The Adventure Begins: How Jesus Works Through Ordinary People
January 25, 1998
Today we are beginning a brand-new sermon series from the book of Acts. I find myself excited as I think about this series because Acts is one of the most exciting books in the New Testament. It is also aptly named because Acts is preeminently the book of action. It is the story of how the Christian faith moved from a tiny beginning in Jerusalem with a handful of people gathered in an upper room to the most important city in the world (Rome) in just 30 years. Read this book and you’ll discover how a little band of Jewish believers in Jesus changed the course of world history.
I think if I were sitting in the pews listening to this sermon, I would have two questions: Why Acts? And why now? As a preacher I always find it interesting listening to other preachers talk about how they choose their sermon topics. I generally plan my preaching three or four months in advance. That means I started thinking about what I was going to preach in January back in September and October. That process usually starts with a blank slate. I wait on the Lord until he gives me a clear idea what he wants me to preach about. It’s really not any more complicated than that. I think and pray and wait and sometimes I jot down notes on pieces of paper as ideas come to my mind.
As I began to do that the Lord impressed on my heart that 1998 should be a year of outreach at Calvary Memorial Church. In 1997 we focused on knowing God and took as our motto: Soli Deo Gloria—To God Alone Be the Glory! I can testify that my own spiritual life deepened as we studied our great God. But it’s never enough to be satisfied with knowing God ourselves. How can we be satisfied while we live in a world that ignores God and lives as if he does not exist? As I listened to the Lord, a burden grew in my heart that we should focus on breaking through the stained-glass barrier and taking the gospel outside these four walls.
At that point I began thinking about the book of Acts and how much it relates to our current situation. Many people have pointed out the amazing correspondence between the first century and the twentieth century. Back then Christians lived in a predominately pagan culture where the vast majority of people had no knowledge of God. The earliest Christians were part of the Roman empire with its emperor worship, its child sacrifice, its loose morality, and its violent opposition to anyone who claimed to possess the truth about God. It’s a matter of historical record that as Christianity began to spread the Roman rulers reacted first with apathy, then with curiosity, and finally with outright hostility.
The early Christians proclaimed a message that Rome could not accept: Jesus is Lord. The Christians used the Greek word kurios to describe who Jesus is. But kurios was the same word the emperors used to describe themselves. As Chuck Colson has pointed out, in the first century if a Christian stood up in a public gathering and shouted, “Jesus is God,” no one would object because everyone knew the Romans permitted you to worship whatever god you chose. However, let that same man shout, “Jesus is Lord,” and he would be arrested and put to death. To proclaim the lordship of Jesus Christ was to attack the supreme authority of Rome itself.
We live in a similar situation today. No one cares about your religion as long as you keep it to yourself. But if you dare to stand up and proclaim that certain things are right and others are wrong, you will be branded an intolerant bigot—or worse. In this day—as in the first century—no one gets in trouble for being religious. But if you speak out publicly, you risk losing everything.
I. The Importance of Acts
Because there are many parallels between the first century and our current situation, we are beginning 1998 with a study of the book of Acts. I am hoping that this study will do more than tickle your ears or give you a fresh supply of sermon notes. If that’s all you gain, I will have failed in my task. If you can study Acts without being moved to action, then you’ve missed the whole point of this book.
Let me summarize the importance of Acts in three simple statements:
A. Acts tells us how the Christian movement came into beginning. Acts has been called a transitional book because it serves as a bridge between the gospels and the epistles. It is the historical link that joins the life of Christ with the growth of the Christian church. As such it answers the question many first-century observers would have asked: “Where did this new movement come from?” This is condensed history—not an exhaustive story. Luke doesn’t tell us everything we might like to know, but he includes every essential detail from the earliest days of the Christian movement. This is apologetics at its best—showing the readers that the Christian faith is firmly rooted in the facts of history.
B. Acts shows us how the church is to respond when living in a predominately pagan culture. If I could jump ahead for a moment, I would say that we are to respond to surrounding paganism in two ways: First, with a bold witness for the Lord Jesus Christ. That is, we are speak up and not be silent. Second, with visible love for each other. It was said of the early Christians, “Behold, how they love one another.” These two things—bold witness and visible love—have been the hallmark of the church in every age of persecution and hostility. They still hold true today.
C. Acts teaches us about the worldwide mission of the Christian church. Many of you already know that the theme verse of Acts is found in the first chapter, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Notice the phrase “to the ends of the earth.” What started in Jerusalem will one day reach to the farthest corners of the globe. That was Jesus’ plan from the beginning. He always intended that his followers would take his message and go in every direction with the good news.
The Lord Jesus didn’t want a Jewish church or a Roman church or a Greek church or an American church. He wanted a church that would include people from every tribe and nation on the face of the earth. God’s plan to accomplish that is very simple. He uses Spirit-filled Christians who take the message from one place to another and from one person to another, sharing the gospel, winning the lost, discipling the saved, and passing the faith along one person at a time.
We need to be reminded about that because it’s easy for any church—especially a large, well-established church like Calvary—to become so enamored of our programs and our buildings that we end up navel-gazing instead of obeying the words of Jesus. That’s why our theme for this year is taken from Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses … From Oak Park to the ends of the earth.” I am praying that we will recapture the evangelistic vision that brought this church into being in 1915. To be more specific, I’m praying about the possibility of planting a daughter church in an unchurched area of Chicago. I’ve also asked God to give us five new missionary volunteers (couples or singles) this year. There is much more we could be doing if only we would lift up our eyes and see the fields white unto harvest.
II. The Work Jesus Finished
In this series we are going to focus only on Acts 1. In fact, I’m going to preach 15 sermons from this chapter. I’m doing it because Acts 1 is rich with insights for Christians living on the cusp of the 21st century.
With that as background, we turn now to the opening sentence of the book of Acts. Immediately we discover some very fascinating information: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (Acts 1:1). Two quick background notes: 1) The book of Acts was written by Luke, the same man who wrote the gospel of Luke. When he says “my former book,” he is referring to the gospel of Luke. 2) Theophilus was a man’s name. The word literally means “loved by God.” Many people think he was a highly-placed Roman official. Luke dedicated his book to Theophilus.
Then we come to a very important statement. In referring to the gospel of Luke, he says that he was writing about “all that Jesus began both to do and to teach.” We know that the gospel of Luke contains the story of Jesus from his birth until his ascension into heaven. It is the story of what Jesus did and said while he was on the earth. But notice what Luke says about the story he wrote—”all that Jesus began both to do and to teach.” Why did he add the word “began?” That’s a fascinating way to put it. Does he mean that Jesus did many things he didn’t record in his book? That’s certainly true but it doesn’t make sense in this context. Let me ask this question another way: Why would Luke begin his second volume by saying he had written about what Jesus began to do? The answer is not hard to find. The gospel of Luke tells us what Jesus began to do when he was on the earth; the book of Acts tells us what Jesus continues to do from heaven through his church on earth..
Let me drop in a thought at this point. If you look in your Bible, it calls Luke’s second volume “The Acts of the Apostles.” But that’s not a very accurate title. Luke barely mentions most of the apostles. He reserves nearly all his comments for two men—Peter and Paul. Everyone else fades into the shadows. A more accurate title would be “Some acts of some apostles”—only that’s not very exciting. Let me suggest a better title. This book should really be called “The Acts of Jesus Christ through his church by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Or more simply, The Continuing Work of Jesus Through His Church.” That’s really what it’s all about.
This is where we come in. Nearly 2000 years have come and gone since Christ walked on planet earth. Yet his work continues to this day through his people who make up his church. What he started long ago, we continue by the power of the Holy Spirit.
There could be one legitimate objection to what I’ve just said. Isn’t it true that Jesus finished the work of salvation when he died on the cross and rose from the dead? Am I suggesting that his work of redemption was not complete? No, not at all. When Jesus cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), he meant what he said. Let me mention three things that are completely finished:
1. The Incarnation is finished.
2. The revelation of God’s Word is finished.
3. The payment for sin is finished.
Jesus completed those things when he came to earth the first time. Nothing we could do could ever add to the value of what Jesus did when he died and rose again.
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Nothing can for sin atone. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Naught of good that I have done. Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh, precious is the flow that makes white as snow.
No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Let’s be crystal-clear about this. When I speak of the continuing work of Jesus, I’m not speaking of his work of salvation because he completed that on a hill called Golgotha. Think of it this way. He laid the foundation in his earthly life (1 Corinthians 3:11). Now we are invited to build upon it. Once the foundation is laid, you don’t need to lay it again. You simply build upon it. No one can ever replace Jesus or go beyond what he has done as our Savior and Redeemer.
III. The Work Jesus Continues Through Us
But there is an aspect of Jesus’ work that continues to this very day. It’s the work of spreading the gospel, the good news. A few years ago I used to hear people talking about the 29th Chapter of Acts. That’s clever because Acts contains only 28 chapters. What they meant was, You and I are writing the 29th chapter of this book every single day. You’ve heard of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony? Acts is the story of the Unfinished Work of Jesus Christ.
His work in the world isn’t finished yet. I know it isn’t because the headlines today spoke of immorality in high places. His work isn’t finished as long as babies starve and armies march and families break up and children run away and parents abuse their children and students carry guns to school. His work isn’t finished as long as Satan still rules this earth and sin reigns in the heart of man. His work isn’t finished while the wicked triumph and drug lords make a fortune with their foul merchandise. His work isn’t finished when people of different races hate each other and men kill each other because of skin color. His work isn’t finished while 1.3 million unborn babies die each year in America through legalized abortion. His work isn’t finished when homosexuality is welcomed as normal and defenders of traditional marriage are publicly ridiculed.
Most of all, consider this: His work is not finished when over 2 billion people have yet to hear a clear presentation of the gospel. Think of that. It’s been 2000 years and over 2 billion men, women and children don’t know who Jesus is.
His work isn’t finished in Oak Park either. In March we celebrate our 83rd birthday. After all these years of preaching the gospel in this village, there are fewer people in church today than when we started. This morning fewer than 25% of Oak Parkers will attend church anywhere. I think it’s fair to say that Oak Park had a greater respect for godliness and decency in 1915 than it does today.
His work is not done. And that’s why we’re still here. Our work is not finished because his work is not finished. We’re one platoon in God’s army. He commissioned us 83 years ago and said, “Tell the people about my Son. Then take the message to the ends of the earth.” That’s what we’ve been trying to do since 1915. That’s our whole job. We’re here in Oak Park to continue the work Jesus started. By God’s grace we’re not going to stop until Jesus comes again.
It’s easy to be discouraged because the forces of good and evil often seem disproportionate. So many of them, so few of us, but we forget to take Christ into account. Great men die, but Jesus lives forever. Jesus Christ is not dead. Paul died, but Jesus lives. That is our hope for the future. The next time you are feel overwhelmed, remember this: He’s alive.
The first Christians took the message of Christ and turned a pagan world upside down. We stand on the brink of something tremendous, wondering what the future will hold. We wonder, Can Calvary Memorial Church do the job? Can we do our part in finishing the unfinished work of Jesus? Luke left plenty of blank paper at the end of his treatise so you and I could write our own little contribution to the story of his work in the world.
God has provided everything we need to be successful. He has not left us orphans in the world, lonely children with paper swords fighting the dragons around us. Thank God, the Lord Jesus Christ is continuing his work through us.
He Has No Hands
The Lord Jesus only needs one thing from us—our unreserved commitment to him. He has no hands but the hands of his children yielded to him. His only eyes are your eyes to see the world as he sees it. He has no feet but the feet of his people to carry the gospel message. The only ears he has are your ears to hear the cry of a needy world. The only lips he has are your lips open to share the gospel.
Jesus has called us to join him in the great adventure of sharing the good news. Won’t you offer him the best that you have—without hesitation and without reservation?
Gabriel and Jesus
The story is told that on the day the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, he happened to see Gabriel and they had a talk.
Gabriel asked, “How did it go?” The Lord said, “Great, excellent.” “Did they make you king?” “No.” “Did they make you prince?” “No.” “Did they worship you?” “Most of them didn’t.” “Well, what happened?” “They crucified me.” “Then they worshipped you, right?” “No.”
“So, what happened?” “I left my people down there.” “Oh, so you got a couple of million followers?” “No.” “A Hundred Thousand?” “No.” “A couple of thousand?” “No.”
“How many did you leave down there?” “120.” “120?” “120.” “That’s all?”
“Are you going back down to help them out?” “Not right now.” “How are they going to make it?” “They’ll make it.”
“Well, what if they fail, do you have another plan?” “There is no other plan.” “What if they fail?” “I’m not worried Gabriel. I know them, they’re mine. They will not fail.”
They didn’t fail. We are here today because they didn’t fail 2000 years ago.
And what God provided for them, He has also provided for us. We have the same God, the same Bible, the same Holy Spirit, and the same gospel message. And we also have something they didn’t have. We have the record of their faithfulness to encourage us in our work for the Lord.
Now may God pour out his grace on us to make us strong. And may we experience a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit in our day. God grant that in this year of outreach we might take the gospel from Oak Park to the ends of the earth.
Let the adventure begin.