Acts- The Neverending Story
Acts 1:1-11- Jesus prepares his church for growth
Sermon preached at Christ Church Duesseldorf, 13th January 2013
One of the first films that I remember seeing at the cinema when I was a child was The Neverending Story,
based on the novel by Michael Ende- my children have just finished the book as a bed time story. It´s an exciting story full of action and adventure about a boy who has to save the world from the Darkness. Well, here in Acts we have the real neverending story. Acts doesn´t have an end- Luke never gave his book conclusion. If you turn to the last words, in Acts 28:31, the Apostle Paul is in Rome, teaching about Jesus Christ, but Luke doesn´t say what happened next-the story hasn´t ended yet, it still carries on. And before then comes action, excitement, adventure, jail breaks, murder plots, storms at sea, and narrow escapes from certain death. No wonder Martyn Lloyd-Jones called Acts a tonic for the soul. It is a great story- a neverending story. Because…
Acts is the story of how Jesus grows his church.
It is the story of how the church grew from a little band of 120 people, huddled in an attic in Jerusalem, exploding into 3000 just a few weeks later, growing and growing, spreading and spreading outwards from Jerusalem until they they reached Rome, the capital of the Roman Empire. And that story didn´t end in Acts 28. It´s a story that has carried on for 2000 years, as the church has grown and spread around the world, and it´s still carrying on today. It is the e neverending story- and we can be part of it. Therefore,…
Acts 1:1-11 is the story of how Jesus prepares his church for growth.
In these verses the team of the Apostles are in the changing room, and Jesus their coach is getting them ready, making sure that they have all their kit, making sure that they know the game plan, motivating them, before they go out onto the pitch for the kick off. He is getting them ready to grow. We all, I hope, want the church to grow, both this church and the church generally. We want more and more men and women and children to come to know and love and worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, here are the five pieces of preparation that are needed for a church to grow.
- Jesus is in charge – v1
Jesus´ story hasn´t finished yet.
The first book he mentions is what we call the Gospel of Luke. Luke was one of the first Christians, a doctor, and a friend and companion of the Apostle Paul. He wrote his Gospel to tell the story of Jesus, and then he wrote Acts to tell the story of the first Christians- they are really volumes one and two of the same book. Theophilus was probably an official in the Roman government who had become a Christian. In Luke 1:1-4, Luke says that he wrote so that Theophilus could be certain about the things he had been taught. Then at the beginning of Acts, he says something very interesting. He says that his first book was what about what Jesus began to do and teach. That´s a very clear hint: Acts is about what Jesus continued to do and teach- the story of Jesus isn´t over yet, everything that happened in the Gospel was just the first chapter. Some people have called the book of Acts The Acts of the Apostles or The Acts of the Holy Spirit, but really, the best title for it would be The Acts of Jesus, Part 2. Because…
Jesus is in charge of the growth of his church.
The story of the growth of church is the story of Jesus. It is his story, he writes it, and he is the hero of the story. There are many, many, great and wonderful men and women in this story, but in the end, it isn´t about them, or about us. It is about Jesus, about what he still continues to do. At the end of the Gospels, Jesus didn´t leave us to write our own story, and do things our way, and continue his work as we think best. Jesus didn´t even give us our instructions, and then step back and watch us get on with it. Jesus continues to teach, through his Apostles. And Jesus continues to act, through his church. Jesus is the one who makes the church grow- it is his work that is still carrying on. So…
A growing church is a church that lets Jesus take charge, and do things his way.
We have to get this into our heads right from the start, if we are to grow: church growth isn´t our work, it´s Jesus´. Our heads could be full of our ideas, plans, visions, and strategies for growth. We could read all the books from the Church Growth Movement. We could be full of energy and enthusiasm. We could throw ourselves into the work and wear ourselves out in it. But it could all come to nothing. Because it is Jesus who is in charge, and it is Jesus who grows his church. And he calls us to take our place in his story, and he gives us the thrill of being part of his work.
- Jesus speaks – v2-4a
Jesus is in charge, so he speaks- he gives instructions, talks, and gives commands.
Jesus speaks to his Apostles- it doesn´t say anything yet about the other 109 Christians. The Apostles are this very special group of eleven men, (that´s twelve minus Judas), whom Jesus chose to be his special, authorized messengers. The word “Apostle“ means “One who is Sent“. So you might expect Jesus to straight away send them to tell everyone that he is alive. But he doesn´t, because they need to be prepared first. They must have been tremendously joyful and excited, at the starting blocks, engines revving, eager to go and tell everyone. But Jesus says “wait“, and holds them back so that he can talk to them and teach them and instruct them. They´ve already had three years of the best training and teaching anyone could have, but Jesus thinks they need more time out to listen- forty days of it. Forty days, because that´s how long Moses spent on Mt. Sinai, being taught the ten commandments and the rest of the Law by God. Again, the hint is clear: if the Apostles are Moses, then Jesus is God. And just as Moses was a unique person, who was taught by God, so the Apostles were unique. Only they were taught directly by Jesus and authorized by him. There have been no more Apostles, they didn´t pass their office on to anyone.
And Jesus gives them convincing proofs that he is alive.
The Apostles are unique- just as Moses was the only person who saw God face-to-face, they are the only people who saw Jesus face-to-face after he rose from the dead. And they have the unique job of being witnesses, like people who stand up and testify to the truth in a court case. They have to give convincing testimony that Jesus is alive, and so they need convincing proof that Jesus is alive, that they can give to others. So it says that Jesus both appeared to them and spoke to them, and he did this repeatedly over a period of forty days. If he has appeared but not spoken, or spoken but not appeared, or only done this once, it could be dismissed as a hallucination. But the wholeness and consistency of this can´t be dismissed. And look at v4. This is extraordinary- it says that Jesus was eating with them. In Luke 24, when the disciples think that they are seeing a ghost, Jesus invites them to touch him, and then when they are still sceptical, he eats a piece of baked fish in front of them! Only a living body can eat. This is convincing proof that Jesus is really, physically alive. So the Apostles are unique, the foundation stones of the church. A solid church, a church that can grow, must be built on their witness- it must be an Apostolic church.
So a growing church is a listening church.
Growth doesn´t begin by setting off in a great burst of enthusiasm, to tell people about what we have experienced. Growth begins by humbling listening to Jesus. We can´t hear his voice with our ears or our hearts. But as the Apostles listened to Jesus, so we can listen to the Apostles. That´s how Jesus continues to teach today, through the teaching of his Apostles. That´s why it says in Acts 2:42 that the first church, which grew at an astonishing rate, was “devoted to the Apostles’ teaching“- they were an Apostolic church. When we listen like that, to Jesus´ teaching through his Apostles, we are putting Jesus in charge, we are putting him in the driving seat of the church, so that we can grow. That´s why every week we have this time out to listen to the witness teaching of the Apostles, as they wrote it down. We have to listen first, so that we will grow.
- Jesus gives – v4b-8a
Jesus is in charge- gives the instructions and he gives the ability to grow- v4
Even after 40 days of teaching, the Apostles aren´t yet ready to grow- there´s more preparation to be done. The church at this point is like a car that´s in perfect working order, the satnav has been programmed, but there´s no petrol in the tank- there´s no energy, nothing to make it go. So Jesus tells the Apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the Father´s promised gift. What´s he talking about? Look at Luke 24:49. The gift is the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sends from the Father- so he´s given by Jesus and by the Father. Always important to remember the Sprit is not an it, like the force in Star Wars, he´s a he, a person. And he will play a big part in the story of Acts. His job will be to give the church the ability to grow- to give it life. Where there´s growth, there´s life- dead things don´t grow. But without the Spirit we are dead, spiritually dead and inert. We can´t respond to the word of God. Only if the Spirit gives us the ability can we grow. So growth isn´t a natural process: it isn´t just a matter of us following the right methods, working hard, and seeing the results. Growth in the church is supernatural, it comes from the gift of the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus gives. So…
Jesus pours out his Spirit- v5
When Jesus talks about being “baptised“ with the Holy Spirit, the picture is of being deluged and soaked with water. In Acts 2:33 Peter says that Jesus has “poured out“ the Spirit onto the church, like someone pouring out water. Baptism in water, as when John the Baptist baptised people in the river Jordan, is a picture of that; baptism in the Spirit is the reality to which baptism in water points. The Holy Spirit was around in the Old Testament, when God had given him to a select few, prophets, priests, and kings. Indeed, Acts 1:2 says that the Spirit was at work in Jesus himself. But God had made a promise, in Joel 2:17, that one day he would pour out his Spirit on his whole people. Instead of just dripping the Spirit on a few, he would turn a hose pipe on the lot, and soak everyone with his Spirit. Now, this phrase “baptism in the Holy Spirit“ has cause a lot of arguments in the past. The Apostles were clearly believers, but they hadn´t been baptised in the Spirit, that came later. So some people have thought that everyone has to go through these two stages: you become a Chrsitian, and then later on you are baptised in the Spirit. But that can´t be right. The Apostles were unusual: they became Christians before God poured out his Spirit at Pentecost. But after that, all Christians are baptised in the Spirit- that´s clear from 1 Corinthians 12:13. So there are not two stages: the church as a whole has been baptised in the Spirit. But why does Jesus pour out his Spirit?
Jesus sends power by his Spirit- v6-8a.
The question the Apostles ask is a very natural one. In the Old Testament, God pouring out his Spirit was one of the things that was expected to happen when the Kingdom of God came, and God invaded the world to untwist it, to end humanities rebellion, and put an end to evil and suffering. And when that happened, it said the people of Israel would rule the world. So the Apostles are really asking “is this the end of the world now?“ But Jesus says “don´t get overexcited- there´s a job to do first“. God has decided when that will happen- but the timetable is none of your business. And every few years since then, some lunatic has forgotten that and popped up, claiming to have discovered a secret code that reveals when Jesus will return. It´s all nonsense, and a huge distraction from what we should be doing.
So Jesus says “you won´t rule the world yet, but you will receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes upon you“. That sounds exciting, doesn´t it? When I was a young Christian, I read a book called “Power Evangelism“, which was all about how, if we wanted the church to grow, we had to be able heal people and do miracles like the Apostles did. But as we´ve said, the Apostles were special and unique, and those miracles were given to mark their special authority. We´re not Apostles. The power that the Spirit gives to all the church in Acts isn´t the power to do miracles, it is the power to speak and endure. The ability to know what to say when under pressure and on trial. The power to keep on speaking about Jesus when it is you are threatened and told to keep silent. The power to sing hymns at midnight in jail when you have just been beaten. The power to persevere and endure and keep going and not give up. Above all, the Spirit puts power into the words of Christians, so that when they tell others the good news the lights come on, and people come alive, and turn to Christ and are saved. That´s the power that we need. So…
A growing church is a Spirit empowered church.
A growing church doesn´t rely on its own power, strength, abilities, resources, and persuasiveness. It relies on the power of God, poured out through his Holy Spirit. We shouldn´t be looking for a second Baptism in the Spirit. But we should be praying for the Holy Spirit, praying that he would be active and at work in us, giving us what we need.
- Jesus sends – v8b
Jesus is in charge- so Jesus sends his witnesses.
Jesus´ Apostles are men on a mission- missionaries. They are sent to witness, or testify. Not to try to work out when Jesus will return, not to give their own ideas and speculations about God, not even to make the world a better place, not even to grow a succesful church. They are sent by Jesus to witness faithfully to what they have seen and heard, especially to the fact that Jesus is alive. They asked Jesus? “Is this now the time for the Kingdom to come?“ The answer is “Yes and no“. The power of God´s Kingdom is here now, in the Holy Spirit. But the final glorious triumph of God´s kingdom isn´t going to happen just yet. So there´s a job to do, and they mustn´t get distracted by things that are none of their business. They have to witness. The power that is here is the power to witness, not the power to dominate and subdue the opposition.
Jesus sends his witnesses to the ends of the earth.
This little band of men are like a stone that Jesus drops into a pond. There is a splash, and then the waves spread outwards, never-ceasing, until they reach the farthest edge. Verse 8 is in fact the contents page of Acts. The book of Acts has three sections. In chapters 1 to 6, the good news spreads through Jerusalem, then in chapters 6 to 12 it spreads through Judea and Samaria, and then in chapters 13 to 28 it spreads through the known world, until it reaches its centre at Rome. The story didn´t end there- the witness couldn´t have reached the farthest corners of the earth in one life time. Over twenty centuries the good news has reached the farthest corners of the earth. Especially in the great missioanry movement in the 19th century, and the sacrificial witness of men and women like Hudson Taylor, Samuel Adjai Crowther, Amy Carmichael. The neverending story of the church is the story of how these words of Jesus´came true. God´s Kingdom was restored as the witness spread and people bowed to the risen Christ as their king. So…
A growing church is a missionary church.
A missionary church is one that takes Jesus´ command seriously, and is determined to see the witness about him reach the ends of the earth. The Apostles are the primary witnesses, we are the secondary witnesses who pass on their message. Whether that is to a tribe on the other side of the world, or to a dark corner of the city or the street in which we live. So a growing church will be an uncomfortable church. We so easily get lazy, and contented with the church as it is. Brothers, let us be discontented and itch, until the witness reaches the ends of the earth. For example, as a church we support our link missionaries, Jirka and Keira Kralovi in the Czech Republic. The information is on the noticeboard, please support them with your prayers and your money. And we will all know people who haven´t heard about Christ. Decide that this week you will cross the pain barrier and tell them.
- Jesus goes away – v9-11
Jesus is taken up so that he can take charge.
Twice Luke says that Jesus was “taken up“, in v1 and in v11. Everything is ready, all the preparation for growth is done, and Jesus goes away. Sounds crazy doesn´t it? After all, surely the one thing that would guarantee church growth would be for Jesus to be here, physically present, like he was two thousand years ago. Why go away right at the critical moment? It´s like this. Jesus has got ready for a journey. He´s programmed the satnav, he´s put fuel in the tank, what´s left? Only for him to go and sit in the drivers seat, turn the key, and start. That´s what happens here in what we call the Ascension. Jesus is going and sitting in the drivers seat of the church, and of the universe, so he can start our journey. The Ascension tells us first of all that…
Jesus is reigning- v9.
Sometimes we get wrong ideas about this. We imagine that the Apostles watched Jesus soaring up into the sky like a rocket, with the soles of his feet disappearing into the blue. The Bible doesn´t say that. It says that he was lifted up, like a king at his coronation, and a cloud hid him from their sight. Bible readers like the Apostles know what that means. In the Old Testament, when people meet God, he is surrounded by radiant, glowing clouds. A cloud is a sign of God´s glorious, majestic, beautiful presence. Jesus is going back there, outside the universe, to where he belongs. Also, in Daniel 7, Daniel sees the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven. And he approaches God and is given authority, honour, and sovereignty, and a kingdom that will never end. He is given power that he uses for the good of his people. That´s what´s happening here. Jesus is taking charge. He is beginning to rule and reign. And…
Jesus is returning- v10-11.
The Apostles suddenly find that two men in white are standing next to them. They are of course angels, like the ones at Jesus tomb, which may be a hint that the angelic powers of heaven are beginning their invasion of the earth, and will be with the Apostles in their mission. They have a rather abrupt message. “Stop staring- Jesus isn´t up in the sky somewhere. Don´t stand around dreaming and wondering when he will come back- get on with it, get on with the mission“. But get on with it in the confidence that we will see Jesus again. That he will return in the same way that he went- that is visibly, physically, and gloriously. We will see him- with these eyes. We shouldn´t speculate about when he will return- but we should be confident that he will return. That´s how the Neverending Story of the church will come to an end. Not just with our success as the church spreads. But with the visible, triumphant return of the Lord Jesus Christ. So…
A growing church is a confident church.
A growing church is confident that Jesus is risen, and reigning, and returning. Witnessing can be a very discouraging business sometimes. People won´t listen, the results seem small, we wear ourselves out. But we can be confident. Not in our abilities and hard work. But confident that Jesus reigns, and so the church will grow. And confident that Jesus will return, and so the story will have a happy ending.
Jesus is in charge. Everything is prepared. Are we ready? Are we a listening, Spirit-empowered, missionary, confident church? Are we ready? Ready to go and ready to grow?