What caused the church to grow so rapidly that, by 110 A.D. Pliny the Younger was writing a letter to Emperor Trajan about his concern for the “problem” of Christians? By then, most of the pagan temples had been deserted. This was in spite of strong Roman policies that were designed to squelch the spread of Christianity. It really confused Pliny, and he was requesting help from the emperor himself.
Business marketers, believe it or not, use biblical concepts to rapidly grow an sustain businesses. Think, for a moment, what it is that draws you to a particular brand or store. There is one theme that marketers begin with–commonality. A good business will find something that customers will share commonality with, something that fulfills a need or brings a sense of satisfaction. In Acts, Luke said that the believers had everything in common (Acts 4:32). Finding common ground is unifying. It’s what draws us to other people and can be a great source of finding hope.
It wasn’t commonality by itself that caused the church to grow. Of course, everything Christians did was rooted in the cross of Jesus. They proclaimed Christ, fed the poor, took care of orphans and widows, and freed the oppressed. This was their common ground in Christ. Luke said, “Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common” (Acts 4:32 ESV). The word for common actually means defiled. In other words, everything to them was stripped of its spiritual value and material possessions were just that–they were meaningless material possessions. Therefore, they could freely share them with others because there was no attachment to things.
Pagan people were drawn to Christ because Christians knew what they stood for. They had zero attachment to physical things and, in fact, shared their money with others to help them out. Christians spent their time preaching Christ, calling people to repentance, and offering hope to people who were desperate. They did it with kindness and humility, emptying themselves of pride. They pointed people to the cross of Jesus. This was attractive to some unbelievers, and through the Holy Spirit the church began to see a major increase.
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Lent began with Ash Wednesday last week. Lent is a forty day period where Christians around the world “fast” from things that they typically enjoy. It is a reminder of the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness when the devil tempted him. There are many fascinating things about the wilderness story. First, the fact that the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil may seem perplexing at first glance.
Jesus was left alone with the devil for forty days, minus friends and food. Twice Matthew says that the devil “took” him–once to the pinnacle of the temple and once to a very high mountain. It’s noteworthy that this word in the original language means to take with aggression. It doesn’t necessarily mean by coercion, but it definitely means with aggression. It’s an important choice of words for Matthew. The devil takes. It’s what he does. He’s aggressive. It’s who he is.
At the end of the forty days, Matthew said Jesus was hungry (Matthew 4:2). Then an amazing thing happened: “Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him” (Matthew 4:11 ESV). The fact that the Savior needed angels to minister to him shows how exhausting it is when the devil has his way with people. Jesus needed revival at the end of forty days. He was exhausted and had just overcome temptation by the devil. God sent his angels to minister to Jesus, and this is important for us who feel weak and tired. It’s okay to cry out in desperation to God when we’re weary.
Just as importantly, we see this pattern laid out in Matthew’s account: the Spirit leads, while the devil takes, and the angels minister. These distinctions are not accidental. Matthew is very careful in how he tells this story. If Christ needed revival, perhaps it’s quite alright if we do too!
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God is a God of revival. Joseph’s brothers hated him. They let jealousy take root and became very corrupt-to the point of throwing him in a well, selling him into slavery, and telling their father Jacob that Joseph was killed by a wild animal. This lie was perpetuated for decades.
Meanwhile, Joseph rose to power in Egypt. He was made second in command to the Pharaoh himself. Joseph interpreted a dream where there would be 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine. During the 7 years, storehouses were build and grain was piled up throughout Egypt. When the famine was at its worst, Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt to buy food for their starving family. They didn’t know that the man they were speaking to was Joseph. Later Joseph revealed himself to them and they all wept bitterly.
Joseph forgave his brothers and they brought Jacob and all his siblings into Egypt to live. When Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers feared that Joseph would retaliate and kill them. So they lied one more time to say that Jacob left this command: “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you (Genesis 50:17 ESV). Joseph’s response reflects his integrity: “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones” (Genesis 50:19-21).
Joseph spoke kindly to them. This story is powerful on so many levels. Joseph’s brothers repented. They not only begged for forgiveness, but they laid themselves down at Joseph’s feet and said, “Behold, we are your servants” (Genesis 50:18). God redeems horrific patterns of deception and sin when there is repentance. The story of Joseph is our story. Even when we sin, God is working His purpose. When we repent, revival can take place. Joseph’s family became well established in Egypt. They were fruitful and multiplied. Through God’s mercy they were spared.
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The name Jacob means “follow” and is also the root word for “heel.” Jacob was a heel grabber in the Genesis account. Even from birth, he grabbed his twin brother Esau’s heel. Later on, Jacob tricked his brother into selling his birthright. When their father Isaac was dying, Jacob tricked his father into blessing him instead of Esau. Jacob rightfully earned his name of follower. Jacob also over took his father-in-law, who deceived Jacob, by taking off with all of his kids, his wives, and scores of flocks.
When he fled, Jacob found out that Esau wanted to meet him. Esau sent 400 men to meet Jacob, and Jacob was terrified. He began splitting his family up in case there was an attack so that at least some would be spared. At one point Jacob was alone. It was then that a man began to wrestle with him throughout the night. Jacob was holding his own then the man dislocated Jacob’s hip.
When morning came, they were still wrestling and the man asked Jacob to let him go. Jacob answered, “I will not let you go unless you bless me” (Genesis 32:26 ESV). Then the man asked what Jacob’s name is. “Follower.” Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be follower (Jacob) but Israel, for you have striven with God and with man, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). Israel means “he strives with God.” To strive means to go to great efforts to achieve something. It was at this point Jacob realized he was wrestling with God himself.
God allowed Jacob to overtake him in that fight. From the time Jacob was born, he was determined to receive blessings. Throughout his life he would deceive, labor, even beg in order to receive a blessing. It’s fitting that God changed his name to Israel. When Esau met Jacob, he blessed him. He was not coming to kill him; he was coming to bless him! This story is clear evidence that God is a God of revival!
God is a God of revival. He takes the broken and renews and restores it. We often don’t think about the struggles and sacrifices Abraham faced throughout his life, but he endured a lot to become the father of the Israelites. He left his homeland and wandered for many years. He entered Egypt because of a severe famine. He and Lot parted ways. He witnessed the annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah. And he impregnated Hagar at the urging of his wife Sarah.
Finally Abraham and Sarah had a son of their own, born in their very old age. He was, by all measures, a miracle child–a gift from God. They named him Isaac, which means laughter. God promised Abraham that through Isaac a blessed nation would rise. Then the unthinkable happened. God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son. Was this a mistake? Was God just messing with Abraham? It’s tough to imagine what was going through Abraham’s mind.
When Abram and Isaac reached the spot, Isaac asked where the lamb was for the burn offering. Abraham responded, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Genesis 22:8 ESV). Abraham trusted God because he had a lifetime of reasons to trust. Abraham didn’t know what God would do, but he knew God would do it.
In the end, God spared Isaac and provided a ram for the sacrifice, because God is a God of revival.
God is a God of revival. When the world became so corrupt that the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, He sent a great flood. The flood was catastrophic, wiping out both mankind and all the animals. Death and destruction were the result of an incredible amount of wickedness. The world-wide corruption “grieved him to his heart” (Genesis 6:6 ESV).
It’s difficult to fathom what it would have been like to witness the destruction of the entire world. To be the sole survivors would have come with a lot of trauma. There is a phenomenon known as survivor’s guilt, where lone survivors feel guilty for having been spared when everyone else died. We can’t say for certainty that this is what happened, but the Bible tells us that Noah got extremely intoxicated after the ark landed on dry ground.
Though God wiped out mankind, he also established a covenant with Noah. God said, “Everything that is on the earth shall die. But I will establish my covenant with you, and you shall come into the ark, you , your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you” (Genesis 6:17-18). While this story is incredibly tragic, God established revival once again. He brought life and joy by means of promise. Noah was told to be fruitful and multiply. His family lived a long and prosperous life. Revival happened quickly after the destruction.
Our theme this year is Revival. The very core of the gospel is revival. Jesus came to save that which is lost. The central theme of the gospel is repentance–literally turning around. Jesus reached into the lives of people whose worlds had crumbled around them. He healed the sick. He fed the hungry. He freed the oppressed. He cared for the orphan and the widow.
When John the Baptist began preaching, he immediately called for repentance. He called out to the crowd, “You brood of vipers!” John told them to bear fruits in keeping with repentance and said that the axe was already laid to the root of the trees, meaning the people who produced bad fruit would be cut off from salvation.
Luke’s account takes a turn from the other accounts. There is an interruption and the crowds ask, “What shall we do?” (Luke 3:10 ESV). Jesus’ response in in step with Isaiah 61, which is what Jesus quoted when he stood up and said, “Today these scriptures are fulfilled in your presence.” John answers, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise” (Luke 3:11). The tax collectors who came to be baptized asked the same question. John answered, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do” (vs. 13). Then the soldiers asked the same question. John answered, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (vs. 14).
Revival is rooted in repentance. God commands us to produce fruits that care for others. We need to treat people righteously, with fairness and by meeting their needs. Revival builds up that which has been broken or torn down. John’s message began quite the buzz. People were wondering if John was the Christ. When we bless people, God blesses.
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