An Unstoppable Force
An Unstoppable Force
Last week we learned that the Church was meant to be a life-changing community, where people are transformed by their encounters with God and his Word. We affirmed our commitment to the core value we call discipleship. We tapped into the desire on the part of every Christian to "go deeper" in their faith—a desire many of you expressed when we asked what you were looking for in your church—to go deeper in your knowledge of God's Word, deeper in your relationship with Christ. Today we're going to discover that whenever you go deeper in your faith, something else inevitably happens as well—you go wider.
Think of it this way: when the roots of a tree go deeper into the soil in search of moisture and nutrients, what happens to the branches? They grow, too, don't they? They reach wider. They have to, because the tree needs sunlight to be healthy. A tree that only has roots can't survive. So even as the roots are going deeper, the branches are reaching wider—capturing more light, creating more shade, and bearing more fruit.
We're going to explore this now as we go back to the earliest days of the Christian movement and learn what the Church was meant to be. We're continuing the journey we began last week, working our way through the opening chapters of the Book of Acts. Today we pick up the action in chapter 4.
Can't stop speaking
When we last left Peter and the disciples, he was in the middle of a pretty powerful sermon—so powerful that the religious authorities felt threatened and decided Peter had to be stopped. They arrested Peter and John and threw them in jail, not really knowing what they were going to do with them. Let's pick up the action at verse 5: "The next day, the rulers, the elders, and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiphas, John, Alexander, and others of the high priest's family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: 'By what power or what name did you do this?' referring to the healing of the crippled beggar."
Now does any of this sound familiar? Do you recognize any of those names? Annas and Caiphas were the same officials who presided over the trial of Jesus—not more than 60 days earlier! We remember how that turned out, and you can be sure Peter and John remembered, too. In fact, what was happening to them was the very thing they feared would happen in the days following the crucifixion. That's why they were hiding out in the upper room with the doors locked! And now, sure enough, the day they feared had come. How would they handle it?
"By what power or what name did you do this?" their captors asked. Do you remember how Peter answered the last time he was questioned about his relationship with Jesus? "I don't even know the man," he had said. That's not how he answers this time. We read in verse 10, "… know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed …. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved." Boldly, courageously, unashamedly, Peter and John proclaim the name of Jesus. Peter is a very different man than he was a couple of months ago, wouldn't you say?
The Council convenes privately, trying to decide what to do with the captives. They can't deny the healing that just happened, and they can't really punish Peter and John after such a remarkable miracle. All they can do is silence them. So they command them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus anymore, to which Peter and John reply: "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."
We can't keep quiet, they said. Not after what Christ has done for us. And we can't stand still. Not after what Christ has done for this needy man. We have to spread the news! We have to reach more people!
A mission-driven community
This leads us to our big idea for this week: The Church was meant to be a mission-driven community that can't keep quiet and can't stand still. From the very beginning, the church recognized that they were on a mission. They were called into being for the very purpose of bearing witness to Christ and making disciples of all nations. So they couldn't "stop speaking about what they had seen and heard." It would deny their very reason for existence.
Think of it this way: imagine telling a political party that they are free to exist as long as they stop trying to get people elected. In other words, they can study the issues and articulate a platform. They can set up headquarters and build organizations in any city they choose. They can hold conventions and raise money and celebrate their values and wear red or blue to their heart's content. But they have to stop trying to influence elections and shape the nation's agenda.
That would be ridiculous, wouldn't it? Getting people elected and shaping the agenda is the very reason a political party exists! As ridiculous as that sounds, that's what the early church was being asked to do—to give up its mission!
I want you to notice something: the church was still free to do almost everything we saw them doing in Acts 2. They could still devote themselves to the apostle's teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. They were free to continue meeting together in the temple courts and in one another's houses; free to continue praising God and selling their possessions and caring for one another's needs. They were free to pursue four of the five core values we're discussing in this series with as much passion and intensity as they desired—worship, community, discipleship, and service. The only thing they were being forced to give up was outreach. But they couldn't give up even that one thing: "We can't do it," they said. "We can't stop sharing the love and truth of Christ with others."
Remember, Peter and John were under arrest. They were facing prison and death. All they had to do to get the authorities off their backs was to agree not to speak or act in the name of Jesus publicly. But they couldn't do it; they couldn't agree to that: "We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard."
Don't miss this! The authorities had no problem with the church going deeper. The believers were free to go as deep as they wanted in their faith, as long as they didn't go any wider. But that was unacceptable to the early church, wasn't it? They had to reach out, even at the risk of their own comfort and safety. In the words of Erwin McManus, they were "an unstoppable force."
Where did Peter and John find the courage to do this? What drove them? How do we explain this change that's come over Peter, such that in 60 days he's gone from a quivering coward to a fearless leader?
The answer is simple: they went deeper. It was the reality of their own experiences with Christ that compelled them. It was the time they spent with Christ after he'd risen from the dead and opened the Scriptures to them. It was the days they spent in prayer with the 120 gathered in the upper room. It was the fullness of the Holy Spirit, falling on them at Pentecost and giving them courage and conviction. It was the fellowship that they enjoyed with one another and their worship services. These experiences were so real, so satisfying, and so life-changing that they couldn't help but speak about them!
Let me try a goofy illustration that might help me make this point. A year or so ago I got myself an iPhone. Now, I am not a technophile. I am not cutting edge. But I had to get a new phone, and it looked cool and easy to use, so I went ahead and got one. And I'm glad. It is easy to use. It's definitely cooler than my old silver bullet phone, and I've come to appreciate some of the features. But the truth is, I've hardly scratched the surface of what the iPhone can do. I hardly have any apps at all. I hardly have any music on it. I don't play games on it. In other words, I haven't gone very deep into my iPhone, so, I don't have a lot to say about it.
Back at Christmastime, I was out shopping and got stuck in a really long checkout line. I took out my phone to let my kids know where I was, and the guy behind me happened to notice and immediately took out his iPhone and started talking about it. "Don't you love this thing?" he said. He started telling me all the ways he uses it. Then he started showing me all the apps he had on it—not just telling me but actually opening them and showing me how they worked. He got really excited, talking in loud voice, so the people around us began looking and listening. Then he asked me what apps I had. Of course, I was embarrassed, because I hardly had any, and he told me which ones I should get and all the ways they would make my life better.
You see what was happening? I was being "witnessed" to! This guy was an iPhone evangelist. Why? Because his own experience with the iPhone was so real, so satisfying, so life-changing, he couldn't keep quiet about it. And he couldn't stand the thought of me, a perfect stranger, not using it to its full potential. He'd gone "deep" into his iPhone, and he wanted everyone else to have the same experience.
In a similar way, the early church had gone deep in their experience with Christ. It was so real and satisfying that they couldn't help but reach out and tell others about him. In fact, did you pick up what the religious leaders noticed about these early believers? Verse 13 says, "they took note that these men had been with Jesus."
If you and I aren't compelled to share Christ with others, it could be we haven't gone very deep with Christ ourselves. If we're not convinced the whole world needs to know Christ, maybe it's because we're really not experiencing what life with Christ was meant to be like. We need more apps! We need to go deeper—into worship, prayer, and study. And when we do, something else will inevitably happen: we will reach wider. And the really cool thing is that these two things happen at the same time.
Sometimes you'll hear a church or youth group say, "You know, I don't think we're ready to reach out yet. We need to spend some time going deeper, and then we'll be ready to go wider." It sounds very spiritual, even logical, but it doesn't work that way. You know what happens to groups that do that? They not only never get around to reaching out, but they get so ingrown and self-absorbed that they begin to die.
Think about the tree I mentioned earlier. As the roots go deeper and find nourishment, the branches reach wider and bear fruit. Those things happen simultaneously. A tree doesn't spend a couple years concentrating on its roots and then a couple of years spreading its branches. It grows in both directions at the same time—deeper and wider. And that's how the church was meant to grow, too.
An unstoppable force
It's exciting to read how unstoppable the early church was, even in the face of persecution. But you know, the same thing is true of the church today in many places around the world.
A couple of weeks ago, a few of us had a chance to visit with a group of Chinese house church leaders. One of our partners in that part of the world, David Ro, had brought them to the States to participate in the Urbana Missions Conference and to visit some key churches. We spent an afternoon learning from one another about ministry in our very different parts of the world. At one point we asked them if they experience much persecution in their setting. They actually laughed and said, "Of course." It's not unusual for them to show up for church and find the doors chained and bolted, or to have the power shut off in the middle of a service, or to lose their lease for no apparent reason. Several of them in the room had been detained for questioning or had spent time in jail.
Now keep in mind, all they have to do to make all that go away is to stop trying to spread their faith. If they would simply keep to themselves and stop growing, the authorities would leave them alone. But that's not an option for these house church leaders.
Last year my wife Karen and I had a chance to visit and serve with some of our partners in Cairo. One of them is Kasr al Dobara Evangelical Church—a megachurch right in the heart of Cairo. Now officially, the Christian church is free to exist in Egypt. They're free to worship, to pray, to have Bible studies, to care for one another, and to raise their children in the faith. But proselytizing is against the law, so they are not permitted to share their faith.
I had the opportunity to preach at one of their Sunday services, and beforehand, the leaders of the church explained to me that there would likely be informants in the congregation listening to the message to make sure we were not promoting evangelism or challenging the majority religion. I asked them if I should be careful of what I say. They said, "Not too careful." These Christians were not looking for trouble, but they are not willing to stop speaking about what they have seen and heard.
If these churches and partners who face obstacles and persecution refuse to keep quiet or stand still, how can we? How can we shrink from speaking about our faith, simply because we're afraid we might look foolish or sound politically incorrect? How can we not reach out to neighbors or people in need, just because it feels uncomfortable, or because we're too busy? How could we ever suggest that we stop trying to reach new people and just focus on the people who are already here?
Remember, all the early church had to do to make these problems go away was to say, "You know, I think 3000 people is enough. Why don't we just focus on going deeper."
If the early church couldn't keep quiet or stand still even in the face of persecution, if our brothers and sisters around the world can't keep quiet and stand still even in restrictive environments, how can we be anything less than a mission-driven community that goes deeper and reaches wider?
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.