I love the book of Acts! It chronicles the genesis of the church all the way through Paul’s missionary journeys and final arrest. If ever there is a potent book on churchology, Acts is it. Acts 2 gives, in my opinion, the “sweet spot” of productivity. All the ingredients are present for productivity, and we see the church quickly flourish and thrive.
Certainly conditions were right for this kind of initial growth, but it’s the sustained growth that is also impressive. In Acts, the common theme among Christians is commonality–everyone had all things in common. This is incredibly rare in divisive environments. But in Acts, the Christians didn’t lay claim to their own possessions and their foundation was built upon sharing. They shared meals together. They shared possessions and gave to the needy. They shared their time together. They were the polar opposite of possessive.
Luke records it this way: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. . . And all who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:42, 44 ESV). They were glad, thanking and praising God! They were genuinely thankful to be in one another’s company. This really is the perfect combination of factors that lead to productive growth and sincerity in faith.
While it’s very important to equip people for works of ministry, it’s just as critical to equip people to be selfless and to devote themselves to fellowship, instruction, and prayer.
Last week we talked about how Paul, a former persecutor and enemy of Christianity, was given God’s grace and revelation to preach to the Gentiles. Paul went to great lengths to describe the mystery of the gospel that was revealed to him by the power of God. But before Paul mentioned the need for unity and the equipping of saints for works of ministry, he had one more focus: a prayer for the Ephesians to have spiritual strength.
Paul bowed his knees before the Father and prayed, “that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. . . ” (Ephesians 3:16, 17 ESV). This was incredibly important in Ephesus, especially, because there was already animosity between the pagans and Gentile Christians. In order for Christianity to survive, the Christians had to be bold.
The Christians in Ephesus were first generation Christians, which means they couldn’t rely on the faith of their parents and grandparents. Their strength had to come from God, and God alone. Paul’s prayer apparently helped to strengthen the Christians, because we know from history that the church in Ephesus was extremely significant. In 431 A.D. there was a major convention of Christian leaders, known as the Council of Ephesus. We still are reading about the church there, 2,000 years after the fact.
We, too, can be a significant congregation if we rely on the power and strength of the Lord!
Our theme this year is equipping the saints for works of ministry. The text comes from chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. But there is a lot of context leading up to the passage on unity that comes through equipping of the saints. In chapter 3, Paul said that “the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I have written briefly” (Ephesians 3:3 ESV). Paul told them that the mystery wasn’t even made known to the sons of men in generations past, but was only made known to the prophets and holy apostles by the Spirit. The mystery, Paul concludes, is “that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (vs. 6).
Paul goes on: “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ” (vs. 8). It’s important to note that Paul didn’t feel like he was the very least of every Christian. He actually was. We know this from the blunt, matter-of-fact statement he made. The word he used only appears once in all of the Bible. It literally means “less than the least.” Paul wasn’t using hyperbole. He actually killed Christians. He was full of venom and zeal. Paul singlehandedly wrecked families for the rest of their earthly existence. And God used him.
Paul is clear that God’s grace is the only reason he was chosen to be a mouthpiece to spread the gospel. Paul, writing from prison, is equipping the Ephesians to be equippers. If he, the least of the least, can do it, so can the “upper” saints! The mystery of the gospel binds everyone together as heirs of the kingdom of God! If God can use Paul to reach a massive group of Gentiles, he can use you too! God’s power is made perfect in weakness!
With Father’s Day approaching we should remember those who are fatherless too. The term fatherless appears 42 times in the ESV and is a theme that runs deep throughout the Bible. God cares for the fatherless and asks his people to care for them and look after them. Hosea 14:3 says, “In you the orphan finds mercy.” Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s case.” And James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.”
These are not mere commands to keep God’s people busy with acts of humanitarianism. There is clear research that children who grow up without a stable father have a far more difficult path in life than those who do. Those who grow up without a father are more likely to experience poverty, poor academic performance, mental health disorders, sexual promiscuity, exploitation and abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, homelessness, early death, and divorce, to name a few. These are a very heavy price to pay for those who are abandoned by or who have lost their fathers to death.
This is why God puts such a strong emphasis on his people stepping in to care for and nurture those who are fatherless. The church bears a heavy responsibility to show compassion and care for the fatherless. We must do better at being intentional about reaching into the lives of them.
Paul’s vision and his thorn are a great reminder that there can be a great tension between surpassing greatness and agony. Paul describes a vision he had 14 years prior, though he refers to himself as “a man in Christ.” He’s clearly distancing himself from the vision of heaven, which we doesn’t know whether was “in the body or out of the body” (2 Cor. 12:2,3). Paul was not going to boast of this experience “so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me” (vs. 6).
Then Paul argues, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (vs. 7). Three times Paul begged for the thorn to be removed, but God answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (vs. 9).
We don’t know for sure what the thorn in the flesh was, but it’s possible it refers to his persecutions. Whatever it was, Paul was willing to boast about his weaknesses because the power of Christ “rests upon me” when Paul is weak. As Christians, we should be equipped to endure weakness. In fact, Paul embraced his weakness as a thing that brings about Christ’s power.
Death is a strange thing. All of us will face it; nobody is exempt. Whether people believe in God or not our fate is marked out for us. We know we will die. It’s not a question of if, but of when. Jesus’ disciples knew he would die, but didn’t understand that he was going to die so soon.
Jesus told them that he was preparing a place for them in his “Father’s house:” “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3 ESV).
Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (vs. 8). Philip didn’t understand, and Jesus reminded him that, anyone who sees Jesus has also seen the Father. Christ is not only helping prepare a place for believers, he is coming back for them to lead them there. Belief in Christ and obedience is our assurance. It’s hard to fathom how incredible Heaven will be. But, rather than get hung up on what it is like, Jesus reminds his disciples that he is the Way and they should trust that it is perfect!
There is something about sympathy that causes defensive walls to crumble. Not only does sympathy get past defenses, it is healing salve for the soul. Peter wrote, “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:8-9 ESV).
The word Peter uses for sympathy is only used once in the whole Bible. It literally means suffering or felling the like with someone. When we are truly sympathetic, we enter into suffering with them.
The word for tender heart means have a “good gut.” It means to have compassion well up from your bowels, where it is essentially full of meaning and heart. It is about entering into the world of suffering with another person with immense meaning. When we are unified in mind (having the same mind), enter into suffering with people and mean it from our gut, treat each other with brotherly love, and are humble, that person’s world changes.
As Christians, we need to mean it when we express sympathy for one another. This was how Jesus treated people who were desperate. He entered into their world of suffering and then ultimately suffered the pain of the cross.