Catalysts of Church Growth

Exegetical Text: Acts 7-9

Adolescence of the Early Church Part II from Cape Alliance Church on Vimeo.

A video recently popped up on my Facebook feed, shared by on old acquaintance of mine from Seattle. It was a decidedly liberal video, which is why I found the title of it quite odd: 5 Ways that America is Already Socialist. Out of curiosity I started to watch it—I didn’t finish, but that’s partially due to it not being interesting—and only got as far as the reasoning that we are socialist because of the labor unions (which they described as a good thing) and their efforts to get “fair”wages along with the weekend. At first, I passed it of as dumb propaganda, which it was, but the more I thought about it more I was amazed at how much has changed politically even over just the simple span of my lifetime.

  1. In elementary school, we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day. I don’t remember doing it after that.
  2. The popular 80s sitcom, Murphy Brown, almost got cancelled because her character got pregnant out of wedlock. Today, Duck Dynasty is ruined as a show because they want to pray on TV.
  3. In high school, we held a Bible study/prayer group that met at school.
  4. There was a section on creation in my high school biology textbook.
  5. Also in high school, we could have faith based discussions and the teacher could allow/participate as long as they didn’t start it.
  6. 2001 brought us the Bush Doctrine, which gave the government the ability to act on the threat of aggression. This led to the US government spying on US citizens by 2006.
  7. In 2010, the Affordable Care Act was signed, effectively giving the government control over our health.
  8. Just a few months ago, the Supreme Court changed the definition of marriage, which has been held since the beginning of history.

This list could go on, but the point is clear: the times, they are a changin. In a relatively short amount of time, the government has significantly increased the amount of control it has over people’s lives, thus reducing the freedom each individual citizen holds. While not all political issues directly coincide with our faith, there are many that do. People point to landmark cases such as Roe vs. Wade or Brown vs. the Board of Education to show that as these rights are taken away, our ability to fully practice our faith is hindered. Just this past week, the gentlemen who played Gimli on the Lord of the Rings, went public on a radio show to talk about how we have lost our moral compass and Christian are the ones who are suffering the most for it. Simply put, the farther this world runs away from God and to lawlessness, the more difficult it is going to be as a Christian.

For contemplation, I ask you to consider this question: is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Privilege of Persecution

Our text today centers around a few stories in the early life of the church, highlighted by three standout examples of Christians that led the “Mountain Dew lifestyle” like I described last week. The point of these stories (Spoiler Alert!) is that God was pushing the expansion of the church outside of Jerusalem and Judea and was prepping the world for the gospel message. Jerusalem and Judea had already been taken by storm and there were many who were living a life devoted to God through Jesus, but the pressure had begun to mount.

We left off last week with Stephen and his appointment with the others to ministry – and the great things the Holy Spirit was doing through him. The high priests and Pharisees and already begun to take notice of him and get upset about Stephen’s ministry. Chapter 6 ends with people falsely accusing Stephen and getting him arrested. The first part of chapter 7 is a beautiful retelling of the gospel story and its relation to the Old Testament; specifically Moses. Like Peter, Stephen was not afraid to tell it like it is. Let’s pick it up in verse 51.

READ Acts 7:51-60

The Jewish officials had finally broken the seal and gotten away with their first documented murder of a Christian. It was at this point that the persecution they had previously been suffering (threats, minor arrests, arguing, some flogging) took a new and drastic turn – due to, at least in part, a guy named Saul. We’ll talk more about him later, but catch this:

READ Acts 8:1-3

In the NASB, they use the word ravage – Saul ravaged the church with this new persecution. These are tough chapters to read and the persecution the early church endured was absolutely horrible, but again I ask the question – was this a good thing or a bad thing for the church? These chapters highlight the lengths that the Jews would go to try and snuff out the gospel, but instead, what do we ultimately read about in these chapters? These three chapters mark the expansion of the gospel and the church outside of Jerusalem and Judea. The doors are opening for the rest of the world! The church, Ekklesia, was now no longer confined to a location or a people; but is now openly spreading throughout the rest of the world!

Chapter 8 talks about Philip and his work in Samaria and with the Ethiopian Eunuch – who was an official of the Queen of Ethiopia. The message was spreading – and it was spreading out of the control of anyone who would try to stop it! The question is, then, what does persecution have to do with church growth? Let’s briefly take a look at larger church history.

The early church was persecuted and also grew like wildfire for the first couple hundred years. Then a huge event happens – Emperor Constantine becomes a Christian and in the beginning of 313, develops the Edict of Milan, which stated that Christians should be allowed to follow their faith without oppression. He also worked a lot to bring a unified theological base to the faith; in essence, establishing an orthodox set of beliefs. He brought about the First Council of Nicea in 325, at which came the Nicene Creed, which is still used in many Christian circles today and sung in songs by popular Christian artists such as Third Day and the late Rich Mullins.

After this happened, while the church continued to grow, the church of the middle ages looked very different from the early church. Complacency and infighting replaced passion and mission. Indulgences became a thing. In essence, Christians got comfortable and received a taste of what it means to be in power. Pretty soon, Christians were forcing people into the faith and opening the doorway for the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.

Christians forgot that God promised persecution for believers (2 Timothy 3:12 – in fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted) and stopped seeing God as the refining fire (Zechariah 13:9 and Jeremiah 9:7). In fact, it wasn’t until the Reformation and the reemergence of persecution (this time, from the Catholic Church) that the really spread and made its way to America and the far east. Today, I think we are seeing another round of persecution beginning on the heels of the last few hundred years of Christian affluence. I see this as important and ultimately good for us Christians because of what it forces us to do – to stop resting on our laurels and actually run the race with perseverance.

Persecution is a refining act that God uses to sanctify us and, through that passion and zeal for Him, spread the gospel message to the remotest ends of the earth. Look at it like this – if you are out for a run in the forest, you may push yourself a bit, but your body will rest when it can. Now imagine a bear chasing you while you run – that’s pushing your body to the extreme. That’s how to run in a Mountain Dew lifestyle.

People with Passion

Persecution is not the only catalyst that God uses to build His Ekklesia, however. The next two stories, chapters 8 and 9, highlight other individuals who absolutely lived that Mountain Dew life with a zeal and a passion that led to many being impacted by the gospel message.

Philip the Evangelist

First we have Philip, who it shows as one that was scattered from Jerusalem due to the ferocity of the persecution. He travels to Samaria and hides, right? No! He preaches in front of crowds and performs miraculous signs of healing and deliverance from demons. In fact, the work of the Holy Spirit was so powerful through Philip that we hear of him being followed by a former magician looking to gain that kind of power for himself. Of course, Simon doesn’t get it and seems to repent at the end.

And angel of the Lord then appears to Philip and leads him south where he runs in to the Ethiopian eunuch. Philip’s simple obedience to go where called and speak when given the opportunity led to many being saved and the advancement of the gospel to another continent. Philip’s circumstances were not easy, as he was one who had been scattered and on the run from persecution, but was he worried about himself? Was he nervous about getting into more trouble? Or was he passionate about his Savior and willing to go to whatever ends for the glory of the Lord?

Obviously, Philip was willing to do whatever God asked of Him, which is why, to date, he is the only one we know of to be teleported (Acts 8:39-40). For those curious, the distance between Gaza and Azotus was about 30 miles. Philip kept going, not stopping at all, but preaching the gospel as he continued on his way. To Philip, it didn’t matter what obstacles were in the way or who was trying to stop him. It did matter, however, to God.

Saul the Persecutor

I find the information we have on the young Saul makes him a perfect juxtaposition to Peter. Of all the negatives Peter had stacked up against him until the Holy Spirit took control, Saul had all of the positives. He was educated, had good lineage, was well liked and respected and an intensity in his personality that commanded fear, or at least extreme personal strength. Saul was a tiger – not afraid of anything and probably needed reined in more than anything else. And, at the point we meet him is actively working against God by persecuting the early church.

Paul said himself later on that God chose the foolish things of the world to same the wise, and God’s saving act for Saul on the road to Damascus certainly looked about as foolish as one could get. God took the world’s leading persecutor of the church and turned him into the world’s foremost evangelist, missionary and theologian…to this day!

READ Acts 9:1-19

A couple of interesting things we see here:

  1. God can reach anybody. God’s calling on a person’s life is not dependent on anything other than what He has planned for them. In 19 verses we see one of the worst persecutors of Christianity become one of its leading evangelists. If God can turn around Saul, then think of what He can do with you!
  2. God’s plan is God’s plan. We have been given the opportunity to accept, but God still wants us to respond. “Who are you, Lord?” Saul, as evil as he was, earnestly was wanting to follow God properly – he was just severely misinformed on how that works. Do you want to be a part of God’s plan? Do you want Him to use you in mighty ways? Do you have the passion to be a world changer in Christ’s name?
  3. Saul gave up everything to follow Christ. His position, money, lineage and fame were, in that instant, a distant memory. Instead, Saul took on suffering and a Mountain Dew life for Christ.

Saul’s Ministry Credentials

READ Acts 9:19-31

It is here where, on some levels, I really start to relate to Saul. His passion and zeal was not a good fit for those at “home” and this new convert to the faith all of a sudden had become a catalyst in the early church for major change. The Pharisees now hated him and wanted him dead, and the believers didn’t trust him. So what did he do? Did he fly under the radar? Did he lay low for a few months or years? Did he go to Bible College and earn a degree? No – he simply started preaching. We can look back today and see the wisdom from his writings that came straight from God and that Saul was specifically chosen by God to be a mouthpiece, but imagine being back then and seeing this guy—loud and obnoxious—come and take charge of everything, throw his weight around, argue and get in everyone’s faces. Would Saul be welcomed here, today?

Saul’s credentials were the result of a direct appointment from God. He acted from his calling and the Holy Spirit that resided fully in him. He took his loud and obnoxious personality and used it for kingdom glory. If the Holy Spirit indwelling Peter gave him a spiritual confidence, it made Saul BOLD. It gave him a vigor and a restlessness that would not stop. Saul cared about nothing else than seeing everyone come to Christ and traveled all around the known world to make that happen. He wanted to see Christ come back in his day!

The Return of Christ

That’s really the question posed here today. How much do you want to see the mission accomplished? What is the completion of God’s mission mean to you? Does it mean enough to willingly risk persecution and hatred? Is it enough to sacrifice your comfortable life? Is it enough even to get you out of that chair and on to your knees? Do you have the passion to stand up and fight the good fight; run the race with perseverance, and set your eyes firmly on Jesus? How would that look in your life? Plain and simple, friends, this is what our life is about. This is what the Christian life is about. God is calling us to be people of passion who, refined by the fire of persecution, are honored to give our very lives to the gospel. Consider the words of Saul from 1 Thess 1:5-10.

Are you ready to live that Mountain Dew lifestyle?

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The Adolescence of the Early Church

Expository Text: Acts 3-6

It has been an absolute pleasure of mine to have spent the last 3 years with the teens at Cape Alliance Church. They bring a certain something to the table that, well, can’t be put into words. Maybe it can be put into words: crazy coffee concoctions, whispy whiskers, the kingship of the great dalmuti, and chicken sounds in the dark. We had a lot of fun – there is something special about being a teenager.

Lately, the church has been looking at the early church—Ekklesia: a group of people called out—and how they built this family group based on what they had in common, namely Jesus. The group grew quickly, and that was after 3000 joined them in a single day! Pretty soon, the early church found themselves trying to figure out who they were and what they needed to do in this larger world. The infancy of this brand new group quickly gave way as they became a force to be reckoned with and a noticeable entity in the larger world around them. After all, they were not commissioned to stay where they were at, but to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. That meant growing pains. Pretty soon, the church was experiencing adolescence and had to figure a lot out. As we look through Acts, chapters 3-6 today, we see the early almost as a teenager, forming a structure and a model that has lasted through today and beyond.

Rejecting of the Establishment

Continuing the practice they were shown during their time with Jesus, the Apostles continued right on as if nothing had happened. Instead of Jesus by their side, modeling the way, Jesus was indwelling them with the Holy Spirit. They were walking with Him more intimately than before and it was showing!

Just take Peter – before being filled with the Holy Spirit, he looked more like an uncoordinated toddler than anything else. As sweet and inspiring as they can be, with every memorable event comes one where they trip over their own feet. Peter was no different; he walked on water only to fall in, claimed Jesus was the Christ, then tried to stop him from His mission, and followed Jesus to the cross only to deny him 3 times. The Peter we meet at Pentecost and as the leader of the early church in our text today had Jesus living in him and through him – and it was evident.

READ Acts 3:1-10; 4:1-12

The ministry (and controversy) of healing did not end with Jesus.

With the Holy Spirit working through Peter, a lame beggar was healed. This incited the exact same response as Jesus’ acts of healing; namely that the one healed couldn’t stop praising God, and the ones in charge got angry about it. Peter was fully aware of how the high priest’s office would respond, as he has seen it many times before. Peter wasn’t worried about how he looked to the leadership and didn’t stop to question the effect this might have on others. He saw an opportunity to bring glory to God and acted. This is a key point – he sought no focus group or advisory board, but saw what needed to be done and acted (though, let’s remember that he was full of the Spirit and being clearly directed by God). He was not seeking his own leadership or glory, but was just living his life out to please his Lord.

There are no shades of grey with the early church.

Peter was not afraid to speak out with a clear and direct message about God, the only name that brings salvation, and even those that had Him killed. Peter was not trying to make people feel comfortable, fit himself inside a political box or agenda, make himself look good or anything else; he simply recognized that he was given an audience and used the chance to share with them the gospel message.

He infuriated the standard.

Think about it – who was this guy? He was uneducated, poor, had no lineage to his credit, and ended up as a fisherman because no one wanted him as a priestly apprentice. And now he was putting them in their place. A younger, more brash and raw personality now filled with a confidence and power that they knew not was telling them they were wrong and proving the power behind him with the miracles and connections to Jesus, whom they all remembered. He stood up to them and didn’t even consider, let alone care about the consequences. This of course led to him and John being arrested, which only gave Peter a chance to tell it directly to the face of the high priest himself. The high priest was ultimately powerless and could only muster the courage to threaten them. Even later on in chapter 5 when they get arrested again and escaped through the help of an angel of the Lord, those in power were too afraid of them and hid behind the counsel of their elder, letting them free again under threat.

The Apostles proved through their actions of faith and fearless abandon that there is no real power outside of God. The ones who seemingly held power were proven impotent by young men standing firm and talking about the love of Jesus. Like any teenager, they challenged authority and pushed away from what they once had known and trusted, following their heart – what they chose to trust in for themselves. Thankfully, because of the Holy Spirit, the new establishment they created blossomed and became something what was real and grew. Now that there was an early church and others were relying on the Apostles as leaders, rules had to be set up.

Developing the House Rules

Game nights are popular in our church and mercifully all of the house rules have been established for the different games we like. But have you been there when those rules are getting laid out? It can easily start to look like a scene of Ralph against Jack in the Lord of the Flies. Do you have to buy the Monopoly property when you land on an unowned space? What about creating alliances? And what about the Free Parking rules? My finds and I would get into such intense games of RISK during high school that our main house rule was that we would be friends again at 7 in the morning.

The Apostles now had a large and constantly growing group on their hands and management was needed. Obviously they had never done anything like this before and had no idea what to expect – so they established policies based off of the needs that arose. What we can see through the following passages show us the principles they based their decisions and policies from. They certainly did not sit down and transpose a theological thesis or a 12 part essay on the regulations of elderhood. While those kinds of things would come later, this was not that day, nor was that the point. They had to establish the basics of life together in community – the beginning of Ekklesia.

READ ACTS 5:1-16; 6:1-7

Transparency is required.

No one asked Ananias or Sapphira to give everything they had. In fact, I am confident that had they said they were only going to give a portion, they would have been fine – but they wanted the recognition of being givers of all and hold back some in secret. This was all about appearance for them – they had not given themselves over to God and yet wanted to look like heroes. This is a classic problem today among Christians and non-Christians alike. We easily forget that God is the one who looks at the heart and think we can get away with our scheming in front of others. Ask yourselves that question – what are you holding back? What in your life are you trying to keep hidden so you can look good in front of other people?

Service is a calling.

Everyone wants to be called to do something great. For example, when I was in college and got the chance to address around 1000 people during my chance to speak, I thought I was destined for huge crowds. Yet, look at this – one of the first major group decisions in the early church was about who would be in charge of serving food to the widows of the group. Verse 3: “Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task.” And this is for serving food! The Apostles them laid their hands on them and prayed for those chosen – and this is where we get introduced to Stephen, who, in verse 8 it says he was, “full of grace and power, performing great wonders and signs among the people.” Allow me to confess something for a moment – the first time I walked into the youth group to teach and saw only 3 students there, I had a hesitation (going back to my large crowds destiny), but God called me to be obedient and deliver the message, so I did. And He has blessed me through that group in so many ways! There is no service not important enough – we can strategize about the best and most efficient ways to reach the most people – but God is not a strategist – he is a lover and our calling is to love each person – 1 to 1.

Church – Ekklesia – at its heart is not complicated or overly theological. Church, as originally introduced was Christians coming together to worship God through the fulfillment of the mission – which is to love and serve. As the numbers grew, there were more people to love and serve more. And God added daily to those who were being saved. So what about us? Do we warrant more people coming to us each day? Are we living in a way that glorifies God and serves other people? Is love our language with each other? Are we focused on what is ours individually – what we have, what we can do, our rights – or are we focused on how we can show love to those here and around us? Are you living like Ananias and Sapphira, holding things back for your own benefit, or are you living what I like to call a Mountain Dew lifestyle – holding nothing back and leaving it all out there.

Living a Mountain Dew Lifestyle

One of the things I miss most about being a teenager was the absolute vigor to go – to run and do. No burden could hold me back, no adventure seemed boring. Since there weren’t such a thing as energy drinks when I was a teen, all we had was Mountain Dew – that is, until they created Surge, which I am pretty sure was just Mountain Dew with additional green slime. And yes, we had Surge parties in my high school youth group. We wanted to live like Mountain Dew – to be that active, that free, that intense. Whether it was playing basketball for hours without a break or intense 3am theological conversations, we didn’t hold back. We fought to live life to the fullest extent possible and let the idea of mission run our lives. The early church did the same thing.

They held nothing sacred, save Christ.

Everyone had jobs to do, but no one was above anyone else. In the book of Galatians, we read about Paul, the hotshot newcomer to the group who calls Peter on the carpet for trying to look good in front of the large group (Peter didn’t get perfected until he got to heaven – just like us). And Paul was in the right! In 1 Corinthians 8 we learn that our rights and privileges are secondary to the needs of others in the church. We are called to give stuff like that up. Who needs it when all that matters is the mission? What would Ananias and Sapphira done differently had they been truly sold out to the mission and to Christ? Would they have held such a tight grip on what they felt was theirs?

They didn’t worry about the risks.

In this passage, we see two different times where the Apostles were preaching the gospel and got arrested for it. We worry about being wise, we worry about what others think, we worry about the ramifications and repercussions, we worry about the consequences. The Apostles lived in a time when what they wanted to do was illegal and unliked by all those that weren’t Christians. We don’t know persecution today. We may think we do, but we, here, don’t. While the cultural and political landscape are changing that, and I am pretty sure persecution for us may not be far off, it’s not that far yet. However, churches are still underground in China and there are many other parts of the world that will shoot you on sight for being a Christian. Imagine preaching the gospel in a public square in Iran. Is there anyone here that would do it without hesitation? We need to let go of ourselves, stop worrying about who’s in power and what could happen and just live for God – let Him run our lives and only care about what He has to say. That how the Apostles lived, and that’s the legacy that was passed on.

They focused totally on the mission.

It was all because of the mission. READ Acts 5:33-42. There are accounts of all the Apostles and their deaths; their martyrdoms – all for the glory of God. The only one we don’t know how he died was John who was banished to the island of Patmos. Other Apostles were beheaded, crucified, murdered, starved, etc… all for the mission. All because Jesus told them to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. They understood that was all that matters. Today we have distractions. I am guilty of this just like we all are. “But I have to make a good wage”; “I need to save up to buy a new car soon”; “I just want to watch this last episode of my favorite TV show”. It doesn’t matter what it is, good or bad, if it is keeping us from preaching Christ and Him crucified, then it is a distraction and is a tool being used by the enemy to keep you out of the game. What is keeping you out of the game?

There is a lot of stuff we hold on to today. Our stuff, our rights, our entertainment, our worries, our memories, out anger, our hurt, our bitterness and resentment. Those are just a few. God is calling us to let go of everything else and grab on to Him. Just like he did to the early church He can do today – power to do miracles, adding daily to the number of those being saved; these are easy to God. I think the problem is us. We are too busy holding on to everything else that we are afraid to let go and live that Mountain Dew lifestyle.