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Christ's Vision for the Church

Sermon by David Strain on Oct 29, 2017

Acts 1:8

Well as you know, this week and next week we are taking a short break from our studies in 1 Corinthians as a part of our stewardship season, and we’ve designated this morning as Vision Sunday to think about our vision as a church, and next Sunday, Commitment Sunday, as we pledge and give toward the ministry to which we are committed. We want to do a better job of helping you understand what it is you’re really giving to. So you may have been with us in Sunday School hour when we did some of that. Dr. Henson, earlier, did the same. Let me say it again here – you are not giving to buildings and budgets. Those are merely means to an end. We want to show you that when you give to the work of the church you are really giving to the end, and the end is ministry. You’re giving to people. You’re giving for Gospel growth and kingdom advance. You’re giving in pursuit of the vision Christ has given to His Church for the glory of His name and the salvation of all people. That’s what we really want you to see. And that’s what our Sunday School hour was about, that is what the new vision statement – it’s printed in the bulletin; it’s also in these blue brochures which we hope you’ll take away and make use of. God has already done so much that’s thrilling and encouraging and I hope you’ve been able to see some of that and that has heartened you and helped you look forward in faith.

And that’s part of what we want to do together now. It’s to look forward in faith and think about the vision. When our deacons were developing ways to connect giving to the vision, at the very same time, in the providence of God, our elders were actually working on the vision statement itself. And both the work of our deacons in selecting the verse of Scripture for this morning and the work of our Session in producing the vision statement were dealing with the same passage, in Acts chapter 1 at verse 8. "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” That’s our verse, our stewardship verse, that is really talking not so much about how we get there, but about where we want to go about our vision. Our vision, in the bulletin and in the blue brochures, really is an attempt to implement and apply and parallel and work out in our context the implications of the vision Christ has given to us.

So I want to ask you, if you would now, to take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands, and turn with me to Acts chapter 1. And we’re going to read verses 6 through 11. And you’ll find that on page 909 if you’re using one of our church Bibles. Before we read it together, let me ask if you would first of all bow your heads with me as we pray.

Our Father, we do need to hear from You. There’s no point in me standing here talking, nor is there any point in us being here together this morning if we do not hear Your Word. We’re here not so much for what we can do for You; we’re here because on our own we’re bankrupt and we badly need You. And so we’re looking to You, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, pleading the promise of our Savior that we might be filled. We are Your children, to whom the Lord Jesus promised that our Father in heaven, who is good and righteous, unlike our earthly fathers who, though being evil, nevertheless know how to give good gifts to us, He promised that our heavenly Father would give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him. And so now we’re asking. Give us the Holy Spirit and wield Your Word, in His mighty power, in our hearts for Your glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Acts chapter 1. Let’s actually back up and read from verse 3. Acts chapter 1 at the third verse. This is the Word of God:

“Jesus,” this is after His resurrection, “Jesus presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, and appeared to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’

So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

Amen, and we give thanks to God that He has spoken in His holy and inerrant Word.

Let me back up. Here we are right on the brink of the ascension of Jesus into glory. Let me back up to the night of Jesus' betrayal, just before His crucifixion. Jesus was telling His disciples, John 14, that He is about to depart. And He says to them in verse 4, "And you know the way to where I am going." And you've got to love Thomas. Thomas is that kid in the class who puts his hand up and asks the question you want to ask but are too afraid to. He's full of perplexity, doesn't understand a word Jesus is saying, and so he says, "Lord, we don't know where You are going, so how can we know the way?" Thomas' question has been going around and around in my mind all week as I was thinking about Vision Sunday because I suspect many of us find ourselves asking a question like that with regard to the church. We don’t know where we’re going, so how can we know the way? Have you ever found yourself wondering that? What are we trying to get done around here? Where are we going? If I’m going to serve, I want to know what I’m trying to serve for. If I’m taking aim, I need a clear target. Without a target, we’re not likely to hit anything.

You remember Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:26. We considered these verses not so long ago together. He said we’re not to “run aimlessly.” We’re not to box “as one beating the air.” We need a target. We need a finishing line at which to aim and for which we are running as a church, as Christians. We need a vision, a trajectory, a sense of direction. And Jesus gives us one in verse 8 of Acts chapter 1. Here is Christ’s vision given to the Church. Here is His mission. Ours is simply a way to echo and implement that vision in our context.

This week we’re going to look at three things and then we’re going to come back and look at verse 8 again next week with another three things, God willing. So I have to squeeze six points out of verse 8, so please pray for me. Just be grateful you’re only getting the first three now; I’m not trying to give you all six! The first three we’re going to look at today. Three “m”s. We’re going to look at the mission – what is it we’re trying to do? The membership – who are we trying to reach? Who gets to belong in God’s kingdom? And the method – how exactly will God do this? How is God going to work this out? According to what plan?

The Mission

Let’s think about the mission first of all; the mission. What kind of work has Christ called us to? What is it at which we are to take aim? Look at verses 6 and 7. You see the disciples are pretty confused about this question. Back actually in verse 3, we are told, Jesus, while he was with them after his resurrection, before his ascension, spent time talking to them about "the kingdom of God." Do you see that in verse 3? Now here's their question. You can sort of understand their thinking. They've been thinking about the nature of the kingdom, and so they ask, verse 6, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And you’ll see Jesus’ question in a few moments. “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” John Calvin – this is Reformation Sunday so I have to quote John Calvin; it’s in the Book of Church Order! You have to quote John Calvin on Reformation Sunday! And Calvin said of verse 8 – sorry, of verse 6 – the question of the disciples, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” he said, “There are as many errors in their question as there are words.”

Nature of the Kingdom

You see, they’ve been thinking about the kingdom and they have some sense that some momentous new phase of the kingdom is about to break in and they have some sense that Jesus the Lord is the one through whom it’s going to come, but other than that, they get everything else completely wrong. They misunderstand the nature of the kingdom. John Stott is helpful here. He says that “the verb, the noun, and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom.” Those of you who are not grammar geeks, let me help you. The verb, “restore” – you see? Look at their question. “Will you restore the kingdom?” Here’s the mistake they are making. “Restore” implies a political kingdom that had previously been lost but which Jesus will now restore to them. He’s going to restore the kingdom. And then there’s the noun. The noun, “Israel.” “Will you restore the kingdom to Israel?” That implies that this political kingdom that they think Jesus is going to bring will be ethnocentric. They're focused on the Jewishness of the kingdom. That they're looking for Jesus to come and bring a great reversal to Israel's political and global fortunes. They live right now, remember, under the bootheel of Roman tyranny and domination as the Roman Empire has conquered their land. And so they’re looking for a great reversal to the fortunes of the Jewish people in particular.

Time of the Kingdom

And then there’s the adverbial clause. Look again at their question – “at this time.” “Will you, at this time, restore the kingdom to Israel?” That implies an immediate kingdom. They thought the consummation of their hopes and expectations for a political, Messianic kingdom on earth was imminent, any minute now.

The Power of the Kingdom

And if you’ll look at verse 8, you’ll see that Jesus, in response, offers a significantly different vision of the nature of the kingdom and of the nature upon which He was sending His disciples. Look how He begins in verse 8. “But you will receive power.” Stop right there. You can imagine what’s going on in the disciples’ minds. “Power! That’s what we want! That’s what we need around here – a bit more power! Power to overthrown Roman domination, power to establish a new political order, power to make Israel great again! That’s the kind of power we want.” It’s temptation for political power, of course, is not new to the disciples. You may remember back in Mark’s gospel, chapter 10 at verse 35, James and John came to Jesus with a request. Jesus says, “What do you want Me to do for you?” and here’s what they asked. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They want power. They want prestige and position, personal supremacy and superiority. That’s what they’re looking for. And now, here they are again, on the brink of His ascension to glory. They’ve watched the resurrection, they’ve seen the empty tomb. Here He is alive among them, still bearing the nail marks of His self-giving love, and they still don’t get it. They’re still looking for power; still looking for an earthly, political kingdom.

And Jesus has to correct them and rectify their wrongheadedness. He says, “You know, the kingdom is about power, but power of a different kind. Not power for political revolution. Not power for personal supremacy. Not power for national security. It is spiritual power.” That’s what the text says, isn’t it, in verse 8? “You will receive power from the Holy Spirit that will enable you to be my witnesses. Witnesses to me! That is the nature of the mission. It is a spiritual mission.”

Temptation of Power

And just to be clear, don’t you agree, that power, the temptation for power, is a temptation the Church has to deal with in every age, including our own. And sometimes it comes to us in rather subtle ways like a serpent full of plausibility whispering in our ear with temptations. Things to be more strategic about to grow your church – “Go after the influencers and the power brokers. Make your church impactful among the cultural elite. Reach them and you will maximize your impact and really extend your influence!” It can sound plausible. But it has very little to do, you know, with the nature of the kingdom of God as it’s described in the New Testament. You remember 1 Corinthians 1:26, don’t you? “Now consider your calling, my brothers. Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were of noble birth – not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth – but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” That is the real nature of the kingdom of God. It’s counterintuitive. We look for power. We want to see the person at the top of the pyramid converted and then everyone under him, surely, will follow suit. When actually it’s the least and the lowest Jesus says will be the instruments of bringing the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

That was certainly His response to James and John that day in Mark chapter 10. James and John are asking for power, prestige, influence, a position of superiority. He replies like this. Listen to this. “Those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them, but it shall not be so among you. Whoever would be great among you, must be your servant. And whoever would be first among you, must be the slave of all.” “The kingdom of God,” John Stott says, “is His rule in the lives of His people by the Holy Spirit. It is spread by witnesses, not by soldiers, through a Gospel of peace, not a declaration of war, and by the work of the Spirit, not by force of arms, political intrigue, or revolutionary violence.” Our calling and our vision is – let me say this carefully and clearly – is not to make the world a better place. That’s not our calling as a church. It’s not to clean up the streets of Jackson or fix the broken schools or bring healing to the myriad epidemic problems of society. That may be your calling as a Christian citizen of this great nation, and we want to equip you and serve with you and help you fulfill that calling. And may the Lord use you wonderfully as you pursue it.

Spiritual Mission

But our vision as a local church is to glorify God by making disciples. We have a spiritual mission, not a social one, not a political one, not a psychological one, not a medical one, not a philanthropic one. Rather, we have been entrusted with a message. We have good news for the world. The tomb is empty. Jesus Christ lives and He reigns. He is the King and His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. You can enter it by faith, just by trusting Him and turning from your sin. We are naturally shut out from His kingdom because of our sin. But at the cross, the King Himself, the Lord Jesus, paid personally and in full for everyone’s sin that will come and trust in Him. The path to citizenship, you see, in His kingdom, involves no paperwork. You need no qualifications to come and belong except a willingness to bend your knee to King Jesus, to turn from life on your terms and to submit to life on His. To trust Him to be your only Savior and Redeemer and Lord. That’s our message. That is our mission. That is what we are called to spread to everyone who will listen.

Now praise the Lord when people hear that message they are wonderfully converted. And when lots of people get converted, their appetites change; their loves change. Their character changes. And when that happens in a community, the community does change by the great grace of God in the Gospel. As individual lives changes, society changes. But let’s be clear. Our mission is not to change society. We’re not preaching the Gospel to make the world a better place. That is a secondary benefit of the Gospel. When you make the secondary benefit of the Gospel the primary reason for the Gospel, you’re no longer being faithful to Scripture. You have reduced Jesus to a mere means to a social end. That is not Gospel ministry; that is idolatry! Jesus Christ will not be a tool we deploy to get the thing we really want, which is cultural and social change. No, Jesus Christ is the end. He’s both the message and the means and the end in view. He’s the pearl of great price. And we preach the Gospel because we want more and more men and women, boys and girls everywhere to come and join us in delighted adoration of Him who has been a Savior to us. That’s our mission. It’s a spiritual mission. May the Lord help us never to depart from that spiritual mission. That’s the first thing to see – the mission.

The Membership

Then secondly, the membership. Who belongs in the kingdom Jesus Christ is bringing? To whom are we being sent as we share the Gospel and seek to fulfill this mission entrusted to us? The apostles in the upper room, you notice, in their question in verse 6, seem to think they know the answer. Do you see it in verse 6? Here’s who they think belongs. “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They believe that the kingdom of God belongs to Israel. They have no thought for anyone else at this point. But Jesus has, again, a very different perspective, doesn’t He? Verse 8, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea” – well, so far so good; that’s home turf. That’s Israel. But He doesn’t stop there. “Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria” – now that’s a little uncomfortable – “and to the ends of the earth.” That is an expansive vision, well beyond this ragtag band of misfits, every one of whom deserted Jesus at His trial and at His arrest.

Here they are – weak, broken men, flawed men, twelve of them; actually, eleven of them at this point – and Jesus says, “I’m going to use you to reach the plant, to reach the ends of the earth.” It’s an extraordinary, extraordinary vision that Christ gives to them. We’re not going to deal this Sunday with the power, the power of the Holy Spirit that will enable them. That’s next week. We’re not going to deal with the program according to which the book of Acts unfolds here in verse 8. That’s again, also next week. We’re not going to deal with the project; that’s next week too. “What does it mean to be Christ’s witnesses?” I just gave the game away. Now you don’t have to come back next week! I told you all my three points! We’re not going to deal with those things right now. We’re simply asking the question, “Who have we been sent to reach?”

All the Nations

And Jesus’ answer is mind-blowing. It’s really not attainable in our own strength. It’s altogether beyond us, enormous, overwhelming. They’re to go to the world. In the book of Acts, when Paul gets to Rome, the book ends because Rome is the capital city of the empire; it’s the ends of the earth, symbolically speaking. And so the book of Acts ends as though Acts 1:8 had been fulfilled. But we know, read in light of the whole New Testament, that the ends of the earth is an unfinished task. Matthew 28:19, Jesus says to the disciples, “Go, make disciples of panta ta ethne – all the nations.” That’s a phrase lifted directly from Genesis 22 verse 18, the Greek version of the Old Testament, in God’s covenant with Abraham where He says to Abraham, “In your seed, in one of your descendants, panta ta ethne, all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Through Jesus, who’s going to come, the Gospel is going to reach the world – all the nations. And in Matthew’s gospel, before His ascension, Jesus said, “You remember that promise? You’re the ones who are going to bring it to pass now that I have come.”

Or John, in Revelation chapter 7 at verse 8, is given a glimpse of the future of the task at last complete, the mission done, finished – the world reached with the Gospel! And he tells us what it looks like. He sees a vision of a vast multitude all gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb, adoring Him, who by His blood redeemed them from sin and death and hell. And where have they come from? He says they have come “from every nation and from all tribes and peoples and languages.” How big is the scope of the mission Christ has given to His Church? As big as the world. As big as the world. Who gets to belong? Who may come and enter the kingdom of Jesus Christ by grace through faith in Him alone? Anyone, anywhere, as they believe the Gospel.

This is a big, scary, globe-spanning, boundary-smashing, comfort-shattering, division-straddling, every class, every gender, every ethnicity-embracing vision. Isn’t it? Nobody excluded; nobody shut out. There’s no one who does not belong in the kingdom of Jesus Christ if they will but bend their knee to King Jesus. And it is a vision – I just want you to see – it is a vision that has not been committed to some other group. This is not a call Christ has given to the church that we can duck. This is a vision He has entrusted to us. We are to go to panta ta ethne – all the nations – you and me, with the good news about Jesus.

Our Place Matters

So if you’ll look at the Vision Statement just for a minute, our First Presbyterian Church Vision Statement, you’ll see our attempt to try to implement some of that; our aspirations, at least, as we seek to move towards obedience. It says “We exist to glorify God by making disciples on the North State Street corridor” – that’s our backyard if you like; that’s our Jerusalem. Think Belhaven and Fondren and Midtown and downtown. Our place, where the Lord in His providence has put us, on the corner of North State Street and Belhaven Street, our place ought to matter to us. We ought to be more than just the shadow our steeple casts across this community. We are called by the Lord Jesus to love these streets, these homes, these people, and to bring the Gospel to bear for His glory and their good.

We’re called to “glorify God by making disciples on the North State Street corridor, and in the greater Jackson area.” We have people here right now from all the counties of the metro-Jackson area. And we want to equip you to be a witness for Christ in your home, in your workplace, with your friends. We’re actually working on strategies as we speak, as it were, to build into our church’s calendar seasons of evangelism and ways that you can use, tools that you can use to help you be an effective witness where you live and where you work and where you serve.

North America

We’re called to “glorify God by making disciples on the North State Street corridor, the greater Jackson area, and around the world.” We have two groups of elders working on that – one group looking at North America; another group looking at the whole world. Our North American group have been developing a strategy that will seek to put church planting at the very heart of what we’re all about as a church. To train and equip church planters, to send them in order to reach the cities of North America with the Gospel. The Church, remember, is the only strategy Jesus gave to reach the nations with the Gospel. There’s no other plan. There is no other tool. There is no other organization or mechanism ordained by God, found in Scripture, for the evangelization of the ends of the earth. It’s the local church’s task. And so we want to be a church that’s all about seeing churches planted.

The World

And we have a Mission to the World committee that has already developed a bold new focus on the unreached peoples of the world. You’ll see both in the blue vision brochures, you’ll have heard it already in Sunday School, one of the great scandals of our age – 6,738 people groups who are unreached. Let that sink in a minute. Forty-two percent of the global population have no church, no Scriptures, and no sustained Gospel witness. For every dollar of American money spent on global mission, one cent goes toward reaching the unreached peoples of the world. One cent for every dollar. You spent ninety-nine cents elsewhere. And so we believe we’ve been called, we believe every church has been called, but we want to face that call to reach the unreached with the good news about Jesus. This is our mission field. This is our mandate from King Jesus. This is the vision – to go to panta ta ethne, to all the nations, in obedience to Him.

The Method

The mission of the Church. The members of the Church. Now finally, very quickly, notice the method. How will God fulfill His sovereign plan for Gospel advancement? Look at verse 7. “The disciples asked, ‘Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” They think it’s going to come in some sort of cataclysmic moment of revolution. Jesus says, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons the Father has fixed by his own authority.” The Father has a sovereign plan – secret, hidden, known only to Him. His eternal decree governs the progress and the advancement of the Gospel in the world. “Times” probably refers to specific moments, to key decisions, to step after step in Gospel service. “Seasons,” on the other hand, is talking about periods and phases in the Church’s mission, globally, across the ages, as it seeks to be faithful to the call of Christ. And Jesus is telling us that both the little baby steps and the great leaps forward, both the day by day decisions that will influence how you do mission and the epoch-shaping moments and seasons of growth in the life of a church, or the life of a church in a nation or a region, all of that is fixed by the sovereign decree, bounded by the Lordship of the living God who reigns and does all things according to the counsel of His own will.

Salvation Belongs to the Lord

Now that ought to do two things for us. First, it ought to make us really bold. If Gospel progress, both in the little baby steps and in the great big movements, in the times and the seasons, belongs in the hand of a sovereign God, then we can take big, bold risks. Can’t we? We can fight fear that holds us back from being faithful by remembering that God is sovereign, salvation belongs to the Lord, He will get the mission done; He will! The ends of the earth will see the glory of our God. The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. He will get the mission done and He’s going to use weak, sinful, confused, stammering, broken people like me and like you to do it. Times and seasons are fixed by His plan, His decree. And so we can be bold. What risk when God sits on the throne? What risk? What would we not risk in His service when we know the mission cannot, cannot fail? Right? The mission can’t fail! Are you still with me? Okay!


The other thing it will do is it will teach us to be patient. We must not think because we have a nice, shiny new Vision Statement or because we’ve hatched plans for evangelism or because we gave more this year or we prayed really, really hard or we committed to the Internationals ministry or some discipleship program that that is mechanical. We put in our input, turn the crack, and out pops growth! No, no, the times and seasons are decreed by a sovereign God. The plan is His, not ours. And so we ought to exercise patience and humility. God will get His work done in His time and in His way by His means. Our task is not to concern ourselves with growth. Our task is to concern ourselves with faithfulness. Growth is not our vision. We don’t have a vision for growth. We have a vision for faithfulness; a vision for obedience. Growth is God’s business; faithfulness is ours.

So the Lord Jesus Christ here is calling us to be faithful, to submit to Him as our King, knowing that God is in control and His mission will not fail. To be bold and to be patient, remembering, of course – if you read through the book of Acts this is clear – that God ordinarily attaches fruitfulness to faithfulness. Not automatically, not mechanistically, and yet when God’s people do what He’s asked them to do, He blesses, the church grows, the Word runs and is glorified; the Word increases. That’s how the book of Acts talks about it. It’s wonderful language. The Word increases. All it means is that the good news about Jesus is capturing more and more hearts as God’s people are faithful. Isn’t that what we want to see? Isn’t that what we want to see as we look around all these empty patches in the pews? We want to see them filled by hungry inquirers longing to know the answer to their soul thirst. We want to see them filled by new believers brought to repentance and faith through your witness. Go be faithful to the vision Christ has given you and the Lord will bless with fruitfulness.

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, we thank You that You reign as King. We pray for grace to remember the sovereignty of our great God, to know that the times and the seasons are in Your hand, and that You are working Your purposes out as year succeeds to year. And would You give us the boldness that confidence in Your sovereignty provides, and the patience to wait on Your time and to go Your way? And as we do that, as we seek to be faithful, would You be pleased to bless us with growth, not for our own sake that we might multiply our own tribe, but that Jesus’ name might be magnified. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

© 2017 First Presbyterian Church.

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