Doing Our Jobs

church-work-day-clipart

Churches thrive when members do their jobs.

          Today is Church Vocations Sunday and Installation Sunday; we are celebrating and supporting those who give leadership to our church.  It’s wonderful to see the leaders of the church cooperating with one another to show a congregation the way Jesus wants them to go.

For example, I’m reminded of a church where the trustees took out the old paper towel dispensers and replaced them with modern hot-air hand dryers.  For their part, the deacons added signs above each dryer which read, “For a sample of this week’s sermon, push the button.”

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CONTEXT: Our passage this morning is the second of two threats to the unity of the First Church.  The first, in ch. 5, was hypocrisy.  Ananias and Sapphira pretended to sell their home and give all the proceeds to the church.  In a demonstration of how much God hates hypocrisy, this lie cost both the husband and wife their lives.  As we will see, the second problem was complaining.

We will also note the selection of deacons set up the next two sections of Acts as the spotlight falls on two of the newly-elected deacons, Stephen and Philip (chs. 6-8).

  1. The problem. (vs. 1-2)

Part of the problem was the rapid growth of the Church = THE NUMBER OF DISCIPLES WAS INCREASING.  References to church growth bracket this narrative.  A great problem to have, right?  The Church added people faster than they added the leadership to take care of them.

How fast?  Note 3,000 converts were mentioned in 2:41 and the 5,000 members in 4:4, we know for certain that the Church numbered in the thousands in a city of 100,000 residents.  That’s a lot for twelve guys to administrate!

The other part of the problem was complaining = THE GRECIAN JEWS COMPLAINED AGAINST THE HEBRAIC JEWS.  At this point the Church existed only in Jerusalem and was made up only of Jews.  It was considered to be a sect of Judaism.

At that time, there were two kinds of Jews.  Luke referred to one group as GRECIAN JEWS; they were people who converted to Judaism or were born Jews, but came from other parts of the world.  HEBRAIC JEWS, on the other hand, were people who were born in the region.  The primary difference was the fact they spoke different languages.

The out-of-town Jews believed that their widows were not getting their fair share of the daily soup kitchen.  This is not a small thing: Ministry to widows, orphans, aliens, and other down-and-out types was a big focus of the early church.  It was where a lot of their money was spent.  It is no coincidence that the first complaint in church life involved widows – the Old Testament commanded care for widows (i.e., Deuteronomy 10:18).  Jesus taught neglecting the care of widows was evidence of disobeying God (Luke 7:12-14).

The result was that the Apostles’ time was being spent waiting on tables when they should have been ministering the WORD.  The same Greek word translated here as DISTRIBUTION OF FOOD appears in 1:17+25 as the MINISTRY the Apostles received from Jesus.  This linguistic connection makes two things clear.  One, the TWELVE did the work of waiting on tables.  Two, waiting tables and proclaiming the Word were both considered ministry.  Both were important work.

Why were the Twelve doing all this themselves?  Sometimes it’s easier for leaders to do things themselves than it is to recruit people to do them.

What’s more important in this case, is that the Twelve demonstrated wisdom by recognizing taking care of this problem themselves was not a good idea.  When it came down to a choice between waiting tables or ministering the WORD, they knew which was part of their calling and which was not.

Again, both these were ministries were important to the church.  But the Twelve realized they were called to minister the word, not administrate a social program.  It was not RIGHT for them to WAIT ON TABLES because that would have required them neglecting their true ministry.  Somebody needed to do it, but it needed to be somebody else.  Here is an example of a situation where spirituality and practicality both need to be heard.

  1. The proposal. (vs. 2-6)

They proposed the congregation choose seven godly men to WAIT TABLES.  The Twelve created the proposal but they left it up to the members to decide who would administrate this program.

They proposed a group of SEVEN men because seven is seen as a symbol of completeness; that’s all that was needed.  Social scientists tell us seven is just about the ideal number for any working group.

The Twelve set forth the qualification the Seven were to be KNOWN to possess: FULL OF THE SPIRIT AND WISDOM.  True wisdom comes from God through the Holy Spirit.

The DISCIPLES (the members, the congregation) chose seven men from among their own number.  The fact that they all have Greek names does not prove that all Seven were GRECIAN JEWS, but if they were, that was an extraordinary accommodation by the HEBRAIC JEWS to the GRECIAN JEWS.

Luke describes only two of the Seven in any detail.  His mention of Stephen as A MAN FULL OF FAITH AND THE HOLY SPIRIT set up the account of Stephen, the first martyr, starting in verse eight.  The other mention is Nicolas, a CONVERT TO JUDAISM.  This proves that not all of the church members were born Jews.

Delegating authority was not a new idea: in Exodus 18:13-26; Numbers 11:1-25, and Deuteronomy 1:9-18, we read about 70 Israelite men who were selected to assist Moses in settling disputes among the people and to train them in faithfulness to God.

The phrase WAIT ON TABLES is the Greek word diakonein, from which we derive our word “deacon.”     Though Luke does not refer to the Seven as “deacons” in this passage, he will by chapter 21.  It’s ironic how the church has turned this word upside down.  The original deacons were table waiters; workers in a soup kitchen that delivered daily meals to the needy.  Their jobs were practical.  In the modern American church, deacons are responsible for spiritual ministry while the practical work is given to “trustees.”  Biblically, it ought to be the other way around.

If the proposal were accepted, the Apostles would have more time to pay ATTENTION TO PRAYER AND THE MINISTRY OF THE WORD.  PRAYER is a separate ministry.  It includes public worship and private visitation.  MINISTRY OF THE WORD includes preaching and teaching; discipleship that occurs in public and private situations.

As we stated earlier, this division of labor does not imply any kind of elitism.  The Twelve and the Seven had two different kind of work but BOTH were considered ministry.  The fact that the Seven were commissioned for ministry by the laying on of hands (v. 6) is further evidence of this variety of callings without a hierarchy of callings.

  1. The product. (vs. 5+7)

For possibly the last time in recorded history, all the church folk were happy at the same time.  The Greek word for PLEASED denotes a kind of satisfaction with the actions of another.  Our objective is to aim to please God, not any individual or group in the church.  So if everyone’s happy, that’s gravy, not our goal.

Luke listed two signs of God’s approval of the way the problem had been resolved.  He wrote, THE WORD OF GOD SPREAD.  On a practical level, the Twelve had their time freed up by turning the food ministry over to the Seven.  On a spiritual level, God registered His approval by giving them more opportunities to speak the word to those outside the church.

He also wrote THE NUMBER OF DISCIPLES INCREASED.  This is the other bracket that frames this passage; the Church was growing in number before the complaint and it continued to grow after they faithfully resolved the complaint.

The text supplies two qualifiers of the growth the First Church experienced.  The word RAPIDLY implies the Church’s growth gained speed.  A LARGE NUMBER OF PRIESTS were added to the membership.  These were men who had a vested interest in the status quo and were trained in the Scriptures.  And they overcame all that to choose to follow Jesus!

Churches thrive when members do their jobs.

          That’s not important.  What is important is the example set for us by the early church. Every believer is given their individual set of spiritual Gifts and other resources they can contribute to the life of their local church.  When all the believers make their contributions, the church prospers.  We need a variety of contributions and a depth of contributors in order to be faithful to God and the mission He has given us.  Church is not a spectator sport.  Everyone’s contributions differ slightly, but everyone contributes.  With love, we assemble these offerings of various resources and expend them in ministry to our people and the people outside our walls.

Here’s their example for us to follow:

– When a problem is announced, the leaders are responsible to see if it is a problem and take reasonable steps to resolve it.

– The leadership formulates a proposal and presents it to the membership, requiring them to share responsibility for a solution.

– Working together, the leaders and followers enact the solution with prayer and good sense empowering a godly way forward.

– When we are faithful, God makes us fruitful.  It may not be immediate, but it is inevitable.

 

RESOURCES:

Message #1291

Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Eckhard J. Schnabel

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Let’s Get Real

Our common life is founded on the reality of God.

Just before worship was to start, the pastor heard a loud argument going on outside the church.  He stuck his head out the door to see four preteen boys and a dog.

It didn’t seem like they were going to resolve it or move on any time soon, so the preacher stepped out and approached the boys.

“Hey fellows,” he said, “We’re about to start worship here and can’t have this ruckus.  What’s the problem?”

One of the boys spoke up.  “It’s like this, preacher.  We found this stray dog and caught him and made this leash.  We all want to take him home and keep him.  Just before you walked up here, we decided to hold a contest.  Whoever could tell the biggest lie would get to keep the doggie.”

“Oh no, boys,” the pastor looked shocked.  “That idea is straight from the pit of hell.  When I was your age, I never told a lie.”

The boy’s faces suddenly took on a glum aspect and one of them put the leash in the preacher’s hand.  “All right, pastor, you win.”

When a whopper is told, the reply is given, “Get real.”  By that, we express our desire to know the truth and be governed by honesty.  The most real thing in all creation is our Creator.  As we’ve been learning, in order to get real, we need to get closer to Him.

REVIEW:

Realistic Identity = Who are we?

We must not be worldly (vs. 1-4, 18-20).

We must be godly (vs. 16-17, 21-23).

Realistic Expectations = What can we do?

We must build on a good foundation (vs. 10-15).

NEW:

We must be faithful laborers (according to vs. 5-9, that means farmers and builders).

Paul and Apollos both served the church in Corinth,  each in their assigned roles.  Contrary to the controversy that co-opted them, both Paul and Apollos were SERVANTS (see Philippians 1:1 where Paul identified both himself and Timothy as SERVANTS).

The word for SERVANTS is diakonai, the word we translate as “deacons.”  There are several things implications from Paul’s use of this term.

One, as SERVANTS, leaders are never to idolize themselves or be idolized by their followers.  Leaders are not to cooperate with controversy by becoming the figurehead of one side.  Paul wrote this chapter to defuse that very thing in the Corinthian church.

Two, SERVANTS know their master.  In all his letters, Paul identified himself and his associates as serving God or the Gospel, but NEVER as serving churches.  This means his authority to preach and teach did not stem from the church members, but came from God Himself.

It can be confusing because when we look at the relationship between church and pastor, it looks like an employer-employee relationship.  However, that is not the whole truth.  The pastor’s authority includes and surpasses the local congregation.  For example, in Corinth, Paul did not draw a wage, but Apollos did.  Their authority was the same in both cases, as Paul makes clear.  The pastor-church relationship needs to be understood biblically first, then implemented in ways that exhibit good stewardship.

Three, SERVANT is not a demeaning term.  Servants are not doormats, scapegoats, or gophers.  All people, regardless of their roles are worthy of a basic level of respect.  Leaders are to receive an extra dose of respect according to 1 Timothy 5:17; The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

Jesus Himself took on the role of a servant (see John 17).  Paul wrote the same thing about him in Philippians 2:7.  No one is greater than Jesus.

Four, Jesus taught true leadership begins and ends with service: Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

Biblical servanthood is always voluntary; never imposed.  It is a choice we make out of the best possible motive; to serve Jesus by serving each other.  Ephesians 5:21 says plainly; Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Servanthood is not for leaders alone: how can leaders lead when followers don’t follow?  That’s why Hebrews 13:17 says, Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

In terms of roles, Paul identified three.  Paul identified himself as the “planter,” the one who started the church.  In 2 Corinthians 13:10, Paul asserted his authority to BUILD UP the Corinthian church. He identified Apollos as the “waterer,” someone who nurtured the church.  Paul identified neither himself nor Apollos as the one who grew the church, but instead, rightly credited God as the “grower.” The planter and waterer have their roles, but they deserve neither the blame nor the credit for church growth – that is solely God’s work.

Leaders in the church are CO-WORKERS.  We have differing roles but only one purpose; pointing people to Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, our job is two-fold.  We plant, which is we prepare for growth by creating opportunities for ministry and training ministers.  We water, which means we nurture followers that come into our church, helping them to mature in their faith.  God requires faithfulness, which He recognizes with fruitfulness.                 Church growth is not supposed to be our achievement, but sometimes it is.  Human will and worldly wisdom do account for numerical growth in some churches.

True church growth can’t be measured in numbers alone.  It is measured in improved character, in greater spiritual maturity, more joy, deeper prayer, and improved service, among other things.

Logically, God exercises wisdom choosing churches to receive His gifts of growth.  When we get frustrated at what we perceive as a lack of growth, we should ask ourselves, “What is my contribution to the life of the church?  Am I building up or tearing down?”

Then we should ask of our church, “What is it about our planting and watering that is not of God?  Are we prepared to receive growth or not?  Are we nurturing what we have or not?”  As we saw last Sunday in vs. 10-15, in v. 8, the laborers’ work will be REWARDED after it is judged by God.

Paul clarified the identity of the Church in two figures of speech.

One, YOU ARE GOD’S FIELD.  The Greek word for FIELD is georgion, and it refers to a cultivated field; land that has been worked for the purpose of growing things.  We are a FIELD in the sense that we try to make Jesus visible every moment we live.

Two, YOU ARE GOD’S BUILDING.  In Ephesians 2:20-22 and 1 Peter 2:5, the people of God being a BUILDING that is constructed of living stones like a physical building is constructed with individual bricks and stones.  We are also God’s BUILDING in the sense of our being the result of His work building up His Church, causing it to grow, as in v. 6.  Finally, we are God’s building in the sense of being His TEMPLE, as affirmed in vs. 16-17.

Our common life is founded on the reality of God.

According to the USDA, the harvest is pretty much over here in SD.  The rich black soil of planted fields in the spring has given way to the green, growing fields of summer and the brown harvested fields of fall.  Unless global warming becomes perfectly obvious, the ground will rest and be covered in white. The seasons in the life of a church are measured in years, sometimes generations, and follow similar cycles of growing and going fallow.  Following this agricultural

symbolism, Paul taught that it is our job to prepare for growth and care for growth, but we cannot make church growth happen on our own; it is a gift from God. It is preparing our church as a farmer prepares the soil in the spring, then planting the seed.

How do we do that?  If we desire God to grow our church, we have to prepare by becoming the kind of people He can trust with new lives.  Specifically, this means:

– Getting rid of all sin, especially sins of the tongue.  God will not build where the people will tear down.

– Encouraging right living by means of Scripture, prayer, and spiritual maturity.  God will grow His best fruits where the soil is fertile with His Spirit and His words.

– Building community through worship, fellowship, and Christian education.  God will not sow His seeds among weeds.

– Creating relationships outside our walls by pairing acts of service with words of witness. God will not grow fruit in a walled garden.  He wants His fruits to bless all the people.

Let’s get real.  Let’s prepare this field by praying for wisdom to see ourselves candidly and know the truth.  Listen to no one else.  Repent of the problem parts, explore and expand the solution parts.

Love Without Limits

(Please read Matthew 18:21-35 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Those of us of a certain age will recognize the name W.C. Fields, the rest of you will have to google it.  A famous comic actor in the black and white era of motion pictures, Fields played mostly grumpy old men in his movies.  It turns out that off-screen, he was a grumpy old man and a drunken rascal.

W.C. Fields was also a notorious atheist.  That’s why a friend of his was astonished to discover Fields, at the end of his life, reading the Bible.  He asked Fields, “Why in the world are you reading the Bible?  Are you looking for answers?”

The comedian replied, “No, I’m looking for loopholes.”

Looking for loopholes.  That pretty well describes human nature doesn’t it?  We want maximum gain with minimal effort.  We expect to be rewarded above and beyond our lukewarm commitment and selfishly motivated actions.  Justice and mercy are things we want when they benefit us, but are far less concerned about them for the sake of others.  Particularly for people whom we do not happen to like.

The last time I preached on this passage was 20 years ago.  At that time, God was using a peculiar method to teach me about mercy.  God used Woofie to give me daily opportunities to show forgiveness.

Woofie came into our lives as “Wolfie;”  we changed her name to make her sound less aggressive.  The change of name had no effect on her nature, however.

Woofie was the poster dog of the local Humane Society.  Really.  She was a stray who’d been hanging around a cemetery, barely eking out a living, in bad shape when she was caught.  Life on her own did not prepare Woofie to be a house dog.

She loved everyone in the family and hated all other life forms.  She was a barker.  A jumper.  She bolted every chance she could get, so we had to devise an elaborate and strong pulley system to let her outdoors.  One of her favorite tricks was to walk up next to Melanie and bump her with her backside, sending Melanie, then a toddler, sprawling and bawling on the floor.  When we watched a movie and ate popcorn, she would bark angrily if you didn’t frequently flip a kernel her way.

The story has a happy ending.  Woofie lived with us for more than a decade.  She peacefully lay down to sleep one day and never awoke again.

What eventually made the difference was love.  And forgiveness.  Lots and lots of forgiveness of her canine sins.

Now, twenty years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We adopted Rue from the Sioux Falls Humane Society just before Christmas and her list of doggie offenses is growing.  I must be a slow learner to have to go through this again!

  1. The occasion: Peter asked a question.

Rabbis (Jewish teachers) are and were tasked with applying the Law of Moses to everyday life.  When they did so, they tended to use a very legalistic approach.  They taught that a person might be forgiven three times for a repeated sin.  On the fourth occasion, however, no one was required to  forgive something a fourth time.

It’s possible that when Peter offered the number SEVEN, he was surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus had commanded in 5:20. (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”)  Or Peter may’ve settled on SEVEN since that was seen as “the perfect number,” the number for God.  (Six is the number for man; always one short.)  In either case, Jesus had just been talking about the steps in restoring fellow church members from sin to forgiveness and this sparked Peter’s questioning mind.  He wanted to know if there were any loopholes in this matter of forgiveness and restoration.

In the first part of His answer, Jesus one-ups Peter and adds a second seven.  (In some texts it’s plus seventy, in others, it times seventy.  Since we’re NOT dealing with a legalism here, the difference makes no difference.)  Jesus sometimes uses humor and exaggeration to make His point and I believe that’s what’s happening here.  SEVENTY-SEVEN and 490 are both ridiculous numbers if you intend to make it a law.  Who would have the capacity to keep such a command?  How would keeping an exhaustive count of offenses make anyone feel better or make you more godly?

No, SEVENTY-SEVEN is obviously a metaphor for a limitless number.  Once they’ve had a chuckle over the first part of His answer, Jesus goes on to tell them a story that will justify effectively limitless forgiveness.

  1. The one main point of the parable: “Forgive one another as you have been forgiven by God the Father.”

We will show how Jesus’ parable develops this truth in just a moment.  For now, we note the large strokes.

The KING is God the Father.  Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, He forgives the massive, impossible-for-us-to-fix debt of our sin.

We are the unforgiving servant when we take out our petty anger on the people around us, who are represented by the FELLOW SERVANT.

The unforgiving servant had no mercy, so he received justice instead; justice in the form of judgment.  The warning in v. 35 could not be clearer: people who are unwilling to forgive will miss out on God’s forgiveness.

  1. The sub-points of the parable:

One: The debt the king forgave was impossible to repay.  In Jesus’ world, it was possible for servants of a KING to amass a debt in the course of their service to the king.  They were tasked with managing their master’s assets and logically their management wasn’t always successful.  In such cases, the master didn’t write a loss off, but held the manager accountable, counting the loss as a debt owed him.  (This system sounds a bit like riding a tiger; choose carefully which end you face!)

Even so, this amount is another purposeful exaggeration: Jesus used an impossibly large amount of money to create the impression that the debt was impossible to repay.  For context, I refer you to a 2010 article by Philip Massey who calculated the debt to require 200,000 YEARS of labor to repay.  The 2010 equivalent, his math said, was $7.04 billion.

– OR, the net worth of Bill Gates.

– OR, more than the national debt… in 1917!!

<Retrieved from http://chimes.biola.edu/story/2010/oct/27/parable-two-debtors/ on 1/6/17.>

The king did the math and realized that even if he sold this man’s entire family into slavery (as he did in v. 25), it would not make a dent in his losses.  His original motive must’ve been to get what he could and make an example of this servant and his horrible mismanagement of the king’s funds.

He orders the servant and all his family and possessions seized for the debt.  Our sympathy may naturally go to the servant, but think about it: if the indebted servant realized the debt was impossible to pay, his pleading with the king to be PATIENT, promising to repay all, was a lie.

Let’s note the character of the KING on the basis of his response to his servant’s plea.  His character is substantiated in v. 27: it was PITY, not the empty promise of repayment that motivated the king to cancel the servant’s debt.  Let there be no doubt this king is a figure symbolizing God the Father.

– Each person’s sin is an insurmountable debt, a problem we can’t fix.

– Not because of our empty promises to be good, or anything else we can do, the debt is cancelled.

– Does this help you understand the incredible seriousness of your sins AND the depth of God’s forgiveness?

– Remember, the money is a metaphor; the actual situation is even more dire, for the wages of sin are DEATH (RMS 6:23).

Two, the debt the servant did not forgive was tiny in comparison.  The modern value of A HUNDRED SILVER COINS would be up to $45,000.  That is a princely sum for most of us, I would guess, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to $7.04 billion.

This is a third exaggeration, a sum chosen carefully by Jesus.            On the one hand, it is not so small a sum of money that a person could easily forgive the debt and not miss it.  A needy or greedy person would be motivated to insist on repayment.  On the other hand, it is not so large a sum that it compares at all with the debt this servant’s master had JUST CANCELLED.

In v. 29, the second servant’s plea reads almost exactly the same as the plea the unforgiving servant has just made with the king.  Here Jesus is using irony to make sure that we connect the unforgiving servant with the one who owed him money.  The unforgiving servant takes the place of the KING and the second servant takes his place.  Though the debts are very much different, the situation, through the wording, is very much the same.  What is different is the outcome.

It is a terrible, immoral deed that the unforgiving servant does to his peer, throwing him in prison over this comparatively tiny debt after he has been forgiven so much (30).  What he did was as illegal as it was immoral.  According to the law of the land, you could not sell a person into slavery for a debt that was worth less than the person’s life.  In other words, the unforgiving servant was trying to not only recover his debt, but make a profit too.  This detail exposes the unforgiving servant as greedy, not needy.

Three, the king’s justice is an example of God’s justice.  The injustice of the unforgiving servant’s actions was not lost on his peers.  Jesus says they were GREATLY DISTRESSED (31).  Probably at some personal risk, they went to the KING and told him what had happened.  This makes even more sense if the actions of the unforgiving servant are illegal AND immoral.

In vs. 32-34 we are pleased to see that this KING, who was so good-natured as to forgive such a massive debt, also had a good sense of justice.  He was indignant at the unforgiving servant’s actions and rebuked him for his pettiness, his unwillingness to demonstrate the same kind of mercy as he had recently received.

In righteous anger, the KING delivered a just condemnation of the unforgiving servant.  The word translated in the NIV as JAILERS is really too tame a choice of words.  It should read “torturers.”  The justice and mercy of the KING are a stark contrast to the greed and injustice of the unforgiving servant.

Four, let unforgiving folk be warned (35).  God’s justice is perfect; He knows who is guilty and the punishment always fits the crime.

This warning could not be more clear.  Unforgiving people betray the true status of their soul as themselves being unforgiven.  There is a cause and effect relationship between being shown mercy and giving mercy.

This warning could be more serious.  Our eternal destination is at stake.  Just as the unforgiving servant was handed over to the “torturers,” so can an unmerciful person expect only the wrath of God.

This warning could not be any more certain.  The unforgiving servant was exposed and justice was rendered.  He may have gone away from his first encounter thinking he’d fooled the king but his true nature emerged and he was dealt with justly.

Several years ago, on a beautiful spring day a man walked along a country lane to enjoy the sun.  He chanced upon a farmer plowing his field with a mule.  He was having a tough time of it.  The mule was not very responsive.

The visitor waved to the farmer and motioned for him to come over to the fence.  The farmer mopped his sweaty brow as he came over to the fence to greet his friendly visitor.

“Say,” the visitor said, “I’m not one to tell a man how to do his business, but I think that mule would be more cooperative if you’d say ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ to him when you wanted him to turn.”

The farmer considered this advice for but a moment and replied, “Reckon that’s so, but that mule kicked me five years ago and I haven’t talked to it since.”

Holding a grudge against people makes about as much sense, doesn’t it?  As this parable makes plain, grudge-holding and all forms of being unforgiving and unmerciful have no place in the life of a follower of Jesus.

Instead, just the opposite is true.  A claim to faith by a person or a church is proven by a character of mercy.  This quality of a fellowship (church) is also necessary to attract and retain new people in a church.

Hugh Otter B. Fruitful

(Read Acts 2:42-47.)

        A woman in Alabama was to bake a cake for her Baptist Church ladies’ bake sale, but entirely forgot about it until she awoke on the morning of the sale.  Rifling through her cupboards, she found an old angel food cake mix and threw it together.  While it baked, she dressed for work.

        When she took the cake from the oven, the center had dropped flat and the cake was horribly disfigured.  There was no time nor resource to bake another.  Not wanting to lose face among the church ladies, she hurriedly looked around for something she could use to build up the center of the cake.

        She settled on a roll of toilet paper which she put in the droopy center of the cake and then covered the whole thing over with icing.  Standing back to admire her handiwork, she pronounced it “Beautiful!”

        Before leaving the house to drop the cake off at the church on the way to work, she woke her teenage daughter and told her to be at the bake sale precisely when it opened at 9 am, buy t cake & bring it home.

        You may be surprised to find that the drowsy daughter didn’t make it to the church exactly at 9 am.  When she did arrive, she found that her mother’s cake had already been sold!  She called her mother to deliver the horrifying news.  The woman spent the entire day and a sleepless night worrying about who had purchased the faux cake.

        The next day an elegant bridal shower was being held at the home of a fellow church member.  While she wasn’t particularly friendly toward the hostess – she considered her a snob – the woman felt obligated to go.

        She was horrified when her cake was presented as dessert!

        She was about to take the hostess aside and confess when one of the other guest exclaimed, “What a beautiful cake!”

        The snobbish hostess grinned with pride and said, “Thank you, I baked it myself!”

        The woman thought to herself, “God is good.”  She sat back and watched as her hostess grabbed the cake knife…

        We naturally think god is good when the other person gets their “just desserts,” but are less likely to think that way when it’s us.  Getting what we deserve is what Jesus called the “fruit” of our character.  Decisions made repeatedly become character and the outcome of all that reveals the character within each of us.

        What’s true on an individual level is also true on a church level.  What we look like on the outside does not determine what fruits we bear, it’s what really exists under the icing. We must choose Christ to bear Christian fruit.

(George Goldtrap, as quoted in The Joyful Noiseletter, Vol. 27, No. 4, July-August 2012.)

THESIS = The First Church enjoyed fruitful ministry because they were faithful followers.

Vs. 46-47 (NIV) = Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.  They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.  And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

WHERE they met reveals a lot about the First Church.

        They met publicly in the TEMPLE.  Because the temple courtyards provided a large open space where their mega-church could gather.  The courtyards were accessible to Gentiles and frequented by Jews.

        Originally they saw themselves as practicing the Jewish faith completed by Jesus.  Therefore the temple was still God’s house; it was still sacred in their lives, their faith and practice.  They shared the pride godly Jews felt about the Temple and all it represented.

        It was a familiar place and a physical focus of their faith. When in Jerusalem, a godly Jew went to the Temple three times a day to pray.  Living elsewhere, a godly Jew faced the direction of the Temple to pray.

        The courtyards of the Temple were the customary place to meet for teaching.  Later, as the Church was dispersed from Jerusalem, they took this practice with them and met in the local synagogues.

        They also met privately in their HOMES.  They held services in courtyards  of private homes (see Philemon 2; Colossians 4:15; 1 Corinthians 16:19).  This was a practical solution and good stewardship.  Buildings require resources.  the practice kept the local churches smaller & more personal, like our “cell groups” today.  It was customary for Jewish feasts (i.e., the Passover) to be observed in homes.

        This “multi-site plan” is a comprehensive approach to ministry we can find useful and worth copying.  The temple gatherings were primarily evangelistic in nature, but also met worship and service goals.  The “living room” gatherings in private homes had a primary purpose of discipleship, but also met worship and fellowship goals.  Of course, the extraordinary stewardship exhibited in the First Church empowered both.

WHAT they did AS they met reveals more.

        The text informs us they BROKE BREAD and ATE TOGETHER.  BROKE BREAD refers to both a meal and the Lord’s Supper: the eucharisto.  This Love Feast was THE means of worship and service, & feeding the underclass.

        They were PRAISING GOD daily.  Every activity of the church should be a service of worship, celebrating God before all people.  If not for God we wouldn’t be here!

        They enjoyed THE FAVOR OF ALL PEOPLE.  I wonder what that feels like.  It might mean that people know where we’re located, at least!  This was a church full of joy: because they spread it about, they enjoyed wide favor.

HOW they did it sets an example for us to follow.

        They met EVERY DAY.  Any mention I make of daily worship falls on blank stares and deaf ears.  “Not realistic,” people inform me gravely.  Both clergy and lay people alike think the notion of daily worship is as quaint as togas.

        Let me provoke your thinking on this subject with two questions.  Is it possible that we are over-invested in our personal, private lives?  If we restore balance by investing more in God will it result in a better blessing?  If the answer to either of those questions is “Yes,” we’ve got to re-prioritize.

        They had GLAD and SINCERE HEARTS.  Every Christian ought to have a GLAD heart.  When done right, the Christian faith is fun.  Joy is an inevitable result of true discipleship.  If church is boring, uneventful, or unfulfilling, the fault is not with God.  In the original language, the word  SINCERE means “without stones to trip on.”  With nothing false in their character, they gave no excuse to trip others up.

WHY did God do this?  Simple: to build His Church.

        The phrase THE LORD ADDED TO THEIR NUMBER is a needed reminder that it is God who saves.  Our part is to create a space where God is made known.  If we are faithful, God will make us fruitful.

        This is also a way God shows His approval of a church.  If a church is worthy of His trust, He will place new believers in their care.

        It also reinforces the necessity of true faith being the qualification for membership. This phrase summarizes New Testament teaching that makes a distinction between those who are converts in appearance only & those who are a new creation.  Human eyes can’t always telling the difference, but God knows.

        I hope I’ve clearly placed an emphasis on the sovereignty of God.  That doctrine is no excuse of inactivity or even passivity, however.  God calls us to be more than consumers.  We are to be producers as well.  One part of discipleship is producing fruit.  The outcomes of a faithful life are two-fold:

  • See Matthew 28:19, where Jesus identifies disciple-making as our mission. That includes producing new converts and maturing existing ones.
  • See John 15, where Jesus teaches that LOVE is both a means and an end to discipleship. Real disciples love more often and more deeply. 

        OK, I admit to being guilty of making this word my soap box.  Don’t miss the word DAILY in the text. Does anyone really think it is a coincidence that they met daily and the Lord added to their number daily?  I’d suggest we are seeing a spiritual principle at work: “Whatever you sow, you shall reap.  If you sow sparingly, you shall reap sparingly.”  The greater sacrifice opens the door to greater blessing.  That’s biblical.

        Who was the Lord adding to the First Church?  THOSE WHO WERE BEING SAVED.  “Being saved” is a curious phrase.  What’s that imply?  A Greek word for “church” means “the called-out ones.”  Who is doing the calling?  God.  We don’t  call ourselves.  So again we are reminded that salvation is 99.9% an act of God.  It is not by any work that we are saved, but only by a faithful acceptance of the work of God.

        I believe that phrase is also meant to throw us back upon our dependence on the Holy Spirit.  It is God’s Spirit who empowers everything we do that is godly.  For a wonderful and unique description of this, see Judges 6:34, where it is written, THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD CLOTHED HIMSELF WITH GIDEON.  The Bible also says that the Spirit is within us, but I prefer this reading because it places the emphasis squarely on the Holy Spirit.

        While we may be assuming too much from a single portion of a sentence, I believe this oddly passive-voiced verb without a clear temporal reference is also meant to remind us that salvation is a life-long process.  BEING SAVED is like saying, “Under Construction.”  Kind of like the streets and highways of our land during the summer months…

        “A wealthy lawyer walked along a crowded sidewalk in London when he felt a hand slip into his pocket.  He whirled around and seized the thief by the wrist.  ‘Why did you try to rob me?’ James Henderson demanded sternly.

        “‘Because, sir,’ the would-be pickpocket said, ‘I am out of work and hungry.’

        “‘Come along with me,’ Henderson said.  He took the penniless man to a restaurant and ordered two meals.

        “When they had finished eating, the man told how he had been in prison and found it difficult to obtain a job because of his bad name.  ‘I have no name,’ he said.  There is nothing left to return but to return to the old life of crime.  What can a man do without a name?’

        “The man’s story and question greatly impressed the lawyer.  After some thought, he said, ‘For forty years I have borne the name of James Henderson unsullied.  You say you have no name?  I’ll give you my name.  Take your new name out into the world and keep it clean and honorable.’

        “‘Do you really mean it?’ cried the thief brokenly.

        “‘Of course I mean it,’ said the lawyer.  ‘And to prove it, I’ll recommend you, in the name of James Henderson, to a manufacturing firm with whom I have some influence.’

        “The lawyer found a job for the former thief and kept in touch with him for many months.  However, through travel and a change of residence, he lost contact with his namesake.

        “Fifteen years later he was told a visitor awaited him in the reception room of his office.  He was startled to read the name ‘James Henderson’ on the man’s business card.  Entering the reception room, he met a tall, strikingly handsome man dressed like a gentleman. 

        “As they shook hands, the visitor said, ‘Sir, I have called to tell you today I have been made partner in the firm to which you recommended me fifteen years ago.  All that you see me to be, I owe to your noble generosity; and above all, to the gift of your name.  The name of James Henderson is still unsullied.  God bless you, sir, and reward you!’

        “The thief was offered a new name and made a new start in life.  We, too, have been offered a new name – Christian.  And it is the plan of the One who has given us this new name that we make a new start in life.”

(Desmond Hills, Signs of the Times, June, 2004.)

The “Otter” Series – Part Two

Please read Acts 2:42-47.

Thesis: We ought to be devoted to one another.

They were devoted to The Fellowship.

        Notice the use of the article; “THE fellowship.”  This denotes a distinctive group. As in our own time, there were a variety of religions and sects in the first century. However, the following distinctives set the First Church apart from its context.

o       The Church was created by God to be His people; His representatives to the world.

o       The Church was created with the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

o       Jesus said that the chief quality by which His followers would be recognized was their love for each other: “ALL MEN WILL KNOW YOU ARE MY DISCIPLES IF YOU LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” (John 13:35)

o       They were GLAD & SINCERE (v. 26); those things aren’t often found together.

o       They’d earned the good will – the FAVOR – OF ALL THE PEOPLE (v. 47).  Perfectly positive renown is often impossible.

        Having good fellowship is not an end in itself; the First Church used it to accomplish a lot.

        They accomplished material unity.

        They pooled their possessions – they HAD EVERYTHING IN COMMON (v. 44). V. 45 tells us why: they would liquidate these commonly-held POSSESSIONS AND GOODS, giving to all who were in need. This is not an endorsement for communal living.  It’s not a statement about the morality of private ownership of property.  It simply notes the way the First Church responded to t needy in their context.   Their use of material resources was an aspect of The Fellowship that proved their devotion to one another and to the community.

        They accomplished spiritual unity by daily actions.

        They worshiped daily. They worshipped publicly in the temple, observing t daily prayers done by faithful Jews, adding their witness as Christians. They also worshipped privately in their homes –worshipping in a distinctively Christian way.  Public worship is good for outreach; private worship is good for building unity.  Both must focus on God’s glory.  Worship is the heart of church life; primary means of disciple-making.

        They ate together daily; they shared a common meal as a practical and emotional means of loving one another.  This “love feast” (eukaristo).  The Love Feast was their primary means of  serving the needy daily. The best witness combines words and deeds.

        WONDERS & MIRACULOUS SIGNS were done by the Apostles.  These served two purposes.  One, to get the attention of the unchurched.  Two, to authenticate the message; to show that the Apostles were speaking for God.  Historically, the miraculous gifts are for church “frontiers;” they validate and help establish the Gospel in new fields.  (When the First Church was born, the entire world was a “new field.”)

        What this saying means I don’t know, but it’s true enough in this case: “The proof is in the pudding;” they bore “fruit” that showed God’s favor.  They grew.  Spiritual growth produces joy, and joy is a Fruit of the Spirit.  The numerical growth of the First Church is clear when the text says; THE LORD ADDED TO THEIR NUMBER DAILY THOSE WHO WERE BEING SAVED.

        Growth (even numerical growth) can be a sign of God’s favor.

However, it may just be a sign of slick marketing and/or favorable context.

        How do we know the difference?  By the kind of disciples produced.  Worldly growth produces superficial followers, people who are consumers, not committed. Godly growth produces maturing disciples, people who show the Holy Spirit in word and deed.

 

Two Greek words that define fellowship.

        Koinonia.

        This term was used by Greek philosophers for the highest standard of human relationships.  Here are all the ways this one word can be translated: Association, fellowship, close relationship, brotherhood, intercourse, intimacy, common bond, society.

        Biblically, it is used to describe our relationships with each other, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ, our shared standing in the Gospel and the faith, and for our membership in the Church.  It is the unity of all believers in mission, spirit, and character.  Koinonia is possible only by the Holy Spirit.  It is a gift of God, interrupted by sin.

        Ekklesia.

        In secular usage, this word referred to the mustering of an army; “draft” or “reville.” It literally means “the called-out ones.”  It was used to refer to an assembly or meeting of citizens for political purposes.

        Biblically, it speaks to the nature of the Church, as those persons whom God has called out of the world to be His people.

The emphasis is on the One who does the calling and how His people are to achieve His purpose in the world.  It refers to both the local congregation (small “c”) and to the world-wide congregation (capital “C”).

        All of this leaves us with two important questions.

        One – can we be that kind of church?

        Let’s be careful not to confuse the methods and the results.  The Bible mentions their methods of shared property and daily meetings without telling us to do likewise.  It simply states what they did and the results they got.  What counts is the mention of the things to which they were DEVOTED (v. 42) – that’s why we’re taking time to look at these individually.

        What’s most important is what is mentioned earlier in the chapter – they were gathered around Jesus Christ and were empowered by the Holy Spirit.  With those two caveats, we still need to ask, what methods can we use in our context?  To the degree that we are in Christ and are empowered by the Spirit, then our sincere efforts will be blessed by the same results.  More than prescribing a method, Luke recorded an occasion when the focus of the Church was so singularly on Jesus Christ that God blessed them in extraordinary ways.

        Two – how badly do we want to share their results?  One point God is making in the whole book of Acts is that some kind of sacrifice is involved in becoming that kind of fellowship; the sacrifice of self.  A self-centered person will never be a contributor to the unity of the group; the two motives are obviously at odds with one another.