Recently I combed carefully through the Book of Acts again, looking for what the Holy Spirit might have for me there. My special interest was in ecclesiology, but what really motivated me was to discover what made the early church so different from us today.
Just twenty years or so after the Ascension of Jesus, the church, by the testimony of a credible neutral, if not hostile, witness, had “turned the world upside down”. Now, if that describes your ecclesial experience, then a) I’m happy for you, and b) please contact me with information about how I can join your movement. Because, as for me, I see the church as compromised, disjointed and struggling. All that is ok, provided we’re moving in the right direction, but I wonder.
And so I began searching Acts once again to see what it was in the church DNA that we have lost. Before long, I came upon a curious little thing that writer Luke kept repeating. On the missionary journeys with Paul, he kept referring to the believers as “disciples”.
When I first noticed this, I easily dismissed it as a reference to the small band of missionaries that accompanied Paul. Paul’s MO was this: he typically would enter a town, preach Jesus in the synagogue, win converts, get thrown out of the synagogue, and then start a separate house church in the town, composed of both Jewish and Gentile believers in Christ. Mere days or short weeks later, Paul and his band were gone, often forced out by persecution, and headed for the next town.
So I figured that Luke’s use of the term “disciples” couldn’t possible refer to the brand new Christians. They were mere babies in the faith; they could only handle milk, not meat. So I reasoned.
But as I read on, I came across solid evidence that those new converts to the Lord were exactly whom Luke was referencing as disciples. And with that understanding, my eyes were opened to the difference between the church in the Book of Acts and the current state of the church in the West.
Paul and his band did not preach a cultural Christianity, or mere morals. They preached total consecration to the Savior and to His church. Baptism was a symbol of dying to Christ, of leaving all the things of the previous life behind. It was not to be entered into lightly. And the persecution that continually dogged Paul was vivid evidence to any prospective new believer that if he were to accept Christ, he could expect the same in his own life.
Consider the power the church would have to change lives and impact the nations, if we were to shed our preoccupation with loveless doctrinal minutia and structures, and focus on radical obedience to the Holy Spirit; if we were to abandon materialism and individualism and dedicate ourselves to each other. This is the power the nascent church wielded, that caused it to thrive in a hostile environment.
I’ve heard that Chinese church leaders continue to ask the West to send more bibles, but not to send popular Western Christian books. Their greatest fear is not persecution, under which they have thrived for decades, very similarly to the church’s experience in the Book of Acts, it is becoming infected with self-centered consumerism under the flag of religion.
And so, I concluded that the key to awakening the church lies in discipleship. Funny, that’s exactly what Jesus indicated as He left this earth:
Then Jesus came near and said to them, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.
Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” -Matt 28:18-20
We need to get back to basics. And it needs to happen now, in you and in me. The world is ripe for a final revival unlike anything it’s ever seen.
Not everyone is going to be willing to become a disciple. The cost is too great. Jesus understood that from the start. The Sermon on the Mount is universally acknowledged to be the greatest concentrated spiritual teaching in history, but look at how it happened:
When He saw the crowds, He went up on the mountain, and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. -Matt 5:1
Jesus never trusted crowds. Here he drew himself away from the crowds, to a remote place. Only those people who were willing to climb the mountain after Him would hear his intimate disclosure of Kingdom principles. The rest remained down below, awaiting their next “blessing”.
Another time, Jesus was walking on a road, with large crowds following. He turned abruptly and proclaimed:
“If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters — yes, and even his own life — he cannot be My disciple.
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. -Luke 14:26-27
Jesus purposely thinned the crowds. He would rather have a few who are serious than many who are just going along for the ride.
Yesterday I came across this video by Andrew Strom that speaks to the church’s need to recapture discipleship. Because these things have been reverberating in me lately, I found it riveting. I believe you will too. The sermon begins at around 11 minutes in.
We had a nice respite from a tough Winter the past two days, and I took advantage of it to wash the salt off the car. I went out today to finish up, and as I started to wash the windows, I found myself praying in earnest, “Lord, get me OUT of this mess”!
I wasn’t referring to washing the car. Life can have a way of getting us off script. Maybe that hasn’t happened much to you, but it has happened so often here that I’ve about concluded that it’s normal. My own scripting must be so unacceptable that it repeatedly needs to be tossed, and I end up with a plot that’s hard to discern, facing giants that I don’t know how to defeat.
And so it seemed natural that I should pray for deliverance – after all, the Bible is full of deliverance. The prayer seemed to come from my heart at first, but then I began to sense an increasingly tinny feel to it that wasn’t right. I saw an old problem: there was no faith mixed with the prayer.
I caught myself. Was this the prayer the Lord wanted me to be praying? Did it glorify Him? Not really. Then the apostles’ prayer in Acts 4 came to my mind.
The scene in Acts 4 is that the nascent church was just beginning to make an impact. The world is absolutely fine with Christians believing as devoutly as they may wish, as long as they keep it to themselves and don’t begin to threaten existing systems. The problem is that Jesus, King of kings and Lord of lords that He is, inherently lays claim over all authority, and necessarily will rock every single boat that gets in the way of that claim. Everything that can be shaken will be shaken.
On our side, there’s no arm of the flesh in the confrontation, there is only the proclamation of Kingdom authority in the spirit. The problem is that the world’s systems are inherently unstable and insecure, and therefore cling to their own authority and regard any competition as a threat. So while Jesus’ reign is absolutely benign and wonderful and right, it is perceived malignantly by rival systems.
And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, Behold, this One is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel, and for a sign spoken against
(yea, a sword shall pierce through your own soul also), so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. – Luke 2:34-35
I was lying in bed last night, meditating, processing stuff, and not having a terribly good time of it, actually. It was strange – I was partially at peace, but not fully there. And then finally it seemed that my defenses collapsed. I realized that I was experiencing manifest spiritual brokenness.
I don’t know if you’ve had this problem, but at times I’ve had a hard time discerning whether it was the devil or the Lord I was up against. That probably sounds like an outlandish or even heretical statement to some readers, but while I have no trouble discerning the Lord’s invisible hand at some levels, at others I’m not sure what’s going on or who’s “doing the doing”. It’s like Joshua on the eve of taking Jericho, coming upon a imposing man with sword drawn standing before him. Joshua knew something was going on, but not quite what. He had to ask whose side this “Man” was on – before he knelt down and worshiped -Josh 5. I’m learning that when I’m not sure, I need to wait for the Lord to reveal Himself. Nothing good comes from fighting God.
Laying there, I knew it was the Lord. The experience was painful at one level (“a sword shall pierce your heart“), but there was no evil in it. This was a point of repentance and consecration, in the context of worship. There was no price not worth paying for the incomparable riches of union with God. If my flesh had to burn in the process, so be it.
Jesus said of Himself, “he who falls on this Stone shall be broken, but on whomever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder” -Mt 21:44. When the encounter comes, it’s much better to fall on Jesus than to have Him fall on you. The process of brokenness is how a sovereign God takes ownership and possession of His vessel. It is not a process that should be delayed or resisted. It should be submitted to, whatever the cost.
Every one of us at some point must be broken, because our flesh cannot glory before God.
The lofty looks of man shall be humbled, and the pride of men shall be bowed down, and the LORD alone shall be exalted in that day. – Isa 2:11
“We have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us” (2Cor 4:7), but unless the outer vessel is broken, the treasure is trapped inside. And Jesus, speaking as the wise husbandman of our souls, tells us that no man hides his light under a bushel.
As a military strategy, Gideon hid torches in pitchers, and then at the right moment broke the pitchers to reveal the light. He then went on the attack and won a mighty victory for the Lord. As the Master Strategist, at the right moment Jesus will break through our flesh in order to set our spirit free, that our union with Him will become manifest and we will be empowered to penetrate this present darkness with His Kingdom light. This will happen to all who are serious about the lordship of Christ, and it is not to be avoided. In Christ, those who fall will rise again, in the new power of the Spirit.
Two coexisting rival kingdoms
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. – Mat 13:44
Jesus came and instituted his Kingdom “ahead of time”, as it were, while satan’s dominion on earth was still functionally intact. We know that God’s Kingdom is unshakable, and that it will continue to increase until all earthly counterfeits are done away with. But until that final day the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of man under satan’s domain coexist on earth. It is hardly a peaceful coexistence, as the enemy of God continually persecutes God’s saints, trying to wear them down through trials or trip them up with temptations.
Jesus left us in the world to bear witness to Him so that His Kingdom would increase. He could have taken each of us to Him the moment we possessed saving faith. But had He done that, who would have witnessed to the remaining lost of this world? In mercy, we were left here for the purpose of serving others.
Or we may think that at least God could have protected each of His children so that the sorrows of this world could not reach us as we went about our tasks. But if He had given his children a life of ease, then others would rush to join the side of Light not out of love of God, but out of selfish interest. So death has been permitted to reign during the present age, even over believers, to try our hearts and make us holy. Read more…