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"Strengthening the Church"

MESSAGE FOR February 6, 2011 FROM ACTS 14:21 -28

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          Our text this morning is from Acts chapter 14 beginning with verse 28 as we trace with Luke, the closing leg of Paul’s first missionary journey.  Paul and Barnabas had just been to the city of Derbe and Luke writes in verse 21, “21 When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, 22 strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. 23 And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. 24 Then they passed through Pisidia and came to Pamphylia. 25 And when they had spoken the word in Perga, they went down to Attalia, 26 and from there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled. 27 And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles. 28 And they remained no little time with the disciples.”

          You may remember that when we began this series in Acts, we said that it was a series on the vision for our church.  As I hope we have seen from Acts, a central element of that vision is the Biblical mandate for mission and evangelism.  Related to that is the reality of spiritual opposition that comes to a church serious about mission and evangelism.  If we are earnestly striving to grow as a church through the conversion of sinners—if we are serious about sending out more missionaries, we must be ready for a fight, because we will get one.  As a friend of mine was fond of saying, “the devil doesn’t give up his paying customers easily.”  Another theme of Acts is this multi-dimensional portrait that emerges of what constitutes a Biblically healthy church.  As we have said before, a big piece of our vision is to be healthy as God counts healthy.  God holds up a church in Acts that, although it is imperfect, should inspire us and is very much worthy of our imitation.

The text for this morning fits into the aspect of our vision that relates to the question—what makes up a healthy church?  Or, what are some necessary components of a healthy church as revealed in Acts?  This text for today is far from exhaustive in treating that question—the Holy Spirit is not even mentioned—but many qualities are cited in this text that healthy churches manifest.  I find here four necessary components required for a healthy church and as we look at them, know that these are critical to the accomplishment of our vision here at Mount of Olives.  The first component of a healthy church is found mostly in the first three verses and that is—Churches require a genuine discipleship mentality.  We see three elements to this that will comprise much of the message. The first element of this genuine discipleship model is simply—those in Christ’s church see themselves as disciples—devoted followers of Jesus.  This text clearly models for us the necessity of discipleship.  In verse 21, Luke describes what Paul and Barnabas had done in Derbe and he says they, “preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples…”  They were fulfilling the Great Commission of Christ, not by making converts who simply pray a sinner’s prayer, but by making life-long, devoted disciples of Christ.  In verse 22, Luke tells us that Paul and Barnabas had been “strengthening the souls of the disciples…”  Finally in verse 28, when they returned to their sending church in Antioch, Luke says, “And they remained no little time with the disciples.   It’s clear that when Luke thinks about new converts, he considers them disciples—those who are actively following Christ in obedience—learners who are doing and doers who are learning.  It’s clear from very early in Acts that to be a genuine Christian in Jesus is to be a disciple.  Luke says in Acts 11:26, “…And in Antioch, the disciples were first called Christians.  In Luke’s mind, a Christian is a disciple.  There are not two separate tiers in the church as some claim—one for those who allegedly “believe” but are not actively following Jesus in obedience, and another for the rest who are much more serious and mature about their faith—those who are “disciples.” 

Some evangelical churches do not believe you must be a disciple of Christ in order to go to heaven.  These churches hold that it is possible to be a “believer in Jesus” and be saved from your sin without becoming a disciple of Jesus.  They arrive at this conclusion through a tortured misinterpretation of the New Testament and thankfully, the number of churches and church leaders who hold this view are dwindling from what they were in the 1980’s.  However, the question, “can a person be saved by allegedly “believing” in Christ but NOT being his disciple?” is sadly still a source of confusion for many.

          These churches typically hold that a person is not under the command to repent of their sin in order to be saved and that obedience to Christ is not required, only what they call “faith” in Christ.  They hold that requiring things like repentance and discipleship is not consistent with God’s free grace in salvation, but are instead “works” and are therefore not part of the gospel.  In other words, they believe that Jesus can be your Savior, but he doesn’t have to be your Lord.  Any number of texts are ignored and many others twisted to come to that conclusion, but again, thankfully—there has lately been a steady increase within evangelicalism in the Biblical truth of the necessity of discipleship for the believer that dates back to the Reformation and more importantly, to Jesus himself.  I could address these truths to these errant churches.  But today, I want to speak on this, NOT to this explicit doctrinal error—most people here believe that discipleship is necessary for heaven—but the implicit affirmation of this lie  that you can savingly believe without living as a disciple of Jesus.

          Whatever their doctrinal position is on this issue, far too many people in evangelical churches live as if they can go to heaven without living in repentance and without picking up their cross and following Jesus.  When you look at their lives, except for the 90 minutes they spend at church on Sunday mornings and some, on Wednesday night, their life is not discernibly different than many people who never claim to follow Jesus.  They may work hard at their job, attend church regularly, leave peaceably within their families, avoid profanity and even give of their time generously to their friends and relatives.  That’s all well and good, but those qualities are not distinctively Christian.  All those things could be said of most Mormons or Muslims.  These so-called believers spend their time and money and resources pretty much the way the pagans do.  They aren’t in the Word of God regularly—the spiritual disciplines of a disciple of Christ are noticeably absent from their lives.  Their lives don’t radically orbit around the centrality of Christ, but instead revolve around their job or their mortgage payment or their political convictions or their family or their football team or some other hobby or past time.  If those idols were knocked down, they would be apoplectic.  Jesus and the church and her ministries and other spiritual realities connected to discipleship simply do not strongly appeal to them.  They “believe” in Christ--that he is the only way to heaven, and their “faith” will keep them out of hell. James 2:19 says, “19 You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!  Demons believe the right things about Jesus Christ and his atoning work, but there will be no demons in heaven because they are living in rebellion against God—just like these folks who are living for themselves but spend a couple of hours in church each week with no real fruit in their lives.

          Paul’s ministry contradicts this errant notion of Christianity.  Listen to how he describes his apostolic mission in Romans 1:5.   In speaking about Christ he says, “5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations,”   Paul says—the reason God gave me grace to minister--and the reason he made me an apostle of Jesus Christ was “to bring about the obedience of faith.”  Paul’s apostleship was all about calling people to obedience, but it was a particular kind of obedience—not obedience to the Law for the purpose of piling up merit before God, but the obedience of faith.  The NIV says, “The obedience that comes from faith.”  Paul called sinners to the kind of faith in Christ that produces obedience to the radical call of discipleship for the sake of Christ.  That is—for the glory of Christ.  So, what he is saying is--Christ is glorified by giving Paul grace and apostleship for the purpose of bringing about obedience to God which springs, not from the Law, but from faith in Jesus Christ.  Faith always produces obedience if it is the kind of faith that saves a person.  Jesus is preparing his church as a holy bride without spot or blemish.  How does that image of the church fit with people who “believe” in Jesus and who allegedly comprise his bride, but are much like the world?

          It is absolutely necessary for a church to have a discipleship mentality and that begins with understanding that when you are called to Christ, you are called to follow him—if need be, to the death.  It’s not about some impotent, insipid “belief” in Jesus that does nothing to change a person’s heart.  Can you imagine a person saying, “Jesus came into my life—the Spirit of the living God indwells me—I have been brought from darkness into light, death into life, slavery into freedom, from living under the law to living under grace—I have been made a new creature in Christ, adopted as God’s very own child…but it hasn’t really changed my affections or made me any different than the generous pagan who lives down the street?” 

A discipleship mentality is necessary for a healthy church, but this goes well beyond simply knowing the difference between a disciple and a counterfeit.  Disciples want to grow in Christ—they want to be more like Jesus and, impelled by the grace of God, they read the Word and study it for the purpose of knowing Christ better.  They get into small groups for accountability with other believers who sharpen them and who they can sharpen.  They work at developing a prayer life.  They give their money away sacrificially because they have learned their treasure is in heaven.  They see the church of Christ as a blessed gift God has given them to build them up in the faith and bring God’s loving discipline to them when necessary.  They seek out people they respect to disciple them and are working to disciple others in the Lord.  They love the brethren, but they also love sinners and increasingly, their enemies.  Those are typical marks of a disciple. The New Testament knows nothing of people whose so called “Christianity” consists mainly of attending a church on Sunday morning for 90 minutes.  To call that person a disciple is gross distortion.

          We see this discipleship mentality acted out in verse 22 where Luke says Paul returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith...  These three cities were places where Paul had been persecuted and it’s safe to assume the newly reborn disciples who lived there had also encountered opposition.  As a good shepherd, Paul returns to these new believers and strengthens them in the midst of the opposition and encourages them to continue in the faith.  When you are fighting the fight of faith, weariness can set in and Paul moves in to strengthen the church.  He no doubt wept with them and communicated God’s promises to them—“God is with you—He will work this for your good—your reward is great in heaven—your suffering honors Christ if done in faith.”  He reminded them of what Christ had done for them and the glories of heaven that await them if they endure to the end.  We need strengthening too.  We need it from the pulpit and Sunday school--but we also need it in the Fellowship Hall, at the dinner table, in the fishing boat, on the golf course or in your back yard.  In our fallenness we are weak and need strengthening.  A second element of a genuine discipleship mentality is--those in Christ’s church strengthen and encourage one another. 

Healthy churches know the weaknesses of the flesh and when they come together, they come with the intention to strengthen those who are under attack or who are discouraged spiritually. Sometimes, it evidently got so bad for these saints Paul ministered to that they felt like throwing in the towel and going back to paganism.  Paul encourages them in verse 22 to “continue in the faith.”  He also does something else for these disciples that may sound very strange to some of us.  He told them, “…through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.  We need to be careful to hear what Paul is saying.  He is not saying, “expect tribulation as a disciple—the world hated Christ, it will hate you—don’t be shocked by it, count on it.”  He doesn’t say that tribulation is inevitable for the believer (though it is).  He says tribulation is NECESSARY for heaven!  He says, “through many tribulations we MUST enter the kingdom of God.”  Do you hear that?  He is making tribulations a necessary condition for entering the kingdom of God.  That implies—under normal circumstances—if you been in Christ for awhile but have not experienced MANY tribulations because you are a disciple of Christ, you have not met a condition for entering the kingdom of God. A third element of this discipleship mentality is–those in Christ’s church know that suffering for Christ is necessary for heaven.  That may sound strange to us, but this would have been comforting to these churches under and attack and this is far from the only place in Scripture that teaches this truth. 

          Paul says in Romans 8:17, “16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”  Suffering as a child of God is a condition for being glorified with Christ.  How do we put this together?  If salvation is by grace alone, how can suffering and tribulations be conditions for it?  We get a hint from the words, “suffer WITH HIM”—our suffering is with Christ. We see this more explicitly in Acts at the conversion of Saul.  In Acts 9:5 at the appearance of the light from heaven, Saul asks, “…“Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  It’s clear that to persecute the church is to persecute Christ and the reason is because--if you are a disciple of Jesus, you are united with him through the Holy Spirit.  So, you have these twin truths—1. The world persecutes and the devil hates Jesus and wants to attack him and 2. You are one with Jesus.  The ultimate reason the world persecutes and Satan attacks disciples is because of their hatred for Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 10:22, “and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.  But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”  We suffer tribulation and attack from the devil because of our oneness relationship to Christ—Christ in me, me in Christ.  When they persecute and attack us, they are ultimately attacking Jesus—we are targets because we are one with him and represent him in this world.

          If the world and the devil hate Jesus and you are not suffering many tribulation, that implies either you are a very new believer, or you are not one with Christ—you are not a fellow heir with Christ.  It is necessary for us to be one with Christ and those who are one with Christ suffer tribulations.  Therefore, it is necessary to suffer many tribulations to enter the kingdom of God.  We are fellow heirs Paul says, “provided we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him.”  Jesus paints this same picture only with broader strokes in Matthew 7:13-14.  He says, “13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”  Two possible paths for your life—one is wide and easy but it leads to destruction.  The other is narrow and it is hard.  It is hard because the world and the devil hate Jesus and they attack him through his church, just as Saul attacked him through his church.  But the few that are on this narrow path will find life at the end of it.   Those three truths about this discipleship mentality are necessary for a healthy church.

Much more briefly because we have looked at this many times before, the second component of a healthy church is God-appointed, plural pastoral leadership. Luke says in verse 23, “And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.”   These elders or pastors—those terms are used interchangeably in the New Testament--are appointed in every church.  Two qualities of these elders—the first is implicit, the second is explicit.  First, they were appointed by God and second, they must be plural in number.  We understand these men were ultimately appointed by God because Luke tells us they were the product of prayer and fasting. In Acts, no one is ever selected for an important position without prayer and fasting frequently accompanies it.  Saul and Barnabas were sent out from Antioch with fasting and prayer.  The deacon-type figures in Acts six were appointed only after prayer.  In the gospels, Jesus prayed all night before he named the twelve disciples.  The reason Paul prays is because, even though an apostle like Paul (not to mention, Jesus) had a pretty clear connection to God in the New Testament, getting God’s choices for church leadership is so important, intense prayer manifest by fasting is required.

          If these leaders of these infant churches are not qualified—the churches will flounder badly and probably fail.  Second, notice Luke does not say, “when they had appointed AN ELDER for them in each church…  No, its elderS—plural.  No one man has all the gifts and competencies to shepherd a church.  The contemporary model of the pastorate that is often expressed by statements like, “so and so is THE pastor of our church” is wholly unbiblical and has sentenced too many churches to incredibly inadequate spiritual leadership.  We are working on having a God-appointed, plural eldership here at Mount of Olives because it is one component of a healthy church.

          A third component of a healthy church is--God-placed ministry goals that are realized.  After Luke retraces their missionary journey through Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia and finally Antioch, he says of this sending church in Antioch, in verse 26, “…Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work that they had fulfilled.”  This verse implies that Paul and Barnabas had some ministry objectives when they began because they had fulfilled their work.  They knew they had accomplished what they set out to do.  Church shouldn’t run like corporate America in many senses, but it’s a universal axiom that also holds in Christ’s church that--if you aren’t aiming at something, you will probably hit it.  The main objective the church at Antioch had for Paul and Barnabas was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles primarily in the province of Galatia, plant some churches, disciple them and appoint elders in them.  Because they had accomplished that, Luke can write that they had “fulfilled” the work to which they had been commended to God’s grace.  The point is-there was some strategy—some intentionality here that was specific and meaningful and measurable.  Though the church should never use goals to limit their ministry—God does exceedingly abundantly above what we ask, think or imagine—at the same time, we should not just exist willy-nilly and expect aggressive penetration into the kingdom of darkness will somehow just occur.  No, there must be a plan—leadership training, a vision cast, and ministry objectives set so that when God does it, it will be evident to us.  This is something the leadership has been, and will be working on in the near future and the church will have a chance to see if they believe these objectives are from God.

          A final component of a healthy church found in this text is: God-given spiritual victories and a willingness to publically share and celebrate them.  Verse 27 says of Paul and Barnabas, “And when they arrived and gathered the church together, they declared all that God had done with them, and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles.  And they remained no little time with the disciples.  Healthy churches witness the power of God in their ministries—things happen that can only be explained by God’s provision.  It’s not just business-as-usual in these churches—God is active and doing wonderful things within the lives and ministries of the church.  You don’t need an electron microscope to detect God’s hand.  Antioch had prayed and fasted and selected Paul and Barnabas to go on this mission to the Gentiles.  They had commended them to the grace of God through prayer—and sent them off.  They come back in about a year with reports of miracles and new churches started made up exclusively of Gentiles—churches that were enduring opposition and not folding.  This news was not kept a secret from the church—it wasn’t reserved just for the church leadership.  They declared all that God had done with them…”   They told God’s people what God had done. 

Soon, on Sunday mornings on certain weeks, you will be hearing from people who attend here as they give well prepared, God centered, faith stories suitable for believers and non-believers.  But this goes well beyond that formal expression within a worship service.  This kind of declaration of God’s work in our lives and ministries should be happening either formally or informally whenever the church assembles because in a healthy church, God is always at work and he is glorified when his work is magnified by someone declaring it to others.   It’s not a very Scandinavian thing to do, but we should celebrate when God does something amazing—share it with our friends and if appropriate, publicly before the church.  We need those kinds of declarations to remind us that God is at work.  It bolsters our faith as we hear testimonies of what God has done in someone else’s life or ministry.  At the prayer conference we attended this past week, one of the most encouraging messages for me was Francis Chan’s message where he basically just declared some of the amazing answers to prayer he had received.  It made me want to pray because this is the kind of thing that happens in response to prayer.  Healthy churches have spiritual victories and they declare them unashamedly as the work of God.

Let’s close with two brief points of application.  First, do you have a discipleship mentality?  Are you an active follower of Christ whose faith works its way out in obedience to him?  This is not about perfection, but about having a genuine love for Jesus Christ.  Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  You long to know him better and you manifest that longing by time spent studying his Word and in prayer?  Do you want other believers to sharpen you—hold you accountable, or do you shrink that kind of transparency where your life is examined by others in Christ’s church?   Do you give your money away sacrificially out of your love for Christ, or do you recoil from that notion because your treasure is here on earth?  When you think about heaven—is the overwhelming appeal of glory the fact that you will get to be with Jesus forever—or that it is much preferable to hell?  If you are here and you are content to simply attend church, there is something drastically wrong.  That is not discipleship and it is no indicator that the faith you have is the kind that saves.  That kind of faith issues in loving obedience inside and outside the church.

Second, do you have a Biblical view of suffering?  That is--suffering is not only inevitable for the believer, it is necessary for entrance into the kingdom of God?  In our American culture, there is almost nothing to encourage a Biblical worldview of suffering.  If you suffer in America, there is something wrong and the source of the suffering must be promptly removed for the unwelcome malignancy it is…  Beloved, Jesus calls that “the wide gate” and it leads to destruction.  The narrow way is necessarily hard, but it leads somewhere—it leads to Jesus.  If you are one with Christ, you will suffer because this world and the devil hate him and by extension, you.  When Saul was killing Christians, we know that he was ultimately striking out at Christ.  And we must remember that ultimately, our suffering is a good thing because God uses suffering redemptively for our good.  Our suffering draws us into greater dependency upon Christ—it reminds us of our helplessness and drives us to our knees and to a deeper intimacy with him as we share “in the fellowship of Christ’s suffering.”

First Peter 4:12 says, “12 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.  This is why Peter and the other apostles, when they were beaten and told to not preach in Jesus’ name, “…left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”  Christ is worth suffering for and obedience to him should not be viewed as optional or as a burden, but as the only appropriate response of a disciple and co-heir who has been saved by the cross of Christ.  May God give us grace know and love Christ with all we have for his glory and our joy.

 

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