"How Jesus Builds the Church"
(Delivered Sunday, September 25, 2005 at Bethany Bible Church. All Scripture quotes, unless otherwise indicated, are from the New King James Version.)
There's a statement found in the Book of Acts that has always fascinated me. It's a very small one - one that you might not even notice if you were reading fast. But I believe it's a very significant statement that could literally transform our church, if we could seize ahold of what it tells us.
It's a statement in Acts 2:47; and I'd like to quote it to you as it's found in the New International Version. It says, "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
This is a "statement" about what the Lord was doing to the early church, shortly after the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost. He was making it grow. The "number" to which He was said to be adding daily was the called-out assembly of those who had believed on Him. And the ones that He was adding to this number were those who were, even then, in the process of being saved by Him.
This is a statement, then, that is describing the growth of the church. And there are two things that stand out most strikingly to me. One is that it was a growth that was the Lord's own doing. It was He Himself that was adding to the church those that He was saving. And the other is that it was something that He was doing "daily"; or "day by day." What a remarkable picture of "church growth" this tiny statement presents to us!
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There have been a couple of things that have drawn my attention to this verse lately. For one thing, there has been a growing sense within our church family that something is about to happen. I have heard this sense of things expressed to me, not only by some in our leadership, but also by some in the church family in general. As a church family, we have been growing slowly and steadily over the past few years; and yet, there's this sense that the Lord is about to do something big in our midst. There is a mounting sense that we're about to enter a new and dramatic phase in our church's history. And as I keep hearing these kinds of comments, I'm paying careful attention to them. I believe the Lord is preparing us for some very exciting days ahead. That growing sense has drawn me to this verse.
But at the same time as I have been weighing these expressions of anticipation in my mind, my attention has also been drawn lately to some of the new philosophies of church growth that have been circulating and growing in popularity. Each generation, it seems, has a new "method" and a new "approach." The latest one is being advocated today because the one that was popular yesterday is now no longer "relevant."
Please understand: I don't want to be inappropriately critical of these new "philosophies of ministry," because sometimes the Lord sees fit to use them in certain churches. That, of course, is why they become so popular. But I can't help feeling that they rely on strategies that are - for the most part - "human." They involve ideas taken from the business world, or that amount to little more than marketing strategies or mere "cosmetic" changes.
Would you like to know what the latest trend is? We're being told that the generation that is coming up no longer wants a church experience that is "contemporary" or "seeker-sensitive." Instead, it wants a church experience that is "highly relational" and "traditional." And so, the new growth philosophy is to present a relational/traditional image. I read one comment last week explaining that, a few years ago - since they believed the way to reach people in our culture was to look more contemporary - churches developed a more fast-paced worship service program and replaced their stained-glass windows with high-tech video projection screens. Now, this author suggests that, for the church to grow and impact culture in a relevant way, it needs to become slower-paced; and that what needs to be projected on those screens is pictures of stained-glassed windows!
The whole time, I can't help thinking that these are all just "surface" changes; and that what the people of our culture are really needing from us is "authenticity." I keep wondering when we'll all just quit trying so hard to "be relevant," and just be ourselves in the Lord - and let Him take care of the relevancy! A group of people sold out to Jesus Christ, living in the midst of a dark world, would have the most "culturally relevant" impact of all! And as I was thinking about these things, I found myself drawn even more to this simple statement: "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved."
I want Bethany Bible Church to grow. In fact, I believe the Lord Jesus wants it to grow - not just in numbers, but in depth. I believe He wants it to grow by having brand-new believers come to life and grow up in it; and for those new believers to grow deep and strong together in Him. But I don't want for the leaders of our church to sit around and figure out a new and innovative "market strategy" for growth. I don't want numerical "growth" for growth's sake alone. I want the Lord Himself to grow our church - in His way, at His time, on His terms. I want it to be the kind of church in which Jesus adds daily those who are being saved.
There's another verse in the Bible that - to my mind - settles the matter. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, "I will built My church." I believe we can trust Him to do so; and that when He does, it will be the most exciting place in the world to be! Unbelieving people will be drawn to Him by it.
And so, I invite you to look with me at what the Bible tells us was happening to the early church that resulted in the Lord adding to it daily those who were being saved.
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Consider the context of this verse. After Jesus had ascended to the Father, the apostles were gathered together in Jerusalem at Jesus' command - waiting for the promise of the Holy Spirit to be sent and to come upon them. And then, the Spirit finally came; and the apostles were suddenly empowered to become bold witnesses of Jesus to their countrymen. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter arose and preached one of the greatest sermons ever preached. As a result of his sermon, thousands trusted Jesus Christ as their Savior.
In the power of the Spirit, Peter told his fellows Jews of their sin, and of how they had rejected and crucified the Savior - whom God has raised from the dead. We're told that those who heard this sermon were "cut to the heart"; and that they cried out to the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" Listen carefully to what we're told happened next:
Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call."
And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people (Acts 2:38-47a).
And then, after that detailed description of the things that characterized the early church, we read,
And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (v. 47b).
What we learn from this is that the Lord blessed the church with growth when the church was faithful to be characterized by certain things - or you could say that it authentically "was" certain things. It was His job to grow the church; and it was the church's job to be faithful to what it was supposed to be.
And my suggestion to you today, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, is that if we seek - in the power of the Holy Spirit - to be faithfully and steadfastly characterized by the things that we find in this passage, we cultivate the kind of church environment in which the Lord is pleased to add those who are being saved.
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Let's look at these key characteristics a little closer. I see them divided into three categories. The first I have chosen to call . . .
1. FOUNDATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS (vv. 38-41).
These Jewish people heard the gospel preached, were convicted of their sin, and then asked Peter what to do. And Peter, in the power of the Holy Spirit, told them. These, then, are things that constitute the vital beginning point of the church, as Jesus sees fit to grow it. If anything grows that does not have these first three characteristics, then what is growing is not the church of Jesus Christ. That's why I have chosen to call them "foundational."
And the first thing that you see is repentance from sin. That's the very first response that Peter calls for after the preaching of the gospel. When Peter preached repentance first of all, he was simply obeying the resurrected Lord's command; because, just before He ascended to the Father, Jesus told His disciples, "Thus it is written, and thus it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47).
To "repent" (metanoe§) means "to have a change of heart" or "a change of attitude" about our sin. It doesn't mean that we become perfectly sinless; because so long as we walk upon this earth in these bodies of flesh, we can't be perfectly sinless. But what it means is that we no longer think of our sins in the same way as we used to. We become genuinely sorry for them and grieved over them; and we no longer hold on to them and cling to them, but seek increasingly to turn from them. We see our sins as that which made it necessary for Jesus to hang on the cross and die in our place.
Look at what Peter said in His sermon. In verses 22-24, Peter told them,
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles and wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know - Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
Peter lets them know - to their horror - that they maliciously crucified the Son of God! What a great sin! But you know, don't you, then every one of us, by our sins, have put the Son of God on the cross? He died willingly in our place; but it was our sins that made it necessary for Him to do so. Peter urged them to change their thinking about that sin, and realize the truth about it. We're told that, with many other words, he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse [or "crooked"] generation" (v. 40).
A second thing we see is the call to be baptized in Jesus' name. ." . . And let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission [or "the forgiveness"] of sins . . ." And this, again, is in keeping with Jesus' instructions; because He said that both "repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name."
Now, understand this carefully! Peter wasn't saying that, if they were baptized, they would then be forgiven of their sins. We are forgiven of our sins ONLY by God's grace through the faith that we have placed in the cross of Jesus. And baptism is meant to be understood as our own personal, visible, public testimony to the fact that we have willingly placed our faith in the cross of Christ and now have confidence that we have already been forgiven.1 It is to be done "in Jesus' name" - that is, under His authority; and in full agreement with all that He is and all that He came to do for us.
And do you notice that Peter called "every one" of them to be baptized? Baptism is a very decisive act - one in which we publicly and permanently "pledge allegiance," as it were, to Jesus; and one in which we let everyone know that we declare ourselves to be His followers from now on and to the end of our days. It is a very necessary act of commitment. Many people say that they have placed their faith in Jesus Christ; but they refuse to make it public - as the Bible commands - through baptism. In a sense, they refuse to make a public commitment to Christ. A church that Jesus blesses with growth is one in which its believing members have obeyed Him by making a public testimony to their faith by being baptized.
No genuine believer is to consider herself or himself exempt from baptism. As we read on, we see that those who received Peter's words "were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them" (v. 41). We are to go public with our faith!
And a third thing we see is the reception of the Holy Spirit. Peter said, ". . . (a)nd you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (v. 38). Peter and the apostles had already dramatically received Him; as we're told in the beginning of chapter 2 (vv. 1-13). They received Him, as Peter says, in fulfillment of the promise given through the Old Testament prophet Joel;
"'And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, that I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; and they shall prophesy'" (Acts 2:17-18; see also Joel 2:28-29).
The apostles had just experienced the keeping of this promise. And now, Peter tells these who heard the gospel that they too were to receive the Holy Spirit; "for the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call" (v. 39).
I can't stress enough how crucial this is. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is absolutely essential to everything that follows in this passage. None of the qualities that make up the church that Jesus blesses with growth are possible to experience apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We "receive" Him when we believe on Jesus; because the Bible tells us that "if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he is not His" (Romans 8:9). But having received Him by faith, we must continually be "filled" with the Spirit (Eph. 5:18); and allow Him to empower and guide us in life.
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And so; there you have the "foundational characteristics." The church that Jesus blesses with growth is a church of people who, having heard the clear message of the gospel of Jesus Christ, have responded to it (1) by repenting of sin, (2) by being baptized in Jesus name, and (3) by receiving, and operating in the power of, the Holy Spirit.
Are these things true of you? If they aren't, please do not let another day go by until they are! They are essential! They are foundational!
This leads to another category of things that we see from this passage - things which I have chosen to call . . .
2. CONGREGATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS (vv. 42-43).
Once a group of people believe, they are joined together to one another and are commanded to meet together regularly. God raises up leaders among them; and these leaders are to be sure that certain things are consistently maintained. In fact, this morning's passage suggests that they are to "continue steadfastly" or "diligently" in these things.
I suggest that these are characteristics that are to be found in the body of Christ as it is gathered together formally in a congregation. Even if the "foundational" things are in order; if a church doesn't make sure that it maintains these following things when it is gathered together, the Lord will not bless it with growth.
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There are four things that the people of God, gathered together, are to be continually devoted to. The first thing we read is that, ." . . They continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine" or "teaching."
When Jesus walked on this earth, He gathered twelve disciples around Himself. He taught them truths about the kingdom; and later, He promised that the Holy Spirit would come and bring all things that He taught them to their remembrance (John 14:25-26). And so, the Bible tells us that the "mystery" of the gospel of Christ "has now been revealed by the Spirit to His holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:5); and that it is "on the foundation of the apostles and prophets" that the church has been built; "Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone" (Ephesians 2:20).
The Holy Spirit has seen to it that their testimony was written down and recorded for us; and we have it today in the Bible. And so, one of the "congregational characteristics" that must be in place is that the church faithfully hold on to and teach the doctrines of the apostles, as recorded for us in the pages of Scripture. We must, in other words, be a Bible-believing, Bible-teaching church. As the apostle John has said, "Therefore let that abide in you which you heard from the beginning. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, you also will abide in the Son and in the Father" (1 John 2:24).
A second characteristic is that of steadfastly continuing in "fellowship." This speaks of the biblical call for all believers to meet together regularly for mutual instruction and edification. As the Bible tells us, "And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:24-25).
The word that Peter uses (koin§nia) is one that basically means "to share together in a common interest." We are to be active "partners" together in the common cause of Christ in one another's lives; and this requires that we be joined together for fellowship in a formal way. I especially see this in the fact that there is a definite article before the word; making it "the fellowship." Even the apostle Paul felt the need for gathering together with the saints in formal fellowship. He told the Roman believers, "For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established - that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me" (Romans 1:11-12). If Paul felt such a great need for "the fellowship," we shouldn't ever think that we can do without it.
A third characteristic is that of "the breaking of bread." This is a reference to what we commonly refer to as "the Lord's supper"; and here, we see that we are to worship together, and observe the Lord's ordinance together in reverence toward Him.
There's a passage of scripture on this that you probably know quite well. I read it to you often when I lead our church family in the celebration of the Lord's supper. Paul wrote;
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, "Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me." In the same manner, He also took the cup after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me." For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes (1 Corinthians 11:23-26).
Those commands from the Lord are given to help us remember - in a solemn and reverent way - the sacrifice He made for us on the cross. It's our faith in that sacrifice that unites us. And those commands from the Lord are given in the second person plural - suggesting that we are to remember His sacrifice together as a group. How important it is for our spiritual health and growth that we do so! It's to be an essential characteristic of our times together.
And finally, a fourth characteristic is that of, literally, "the prayers." This doesn't simply speak of praying in general. Rather, the definite article suggests formal times of corporate prayer - times in which we gather together to pray as a congregation.
We're told in the Bible that "The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much" (James 5:16). Any sister or brother in Christ can pray - at any time, and anywhere; and when they do so effectively, fervently, and in righteousness, they accomplish a great deal. But there is something uniquely powerful that happens when we all join together in prayer as a congregation. Acts 4:31 tells us that, when the people of God gathered together to pray in one place during a time of intense persecution, "the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness."
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These, then, are the "congregational characteristics" of a church to which Jesus grants growth. It is a biblical church. It is a fellowshipping church. It is a Christ-proclaiming church. And it is a praying church. I suggest that the profound authority of these things is shown to us in verse 43; "Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles." This is meant to establish to us that these congregational "characteristics" are as essential as the foundational ones. They have the stamp of the Lord's own authorization upon them.
May God help us increasingly to have such characteristics when we gather together. May we, as this passage says, 'continue steadfastly' in them. May we never lose them!
This leads us to a final category of characteristics - which I have felt led to call . . .
3. RELATIONAL CHARACTERISTICS (vv. 44-47).
The first category of characteristics was "foundational" in nature. They're characteristics that are essential to our even being a church in the eyes of our Lord. The second set is "congregational" in nature. It deals with the things that must be true of us as a regular practice of our gathering together. They're to be things that our church and its leadership must strive to maintain in us.
And this third category of characteristics breaks the matter down to the daily life of the individual believer in the church. It describes what we are to be doing in terms of our regular, every-day relationships with one another as members together of the body of Christ.
I hope you appreciate the implication of that. Many people feel that, if they have the foundational matters down, and if they regularly show up for the church meeting each Sunday, then they're doing all that they're obligated to do. But the Lord never intended for "church" to happen for a few hours each Sunday. He intends for "church-life" to be a thing that permeates our lives every day of the week - every hour of the day. He intends for us to "be" the church all the time. And our church will not be blessed with the kind of growth that the Lord wishes to give to it unless we are exhibiting these "relational characteristics" all of the time!
The first thing we see is that we're to be characterized by time spent with each other. The Bible says, "Now all who believed were together . . ." (v. 44). In the original language, this is stated in such a way as to suggest that they kept on habitually being together.2 The believers enjoyed hanging out together, and were often found together outside the context of the formal gathering of the congregation. If I can put it this way, our best friends are to be the people in our own church family. We're to be found together often.
The second thing we see is that we're to show a practical care for each other's needs. We're told that these believers, who were regularly spending time together, "had all things n common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need" (vv. 44-45). This isn't the same thing as socialism, of course; because this was a voluntary sharing out of love. It was not meant to bring about complete economic equality, but simply to care for those in the body who had need. It's like what is told to us in Acts 4:34-35; "Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need." This illustrates for us that we're to be characterized by such a care for one another, and that we are willing to sacrifice for each other in order to meet each other's needs - each of us looking out not only for his or her own interests, but also for the interests of others (Philippians 2:4).
A third characteristic we see is single-mindedness; that is, they were of "one accord" or "one mind" together as they continued daily "in the temple." They had a fundamental agreement with one another in thought and heart toward one another - and it was demonstrated even when they gathered together. That doesn't mean that we always have to agree with each other on everything. There's room for friendly, loving disagreement on 'non-essential' things within the body. But on the essentials of the faith, we are to be united. Wonderful things happen when we are. As Paul said, "Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 15:5-6).
I especially love the fourth one! We are to be characterized by hospitality and meals in each other's homes. The Bible says that they also continued daily "breaking bread from house to house." This, of course, is different from "the breaking of bread" in the formal gathering of the Lord's supper. This simply meant that they had each other over for dinner a lot. They knew where each other lived; and they loved to have each other over all the time. I've said before that I think it's a sign of a very healthy church when I see empty cars in the parking lot on Sunday afternoon when the service is over. It means that people in the church got together to go off and enjoy a meal together.
Fifth, we see the characteristic of "joy." They enjoyed their times together with "gladness" or "rejoicing." It was the highlight of their day to be together. They were happy together, and had fun together. When they went home at the end of the day, they went home from each other spiritually satisfied and thoroughly entertained.
Sixth, we are to enjoy our times together with "simplicity of heart." The word used to describe the relationship these early believers enjoyed (aphelotŃs) means "smooth" or "without rocks." The idea is that there was no "roughness" in their manner toward one another. They weren't harsh; there wasn't a quickness to take offense against one another. Things were smooth and simple. Their generosity with each other was easy and gracious. There were no "bumps" in the relationship-road. No one had to walk on egg-shells with each other.
Seventh, we are to be characterized by praise toward God when we're together with one another. Our times together are not to drag us down spiritually; but rather lift us up in thankfulness to God. We're to praise God for each other, and with each other.
And lastly, we are to be characterized by "favor with all the people" - that is, including those who are outside the faith. They are to see our sweet fellowship with each other and - as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message - they are to like what they see. In fact, they are to even be the recipients of our love. We're to be characterized by a manner in which we "have regard for good things in the sight of all men" (Romans 12:17), and seek, as much as is possible, to "live peaceably with all men" (v. 18).
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What a church! It's a church that has all the foundational things right. And it's a church that is doing all the right things together as a congregation. And it's a church in which the members are doing all the right things individually in a relational way. Jesus added to such a church daily, because they were daily 'being' the church!
That's our part then - to be "authentic" and to exhibit these characteristics. And once again, look at the Lord's response: "And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (v. 47b). A church like that, if I may say it this way, is a 'safe incubator' into which the Lord sees fit to bring new 'spiritual babies.'
May we increasingly become such a church by His power!
1The preposition eis, in this instance, means "with a view to"; hence, to be consistent with the New Testament's doctrine of salvation, Peter's listeners should be understood to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ "with a view to the forgiveness of sins." A.T. Robertson writes, "This phrase is the subject of endless controversy as men look at it from the standpoint of sacramental or of evangelical theology. In themselves the words can express aim or purpose. . . . One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not. My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the New Testament taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission. So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of forgiveness of sins which they had already received" (Word Pictures in The New Testament, vol.3, p. 36).
2The verb Ńsan, in the imperfect tense, suggests a regularly repeating habit of being together.
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