How the Church Grows

 

“Keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.” — Gamaliel (Acts 5.38-39)

Christianity’s first followers faced enormous opposition, dozens of competing religions and philosophies in Rome, and lacked the backing of cultural influencers. In a sermon on discipleship Timothy Keller asks how Christianity “not only forced the most powerful state in the history of the world to come to terms with it, but even was able to outlive and survive the complete destruction of the very civilization and government that sought to destroy it?”

Keller explores the work of Yale historian Kenneth Scott Latourette’s seven-volume series, A History of the Expansion of Christianity, to reject the superficial answers often given:

1. Rome was struggling from a loss of absolute truth and Christianity provided it. 

The problem with this theory, according to Latourette, is that every religion offered absolute truth.

2. Christianity was far more inclusive than any competing religion or philosophy. 

No other religion was as gender-inclusive as the first Christians, nor, as Keller points out, “there really had never been anything that brought slave and masters together, the poor and the rich, the simple and the elite.” Yet if inclusivity was enough, Rome’s liberalism would have survived.

3. Intransigence and flexibility.

While Christians denied the syncretism of Eastern religions, they were also enormously flexible in regards to who could come to faith. Converts did not have to leave their culture, change their language, or abandon their vocation—instead they became witnesses inside their communities. But this doesn’t account for the speed and scale at which Christianity spread.

Finally, Latourette concludes:
It is clear that at the very beginning of Christianity, there must have occurred a vast release of energy, unequalled in the history of the race. Without it, the future course of the faith is inexplicable… Something happened to the men who associated with Jesus. That burst of energy was ascribed by the early disciples to the founder of their faith. Why this occurred may lie outside the realms in which historians are supposed to move.

As Christians adjust to a smaller global population we must not look to Acts as a step-by-step model for programs. The first Church grew not by might, nor by power, but by the Spirit of God. Its followers stopped at nothing in their submission to Christ, love for their neighbor, and sacrifice for one another.

Today’s Reading
Ezra 5 (Listen – 3:02)
Acts 5 (Listen – 6:49)

Resolutions that Bring Change

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” — Jesus (Acts 1.8)

Julius Caesar updated the Roman calendar in 46 B.C.E., moving the beginning of the year and drawing attention to Janus. The ancient deity, who reigns over beginnings and endings, is depicted as having two heads—one facing the future, the other looking back toward the past.

At the same time in history it was a cultural standard in Babylon to make pledges to the gods—particularly around the return of borrowed objects and the repayment of debt.

The desire to be resolute this time of year has deep roots, though we are not as superstitious. Modern New Year’s resolutions are generally not focused on commitments to a deity, but to self. The principle strength for accomplishing goals is our own discipline and power; the primary goal is that our life will be better.

We can discipline ourselves to eat better, work out more, or use our time more wisely. Many will succeed—we are shockingly powerful creations—but accomplishment in these areas still leaves us longing for something greater.

In Acts 1, after making possible the fulfillment of all humanity’s longings, Christ passed his mission to his church. Contrary to the contortions of his message today, he did not challenge them to live perfect lives (legalism), to be their best selves (individualism), or to live a blessed life (prosperity gospel).

Christ told his followers that power would come through his Spirit—the implication is that they would remain weak—their power would be his presence. He gave them a mission that required them to sacrifice their pride, taking his message to the people they liked the least. He invited them to join something larger than themselves: his mission to restore all things.

Gospel-centered resolutions, it would follow, are those that cost our pride and sin the most—and yield the greatest gains for the cause of Christ. They join us to the community of believers and give us cause to rely on prayer and scripture as we lay down our pursuit of self for the glory of Christ. They accomplish, through our lives, the very wonderful things God intends for humanity. Best of all, they will come to fruition because of Christ’s power and presence in our world.

Today’s Reading
Ezra 4 (Listen – 4:27)
Acts 4 (Listen – 5:15)

Christ, Our Hope – Black Lives Matter :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published April 13, 2015)


“AMEN to this reflection. I long for the day when those of us with the power give up our power. And make intentional decisions to live lives that modeled Christ’s serving those around him.” — Brian


Psalm 20.7
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

Civil Rights, let-alone equality, for African Americans have been notoriously difficult for The United States to secure, structure, and maintain. Names like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and now Walter Scott, shot eight times in the back by a police officer in South Carolina last week, have become representatives of this national tragedy.

Few in our country believe governance and the mental resolve of the masses alone are sufficient to solve such an insidious problem. In this way we observe part of the words of the Psalmist: we no longer trust in chariots (governance) and horses (power). Yet few of the dominant voices in American culture would offer up “the Lord our God,” as the Psalmist does, as the solution to racism. Perhaps this is to our detriment.

History has its share of those who maligned Scripture to condone racism, slavery, and worse — but it was the words and work of Christ that ultimately crumbled the foundation slavery sat upon. 

Throughout the 1790s William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to eviscerate slavery’s justification in English jurisprudence. “Wilberforce’s embracing of the anti-slavery cause was from the direct effect of embracing the Christian worldview,” The Wilberforce School reports.

Years later, back in the United States, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life to see needed changes in governance and society. We know from his writing and teachings that King knew the catalyst for this change was Christ — the gospel was the solution.

Rev. Dr. King’s seventh “I have a dream” statement — the crescendo of his seminal I Have a Dream speech — quotes the Messianic prophecy found in Isaiah 40.3-5. King was sure to have known this is the only section of the Old Testament quoted in all four gospels — inaugurating the incarnation of Christ in each. 

“I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. This is our hope.”

Social activism can raise awareness. Governance can eliminate impunity and protect the vulnerable. Only Christ is sufficient to change the hearts of men, bring justice to the wicked, and heal the broken.

Daily Reading
Ruth 3-4 (Listen – 6:22)
Acts 28 (Listen – 4:56)

Finding Patience to Wait :: Readers’ Choice

Bethany Jenkins (originally published April 23, 2014)

Readers’ Choice


“The prayer at the end sums it up beautifully: Prayer: Lord, longsuffering is not passive, but aggressive. It takes power of soul.'” — Sam


Titus 2 11-14
11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Waiting: We are all in the waiting room — for a test result, for a baby, for a wedding day, for a job offer. Here, in Titus 2, we read that we are “waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” How do we wait, though, without growing cynical, idolatrous, and despairing?

Eros: Perhaps the old word for patience — long-suffering — better describes how we experience waiting. In Love Within Limits, Lewis Smedes contrasts patience born of natural love (eros) with patience born of divine love (agape). He writes, “Erotic love has no power for longsuffering. Eros is desire … It can be frustrated when we do not get exactly and enduringly what we long for. It can be betrayed when people renege on a promise to fulfill our need. It can be burned out when what filled us for a season suddenly leaves us empty. Born from suffering, eros is destined for suffering. That erotic love does not have power to suffer long is its built-in tragedy. It must suffer, but it has no strength for longsuffering. Eros cannot wait.”

Agape: Agape, however, “has the power to be creatively weak. Because it is not driven by ardent need, it has power to wait. It gives power to accept life, to find goodness in living while we are victims of situations we despise. This is the only way to explain two attitudes we observe in Jesus toward his own horrible suffering. In Gethsemane, we hear him plead with God to be spared the cross that lay ahead … The next day, as he bears his cross to Calvary, he tells the weeping women who follow him: ‘Don’t cry for me.’ Here we see his power to affirm himself as the loving Lord and free Savior who chose to suffer, to be a victim of suffering. He was not a helpless victim of tragedy; he was a powerful person who chose to be weak. He had the strength to become a victim even while he affirmed his own life as free in obedience to love.”

Prayer: Lord, long-suffering is not passive, but aggressive. It takes power of soul. Our only hope in waiting, therefore, is the power of your divine love that moves us toward one another and toward you. May we seek your face and find your love that we may be longsuffering. Amen.

Daily Reading
Judges 20 (Listen – 7:13)
Acts 24 (Listen – 4:11)

God’s Presence in Vocation :: Readers’ Choice

Readers’ Choice (originally published January 16, 2015)


“We are in full-time service to our Lord as he gifts us with our talents, be it in engineering, carpentry, medicine, trash collection, missions, the arts or whatever.'” — Audrey


Exodus 31.1-6
The LORD said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel… and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. Moreover, I have appointed Oholiab… Also I have given ability to all the skilled workers to make everything I have commanded you.”

There are particular places we expect God to be present. In ancient Israel’s day we see God’s Spirit reside in the holy of holies — a space distinct from every part of common life. We also see the special relationship Israel’s leaders and pillars of faith had with him (Adam, Eve, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and Aaron to name a few).

Bezalel and Oholiab are outliers to this expectation, but not to the way God’s Spirit works. Both men are tradesmen who are filled with God’s Spirit to engage in their vocation in a unique and transcendent way. (They are not the first to have this happen.)

God creates work as an invitation into creation and empowers it as a pathway into deeper relationship with Him. Work’s transcendent value comes from him.

“If the God of the Bible exists,” posits Timothy Keller in Every Good Endeavor, “and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor, even the simplest of ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”

God’s presence reaches into every part of the world as his Spirit empowers people of faith in each vocation. 

“No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest,” insists Abraham Kuyper. As an advocate for God’s presence in all things, Kuyper proclaims, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”

Prayer
Father, thank you for creating, empowering, and valuing work. Give us the ability to engage in our vocations in ways which bring honor and glory to you. Give us vision for your Kingdom in our fields and in the lives of those we work with. Help us to see our work, as Dr. Keller says, as your “assignment to serve others.”

Daily Reading
Judges 19 (Listen – 4:52)
Acts 23 (Listen – 5:15)

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