Well, it’s been a few weeks ago that we started a little series on how to recognize a real church, a true church. In all honesty, there are a lot of places that call themselves churches that really don’t deserve the name. There is a long list of locations called churches where, I guess you could say, the tares assemble, not the wheat. Maybe there are a few of weak wheat stalks mingled in, but it’s essentially a meeting together of the tares. Some of them are fairly successful and the successful assembly of the tares will eagerly market their skill in tare development. It can be very seductive to those who are motivated to see the church grow. And if you want to build one of those assemblies of tares, and see it develop, you could be a successful tare pastor by imbibing all of the strategies of the tare development folks.
However, if on the other hand you want to lead the true church of Jesus Christ, then the strategies are very, very different, very different. You will remember when we started this little series that we began in Matthew chapter 16 and verse 18 where Jesus said, “I will build My church,” “I will build My church,” and we talked about many of the features of Christ and His church, something of the headship of Christ, and something of the nature of the church.
But the question that I want to address tonight is how does Christ build His church? By what means does Christ build His church? Now we know that God has determined to use human means to accomplish His ends. He pours the preaching of the gospel through humans, we are given the responsibility to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, and He makes us the living illustrations of the power of the gospel. And by letting our light so shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven, so we not only are responsible to communicate the message, but to be living illustrations of its power to transform. God does all of His missions in this world through human means. Yes, we are served by divine power and aided in invisible ways by the angels who were sent as ministering spirits, but God has determined that He will do His kingdom work through human means.
And so the question is, By what means does God employ people to build His church? And I will honestly confess that I have never met a faithful, diligent, passionate pastor or church leader who didn’t want to see the church grow. Obviously we want that. We want the church to grow. We want people to be converted. We want saints to be built up and made strong. We desire that. That’s a very normal desire.
In fact, that kind of desire can drive people into the wrong categories. It can drive people to buy into some of the tare development strategies and abandon the things that they ought to be doing, to see the church grow legitimately. I just remind you of the words of Jesus, “I will build My church.” That’s not in doubt. His church has already been identified in eternity past. Their names have all been written down in the Lamb’s Book of Life. They are all identified, and in John 6 it tells us that the Father will give those to the Son, the Son will receive them, keep them and raise them in the end. He will build His church. No one will fall through the cracks; no one will be left out.
We also talked in our opening message about the fact that there are people who say the church has failed. Well, what do you mean by the fact that the church has failed? You mean that God has failed to redeem His elect? Or do you mean that God has failed to provide a redemption that’s adequate for His elect? Or do you mean somehow those whom God chose and named and for whom Christ died have not been able to be gathered in because of some human failure? I really don’t think you mean any of that if you say the church has failed, because there’s only one way the church could fail and that would be to fail to be obedient to the pattern that God has established. And if that’s the case at a given church, well, God will find some others to do His work to gather in His people.
Another way to look at it—that the end has already been determined. Those who would be saved were known to God before anyone ever existed. And their names were written down. They’re the elect. What God purposed to do, He will do. So He will build His church. He will gather in His people. And again, that begs the question, How does He do it and by what means does He do it so that we can be used by Him in the doing of it? And if He does have a means by which He does it, has He revealed it to us?
Well, the good news is He does have means by which He builds His church and He has revealed them to us; and the answer to those questions is, They’re not vague. It’s not an obscure answer. It’s not debatable. It’s not complicated. It’s not even difficult. With all of the conferences and conclaves and strategies and books and seminars on quote/unquote church growth, you would assume that somehow this is a mystery that was left out of Scripture and we don’t have enough information and so all kinds of things have to be developed from a human perspective to build the church. Nothing could be further from the truth, and yet there are pastors and church leaders and groups of people all over the place who chase every church- growth strategy, every church-growth fad offered by every clever entrepreneur and marketer, reading every imaginable survey, every analysis of cultural perceptions, trying to do everything they can by every device to increase the number of people in their building. So it really is time to make a choice. You can try the world’s strategies and collect tares, or you can follow the divine means revealed in Scripture and gather wheat according to God’s plan.
Now I guess the truth about what I’m going to tell you is this is nothing new, this is basic. And it’s pretty much a pattern found in one important book in the New Testament, that’s the book of Acts. So turn to the book of Acts. This is very, very obvious, and yet it can be so easily overlooked. The book of Acts is given to us by the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who gives life, who regenerates, who gives life to the church. And the Holy Spirit has given us the book of Acts, not just as history for the sake of history, but history for the sake of instruction; history to establish a pattern, an example, a practical reality. This is not theory. This is neither just history nor is it some kind of theory, this is a practical illustration of how the Lord builds His church and nothing has changed.
We can really pick up the story in the first couple of chapters. It doesn’t take long before everything becomes clear. But the church begins to be built, and that is defined in chapter 2, verse 39 as the Lord begins to gather His children, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself. Now remember, the process of building a church is the Lord calling the elect to Himself. So the church grows as the Lord gathers His children—first among the Jews referred to in verse 39 as “you and your children,” and then the Gentiles, “all who are far off as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” That’s how the Lord builds the church. He gathers His own elect. That’s redemptive history.
Now the book of Acts shows how this begins in the case of the church. In chapter 1, verse 12, the followers of Jesus return to Jerusalem on the mount called Olivet, near Jerusalem, the Sabbath day is a journey away. They entered into the city, went to the upper room where they were staying, that is Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon the zealot, and Judas, not Iscariot, but Judas the son of James. And they are all there with one mind continually devoting themselves to prayer along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and with His brothers. At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren, the gathering of about 120 persons was there together. So as the book of Acts begins in Jerusalem, they’re about 120 followers. We know there are another 500 who saw the resurrected Christ in Galilee, but here in Jerusalem, the church is launched. And this would be the first church, the Jerusalem church of 120 people.
You come to chapter 2 and verse 41 and you begin to see the explosive growth of the church. On the Day of Pentecost there were added about three thousand souls. Oh in one chapter the church has gone from 120 to three thousand. You come down to verse 47 of chapter 2 and God is adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. So three thousand on one day, the day of Pentecost under the great preaching of Peter, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and then day by day, by day, by day; it’s an imperfect tense meaning just that, “day by day, by day, by day.” And then you come to chapter 4 and you read in verse 4, “Many of those who had heard the message”...This would be Peter’s second sermon; there is an amazing response...“they believed and the number of men came to be about five thousand.” They start out with a hundred and twenty, then you have three thousand, then people being added day by day by day by day, and being saved. And then again, there are five thousand men plus women. What is the number? Is it twenty thousand in a matter of days, a few weeks? And by the way, the statement regarding five thousand in chapter 4 and verse 4 is the last, next to the last, I should say, identification of people in numbers. It is the last indication of numbers. And the reason I hedge a little bit, if you look at chapter 5, verse 14, all the more believers in the Lord—multitudes of men and women were constantly added to their number. So, technically speaking, 4:4 is the last time a specific number is mentioned. And yet there are more numbers being added, they’re coming too fast to count. So the last official number is 4:4, and then it’s just a matter of more and more without numbers. You come into chapter 6 and verse 7, “The Word of God kept on spreading, the number”—again they use the word “number” without a number—“and the number continues to increase greatly in Jerusalem and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith.” This is a fast, explosive growth in days and weeks.
You come in to chapter 9, just for some further illustrations, in verse 31, the church now grows throughout not only Jerusalem, but starts to spread into Judea and now it grows into Galilee where it started with five hundred who were gathered there. And then it goes into Samaria, and they’re enjoying peace, “being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase”—again growing fast and furious. Chapter 12, verse 24, “The Word of the Lord continued to grow and to be multiplied.” Chapter 16, verse 5, “So the churches were being strengthened in the faith and were increasing in number daily.” And now we’ve jumped outside of Israel, we’ve left Jerusalem, we’ve gone into Galilee and Samaria and now we’re in to the Gentile world, we jump into the Gentile world with the end of the ministry of Peter, and the beginning of the ministry of Paul in chapter 13, so in 16 the church has gone into the Gentile world and it continues to grow. In chapter 17 and verse 12, the church is continuing to grow; many of them believe in Berea, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men. Chapter 19 and verse 20, we read again the same kind of pattern, “The Word of the Lord was growing mightily and prevailing.”
And if you want just to jump to the end of the book of Acts, the final verse: chapter 28, verse 31, the apostle Paul has been preaching the kingdom of God and teaching concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all openness unhindered—that’s how the book of Acts ends. The church is just exploding in the world. Now that’s the story of the book of Acts. It’s the story of the growth of the church. It starts with 120 and it reaches incalculable numbers very soon and all they can say is more and more and more and more and more increase. That’s the story.
Now let’s go back and see what were the marks of that growth. What were the elements or the features? Why was it that the church grew so rapidly? Let me give you point number one, a very important point. The church proclaimed a transcendent message, the church proclaimed a transcendent message. Now remember this, the church starts in the heart of Judaism in the city of Jerusalem, a very confined, defined religious environment. It spreads outside of Jerusalem where everything was most intensely connected to Jewish religion into Judea where maybe things were a little more lightly held. And then in to Galilee, and then it jumps into the Gentile world and everywhere the gospel goes, it meets a new culture. And as soon as it gets out of Israel, it starts meeting new history, new tradition, new religion. There’s religion everywhere. In fact, it’s not the kind of religion that we know in the world today where one religion dominates the world, or one or two dominate the world—Christianity or Islam or Hinduism. It’s not that kind of world. It’s not a world with a few religions. It’s a world where there are multiplicity of gods, multiplicity of forms of worship—tribal stories, histories, cultures are defined by families and tribes and towns and cities and countries that are very, very different. It’s not a global village. It’s not a world that has been sort of commonly normalized by media. There is no media. People live in their own little worlds with their own families, their own small tribes and people groups, and have all their own convictions and all their own beliefs.
And yet, here goes this message, the preaching of the cross, and it transcends all these cultures. There’s so much talk today in the realm of church growth about contextualization that you’ve got to figure out everything that is inimitable to a given group of people, not only their religious background, not only their sort of cultural acuity, not only their sensibilities in life, but all the nuances of their style and their wardrobe and their pop music and their cultural adaptations. And once you’ve sort of analyzed all of that and figured all of that out, then you can kind of find a pathway in, but short of that you’ve got no hope. Now that would be...that would be sort of the first talk that you would hear at a contextualization conference. There’s no sense in going into the world with the simple biblical gospel. You’ve got to find the points of connection or you can’t plug into the socket and start the power flowing. Nothing could be more alien to the truth about what happened in the book of Acts.
Gospel is gospel; the story is the same and it’s a hard sell. You’ve got this: a man who was a Jew, by the name of Jesus, was God in human flesh and the only Savior. And oh, by the way, the Jews rejected Him, had the Romans execute Him, so His own people didn’t receive Him. But by the way, this Jew rejected by His own people who claimed to be God, crucified by the Romans, is God, is the only Savior, and you have to repent of your sins and believe in Him or you’re going to hell forever, no matter what else you believe. That was the sell that the early evangelists had to make. And for the Jews, that whole idea was offensive; it was a stumbling block, and to the Gentiles it was...What?...foolishness (1 Corinthians 1 and 2).
And yet, they’re saddled with the responsibility to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature, that’s a great commission in Matthew, or if you want, the great commission in Acts 1:8—you’ll receive power from the Holy Spirit and you’ll be witnesses of Me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost part of the world, and this is the message. You’re going to go and you’re going to preach Christ. And that’s what Peter did in Israel, and that’s what Paul did everywhere he went on his missionary journeys. There was one message, one simple gospel message. It all started in Acts 2:41. Peter preached the gospel, which was offensive to the Jews, but they received the Word that day and were baptized and numbered three thousand souls. And then they were baptized. And the message never changes in the book of Acts. Everywhere the preachers go they preach Christ crucified, buried and risen from the dead. Oh, by the way, that crucified Jew rejected by His people is a lie. He came out of the grave and He is the only hope, He is the only Savior. Was the message received? I just gave you the history.
Starting in chapter 2, on Pentecost, to the end, chapter 28, verse 31, you heard me say that the Word was preached and the church was growing and they ran out of usable numbers—explosive growth for a message that is unacceptable to the Jews, detestable to the Gentiles. Paul says it’s a stumbling block, it’s foolishness, he says, “And still I came and preached Christ and Him crucified.” “I didn’t come in human wisdom,” that is such an important portion of Scripture, 1 Corinthians chapter 2, where Paul makes that confession: “I was determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness, fear, much trembling. My message, my peaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power. Your faith needed to rest not in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God. God knows who He will save. God will call whom He will through the preaching of the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit—that’s all they need to know.
The modern cry today for this contextualization really is a curse. The apostles and the prophets, the early preachers of the early church, took their transcendent message from Jerusalem to Rome, from the biblically literate, to the biblically illiterate, from slaves to slave owners. From people who couldn’t read and write to people who wrote books and gave lectures. From the bond to the free, from the male to the female, the Jew to the Greek. They crossed hard national, social, cultural lines and the message never changed, never changed. It was always the same message, the Word of the Lord concerning Christ, the gospel. And by the way, once the gospel was preached and then letters were sent to the churches that were established in the Gentile world, as well as in the Jewish world, the letters written adapted not at all to cultural expectations. In fact, the letters of the apostle Paul to the churches of the New Testament, the letters of Peter, the letters of John, James and Jude, are as relevant to you today two thousand years later in America as they were to the people who read them when they were first written. That’s the transcendent nature of the message.
This idea that you have to somehow contextualize the gospel for every zip code is shameful. The message of Christ’s church is transcendent. The letters that Paul wrote were sent to baby Christians. You say Romans is hard for you and you’ve been a Christian a long time? How about if you were a Gentile with no knowledge at all of the Old Testament? None. And yet the assumption was that these baby Christians were getting something they could understand and apply. The message of Christ’s church is a transcendent message. Today it goes to the ends of the earth. I never cease to be amazed about that. From time to time I tell you that. This pulpit at Grace Community Church right now, even as I speak, is being heard across this planet. We don’t do anything to change our style. The message is the same.
I ask these preachers all the time when I speak to them, “Can your message go to any person? Can it go to every person? Can it go outside your zip code, outside your town, outside your state, outside your country? Can your message go anywhere in the world? If it can’t, then you need to take something out of it and put something in to make sure that it can. Does your message ignore all that is trendy, all that is faddish, all that is pop culture? Does your message just bring heaven down in its full beauty and truth? Can you take your sermons anywhere in the world and preach them? Or should there be a warning label on your CDs, ‘This message self-destructs five miles from where it was given? Or within three months after it was given?’”
That’s so basic. You know, that’s one of the things that has defined the ministry of this church. We understand the transcendent power of the message of the gospel to cross the world. That’s why our congregation looks the way it does. The world is here on Sunday morning, the world is here. The only context you need is a biblical context.
Now there’s a second element in the growth of the early church. The first was a transcendent message. The second is a regenerate congregation, a regenerate congregation. Is it too obvious to say that the church is an assembly of wheat, not tares? I say that and you say, “Well of course.” But you don’t understand. There is a lot of...a lot of tare collecting going on.
What do I mean by that? I mean people who purposely are trying to gather non-believers together by giving them something that they want and then calling it a church. That’s not a church. It’s an assembly of non-believers being given what non-believers want. That’s not a church.
To call an assembly of non-believers a church is preposterous because the church is made up of believers. “I will build My church....The Lord adds to the church daily those who are being saved.” If you’re not saved, you’re not part of the church.
I was reading this week about one of these contemporary contextualized churches that is designed to make unbelievers happy. And they were talking about how comfortable homosexuals feel in that environment. I don’t think homosexuals would feel comfortable in the true church, in the assembly of the redeemed, until they came to Christ—then they’d be fully embraced and loved.
There’s a serious defect in a so-called ministry content to be proud of its ability to make unbelievers feel comfortable. An unbeliever should feel alien, outside looking in and I hope attracted to the beauty of the transformation that that unbeliever sees in the lives of the people who make up the true church. I’m grateful when unbelievers come because I want them to hear the truth and I want them to see the church, but they’re not the church. Modern evangelicalism seems to exhaust itself, to wear itself out with every imaginable and unimaginable means to attract and to collect non-Christians into a building and then call it a church.
Go back to Acts 2 for a moment, and let’s see how this unfolds in the book of Acts. Let’s...let’s meet the church. Three thousand saved in verse 41, and then in verse 42 they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ doctrine, the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship, the breaking of bread, that’s the Lord’s table, and prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe. Many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. All those who had believed were together, had all things in common. In other words, they held lightly to their possessions and their money, and they gave it away to somebody who needed it. They began even selling their property and possessions and sharing with all as anyone might have need. And day by day with one mind in the Temple, breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness, sincerity of heart, praising God, having favor with all the people, and the Lord is adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. That’s a church. It’s a group of people who come together for the purpose of hearing biblical truth, the apostles’ doctrine, fellowshiping, sharing common life, coming to the Lord’s Table, celebrating the cross, praying, worshiping, sacrificing for one another, praising God. That’s a church. One mind, one heart, one soul.
We see the same kind of thing in chapter 4 and verse 31, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. They began to speak the Word of God with boldness and a congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul, not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them.
In other words, it isn’t that they did a communist thing where they threw everything in a pot and divided it up equally, that would be communism, socialism, or Marxism. But what they simply said was that when they had something and knew somebody had a need, they sold it and took the money and gave to meet the need. Generosity—this is a church. Church is an assembly of regenerate believers. And you can see the manifestation of their regeneration in this: they love the Bible, they love sound doctrine, they love fellowship, they love to celebrate the cross around the Lord’s Table. They love prayer. They love communion of the saints—the one heart, one soul, one mind, holding one...everything in one common hand, as it were; and the Lord is adding to the church daily those that are being saved. That’s a church. It’s an assembly of regenerate believers, totally devoted to Christ, joyfully, sacrificially true worshipers gathered for spiritual purposes and the Lord adds daily those He is saving. That’s a church.
I’m glad when a non-believer comes and sees that, and I hope he has the experience of 1 Corinthians 14, falls on his face and says, “God is in this place.” I’ve told you before that the church is really the earthly expression of the disciples’ prayer, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Where’s that going to happen? Where’s heaven going to come down? Where’s the kingdom coming to earth? Where’s God’s will on earth being done as it is in heaven? In the church. This is a taste of heaven. The idea is not to make the church as much like the world as you can, but to make it as much like heaven as you can, and heaven is where God is honored, Christ is exalted, and people are there who love Him and worship Him. That’s a church.
It’s really a spiritual crime to invent some kind of thing that makes non-believers feel comfortable and call it a church. We have to give an account to God who have been called to shepherd the church. You say, “Well, what about evangelism? The church gathers to worship and be the church, the church scatters to evangelize.
There’s a third element that we see in the growing church in the book of Acts, and I guess you could say a transcendent message, a regenerate congregation, and a valiant perseverance, a valiant perseverance. The church while wanting to reach the world doesn’t seek to be popular with the world. There’s always this tension in a true church.
Go back to chapter 2 again, and verse 46. They were day-to-day continuing with one mind in the Temple, breaking bread, taking their meals, gladness, sincerity of heart, praising God, and then this in verse 47, “Having favor with all the people.” People were seeing their transformed lives. They’ve never seen anything like this. Such love, such joy, such peace, such fellowship, such generosity, such kindness that they were in awe. In chapter 3 we see something of the same thing. You remember Peter heals the lame man and the lame man with a leap, verse 8, stood upright and began to walk and entered the Temple with them, with Peter and other believers, walking and leaping and praising God. That must have been interesting. And all the people saw him walking and praising God and they were all taking note of him as being the one who used to sit at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple to beg alms, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. That’s the right thing. The world should look at us and the world should be stunned with the integrity of our lives, with the manifest love and joy and praise. There should be a wonder and an amazement at the life of the church, at the character of the church, the transformation of the people who make up the church.
We see it again in chapter 5 and verse 13, the apostles did many signs and wonders, and all the church was gathered in Solomon’s portico, which is in the Temple area. And verse 13, “None of the rest dared to associate with them; however, the people held them in high esteem.” They were alien but the people had this high regard for them.
You know, 1 Timothy 3:7 says, “If you’re going to be a leader in the church, you have to have a good reputation with those who are outside.” Well what does this mean? That they see the evidence of the gospel having transformed our lives. Where’s all this joy, peace, love, generosity, sacrifice, contentment? Where’s this coming from?
So that on the one hand; but there’s also going to be a necessity for a valiant perseverance on the part of the church, because while they are stunned by our transformed lives, they reject our doctrine, they reject our message. That we find all the way through the book of Acts. And I don’t need to take you through the whole account, but you know it doesn’t take long until Peter is arrested; it doesn’t take long until James is executed. It doesn’t take long until persecution breaks out led by a man named Saul, who’s breathing out threatening and slaughter against the church, who gets papers and starts chasing Christians to capture, imprison, and execute them. And as Paul then is converted on the Damascus Road and then begins his missionary journeys; everywhere he goes he runs into plots by the Jews and the Gentiles to kill him. So this is how the world views us. On the one hand, they should be in awe of the integrity of our lives. They should be in awe of the joy and peace and comfort and hope and love that marks us. It is that love above all, isn’t it, because that’s how men know that we belong to Christ (John 13:35). The world is impressed by the integrity and the character of the individual believer and the believers collectively. But on the other hand, hates the narrow, condemning message of the gospel. Sinners hate to be called sinners. Sinners hate to be threatened with eternal punishment. Sinners hate to be told that their works are useless, that the only way of salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ.
So the church has to understand that, and that’s what feeds this valiant perseverance. As soon as the church becomes worried about the way the world looks at our theology, it changes the theology. And I’m telling you, that is the history of the church. I will just tell you from the academic standpoint, all the Ivy League schools in America were founded to train preachers and they were founded on the truth of the Word of God. And it didn’t take very long before all of them abandoned that and became very early in American history bastions of anti-biblical ideas. Why? Because they caved in to the expectations of the world of academia. As soon as the church decides that it can’t offend the world with its theology, then it compromises. We have to live in that valiant perseverance of a tension between them, remarkably impressed by the character of our lives and deeply resenting what we preach and what we teach. In a measure, they may be impressed by us, but they may throw us in jail for our message.
I think this is coming in our own country. I was telling the students at the Master’s College that the process is pretty simple. First you have a government, a nation, a society, a culture that rejects the Bible. The next step is if you reject the Bible, you have no foundation for morality so you come up with a new morality which is to turn the old morality on its head. So you reverse everything. That’s the second step. Evil is good and good is evil. Fornication, adultery, homosexuality, homosexual marriage, abortion, whatever it is, that’s acceptable in the new morality. Once you’ve rejected the Bible, you turn morality upside down.
The third step is you cry for tolerance—tolerance, tolerance, tolerance. The next step is, the people who won’t give tolerance are not tolerated, so it turns to intolerance. And the fifth step is persecution. That’s where it’s going and it’s going pretty fast. I think we’ve worked through the rejection of the Bible; we’ve worked through the reversal of morality. We’re working past tolerance toward intolerance. And following the intolerance, for those of us who will not cave into this, is going to come the persecution. That’s going to put the pressure on the church and the true church will be faithful to its message no matter the price. And that’s what we see in the book of Acts.
Does that empty the church? No, it doesn’t empty the church. It builds the church. Pick it up in chapter 4, “As they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to them being greatly disturbed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead, and they laid hands on them and put them in jail until the next day for it was already evening,” verse 4, “but many of those who heard the message, believed and the number of men came to be about five thousand.” Persecution doesn’t stop the church. It doesn’t stop the church. Herod’s persecution or the persecution of the Jewish leaders can’t stop the church, nothing can stop the church because Christ said, “I will build My church.”
Go to chapter 12. Herod, of course, launched persecution in chapter 12, verse 1; laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. He had James, the brother of John, put to death with a sword. Murders James. Puts Peter in prison, that’s in the next section of the chapter. Down in verse 20 he’s very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon. Verse 21, he decides to elevate himself on an appointed day, “Herod put on his royal apparel, took his seat on the rostrum, began delivering an address to them. People kept crying out, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man.’” That’s what he wanted, it was Herod Day and he was going to make the most of it. “And immediately an angel of the Lord struck him because he didn’t give the God the glory; he was eaten by worms and died. Kind of a tough ending to his big day.
What’s going on in chapter 12? Christians are being imprisoned. James, brother of John, executed with a sword. Peter thrown in prison. Verse 24, what does it say? “But the word of the Lord”...What?...“continued to grow and to be multiplied.” The gates of hell cannot prevail against it. The power of God demonstrated in that early church is in the face of persecution and execution, persecution and execution. So here we are, living in this tension as believers in the world, respected as individuals, respected personally and yet our message is resented. Our message is hated by the world, and while they may respect us, they will persecute us because they hate our message more than they respect our person.
So what marks a growing church is a valiant perseverance. I think we’ve lived that out here at our own church. We’ve...we’ve put our lives by the transforming power of the grace of God on display for the world to see and they’ve seen it. And I think they see the remarkable work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of true believers in our church through the years. But at the same time, there is a resistance and an animosity toward the message. That’s how it has to be. But you can’t compromise the message to put an end to the animosity of it. That’s to abandon your calling. And if you lose the message, then you’re not useful to the Lord at all in building His church.
Let me give you one more. I could go on and on and on. That’s what preachers always say when they’ve just run out of material. But I actually could. There’s another element. Let’s just say a transcendent message, a regenerate congregation, a valiant perseverance, and let’s talk about an evident purity, an evident purity. Chapter 5, you know the story of chapter 5, don’t you? Ananias and Sapphira—two professing Christians but phony. Sold a piece of property, made a promise they were going to give it all to the Lord, made that public, told everybody, lied. Kept back some of the price with his wife’s full knowledge; they were complicit in it. Brought a portion of it, laid it at the apostle’s feet, went up front in a big demonstration—“We’re giving everything from the sale.” Remember earlier we read that people had property; they were selling it so they could meet the needs. Remember now, the Jerusalem church is made up of people who lived in Jerusalem and other people who just came for the Passover and were converted. Why would they go home? There’s no church. There’s only one church in the world. So they stayed in Jerusalem and they lived with people. And they made the best of life as strangers in Jerusalem. They had to be cared for. Their needs had to be met. That’s why people were selling things, to meet their needs.
So these two want to get on the bandwagon and they come up and they lay this supposed full price at the apostle’s feet and Peter says, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit, keep back some of the price of the land?” While it remained unsold, didn’t it remain on your own? You didn’t have to sell it. After it was sold, wasn’t it under your control? You didn’t even have to say you were going to give it all. Why did you conceive this deed in your heart? Why did you lie? You haven’t lied to men but to God.
And as he heard these words, Ananias fell down and breathed his last and great fear came over all who heard of it. “Did you hear what happened at the church the other day? This guy dropped dead at the offering.” What?! Yes, and that’s not the rest; the rest of the story is even worse.
There elapsed an interval of three hours, which gives you an idea of how long their services were. And his wife came in, that’s how it should be, not knowing what had happened, and Peter responded to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for such-and-such a price?” “Oh, yeah, that was the price.” And now she lied.
Peter said to her, “Why is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Behold the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door.” They literally took the guy out three hours earlier, buried him and were coming back when his wife showed up. Immediately she fell at his feet and breathed her last. And the young man came in and found her dead and probably said, “Oh no, not again,” and carried her out and dug another hole and buried her beside her husband. Great fear came over the whole church.
Fear of what? What were they afraid of? God’s holiness, right? God’s discipline. God’s hatred of sin. They say that will scare people away from the church; people die there. People die in that church, you don’t want to go there. And that’s verse 13. “None of the rest dared to associate with them.” That was the end of the strategy to bring in the neighbors. However, the people held them in high esteem. That’s what I told you, right? They respected their character, didn’t want to go anywhere near that place. However, how wonderful, verse 14, “And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women were constantly added to their number.” What? The church grows when the church is pure. The church grows when the church is pure. That’s why Matthew 18 tells us to go to one who sins and confront and go back with two or three witnesses and tell the church and follow up. The Lord desires the holiness of His church.
You’d think that this is the plan to stop church growth, kill people in the service. And then scare the town. Just the opposite. Godliness is the church growing, flourishing—the transcendent message, regenerate congregation, valiant perseverance, and a very evident purity. You know, I’ve known these things for a long, long, long, long time. I have not tried to serve as a pastor here through these years on my own or trying to figure out strategies. I’ve simply tried to follow the pattern of the book of Acts and to recognize these very simple realities, simple only in the sense that they’re simple to articulate, simple to express. But they are the profound means that God uses to grow a church, and He has done it, He has done it.
And in reality, you know, there is the church that is...well, there’s Grace Church on Sunday night, the super-elect. There’s Grace Church on Sunday morning. There’s Grace Church on live stream, online. There’s Grace Church by CDs, by downloads. There’s Grace Church influence going through our missionaries and all the men that come out of the Master’s Seminary and college and serve the Lord all over the world. And, you know, I think in many ways the Lord has blessed us so profoundly to be useful as He builds His church. And it’s not because we have some strategy. When four thousand pastors come here to Shepherds’ Conference, I know there are some of them every time who are looking for some trick. How do you get this many people to come, say on a Sunday morning? How did you pull this off? And they’re poking around trying to find the magic, and there isn’t any. The Lord builds His church by His means. And we’ve tried to be faithful to those means so that He will let us participate for His glory and our own joy.
Our Father, we come to You again at the end of this day with grateful hearts for all that You have done through the years here at this church since its beginning. So remarkable that You brought it into existence, and You have kept Your hand on it for over half a century. And You have found this beloved, blessed congregation of people useful to You because they’ve been faithful to the means by which You build Your church. We feel in a very real sense like we’re sort of reliving the book of Acts. And that’s how it should be and that’s how it is for many other faithful churches around the world and has been so through the centuries since the church was established on that Pentecost.
Thank You, Lord, for using us. You didn’t have to. Thank You for doing that. And then promising that You will give us the joy of rewarding us forever in Your presence—we are grateful. We want to be a true church. We want to be part of the church that You build, all for Your honor and Your glory. Thank You for that privilege and that blessing. Amen.