Why the American church needs Acts

pentecost

I’m beginning to teach the the book of Acts, and the more I study the more I’m convinced of its relevance for today’s church. Of course, all Scripture is relevant. Always. But in light of certain American evangelical tendencies, the message of Acts is urgent. Here are four reasons why the American church needs Acts:

So we can get back to the basics. The church today often attempts to grow by human innovation, worldly wisdom, trends and fads. Acts shows us how the first church grew. God acted through godly men who preached God’s Word by God’s Spirit. To be faithful, we need to get back to the principles that drove the apostles. It is a beautiful simplicity.

So we will stand up for the truth. In an age where no one wants to offend anyone, and everyone is hung up by this idea of “tolerance,” Acts is a fresh supply of reality. We need to be reminded of the boldness of Peter and the rational, engaging argumentation of Paul. Let’s remember that there is such a thing as truth, that we are not the dummies for preaching it, and that there’s a mass of humanity that needs to hear it.

Also, under this heading, we need to be reminded that the truth offends. It does. But it also saves. Peter’s message about the risen Christ was met with repentance and three thousand hearers that day were “cut to the heart” (2:37) and added to the church. Stephen’s message about the risen Christ was met with a murderous rage. Peter and Stephen preached the same Christ.There’s a lesson to be learned here: truth will unite God’s people to the church and at the same time will instigate opposition to it. It is outside our capacity to determine how people respond to truth. It is our duty to preach it.

To help us grow thicker skin. The American church is flabby and in great need of some spiritual muscle. The church needs to recapture the vision of holy grit, tough compassion, relentless love in the face of opposition. We give up too easily, back down too frequently, are offended too often, and discouraged too much. Too much fluff. The church in Acts shows us what thick skin looks like, what it means to have a spine, what manly mature Christianity looks like. Not many of us are willing to say to the governing authorities “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard” (4:19-20) or how many of us have witnessed fellow believers “rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (5:41)? Too few, I think. May the Holy Spirit make us tough!

Opposition was real in Acts, and as we faithfully and boldly proclaim the gospel, we will face it. The tenacity of the apostles in Acts inspires us to face a grim and hostile reality.

To remind us of divine power. Because we have become so accustomed to manipulative ministry—trying to manipulate people into following Christ with human means—we need to remember that there is such a thing as divine power. Acts shows us that Jesus is alive, that he rules as king on high, that he is commanding his forces and moving. If Luke is the story of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Acts is the story of his heavenly ministry as Head of the church. He still sits at the right hand of God, he still holds all authority in heaven and earth, and he is still building his church. The more we depend on his divine power, the better off we’ll be.

The clearest measure of a Christian’s maturity

church

A Christian is someone who has a growing love for the Word of God.

A Christian is someone who is growing in the discipline of prayer.

A Christian is someone who has a growing love for his brothers and sisters in Christ.

A Christian is someone with a growing concern for personal holiness.

A Christian is someone who desires to see the lost converted and discipled.

Where is the Word of God most clearly taught, most rigorously obeyed, most highly valued? Which place, of all the places a Christian could be, is meant to be a “house of prayer”? Which gathering can the believer most readily show his love for the brethren? Where else can a believer be exhorted to holiness and be held accountable? Which institution makes the Great Commission its purpose and goal?

The church. The church is the crossroads where all the Christian’s highest affections meet. And that’s why I think the clearest measure of a Christian’s maturity is how he feels about the local church.

Which generation are we living for?

“[This kind of training ministry] will be slow, tedious, painful, and probably unnoticed by people at first, but the end result will be glorious, even if we don’t live to see it. Seen this way, though, it becomes a big decision in the ministry. We must decide where we want our ministry to count– in the momentary applause of popular recognition or in the reproduction of our lives in a few chosen people who will carry on our work after we have gone. Really, it is a question of which generation are we living for.”

The Master Plan of Evangelism, Robert Coleman

What is a Healthy Church Member?

Thabiti Anyabwile’s little book What Is a Healthy Church Member? is helpful. It does no more than the title suggests, which keeps it short. Lands exactly at 120 (small) pages. When I first got it I was looking through the table of contents and doing an x-ray and before I knew it I was 57 pages in. Simple, practical, and readable.

The best books always include practical suggestions, and there are some good ones here, which is great for new-ish believers asking the “how-to” questions. Here are some of those sections:

How can church members cultivate the habit of expositional listening?

  1. Meditate on the sermon passage during your quiet time
  2. Invest in a good set of commentaries
  3. Talk and pray with friends about the sermon after church
  4. Listen to and act on the sermon throughout the week
  5. Develop the habit of addressing any questions about the text itself
  6. Cultivate humility

What does a committed church member look like?

  1. Attends regularly
  2. Seeks peace
  3. Edifies others
  4. Warns and admonishes others
  5. Pursues reconciliation
  6. Bears with others
  7. Prepares for the ordinances
  8. Supports the work of the ministry

I’m going to keep a few of these on hand to give away.

Staff Thought of the Week: Helping Them Own It

stotw_edited-1Much of the success of our M3 depends on the students– especially the upper classmen, owning their responsibility to create a culture of openness and acceptance. New students and younger students will be intimidated, maybe even scared, at the thought of meeting with a close-knit group of older, more secure, more comfortable, more “belonging” students. So we must teach our upper class students hospitality (welcoming people who feel uncomfortable). We must help them own their M3. Here are a few tips:

Model it. Engage the new student. Ask him questions, get to know him. Make him the center of attention for a little bit. Give him attention so he knows he’s cared for.

Create links. Look for things he may have in common with other members of the group. Try to facilitate relationships and make connections.

Talk about it. Never stop accentuating the need for Jesus-like kindness– the type that reaches out to the fringe, the neglected, the hurting. Talk about how it is not Christ-like to only associate with the popular. Get together with just your upper-classmen and talk this through.

Pray. True and genuine love is a blessing from God. No system can create it; if our students would show this love toward new students, God must do it. So pray.

 

True Discipleship: Fishers of Men

true discpleship

Part OneFollow me.  A true disciple is following Christ

Part Two: And I will make you A disciple is being changed by Christ

Matthew 4:18-20

[18] While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. [19] And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” [20] Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

Fishers of men.  A disciple taking up the mission of Christ.

With these words Jesus clarified the mission. Becoming a disciple means becoming interested in the eternal well-being of people. He says, “I’m going to change you. If you follow me, I’m going to make you something. Now you catch fish, soon you’ll catch people.” Let’s make it more modern. “Now you strive for As on your report card, soon you’ll strive for people. Now you strive for a successful career, soon you’ll strive for people. Now you’re building a platform, soon you’ll be building people. Now you strive for popularity, soon you’ll strive for people. Right now athletics are all-consuming, but there will be a day that the well-being of others consumes you.”

The underlying assumption is that the premiere sign of maturity is a genuine concern for other people. Jesus’s goal is to make them more interested in people than their careers. Jesus wants them to be more concerned about relationships than about their education, their status, their achievements, their awards, their scholarships, their accolades.

He didn’t say, “follow me and I will make you successful businessmen.” He didn’t say, “follow me and I will land you a good, well-paying job.” He didn’t say, “follow me and I will help you achieve your goals and dreams.” He says, “If you follow me, I’m going to reshape the way you see the world. I’m going to change your whole outlook on life. I’m going to show you that the greatest purpose you can give your life to is people.” Look at it this way: Jesus spent the last three years of his life with his people, teaching and training them to follow Christ. Your job is to do the same thing: spend your life with people teaching and training them to follow Christ. A true disciple is a disciple-maker.

If this is true, then we must understand that being relational is not an option, it’s a calling. The greatest thing we can give our lives to is relationships. The Bible speaks about two things lasting forever: God’s Word and people. Do you want to have a meaningful life? Do you want to labor for things that vanish like steam or for eternal treasures that never fade? Jesus’s call was to invest in the eternal—God’s Word and people. True disciples learn to do exactly that. They become “fishers of men.” That means, they orient their entire lives around this calling. They see that in order to be faithful they must give themselves to God’s Word and people.

So a true disciple is following Christ—believing, changing, submitting. He is being changed by Christ—learning and growing in grace. And he is taking up the mission of Christ—as a disciple-maker.

True Discipleship: And I Will Make You

true discpleship

Last timeFollow me.  A true disciple is following Christ

Today: And I will make you A disciple is being changed by Christ

Matthew 4:18-22

[18] While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. [19] And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” [20] Immediately they left their nets and followed him. [21] And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. [22] Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

When Jesus said “I will make you” the offer was out on the table. Jesus was being straightforward. His intention was to make them into something they were not. Jesus wanted to fundamentally change their priorities, their desires, their goals, their dreams, their purposes—and he was clear about it. It was like he said, “I know you’ve spent your life catching fish. Not anymore. I’m going to change you.” To our modern ears, that sounds offensive. What right does he have? We shouldn’t try to change people, that’s rude. Let them be, man. Tolerate.

Jesus didn’t fit it then and he probably wouldn’t fit in now. His goal—and he was absolutely unashamed of it—was to change people. To make them into something they weren’t. From the beginning, this was laid out on the table. A disciple, then, is something who is being changed by Christ.

If you are to start following Christ—by believing, by changing, and by submitting—you must understand what you’re agreeing to. Almost everything you sign up for these days has a long tedious document with terms and conditions. Does anyone actually read those? Well, Jesus has terms and conditions that we must agree to if we are to follow him. But they’re not long, hard to read, annoying and complicated. They’re actually simple. He says” if you follow me, understand this: I am going to change you. That means you must be eager to learn and eager to change.”

True disciples are learners. People who think they have nothing else to learn aren’t good disciples. The best disciples are the best learners. They are hungry for knowledge, hungry for information, hungry for insight, hungry for wisdom, hungry to acquire skill, hungry to hone their talents, hungry to practice what they’ve been taught. Part of what it means to follow Jesus is admitting you not only have the deep-seated problem of sin, but the deep need of being taught.

True disciples want to change. This goes right along with being a learner, but it takes it to the next level. Being a true disciple means not only learning but practicing what you’re learning. True disciples aren’t about acquiring information for information’s sake. They want to change. They hate their sin and they want to grow. That’s why Jesus’s call must have been so appealing. I love it—Jesus promises to change them. “I will make you.” Perk up whenever Jesus makes an “I will” statement. He said to his disciples that he would make them fishers of men. He would set out to change them and he wouldn’t fail. This is great hope for us, because the promise we receive is that Jesus will change us to make us useful for his service as we follow him.

So a true disciple is following Jesus and eager to learn and change. And he is also someone being changed by Christ. 

True Discipleship: Follow Me

true discpleship

Follow me. A true disciple is following Christ

Matthew 4:18-22

[18] While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. [19] And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” [20] Immediately they left their nets and followed him. [21] And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets, and he called them. [22] Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.

The first requirement to be a disciple—a Christian—is to follow Jesus.

To follow involves three elements: belief, life-change, and submission.

Following Jesus requires belief in who he was and what he came to do. Simon Peter and Andrew weren’t asked to follow someone they didn’t know. They had spent time with Jesus previously (John 1:35-42), and even believed he was the Messiah. When Jesus approached them in Matthew 4, they had already known Jesus for some time, scholars say a year. So we understand that the first requirement of a disciple of Jesus Christ is to believe.

Of course, the Simon Peter and Andrew didn’t know a lot about Jesus. But they believed he was the Messiah, even though they didn’t entirely understand. And this is the beauty of following Jesus—you don’t have to be a genius to figure it out. Your understanding of Jesus doesn’t have to complete. In fact, usually it’s the simple ones who get it best. “God chooses the foolish to shame the wise.” You can’t follow someone you don’t believe.

What you do have to know is that you have a sin problem that has earned you punishment and Jesus alone can save you. There are more details—a glorious and beautiful treasure trove of details—but the essentials of following Jesus today remain quite simple. God made you. You rebelled. Faith in Christ saves those who repent and believe. Those who believe those things are saved.

Following Jesus also implies life change. When Jesus says “follow me” the underlying directive is stop following that. If he says follow me, he means give up on your ways. If he says live for me, he means stop living for yourself. Simon and Andrew got it—they left their nets and followed him. Following Christ meant giving up their careers in fishing. James and John were mending their nets, trying to fix them so they could catch more fish. And suddenly when Jesus called them, they left the nets in the boat. They weren’t important anymore—following Jesus meant leaving behind old ways.

That’s what following Jesus is—not literally following him around, like the original disciples did. For us, following him has a much broader meaning: we are to follow his way of life, his teachings, his priorities, his goals.

Following Jesus also indicates submission. Jesus says follow me, and that means we give up the rights to run our lives. This is called repentance. We have handed over the title deed of our lives. We gladly submit to Jesus as our lord, master, leader, and guide.

Some try to make Jesus’s call easier than it actually was. They like to accept Jesus as Savior but not as Lord or Master. And so they think they’ll can be saved without submitting to Christ. This isn’t so—the truth is that if Jesus ain’t your Master he ain’t your Savior. If you haven’t submitted you haven’t been saved. It’s the blunt truth that Scripture is careful to repeat over and over again.

So let me recap quickly: When Jesus says “follow me” this is what he means: believe me, make a change in direction, and submit completely.

Next post will look at Jesus’s intention: “and I will make you…”

Congregational Singing: A taste of heaven

One of the great burden-lifting joys God has graced me with is a church that values congregational singing. I love the Christ’s church, caring for her is the joy and duty and mission of my life. Proclaiming her message and protecting her purity is, by God’s grace, what I’ll spend the rest of my life doing. I don’t want to start a successful business, be president of a large company, or spend my life traveling the world. I want to serve the church. Period.

I don’t love the church because it’s an easy place to be. I’ve heard, and have no problem believing, that there is no “occupation” more difficult than pastor. It isn’t that everyone is “nice” at church. That’s not even true. It’s not that I’m a people-person and I need to be around people a lot. What draws me is the picture of what’s happening every time we gather. I am dwarfed by the vastness of God and the Great Story that, though blind I often am, is all around me. But when we sing– together, loud, enthralled–I am lifted out of myself to realize what is really happening. I remember what Christ’s church is all about. And it’s far more than a song.

Sinners, made saints by the grace of God, come to behold their Creator, to hear from him, and to align themselves together to worship obey him. God comes down, steps in, speaks life and truth and joy, and we are changed– even if it’s only a degree (2 Cor. 3:18).

So as I look around the congregation, I see trophies of grace, and am drawn to the great God-triumphant, Redeemer Jesus, who is scooping up mounds of dirt and making diamonds. Singing together with these people is literally a heavenly experience– and I don’t mean that in a Hallmark-y sort of way. We actually will do this in heaven. Revelation 5:11-14:

[11] Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, [12] saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” [13] And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” [14] And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

O how small we will feel when we see the angels, towering up and up like an unending wall of faces, “myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands,” when every creature in heaven and earth gathers before God, shoulder to shoulder, joyfully enraptured, to shout their praise to God!

And on Sunday I get a small taste of that. And it’s sheer joy.

I can’t put it better than Jonathan Leeman does in his book Reverberation: How God’s Word Brings Light, Freedom, and Action to His People but this is what happens when I join my church to sing:

We’re singing the sixteenth-century words of “A Mighty Fortress,” and I notice a woman who was recently assaulted now sing with all her might of a “bulwark never failing.”

We’re singing the eighteenth-century words of “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and I’m heartened by the older saint who has persevered in the faith for decades, still singing, “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love; here’s my heart, O take and seal it; seal it for thy courts above.”

We’re singing the nineteenth-century words of “It is Well with My Soul,” and I look out and see the middle-aged brother struggling with discouragement over his fight against sinful anger now raising his voice to shout, “My sin–Oh, the bliss of this glorious though: my sin, not in part, but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more, Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

We’re singing the twenty-first century words of “In Christ Alone,” and I see the talented young mother who is tempted to regret what she’s given up to have children now exult in her new ambitions: “In Christ alone my hope is found, he is my light, my strength, my song.”

As I sit, look out, my own praises to God are strengthened by the stories and songs of others. My faith is invigorated and enlarged by His work in them.

Heaven.