. “If they let this happen, then what’s next?” seems to be the seasoning applied to every proposition. As I read the Bible, I am reminded that Christians serve a God who enables 80 year old men to conquer the army of Pharaoh with a stick and who empowers 17 year old boys to defeat giants with rocks and a slingshot. Paul told Timothy that “God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of love, power, and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). So if your heart is gripped with fear, it’s not from God.

4. Political triumphalism is not the answer. Christians must always remember that the cross flies higher than the flag. Our government will not “save us.” Why would we even expect it to? Our allegiance is first and foremost to the Kingdom of God, and our salvation lies therein.

5. Christians should seek ways to elevate the conversation. I recently did a streaming web talk show here in Des Moines. The host, J. Michael McKoy, is a committed Christian man. When he asked during the interview for my thoughts on tolerance, I responded by saying that Christianity has no word for tolerance in the Scripture. Tolerance is the attitude of the reductionist who seeks to meet minimal requirements. After all, Jesus didn’t teach “tolerate your enemies…and tolerate those who insult you or abuse you.” Rather than broker behavior in terms of tolerance, the Christian is called to love. Love trumps tolerance in that it is active in its behavior, not passive. Christians are called to love, and where there is love there is room for conversation and understanding, not judgment and ignorance.

6. Christians should interpret all that we see going on as an unprecedented opportunity to live the gospel and to share the gospel. It takes both. The gospel message is just another message unless it is complimented by behaving in ways that are consistent with the gospel message. The 30 gospel sermons found in Acts are inspiring and challenging. But the response to those sermons was based on more than listening to the mighty words of God’s anointed apostles. The listeners simultaneously observed the culture of the committed and discerned that life in Christ was more than words. In these unconventional days, my prayer is that we will see every challenge as a fresh opportunity for the gospel and that we will share boldly and live consistently.

Sep
15

Fakers: 3

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Before I wrap up this conversation on hypocrisy, I want to make one more observation. Astute Bible readers have learned that first occurrences in any story line are important. That’s what makes Genesis, for example, an important book in the Old Testament. In the story of the emerging church in Acts, this passage about the first instance of God’s discipline should get our attention. What is God trying to say to the congregation then? What is God trying to say to us today?

As for then, I think God was making a statement to the people about character and integrity. Were Ananias and Sapphira the only sinners there? Were they the first to commit a sin? My answer would be no and again, no. So what’s the deal? God was teaching them that the goal of faith is character development that reflects the image of God. This is more important than their (or our, for that matter) attempts to attain some form of sinless perfection. Life is to be lived from the inside out. Hypocrisy attempts to live from the outside in, which is an approach to faith that must be soundly rejected.

The passage concludes in verse 5:11 with the first use of the word ekklesia, which is rendered “church” in our English translations. So what does it mean when we see the first instance of church discipline and the first use of the word church in this narrative account? I recall reading a book on small group ministry where Bill Hybels wrote, “The value of community lies in the possibility of exclusion.” God was trying to take this crowd of passionate believers and shape them into a new society, an alternative community of faith that would pursue the Kingdom of God with every fiber of its being. Authenticity is one of God’s values and should be one of ours as well. Don’t get me wrong, sin is not good and God is holy. But you can’t genuinely possess clean hands without a pure heart, unless you have a thing for legalism.

Participation in God’s new community comes with some stiff demands, and he sets the standard high. Jesus said we must love one another as we love ourselves. Paul’s epistles flesh that principle out even further. We should be discerning about this in our churches today. Not in ways that prescribe litmus tests to our morality and ethics. But in ways that insist on authenticity, character, and integrity that reach beyond whether our baptism is in order and we adhere to doctrinal statements and confessions.

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Sep
14

Fakers: 2

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Hypocrisy is dangerous. Anytime a person pays more attention to building their reputation, image, or brand than they do developing their character, the results can be devastating. So what can work a day world Christians do to prevent pretense in our lives? Here’s a little list of things for you to consider:

1. Don’t judge others actions or their motives. Jesus said it best, “Do not judge others and you will not be judged. For you will be treated (judged) as you treat (judge) others” (Matthew 7:1-2, NLT). If you will commit to totally avoid the trap of comparing yourself to others, which is the basis of judging, you’ll have a nice head start on preventing pretense.

2. Acknowledge the possibility of hypocrisy in your own life. In other words, walk in genuine humility. 1 Corinthians 10:12 states, “If you think you are standing strong, be careful not to fall.”

3. Be open to someone who truly loves you (no agendas, no strings attached) speaking truth into your life. A mirror can help us correct physical imperfections, such as uncombed hair or lettuce in the teeth. But a true friend serves as a mirror into your soul and helps you see the nicks and dings in your character that need work. One of the reasons King David got off to a spectacular start in life was that he had Jonathan at his side to tell him the truth when he needed to hear it. As long as Jonathan was alive, David was unbeatable. But when David lost his “mirror,” he went downhill. Fast.

4. Ruthlessly eradicate pretense at first sight. While Acts 5 doesn’t give us the extended version of Ananias and Sapphira’s story, experience would tell us that they didn’t just wake up one morning a decide to pull the biggest ruse in church history up to that point in time. We never just wake up and sin grossly. There’s an erosion that takes place in character, followed by the determination to take a short cut. My point is that all sin comes to us gradually. When we sense the drift, we need to take pre-emptive action.

5. Choose your audience daily. Joshua gives us a great example of this. In chapter 24 of the book that bears his name, Joshua challenged the people with this: “Choose this day who you will serve…but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” Every day we must renew our commitment to live our lives for an audience of One.

6. Finally, always remember that you can fool all of the people all of the time, but you can never fool God. This is a simple yet profound reality that we need to be reminded of regularly. God sees you, inside and out, all the time. Others may not be able to tell whether or not you’re a faker, but God knows.

I hope these suggestions will be helpful to you in the ongoing battle against pretense and hypocrisy. You may not become sinlessly perfect in life. But you can become an authentic person of character and integrity. When you do, your reputation will take care of itself.

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Sep
13

Fakers: 1

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Last weekend in worship I dealt with arguably the most difficult passage in the book of Acts…the story of Ananias and Sapphira. God is understandably serious about sin, but in this text he puts to death this couple for their hypocrisy and pretense. A pedestrian view of the story leaves the reader with a lot of questions, most of which are unanswered. The reader is simply left to look at the “big picture” and draw some practical applications for life.

If we are to believe that biblical names are a reflection of the people we study, it may be helpful to know that Ananias means “blessed by the Lord” and Sapphira means “beautiful.” This couple was “blessed and beautiful.” It kind of gives you the impression that they were a young, upwardly mobile couple who were looking to make their mark on the world. They were ambitious networkers who were striving for attention.

That is a sharp contrast to the context of the story. Acts 4 concludes with the report of a man named Joseph who had sold a field and given the money to the apostles for distribution to the poor. His act made such an impression on the apostles that they gave Joseph a nickname. They called him Barnabas, or for the English speaking world, “Mr. Encouragement.” Barnabas’ selfless and humble act of generosity earned him a favorable reputation in the church. I don’t think its too big of a stretch to imagine that all of this attention on Barnabas did not go unnoticed by the “blessed and beautiful” couple. There are two ways you can gain a reputation. You can do it though character development or you can manufacture it. Barnabas’ reputation came by the former. Ananias and Sapphira through the latter.

Jesus had a lot to say about hypocrisy. In fact, the word hypocrite comes from Greek theater and means “one who plays a part.” As I thought about hypocrisy I wrote my own definition. See what you think of this: “Hypocrisy is the result of manipulating your reputation in a favorable way without paying the price of character development.” When a person pays more attention to developing their reputation and their image than on developing their character, the results can be devistating.

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Sep
09

Uncommon: 4

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The early church was uncommon. It possessed attributes unlike any other community or organization known in their time. Their unity and value system was uncommon and they shared an uncommon story. As a result, they enjoyed the uncommon grace of God. As the text continues, we find another marker of this emerging movement: they had an uncommon sense of generosity.

“There were no needy people among them, because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas (which means ‘Son of Encouragement’). He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles” (Acts 4:34-37, NLT).

We are somewhat caught off guard to read the claim that the church was so generous that it had eliminated all economic need within their group. Because they valued one another over their material possessions, they gave generously, even if it meant parting with a house or a field. I think it’s important to note that they gave with no strings attached. They sold stuff and gave the proceeds to the apostles and allowed them to distribute the funds according to their own discretion. Amazing!

When you think about it, the people of God throughout history have been known for their generosity. Think about your community. What are the names of the hospitals? Here in the 515 we have four hospital systems, three of which are named after the religious affiliations that started them. Think about the colleges and universities in America. Many of those private schools were started by the people of God who held a conviction that education was a priority. Think about the orphanages or the agencies that work tirelessly to serve those in need. Again, the people of God were on the cutting edge of meeting human needs and solving real problems in society. Uncommon!

Generosity not only meets physical needs. It also meets a spiritual need: encouragement. Barnabas is strategically introduced to the reader in this context, and his personal generosity is associated with encouragement. In other words, your generosity serves to encourage others and validates the claims of our faith and the calling of our Lord.

Sep
08

Uncommon: 3

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This week I’ve been posting some reflections from last weekend’s message concerning the organic nature of the early church. This counter-culture movement can be evaluated by its external behaviors or by its internal character. I submit that we’ll get farther down the road if we focus on the internal character more than simply mimicking their acts. So far this week I’ve suggested that the early community possessed an uncommon unity and an uncommon value system. You can read the previous two posts to catch up if you need to. Today I want to talk about their uncommon story and their uncommon grace.

As the summary continues, Acts 4:33 states, “The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all.”

I’ve been required to do a few sworn depositions in my life, but I’ve only been called as a witness once in a trial. Either way, I was sworn under oath and asked to state the facts. Interestingly enough, the attorney’s concerned with each case really didn’t care about my opinion. The apostles testified (think taking the stand) to what they knew was true concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was an uncommon story in that it was not fabricated or embellished. It was the truth. The amazing thing about this uncommon story is that the person behind the story had and still had the power to transform lives. If you want to know why the apostles lived the way they did, their story is rooted in the larger story of Jesus. Their preaching was an invitation for others to root their lives in the story of Jesus.

Because of their uncommon character, the verse goes on to report that God’s grace was upon them. They were blessed by God. Those who know me are probably tired of me soap boxing on this, but it seems to be everywhere in Scripture: God’s blessings are not for us to enjoy; they are for us to share. The nation Israel in the Old Testament rose and fell according to their attitude toward their blessings. When we make God’s blessing about us, we begin to think we’re God’s favorite people, not his favored people. God’s favor is not about us. God’s blesses us so that we can be a blessing to others. What Israel missed the early church discovered. Two thousand years later, the principle remains the same.

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Sep
07

Uncommon: 2

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The emergent band of disciples was attractive to those in their community because they possessed an uncommon unity. Not only did they demonstrate Christian community, they also displayed an uncommon value system. Check out Acts 4:32, “And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.”

Imagine what it would be like to participate in a community where people were more prized than possessions. Their fidelity toward one another was so deep and authentic that they valued one another more than the stuff they owned. They gave one another their full and unconditional support.

While we are prone to help those in our communities of faith, often that help is measured. My dad helped me understand the difference between measured giving and giving with an open hand. Measured giving opens the wallet and shares what the giver wants to give. Giving with the open hand passes over the wallet and says, “take what you need.”

There’s a lot of stuff being written about the power of materialism and the bondage of material things in today’s society. How do we break the bondage of materialism? Maybe the bond is truly broken once and for all when we value one another more than we value our stuff. Maybe the bond is truly broken when we learn to find our identity in Christ instead of in what we have accumulated.

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Sep
06

Uncommon

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For the past several decades, churches have believed that if they could simply emulate the activities of the early church they could somehow produce the same results. For example, in the early 1970’s, a Californian named John Wimber believed that if the modern church could replicate the same miracles that were reported in Acts, evangelism would naturally result. His conviction led to the establishment of the Vineyard Church movement.

Others have looked to the 30 sermons of Acts and believed that if modern pulpits could recapture the persuasive power of oration that people would come to hear the gospel. We have witnessed all kinds of attempts, from the homogenous models of the church growth movement to the purpose driven model to emphasis on church health. But are we foolish to attempt these things? Could it be something deeper?

There are seven summary statements in Acts, the second of which concludes Acts 4. By this time in their early history, the number of disciples is clealy in the thousands. There was something magnetic about this emerging assembly. But was it really due to their actions? I think it was a matter of the heart.

Whether they knew it or not, they were forming a new society that was counter-culture to the status quo of everything else that was occuring in time. The early church was different than anything people had witnessed in government, culture, society, and even religion. These believers were uncommon…not like anything else in their very vanilla existence.

For example, these believers shared an uncommon unity. Acts 4:32 says that the believers were all “of one heart and one mind.” In their fragmented world, unity would have been an uncommon dimension of life, as is ours. In fact, I think the only place we seen unity and belonging today is in the world of athletics.

College football season began this past weekend. People love sports, partly because of the sense it gives people of belonging to something greater than themselves. If you talk to a football fan on Sunday and asked them how “their team” did the day before, it is not uncommon for them to reply “we won” or “we lost.” Really? Did they play? Probably not, but you get what I’m talking about.

These early believers were part of a magnetic movement that provided opportunity for new additions to belong to a common cause and to others with similar commitments and interests.

This week I want to break down some of the attitudes and values that marked the early church. I think its a grave mistake to assume that if we do what they did in Acts that we’ll get what they had. Our focus and study has to be on internal stuff, not the externals.

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Aug
25

Creating Movement

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The disciple’s first response to persecution was to pray. When they prayed about their problem, they acknowledged the sovereignty of God then gave God the problem. They concluded by committing themselves to live according to the promises of God rather than by conventional wisdom. As a result of this prayer, “the meeting place shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. Then they preached the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31, NLT).

It takes prayer to create the movement of God.

Maybe you’re like me in that you’ve tried to create the movement of God on your own, apart from prayer. Doing things like bargaining with God or trying to earn favor by your good works are just a couple of ways we try to create movement. But the bottom line is that God moves in response to prayer.

When he does move, he moves within his people to fulfill his plan and purpose. The disciples were filled with the Spirit, and when they were filled with the Spirit the gospel spilled from their lips. Remember that whenever you’re shaken, whatever fills you will spill out. In Acts 4, when the place was shaken the gospel spilled out of the disciples because the Spirit was what they were full of.

Categories : Acts, Prayer
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