Jesus’ first recorded miracle was when he turned water into wine. At a wedding in Cana, Jesus’ mother told him that the wine had run out. Then, ordering some men to fill the six purification water jars (each holding 20-30 gallons) with water, the master of the feast tasted a glass and was impressed with the good quality of the wine. He didn’t know where it came from, but the men who filled the jars knew. Jesus took twelve apostles and multiplied his disciples. Jesus took five loaves and two fish and multiplied it into enough food to feed 5,000.
Over and over again, Jesus multiplied blessings for people. And he did this with virtually nothing. In fact, he told his twelve apostles to “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics. And whatever house you enter, stay there, and from there depart” (Luke 9:3-4 ESV).
It’s important to note that Jesus told them to take away, not add, resources that could potentially help them in their ministry. Money is generally considered a necessity when serving other people. Ministry can be extremely difficult without it. Shoes and clothes were generally considered necessary for travel. But Jesus told them to take nothing beyond the clothes on their back. The church was birthed out of a need to depend on both God and the goodwill of other believers.
The COVID pandemic has stripped a lot of churches down to bare bones. We can look at it either one of two ways. We can either say that the church is doomed and can’t go on without the resources it once had or we can trust that God will multiply. Already we are seeing some surprising (and healthy) trends emerging from churches that have had their resources stripped away. God is blessing and there are many good things to come!
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!
It’s vital that we equip the saints for works of ministry (Ephesians 4:12). The word for ministry is the word that we get “deacon” from (diakonia), a word that means “service” or “ministry.” The Bible is pregnant with examples of the body of Christ working together in unity–both with one another and with the Lord. The clearest example probably comes from 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
In this passage, Paul makes the strong point that the body of Christ (the church), much like our physical body, is made of of many different members that each have their own specific function. The members work in perfect unity, ebbing and flowing together as the body functions as one single unit. Paul asks, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be?” (1 Corinthians 12:17-19 ESV).
Paul says that no certain part of the body can disregard another and say there is no need for it. Nor can a member of the body refuse to be a part because it doesn’t have the same function (giftedness) as another. The human body is a great example because of the complexity of the many different parts juxtaposed with the simplicity of the body functioning flawlessly syncretized. The church should not be clunky, non-functioning, or worse, having members working against one another.
Equipping the saints for works of ministry requires each member to know what his or her function is. We cannot be doing each others’ jobs. We cannot be getting in the way of each other. Instead, we need to each do what God has gifted us with doing, and do it with excellence.
Paul talked a lot about unity in the church in Ephesus. He urged the Christians to live in a manner worthy of their calling, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, and bearing with one another in love. The purpose was to maintain the unity in Christ through the bond of peace. As Paul says many times elsewhere, the body of Christ is made up of many parts. Each member of the body has a different function, and one is no more or less important than the other. Some of what could be considered less noble parts are actually indispensable.
The model was healthy and holy. Paul intensifies the purpose of maintaining this unity: “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and to the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the of the stature of the fullness of Christ. . . we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13, 15 ESV).
It’s important now, more than ever before, that we live this out. The church in this nation is on life support in many respects while it
could should be thriving. We Christians have an amazing opportunity to turn the weakened body into a unified, holy body that is bound together by peace through the Holy Spirit. But to do so takes equipping of the saints. We have our work cut out for us, but as followers of Christ we can do it.
There are countless opportunities to serve people in need and to teach them the good news of Jesus Christ. This coming year will be one of equipping, equipping, equipping!
Hillsong Church, best known for its inspiring Christian music compositions, is a global church that has about 700,000 followers world wide. Founded in Australia by Brian Houston, it has been steeped in controversy. Mr. Houston said in a sermon once that Hillsong sermons should be formed in a way that “leaves people feeling better about themselves than they came.” There is a culture in this nation of “celebrity pastors”–preachers who become famous and a church is built around the personality of the celebrity.
Recently, Hillsong NYC fired its pastor for all kinds of abuses, including multiple affairs and verbal abuse. Carl Lentz attained celebrity status fairly quickly, and was often seen hanging out with his close pal Justin Bieber. Some church members from Hillsong NYC described a culture where Mr. Lentz was only reachable if people had “the right badge” to be backstage. This notion that the religious elite are better than others has done great damage to the church. More importantly, it is wrecking innocent lives and runs completely counter to everything Jesus taught.
When Jesus called Matthew, he ruffled feathers because he wasn’t rubbing elbows with the religious leaders. Instead, Matthew paints this scene: “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples” (Matthew 9:10 ESV). Jesus attracted the outcasts of society. They were often poor, sick, lonely, and had nowhere to turn. This was not typical behavior for religious leaders. Status was important, just like it is among our celebrity pastors of today. Many religious leaders care more about their image than doing what’s right. The Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples why he was eating with tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus’ response was perfect: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (vs. 12-13). Jesus was the great physician. Christians are called to point sick people to Jesus, not to celebrate and deify religious leaders.
When Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, it’s hard to imagine that they knew what challenges waited for them. Very shortly after the ascension of Jesus, the church was persecuted and scattered. Christians were literally meeting in a cave in Antioch of Syria (which ended up becoming the sending church for Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys).
Peter clearly had in mind preaching to Jewish people. But that idea got flipped on its head when God sent him to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile. When more persecution came, James the brother of John was killed with the sword. This alone would have been a devastating blow to the disciples, because James was one of the “inner circle” during Jesus’ ministry.
As if James’ death wasn’t bad enough, Peter was imprisoned. “He (Herod) killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:2, 3 ESV). We don’t know why Herod kept Peter alive and not James, but clearly Herod was most likely going to put on a show for the Jewish people before killing Peter. Luke records a miraculous escape for Peter, then Peter appears to a group of people praying at Mark’s mother’s house. He told them to “tell these things to James and the brothers,” then he left and went somewhere else.
Peter did not shrink back. Neither did the other disciples. They boldly preached the word of God, because Jesus told them that they would be his witnesses. This is an amazing example of the boldness that we need to have today. The Gospel will go on, but we need to be willing to step up and share it.
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash