The Birth of the Church
Sigmund Freud wrote “The act of birth is the first experience of anxiety, and thus the source and prototype of the affect of anxiety.” Which might explain Andy Warhol’s statement “Being born is like being kidnapped. And then sold into slavery.”
This is week eight of our Story of the Book series and since the beginning of July we have been on a whirlwind tour of the Bible. Last week we arrived in the New Testament and from the Gospels I selected the book of Mark to speak on and my central theme was what it will take if we want to be more than an average Christian.
The Gospels of course begin with the birth of Christ and take us on a journey through his life and ministry leading to his death and resurrection. And that brings us to the next stage of our journey. This is only one of two sections where we will only be looking at one book, in a few weeks we will look at the book of the Revelation but today we are looking specifically at the book of Acts or more correctly “The Acts of the Apostles.”
It is accepted that author was the same author who wrote the book of Luke, Luke, who was a Gentile physician. The book of Acts was written around AD 63 and Luke was writing these accounts for a friend of his by the name of Theophilus, who was either a new believer or someone seeking to know more about Christ and the early church. Interesting name Theophilus, it was my great grandfather’s name but more than that in the Greek it means Lover of God.
I never knew my Great Grandfather and the only person I ever met with the name Theophilus was a pastor from Burkina Faso who I met when I taught in Ghana in 2013. Three weeks ago today Pastor Theophilus and his wife were killed in a motorcycle accident on their way to church and Pastor Theophilus was also a lover of God.
And so Acts is really book 2 with the Gospel of Luke being book 1.
And if I was to ask you what was important about the book of Acts I would get all kinds of answers.
It is in the book of Acts that we read about the Holy Spirit coming upon the early believers on the day of Pentecost. It is in the book of Acts that we read about the martyrdom of Stephen and James, it is here we read about the persecution of the believers and how because of that persecution many of those believers were forced to leave Jerusalem.
It is in the book of Acts that we read about a man named Saul, and his journey from an obscure reference in a tragedy involving the first Christian martyr to his becoming one if not the most influential voice in Christianity. Oscar Wilde could have been speaking about Saul when he wrote “Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future.” Because with his conversion Saul became Paul and Paul would go on to write the majority of the New Testament and develop and shape the theology that would make Christianity distinct among world religions.
In the Wesley Study Bible we read: “The entire Book of Acts is an expansion and fulfilment of the promise in 1:8 ---- “you shall be witnesses . . . in Jerusalem . . . Judea and Samaria, and the end of the earth.”
But when I think of the book of Acts I think of the birth of the church. Bill Hybels of Willow Creek community Church is noted for saying “The local church is the hope of the world.” And I truly believe that.
The church is the instrument that Christ planned on using to change and impact the world. That was apparent when he told Peter in Matthew 16:18 Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it. But when Jesus spoke those words there was no church.
If the Gospels are the story of Jesus then Acts is the story of the church and Groucho Marx said “Although it is generally known, I think it's about time to announce that I was born at a very early age.” And the church was born at a very early age.
So what do we learn about the New Testament Church? Because you will hear folks say from time to time, “We ought to be a New Testament Church” or “Our church should be more like the New Testament Church.” I’ve even had a few pastors through the years tell me, “We are a New Testament Church.” I’ve always wanted to ask them, “So has anyone died taking communion lately?” If you didn’t get that you need to read 1 Corinthians 11:30.
The Church was Born in a Partnership Have you ever heard the phrase “It takes two to tango”? That is particularly true when it comes to making babies. Here is the reality it takes a boy and a girl to make a baby. 2 girls can’t make a baby and 2 boys can’t make a baby and neither the Supreme Court nor popular opinion can change that.
In the case of the Church the two it required was God and People. Peter spoke, the Spirit moved and the church was born. Could God have done it without people? Sure, he’s God, but that isn’t how he chose for the church to be born. And two thousand years later it still requires the moving of God and human effort.
It reminds me of the story of the man who bought an empty lot and turned it into a beautiful garden. Originally it had been overgrown with weeds and filled with rocks, but through hard work, determination and love he turned it into an object of beauty. One day as he stood admiring his garden a stranger happened by and commented, “That sure is a beautiful garden the Lord has given you” “Yes it sure is” replied the man, “but you should have seen it when the Lord had it by himself.”
Every church is born out of a partnership with God and with people. Every growing church grows because of a partnership with God and with people, every healthy church is healthy because of a partnership with God and with people.
Unfortunately when things aren’t going well God often gets the blame. “I guess it’s not God’s will that our church should grow. We’ve been praying and praying and nothing has happened.”
I have discovered through the years that the two cop outs that churches and pastors use to explain why one church is doing well and theirs isn’t are 1) God is really blessing that church or 2) They are lucky. And I’ve heard them both applied to Cornerstone.
And it's a cop out because they are both things we can't control so we don't have to accept responsibility for what we can't control.
My response is: Why wouldn’t God bless other churches? Is it in His will that they are not growing? Does He not want people to meet Jesus and experience his grace? Doesn’t God want all churches to be healthy?
And as for the luck comment, I had a boss once who used to say “Luck is what failures call success.” And it was Pierre Trudeau who said “Luck, that's when preparation and opportunity meet.”
In Acts chapter 2 we read what happened when the Holy Spirit came upon the believers in the upper room, it says a great crowd gathered and were asking questions about what happened. And then we read in Acts 2:14 Then Peter stepped forward with the eleven other apostles and shouted to the crowd, “Listen carefully, all of you, fellow Jews and residents of Jerusalem! Make no mistake about this. . .” And he goes on to preach and call people to repentance and they respond. But What if the Holy Spirt had moved and Peter had of stayed silent?
Not only was the church born out of a partnership, the next thing we discover is that The Church was a Growing Church. The early church was not stagnant or in decline, it was a church that was growing and not just a little bit of growth either, it was off the charts.
Listen to some of the early descriptions of the church Acts 2:41 Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all. Acts 2:47 all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved. Acts 4:4 But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of believers now totaled about 5,000 men, not counting women and children.
Eventually they just stopped counting, and so we read in Acts 5:14 Yet more and more people believed and were brought to the Lord—crowds of both men and women. Acts 9:31 The church then had peace throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and it became stronger as the believers lived in the fear of the Lord. And with the encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it also grew in numbers.
I am passionate about church growth and have been since I started pastoring, and I’ve beat that drum in each of the churches I’ve pastored and with other pastors. And because of that I’ve had people say “Denn, you are only concerned about numbers.”
And that’s not entirely true, that’s not all I’m concerned about, but it is one of the things I’m concerned about. And if numbers are just numbers that that might be an issue, but when you realize that numbers are actually representative of people it becomes different, especially when they are people you care about.
When a church grows it means more people are hearing the word of God, more people are being presented with the opportunity to accept Christ, and more people are being discipled.
When a church grows there is more opportunity to reach more people with the love of Christ, more opportunities to impact the world. And that is all in keeping with the command of Christ to reach all the world.
And we are going to come back and park here for three weeks in September and take a look at why the church should grow, how they church will grow, and what the cost of that growth will be, but that’s not until September so I’ll leave it alone for now.
The next thing we discover about the New Testament Church was that The Church was a Multiplying Church The church didn’t start and finish in Jerusalem. There wasn’t just one mega church that Peter pastored. By the end of the book of Acts there were churches scattered across Asia and into Europe.
And that was what was supposed to happen, the last command of a Jesus was for the church to go into all the world. But they didn’t go willing. We all like to be comfortable, change isn’t always something that most folks look forward to, let alone leaving home and hearth to go start churches in faraway places.
So for the first seven chapters of Acts we see the early church growing at an incredible rate, I think the technical term is Hand over Fist, but it was limited to Jerusalem.
But remember what Jesus told the Apostles in Acts 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In Acts chapter 1 it seems that Jerusalem was to the be the starting place for the church, but by Acts chapter 7 it would appear that Jerusalem has become the stopping place, the only place that the church was making inroads.
And then we come to Acts 8, Stephen has become the first martyr of the early church Acts 8:1 Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen. A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria.
It was only when the believers were forced to move outside their comfort zone that what was supposed to happen actually happened.
Years ago when I was at a church planting seminar of some kind I heard a speaker say, “Churches are programmed to reproduce, the question is will be a planned pregnancy or an unplanned pregnancy?”
Twenty years ago I watched a church from our denomination go through a church split. That was an unplanned pregnancy.
Ten years later I saw the same church take part in an intentional church plant where they participated with people and finances. You might say that was a planned pregnancy.
Which of the two births do you think was less stressful for all involved? And which one ended up with the stronger daughter church?
There are life cycles to churches, they are born and they die. That is reality. None of the churches that were written about in the book of Acts exists today and if the church is going to continue to exist then new churches will have to be started.
One of our core values when Cornerstone was in the planning stages was that Cornerstone would be involved in starting additional churches and while we having been involved financially in several we still haven’t birthed a church, yet.
We just celebrated our 20th anniversary by the time the Jerusalem church had celebrated their 20th anniversary there were dozens of new churches as a result of the Jerusalem church. Hmmmmmmm.
But it wasn’t just a growing and multiplying church.
The Church was a Demanding Church When you hear people talk about wanting to be involved in a New Testament church they always seem to have this vision of a church where everyone is sitting around in a circle, holding hands, enjoying fellowship and being taught things that don't offend or challenge anyone, and seldom is heard a discouraging word and the skies are not cloudy all day.
When someone says they wish the church was like the New Testament church it’s because in the their heart of hearts they know that if they attended a New Testament church then the only songs that would be sung would be their favourites and they would be sung the way they liked to sing them.
They know that if they attended a New Testament Church they would never be asked for money and they would never be judged on their behaviour and would never be asked to volunteer in the nursery.
But trust me on this, that wasn’t the way it was.
I don’t know what your favourite music style is but I can almost guarantee you that isn’t what the New Testament Church was singing.
And listen to what the Bible tells us about stewardship in that church Acts 2:45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. And Acts 4:32 All the believers were united in heart and mind. And they felt that what they owned was not their own, so they shared everything they had.
And as a matter of fact there is a story told in Acts about a couple who sold a field, told the church they were going to give all of the proceeds to the church and then only gave half, well let’s pick up the story in Acts 5:3-5 Then Peter said, “Ananias, why have you let Satan fill your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!” As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died. Everyone who heard about it was terrified.
Wow, at Cornerstone if you make a financial commitment and don’t keep it, we don’t even call. Are you sure you want us to be like the New Testament Church?
And there was behaviour that wasn’t tolerated in the early church, regardless of what culture said, and regardless of what the government decreed. And I don’t know how many times through the years people have told me the church isn’t supposed to judge people. But that wasn’t a reality in the New Testament church, listen to what Paul told the church, 1 Corinthians 5:12 It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. Wow, in a day and age when the church seems to be more and more vocal about the morality of those outside the church. Maybe we’ve lost our focus.
And the church is reminded in Ephesians 5:3 Let there be no sexual immorality, impurity, or greed among you. Such sins have no place among God’s people. And that isn’t an isolated instance, over and over again throughout the New Testament the church is held to a much higher standard than the world, in how they gave, how they loved, how they served and how they behaved.
And what was the result of that? Well ultimately The Church was an Impacting Church There is a great statement in Acts 17. As Paul and Silas are travelling and establishing new churches they arrive in Thessalonica and as was their custom they first go to the Synagogue to preach.
And we are told in Acts 17:4 Some of the Jews who listened were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with many God-fearing Greek men and quite a few prominent women. Cool right, but not everybody was happy and if we continue to read in Acts 17:5-6 But some of the Jews were jealous, so they gathered some troublemakers from the marketplace to form a mob and start a riot. They attacked the home of Jason, searching for Paul and Silas so they could drag them out to the crowd. Not finding them there, they dragged out Jason and some of the other believers instead and took them before the city council. “Paul and Silas have caused trouble all over the world,” they shouted, “and now they are here disturbing our city, too.”
The charge was that Paul and Silas had caused trouble all over the world. In some versions though it reads this way “These who have turned the world upside down have come here too.” And that is what the church did, it turned the world upside down. Never again would the world be like it had been before the church.
I know there are critics of the church, and some of their criticisms are valid. But understand this, that the world is a better place because of the Church of Jesus Christ. The church has been at the forefront of providing education, health care, of taking care of the poor. It was the church who rallying against slavery. It was the church who embraced the cause of women’s rights and civil rights.
And locally the church continues to make a difference, because of a Church named Cornerstone marriages in our community have been saved and made stronger, young men and women have made better choices than they might have made without the church.
Families have been embraced and supported during transitional periods. Ask some of the new moms the difference a week of meals made when the baby came home from the hospital.
Because of Cornerstone in Action, volunteers have made a difference with feed Nova Scotia, St. Georges Soup Kitchen, Adsum House, Phoenix House and other agencies.
Last Christmas the people of Cornerstone provided sleeping bags and long underwear to dozens of homeless people in partnership with Souls Harbour. Each month Cornerstone provides dozens of cans of chunky soup and evaporated milk for Feed Nova Scotia, every two weeks Cornerstone provides meals at Ronald McDonald House for families with sick kids at the IWK.
Because of Cornerstone there are families drinking clean water in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
But bigger than all of that, there are people today who will spend their eternity with God, because of Cornerstone and around the world through the ministry of those we support and partner with.
We have turned our world upside down. Because as Bill Hybels says “The local church is the hope of the world.” And as Jesus said “And the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”