First-Century Lessons for the Twenty-First Century Church
Today, Easter Sunday, we begin a new evening series of sermons. There is surely no better day on which to commence a series on the book of Acts than Easter Sunday. Not only does the book begin with the immediate aftermath of the resurrection, it also teaches us how Christians of the first-century lived thereafter in its light. But what other reasons are there for studying Acts?
First, a study of Acts serves the ongoing ministry of the Word at Seventh. For the foreseeable future we shall be considering during our morning services significant tracts of Old Testament history and theology, applying it to the present. Recall how we first painted in broad strokes the history of redemption (God’s Presence in History). We have since set out to retrace that initial journey more slowly, looking together at the major blocks of teaching that God gives us along the way. Currently we are nearing the end of the first block, the Ten Commandments, and will surely commence a series on the Tabernacle. This project will keep us in the Old Testament for some time. Given this, it is important to balance out the morning teaching by opening up the New Testament in our evening services. This we have done by looking at large portions of Luke and John (Jesus the Evangelist [The Good News of Adoption was an interlude, by request]). Thus it is fitting we now turn to the book of Acts ~ a book that is both informative and thrilling.
Second, a study of Acts serves the fresh phase of building we are undertaking at Seventh. Behind the details of the building is the need to lay a solid foundation for the spiritual and numerical growth of the congregation to last the remainder of the twenty-first century, should our Lord tarry. In this we recognize not only our needs, but those of our children and grandchildren, and of the city and state we serve in Christ’s name. Our service is of a general Christian character but arises especially out of our Reformed convictions.
We remember the Reformation as a time in which God moved by his Spirit to lead his people back to Scripture. Scriptural teaching had become greatly obscured by layers of ecclesiastical tradition, so much so that even the gospel was misunderstood. The Reformers were greatly opposed by the ecclesial authorities of the day, but they stood their ground arguing that they were merely returning to the simplicity of the gospel and to the principles of church life as found in biblical times. When accused of creating new teaching they insisted that what they taught was ancient but had existed as the sun does when out of sight behind the clouds.
Next year, 2009, will be the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Over these centuries it is clear that Protestants have not been entirely immune from creating their own layers of tradition. Don’t misunderstand me. Traditions are good when they retain the backing of Scripture, but once they gain a self-perpetuating life they begin to thwart the gospel and hinder its spread. We need, therefore, to follow the practice of the reformers, and return to Scripture. This is what it means to be Reformed: to keep fine-tuning our belief and practice according to the Word of God. We turn to the book of Acts then, because it is so indispensable to our understanding of the message of the gospel and the priorities of church life, given Christ’s resurrection from the dead, his Ascension, and outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, a study of the book of Acts serves to propel us forward as a church in the proclamation and defense of the gospel. During the series we shall learn how an unbelieving and timid group of young Christians were transformed by the Spirit of the risen Christ into a force that turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). The book of Acts strips us of so many of our excuses for ineffectiveness in the service of Christ. We have the same Spirit as the Christians of the first-century church, only greater resources: a complete canon (rule) of Scripture, far greater finances, and massively improved means of communication. Is there anyone who would say that the social challenges of the gospel are greater for us than for them? There is far more of a remnant of Christian faith and understanding in Grand Rapids than in Jerusalem of old. The narrative of Acts begins, let’s remember, a mere seven weeks after Christ’s crucifixion. We dare not claim, then, the pluralism of the present age as reason for limited gospel success today. The first-century Christians knew a breadth and depth of pluralism we are only beginning to encounter.
May God use the exposition of Acts to make us more informed, wiser, more zealous, and concerned not only to be faithful but to be fruitful. In going forward we are set upon sticking to the old paths; nonetheless the book of Acts depicts the new shoes we should be wearing as we tread them.