July 14, 2013
INTRODUCTION – One of the patterns starting to develop in our journey together through the book of Acts is occasional progress reports or snapshots of the health and fruitfulness and impact of the early church 5 Progress Reports – Snapshots of the Health/Fruitfulness Assessments
Acts 1:14 “These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.”
Acts 2:42-47 – They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Acts 4:32-35 – “And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.”
Acts 5:12-16 – “At the hands of the apostles many signs and wonders were taking place among the people; and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s portico. But none of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem. And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number, to such an extent that they even carried the sick out into the streets and laid them on cots and pallets, so that when Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on any one of them. Also the people from the cities in the vicinity of Jerusalem were coming together, bringing people who were sick or afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all being healed.”
Acts 6:7 “The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” Why the progress reports or assessments? Perhaps a number of reasons. One reason is Doctor Luke was a very disciplined, methodical historian who sought to present as clear a picture as possible of this new people and movement called the church.
Another reason is the Holy Spirit led Luke to include these to whet our appetites. To help us see what the church can and should be. And to motivate us to ask, seek and knock and meditate and wrestle until we discover and put into practice the attitudes, thought patterns, spiritual disciplines, priorities and lifestyles that enabled the early church to turn its known world upside down (something they accomplished I might add – without websites, facebook, leadership magazine, worship teams with smoke and strobe lights, song lyrics on a screen, seminaries, etc. – imagine that!)
So what I want to do this morning is focus on the 5th and latest snapshot, progress report or assessment, review some the things that led to this – some of which Joshua developed last Sunday – and then go on and take a look at Stephen’s life and ministry if we have time.
3 things Dr. Luke emphasized at this point in the early church’s development.
1. “The word of God kept on spreading” – – or the good news about Jesus Christ and His kingdom kept spreading or kept being proclaimed to more and more people; the knowledge of this Jesus and His kingdom was not just confined to people who came to church meetings. Everyone in every neighborhood was hearing about it.
2. “The number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem.” Please note he did not say the number of Christians or church members – – because Luke knows Jesus is looking for disciples, not just Christians, and the early church gave itself to making disciples, not just getting Christians or church members. This is a very significant development because there are a lot of ways to grow a church as far as numbers go. Don’t even really need the H.S. to accomplish it. But for the disciples to increase greatly – – that requires the power of God and the presence of God to be operative. That requires a groundswell of intercession. That requires mature believers giving up their time and energy to help younger believers grow in their faith and getting personally involved in their lives. That requires a dependence upon and submission to the Holy Spirit – who alone can produce Christ likeness in fallen men and women.
3. A great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” This move of God was affecting every strata of society including the priests probably of the synagogue there in Jerusalem. So what led to this that we can see from this chapter? 5 things 1. The legitimate complaint was communicated to the leadership, and was not ignored, but righteously dealt with by the leadership. (read vs. 1,2) Any time – especially when as vs. 1 says, “the disciples were increasing in number” – – any time there is significant growth in numbers in the church in a given locale – not to mention different ethnic groups worshipping together – – there is a danger and likelihood that someone or some thing will be overlooked. Growth often presents challenges as well as joys. So what is key is that when the problem arises, someone communicates to the leadership and the leadership responds without partiality and with sincerity and compassion and resolution to see the need met and the problem solved.
2. The leadership communicated to the congregation of disciples, and gave them the privilege, opportunity and responsibility of meeting this need. (read vs. 3) It is the leadership’s responsibility to see that needs are met, not necessarily to meet them – themselves; and it is the leadership’s responsibility to keep reminding the church that they are the church – – not just the experts and paid staff.
3. The leadership wisely and obediently refused to get drawn in to meeting the need themselves – because their particular calling required their energies to be spent differently. (read vs. 2b, 4)
4. Even though the task was menial, the leadership required godly character in those who were chosen to meet the need or fulfill the task. (read vs. 3, 5)
5. The congregation of disciples quickly and fully agreed that the apostles should not be drawn away from their apostolic priorities to meet this need. The congregation unified over this solution to the problem. (vs. 5a)
Had these five actions not been taken, the early church would have never experienced what vs. 7 tells us they experienced.
Now Joshua made very clear last week that this refusal of the apostles to meet this need themselves had nothing to do with elitism. The apostles were no more important than anyone else in the congregation. They were certainly not too good or too spiritual to dirty their hands waiting on tables. They just knew they had specific priorities based on their calling and giftings, and Jesus expected them to stay focused on that calling and those giftings – realizing that they only had so much time in a given week to do so. So perhaps it would behoove us to explore that calling a bit, since it is the one I answer to, and will increasingly be one that Joshua answers to in the coming years.
In vs. 2 the apostles’ great concern and fear was that they would be tempted to “neglect the word of God” if they were to be hands on in meeting this need and I’m sure others like it. In vs. 4 they state very emphatically that they will “devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” Prayer and the ministry of the word. What do those two responsibilities look like in tangible terms and why are they so important?
Well since they mentioned their responsibility to ministry of the word first in vs. 2 – let’s start there. Apostles, pastors and teachers particularly are called to the ministry of the word. Other than our own relationship with God and our relationships with our wife and children, – – there is no greater responsibility or priority than giving ourselves to the ministry of the word (and prayer). So what is the ministry of the word?
Well in a nutshell it is giving ourselves to studying and meditating on God’s written word, and listening for God’s spoken word, and then communicating whatever of that the Holy Spirit leads us to communicate primarily with the sheep we are called to shepherd – secondarily to the body of Christ in our regions and at large when appropriate and necessary – and finally to the culture at large when appropriate and necessary.
This phrase “the word of God” occurs 9 times before Acts 6 in the New Testament. It is used in a couple of ways. First it refers to the written scriptures as can be seen in Matthew 15:6, Mark 7:13, John 10:35, etc. Second, it refers to specific and personal words from God spoken directly to His children. The first example we see of this in the New Testament is that of John the Baptist. Listen to Luke 3:2 regarding John, “In the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness.” The “word of God” in this instance seems to be referring to God’s call and mission and instructions for John as he sought God in the wilderness. Jesus said in Luke 11:28 that there is a great blessing on those “who hear the word of God and observe it.”
So leaders of Christ’s church – whether they be pastors, teachers, apostles, prophets, evangelists or elders must give themselves both to the study of the written scriptures, and an ever increasing attuned ear to hearing what the living risen Christ – the Head of the Church is saying to His church and through them to the watching world. And then be ready and obedient to communicate to the church and to the world whatever it is the Holy Spirit wants communicated – making sure we first put whatever it is into practice ourselves before we communicate it to others.
The great reformer Ezra’s example very likely was a model for these early church leaders. His lifestyle was recorded in Ezra 7:10, “For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the Lord and to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel.” Study, practice, teach is the crucial order for anyone wanting to be used by God.
The devout religious leaders referred to as the Sadducees – on the other hand – were an example of what the early leaders of the church sought to avoid – – and that is heads swelled with Bible knowledge, but not walking in the daily experience of the power of the living God through His written and spoken word – ignited by devoted prayer. Jesus said to them, “You are mistaken, not understanding the Scriptures nor the power of God.” Matthew 22:29
The early leaders of the church were very concerned that they not “neglect the word of God” as we see in vs. 2. And they communicated – that it was serving to meet practical legitimate needs among the people of God that could easily cause them to neglect it. In our day when a pastor is ultimately responsible as in my case for the upkeep of two old buildings and the grounds surrounding them (not to mention the sheds), and the upkeep and maintenance of various kinds of equipment, whether it be office equipment, worship equipment, kitchen appliances, etc., and the care and shepherding of the sheep and their families, and the same for seven missionaries and their families, and upkeep and building of relationships with area co-leaders/pastors; and upkeep and building of relationships with KMI leaders, and interfacing with church neighbors, and people who call or drop in for a variety of reasons in a given week; and oversight of companies we do business with such as insurance agencies and copy machine companies, and the list goes on and on, it is very easy to neglect the word of God. I don’t list these things to suggest that I shouldn’t be responsible for them. I list them rather to show how many opportunities I have each day to neglect devotion to prayer and the word.
There is something in our flesh as pastors that much prefers doing practical tangible things that often see immediate fruit or change, rather than the hard patient toil of seeking God through His written and spoken word – and standing in the gap for what He wants and intends to do through prayer. And there is something in the average church member in our day – as Joshua mentioned last week – that tends to conclude that since we pay the pastor, it is his responsibility to take care of all these things. To clarify – – it is our responsibility to see that they are taken care of; it is not our responsibility to personally take care of them – – if and when it could cause us to neglect the word of God.
I submit to you this morning that the primary reason the early church saw the results vs. 7 tells us they saw is because its leaders absolutely refused to be distracted from their God given priorities. Instead they vowed – as seen in vs. 4 “we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And it was their devotion to prayer that kept their time in the word from becoming cerebral, and causing them to puff up with pride as Paul warned about in I Corinthians 8:1. It was their devotion to prayer that caused the scriptures to come alive when they opened its pages; and which enabled them to practice it before they preached it to others.
As the great reformer Martin Luther said, “He who prayed well has studied well.” Throughout the last 30 years or so I have read studies from time to time that George Barna or Lifeway Research or some other group have done on the habits of pastors in America. It is a rare thing when pastors believe they are praying enough and seeking God alone enough. And the research always backs up that self assessment. I remember when I was in Seminary someone did a national study and found the average pastors prays five minutes a day. Lifeway Research in 2010 did a study across the nation based on conversations on the phone with senior pastors and I just want to read one paragraph from this sobering two page article: “The amount of time spent in prayer and personal devotions raises questions about the vitality of many pastors’ spiritual lives. While 52 % report spending one to six hours in prayer each week, 5 % say they spend no time at all in prayer. Furthermore, while 52 percent say they spend two to five hours a week in personal devotions unrelated to teaching preparation, 14 % indicate they spend an hour or less in personal devotions each week.”
Yesterday morning as the ladies were at the ladies breakfast, and I was home with my mother in law and Boaz, I was mulling over this ongoing phenomenon of the prayerlessness of pastors – most of whom clearly know better – – and I looked out the window – and was reminded of the yard work I needed to do – and it hit me that perhaps one of the reasons this continues to dog us is because we prefer the inanimate over the animate. There is something strong in our flesh that just would much rather clean the carpet in a church building – rather than sit in the presence of the living God and allow Him to clean us up; and then give us specific instructions for how to work with Him to help clean you up.
Fathers and husbands have struggled with this for milleniums. Go out in the forest and kill some game? No problem! Go to work and bring home the bacon? I’m on it! Go outside and mow the lawn or work on the car or paint the house or …. No problem. But build relationship with our wife or children – – sitting down and looking them in the face and listening to them and not wanting to be somewhere else while sitting there – – now that’s painful – – that’s highly uncomfortable – – …. probably not going to happen until we get yelled at for spending too much time doing the inanimate things.
One thing that is very clear from pondering the first two of these five snapshots or assessments of the state of the early church that we read over in the beginning of the sermon was the apostles in the first century were not left to do the work of prayer alone. Before the church was even born on the day of Pentecost, some 120 people spent hours and days praying together – probably around 9 days to be exact. After the church begin to explode with growth – Acts 2:42 said the whole church continually devoted themselves to prayer. So there was an environment or atmosphere of prayer that permeated the very life of the early church – – that I think the church in our day is striving to recover or perhaps develop for the first time, but still has a long way to go.
Well since Joshua touched on lots of this first half of the chapter last Sunday, let’s read the second half together, which transitions from snapshots of the whole church to a snapshot of the life of one man called Stephen. (read vs. 8-15)
Leonard Ravenhill once said of the church, “If we are weak in prayer, we are weak everywhere.” The converse of that is, “If we are strong in prayer, we will be strong everywhere.” And that was the case with the young non apostolic men in the early church – Stephen being exhibit A.
When the apostles instructed the congregation to come up with some men to serve tables they required that – quoting vs. 3 – they be “men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.” The first man they evidently chose was Stephen, whom Luke tells us in vs. 5 was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Vs. 8 tells us that Stephen “was full of grace and power” which enabled him to perform “great wonders and signs among the people.”
My guess is that Stephen was one of the young people that admired Jesus Christ from afar when He was ministering from city to city. My guess is he was among the 120 who spent those 9 days or so seeking God together in prayer after Jesus ascended to sit at the right hand of the Father. I can’t prove that. Perhaps he was one of the 3,000 that were saved on the day of Pentecost. Because he had to be of good reputation to be appointed to serve tables, he had to have been around long enough for people to know his character and lifestyle.
But my point is – – these kind of men do not come out of thin air. Seminaries do not produce them. Bible schools do not produce them. I’m not even sure Master’s Commissions produce them. Ultimately only praying churches with praying leaders produce them. The church in America is made up of thousands of young men who have a little bit of the Holy Spirit and a little bit of wisdom, and a little bit of faith, and a little bit of grace. The church in America needs young men who are full of the Spirit and full of wisdom and full of faith and full of grace and full of power. Young men characterized by fullness is the product of praying churches. And without this kind of young men, the church continues to limp along – depending upon its programs to prop things up – – which is a very poor substitute for the power of God.
Stephen’s impact among the people of Jerusalem was so powerful that the whole religious establishment came unglued. To protect their turf they came after him first trying to debate and argue with him, which got them nowhere because of Stephen’s fullness of the Holy Spirit and fullness of wisdom. Then they tried to accuse him before their religious council by getting people to act as false witnesses.
Friends – we desperately need some Stephens in the church in this region. I believe we have some budding ones, but for them to fully blossom and be able walk in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and faith and wisdom and grace – – we’ve got to build a greater atmosphere of prayer.
Young men there is no fullness without fervent united continual prayer alone in your closet, and with God’s people.
Ministry time – corporate prayer