The Transforming Word
The Transforming Word
It's been called the speech that changed America. I'm talking, of course, of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial in August of 1963. On that day, Dr. King painted a picture of a new and better day in America—a day when "the sons of slaves and the sons of slave-owners would sit down together at the table of brotherhood … when a state sweltering with the heat of injustice would be transformed into an oasis of freedom."
Those who heard the speech that day, and those who look back on it, all agree that it marked a turning point in the struggle for civil rights in our nation. For the first time, Americans began to believe that such a day was possible and preferable. And from that moment America began to become a better nation.
The power of words
The address that Dr. King delivered that day wasn't just a speech—it was a sermon. The 20-minute message was laden with Biblical references and imagery. His text for the message, and the inspiration for his dream, was Isaiah 40:4-5: "Every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low …, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind shall see it together." Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't just a great leader; he was a great preacher, and that sermon, delivered with clarity and courage and passion, changed our nation. That's the power of words—of God's Word.
In this series we will be studying the Book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church. We know that in the big picture, the Church was meant to be a vibrant, balanced, growing community of disciples of Jesus Christ. Over the next several weeks, we're going to take a closer look at five core values of such a church, beginning with discipleship—the lifelong process of becoming more like Christ.
Now before we go on, I need to ask a couple of questions: Where are you on the journey of discipleship? Some of you have been following Christ for a long time, others have just begun, and some may still be investigating Christ, wondering if he's someone you want to trust and follow. How is your journey going? Are you making progress and growing in your faith? Are you feeling stuck, like you haven't made much progress lately? Are you losing ground, wandering off, or going back to some old ways?
The church exists to help you along that journey toward Christlikeness. Discipleship is something we take very seriously here and something we want to do even better in the days to come. So let's go to the Book of Acts today, where we will discover that the Church was meant to be a life-changing community, where people are transformed by their encounters with God and his Word. We're going to be looking at another sermon this morning—not quite as famous as Dr. King's, but just as powerful. It's found in Acts 3:11-26.
A surprising step
Like Dr. King's speech, the sermon we find in Acts 3 is delivered on a momentous occasion to a large crowd. On this particular day, as Peter and John are heading into the temple to pray, they encounter a beggar at the gate. This man has been unable to walk since birth and seems to have been a familiar figure outside the temple. People must have walked by him everyday. When he asks Peter and John for money, they offer him something better: they look him in the eye, extend a hand, and say, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!" Sure enough, the man rises to his feet, takes a few tentative steps, and is soon jumping for joy and praising God.
That man's life was changed that day—completely and forever! He is not only healed physically, but he is restored spiritually as well. He heads into the temple courts for prayer, probably for the first time, and soon he'll be working to provide for his family. This is a total transformation. More than anyone expected, even the apostles, I bet. I can imagine John looking at Peter afterward, as if to say, Did you know we could do that?!
Let's pick up the action at verse 11: "While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon's Colonnade." Apparently, news spread pretty quickly around the city, as this sort of thing didn't happen every day! Solomon's Colonnade was a covered portico that ran along the outer wall of the temple and was a common gathering place for the early church.
But the really surprising thing is what happens next: "When Peter saw this, he said to them, 'People of Israel …." After this miraculous event, Peter doesn't say, "Hey, find all the sick people in Jerusalem, and line them up." He doesn't say, "Round up all the homeless people in town—we're going to get them off the streets." What he does is preach a sermon. I like the way The Message translates this verse: "When Peter saw he had a congregation, he addressed the people."
Why does Peter do that? Because he wants everyone to know that this beggar was just the first of many people whose lives were going to be changed. What happened to this man, Peter says, needs to happen to all of you. You need to be healed! You need to be transformed! And in the sermon that follows, he tells them why and how.
The mission of the church wasn't simply to heal people who were physically sick or to help people who were materially poor. It was to see all people healed and helped—transformed by the power of God. So instead of holding a healing service or setting up a food pantry, Peter launches into a sermon, believing that the Word of God has the power to change the life of every person listening that day.
A great sermon
I want us to listen to Peter's sermon—not read it, but listen to it. As I preach it for you, take note of how he preaches:
People of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us, as if by our own power or godliness we made this man walk? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant, Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One, and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus' name, and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.
Now, brothers and sisters, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah, would suffer. Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. For Moses said, 'the Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you must listen to everything he tells you. Anyone who does not listen to him will be completely cut off from his people.
Indeed, all the prophets, from Samuel on, as many as have spoken, have foretold these days. And you are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant God made with your fathers. He said to Abraham, 'Through your offspring all peoples on earth will be blessed.' When God raised up his servant, Jesus, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.
What do you notice about this sermon? What words or phrases would you use to describe the teaching ministry of the early church?
I was snooping around on the web looking for some thoughts on preaching and came across this question posted on YahooAnswers.com: "Why do preachers tell lame jokes in church? And why are sermons so boring? I swear, if I have to sit through one more church service with my kids, I'm gonna go nuts!"
I was intrigued by some of the responses people offered: "The pulpit is no place for people to tell jokes;" "Most sermons fall flat because they offer nothing more than stale, plagiarized notes from outdated commentaries …, delivered with sing-songy voices that can put elephants to sleep;" "My preacher is hysterical. Every Sunday is like a stand-up routine, though we do learn some stuff;" and finally, "No one is putting a gun to your head. If you're not getting anything out of it, why torture yourself?"
I think we'd all agree a sermon shouldn't sound like a stand-up routine, but it certainly shouldn't feel like torture, either. As I looked over this sermon of Peter's, I found five characteristics of good discipleship.
First, good discipleship is Christ-centered. From the very beginning of the sermon, Peter deflects attention away from him and towards Jesus. Twice he tells the crowd that it's Jesus and the power of Jesus' name that has worked this miracle. Eight times he refers to Christ, identifying him as Jesus, the Holy and Righteous One, the author of life, and the Messiah.
And so we learn that the discipling ministry of the church—whether in the pulpit or in a Sunday school class or small group—is always focused on Christ. We don't just study words, we study the Word of God—the Word who was with God and who was God. Through church we study a variety of books of the Bible in the course of a year—the Psalms, the prophets, the gospels, the epistles, and we touch on variety of topics—doing good, relationships, sexuality, money, but we are always and ultimately leading people to encounters with Christ, because he is the One who changes lives, who can make us whole and well and strong.
Secondly, good discipleship is biblical. Did you notice how many times Peter refers to Old Testament Scripture? He specifically mentions Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and Samuel. He talks about the covenant and the prophets. He wants his listeners to know that he's not making this stuff up, and that what's happening that day is a fulfillment of the Scriptures. The teaching of the early church was thoroughly grounded in the words God had used to reveal himself, first in the Old Testament, and then in the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.
Discipleship happens when people are engaged with God's Word. That's why every sermon from this pulpit is an "expository" message—we're always exploring a text or texts from the Bible.
A third characteristic of good discipleship is that it's relevant. Even though Peter grounds his message in Scripture, he doesn't stay there. In fact, he doesn't start there. He starts with what happened that day, and connects the Scripture to "this man you all see and know." He refers to current events—the crucifixion of Jesus. He mentions the governor by name--Pilate. Later on in Acts, when Paul is speaking to Greeks and Romans, he quotes their philosophers; he connects his message to their culture and lifestyles.
That is why we take care to point out the relevance of the Bible to our every day lives. We connect it to popular music and movies, to business and sports and current events—and occasionally make lame jokes! We offer courses that help you apply the Bible to the challenges of life—parenting, finances, contemporary religions. We strive for relevance because we want to help you follow Jesus in the real world in which you live and work and play every day.
Fourth, good discipleship is interactive. This sermon of Peter's isn't just a lecture on prophetic literature. It's not an abstract discourse on the nature of change. This is a message from one person to other persons. Right from the beginning, Peter engages his listeners. He looks them in the eye and calls them out, "People of Israel …." Notice how direct he is: " … you handed him over;" "you acted in ignorance;" "you are heirs." Twenty-three times he uses the words "you" or "your," then he draws on his own experience as well: "we are witnesses" of these things.
There's more to discipleship than dumping information on people. My mentor in preaching, Haddon Robinson, says that preaching should feel like a "lively conversation." Even though the person up front is doing the talking, they're doing it in a way that engages the congregation personally. That's we why we ask questions and share stories; that's why we use drama and art and interviews.
But there's only so much interaction that can happen in a sanctuary, which is why it's so important that you find other venues to grow in your faith—to take a course where you can ask questions, to study the Bible in groups, to go on retreats where you can spend a weekend with God and his people. The most important interaction is between you and God personally.
And finally, good discipleship is transformational. Peter expected this sermon to change people's lives. He's not looking for them to shake his hand afterward and say, "Nice sermon, Rev," and he wants them to do more than take notes. He wants them to go home different than they were when they came, so he confronts them in verse 19, "Repent, then, and turn to God." He inspires them with the promise of a new and better day, "that times of refreshing may come from the Lord." In verse 25 he challenges them to live up to their high calling: "You are heirs of the prophets and of the covenant … through you all peoples of the earth will be blessed."
The ultimate goal of discipleship is that people would be changed. It's not just about knowing the Bible. It's about living the Bible.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? ____________________________________________________
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.