Christ's Vision for the Church - Part 2

Sermon by David Strain on Nov 5, 2017

Acts 1:1-11

As we’ve already heard from Spence Flatgard, today is Commitment Sunday, the second Sunday in our stewardship season. And our Scripture this year was chosen because it directs our attention not so much to the means, the finances that we need to accomplish the work of the church, as it does to the vision. We want to focus on the task committed to the church by the Lord Jesus in the conviction that, without clarity on where we’re going, there really is very little sense in issuing calls for help getting there. We want to know where we’re going. And so we’re focusing, if you’ll remember from last week, on the last words that Jesus spoke to the apostles just prior to the ascension. If you’ll like, these are our marching orders. Our congregation’s vision statement, which are in these blue brochures – excuse me; I almost lost my voice last Sunday morning. Several of you are hoping I’m going to lose my voice any minute now! It’s a real possibility! If you would pray for me, I still have a sermon to do tonight. But these vision brochures, if you don’t have one, they’re available at the exits. The vision statement is also printed in the bulletin. Our congregation’s vision statement, established by our elders, is really nothing more than an attempt to take Acts chapter 1 verse 8 and to think through how to apply that and implement it practically and in concrete ways in our specific context and location here in Jackson.

So that said, let me invite you, if you would, to take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands and to turn with me to, we might say, “Jesus’ vision for the church.” Acts chapter 1. You will find it on page 909 of our church Bibles. We began considering this passage last time under three headings. We looked, if you will remember, at the mission Christ was giving us; exactly what it is we’re called to do. We have a spiritual mission. We looked at the membership of the kingdom. Who is it that we are sent to reach? Who may belong? People from every tribe and language and nation. We’re to go the ends of the earth. And we looked at the method. How will God, in His sovereignty, get the work done?

This week, as we consider Acts 1 verse 8 a second time, we want to think about three more points. We’re going to think about the power we will need to accomplish the mission, the project that is integral to the vision Christ has given us, and the program according to which the vision will be realized. Now I’m feeling very pleased with myself because I squeezed six points out of one verse and all six of them alliterate! So, you know, granted I may have to force the matter a little bit to make it all work, but bear with me! The power, the project, and the program – all in Acts chapter 1 verse 8. This is the vision Christ has given to us; this is the work, the task to which we are called. Before we read it together – we’re actually going to read all of verses 1 through 11 – before we do that, we’re going to bow and ask for God’s help first. Let’s pray together.

O Lord, would You give us ears to hear what Your Spirit is saying to the Church as the Scriptures are opened, read, and proclaimed, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Acts chapter 1 at the first verse:

“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing 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 praise God that He has spoken in His holy and authoritative Word.

A good friend of mine is an airline pilot. He was a fighter pilot and he once explained to me the importance of the pre-flight briefings when his squadron were about to make a flight together. Each pilot had to be sure of the coordinates, they needed to know the destination with precision, and plot the trajectory carefully. And to be sure, a tiny error, perhaps over the first few miles, really would make very little difference. Everyone would still be flying in formation along broadly the same trajectory. But over 100 miles, or over 1,000 miles, the difference of just one degree at the beginning, which may have seemed like a minor difference, over 1,000 miles, you were 100 miles away from target when you finally arrived. You were 100 miles off base.

Before His ascension to glory, we might say here in the upper room in the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus calls a pre-flight briefing with the apostles. And He gives them a carefully plotted route. All the coordinates are here, and our task is to be sure we are flying along the flight path He has given us. That is what the vision statement is really all about. As part of our prayer for our church during this stewardship season, I know this is Commitment Sunday and you’ve heard an appeal for financial pledges, and don’t misunderstand, we really do need you to fill out a pledge. Go to your phone, do it in the app, if you haven’t done so already, and put your pledge in the plate. Go home and prayerfully consider how the Lord has prospered you and make a pledge. It really does help us and it is important to us. But I want you to think of your pledge as more than just a commitment to give financially. I want you to begin to see it as a way to say, “I stand with my brothers and sisters at First Presbyterian Church as we seek together to accomplish the vision the Lord Jesus is calling us to.” It is a commitment not just of treasure, but of time and talents also, of yourself to the work to which we have been called. So Christ has mapped out the trajectory, the coordinates for us in Acts 1:8. Our job is to carefully follow that trajectory and stay on the flight path.

Power

Before I torture that metaphor any further, let’s dive into the Word of God together. Shall we? We have a spiritual mission we saw last time – to bring in members of the kingdom from every tribe and language and people and nation; to go to the ends of the earth, according to God’s method and God’s plan. But there are still some outstanding questions that need to be answered if we’re going to get the work Jesus has entrusted to us completed. And the first of which has to do with the resources available to us for accomplishing the task. That is to say, it is a question of power. Where do we get the power to do the job, to finish the work, to complete the mission?

The Challenge

And before we answer that question, let’s just take in the scale of the challenge, the scope of the task that Christ gave to the Church. Look at verse 8. The disciples were called to go not just to their backyard, to Jerusalem and Judea. They were not to neglect it; neither are we. We are to go – in your vision statement you’ll see it – we are to go to “the North State Street corridor” – Fondren, Belhaven, Midtown, Downtown. If we neglect our own backyard as we seek to be faithful to the claims of Jesus and to bring the Gospel to bear on the lives of those who desperately need Christ, if we neglect faithfulness in our own backyard, we will not likely be faithful elsewhere. And so we can’t neglect the North State Street corridor. Jerusalem and Judea – the disciples were sent to their own backyard.

But they were sent beyond that, actually quite a bit out of their comfort zone. Notice they’re to go also to Samaria. If you know much of the New Testament, one of the things that’s very clear is that Samaritans and Jews didn’t mix. Samaria is hostile territory. So, for example, in John’s gospel chapter 4, you may remember the marvelous story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well near the village of Sychar in Samaria. Jesus is making a mission trip and He has to go through Samaria. He stops at the well in the middle of the day, He’s parched; it’s baking hot. There’s a woman there drawing water from the well and Jesus asks her for a drink. And a conversation ensues which eventually leads her to faith. She is saved as she trusts in Christ to be her Messiah. She goes back to the village and brings everyone to meet Jesus and there’s a revival, there’s a great awakening in that village on that day. But right at the beginning of the conversation, when Jesus asks her for a drink, she is astonished. “Why is it that you, a Jew,” she asks, “ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” And John puts in this little editorial comment. He says, by way of explanation, she was so amazed because “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.” This is enemy territory, enemy territory. Samaritans and orthodox Jewish people are like oil and water; they just don’t mix. They were considered unclean.

And yet here is Jesus, calling the apostles to go to their neighbors who were not like them; into a place of real discomfort and challenge. They don’t feel safe, they’re not comfortable; this is awkward. And yet, actually, they do obey. If you read through the narrative of the book of Acts, finally and eventually, although it takes some significant proddings from the providence of God as we’ll see, they do go to Samaria. Philip goes to Samaria in Acts chapter 8. He preaches the Gospel, some are converted. Peter and John go down, are sent by the church in Jerusalem, when they hear news that the Samaritans seem to have believed in Jesus, and they’re amazed and blessed and minister to the Samaritans. And then Peter and John return to Jerusalem and they preach in every village of the Samaritans and there’s a remarkable and widespread spiritual awakening among them. This is a big deal! You read through chapter 8 in about a minute and it’s easy to miss the significance, the moment that attaches to what is taking place as the Church breaks a massive cultural and ethnic barrier and straddles the divide for the Gospel’s sake.

But of course, that's just the first of a series of breakthroughs as the good news marches onwards. The revival and the mission in Samaria really were only preparatory for the worldwide, globe-spanning, boundary-shattering mission of the Church to the ends of the earth. So that is the task Christ is calling the apostles to. It's a massive, massive task; enormous.

The Men

And then think about the men Jesus tasks with that mission. There’s an extraordinary, vast vision He gives them, and He gives it to eleven men who are a pretty ragtag bunch of misfits and ne’er do wells, truth be told. Judas is dead; he committed suicide after his betrayal of Christ. But these eleven, very similarly actually, all abandoned Jesus, remember, in the crucible of His sufferings. They all deserted Him and they consistently have misunderstood Jesus. And even now, in this moment right before us, here is the risen Christ – He is alive again, from the dead – standing there. They can see the nail marks in His hands. He spends forty days with them teaching them and training them and discipling them. That must have been an amazing seminary experience for these men – those forty days, being trained and schooled by the risen Christ. And yet, verse 6, they still do not understand the nature of the kingdom of God, the nature of Christ’s kingship, His reign, or their citizenship within the kingdom. These guys are messed up! They don’t understand. They miss things that seem to us, as we read the text, to be obvious. They are weak, flawed, broken men. Failures every one. And to them, Jesus gives the mission, so that we are left asking, when we think of the scale of the task and the men who are to get it done, it leaves us asking, “How in the world does Jesus really expect His vision to be fulfilled?”

Our Calling

And actually, that's a question we need to face honestly for ourselves even today. Isn't it? After all, the task facing us is still massive. We've been in this part of Jackson for how long? About a hundred and eighty years. If First Presbyterian Church were just simply gone tomorrow, would Belhaven miss us? Would Fondren? Would Midtown? Would they care that we’re not here anymore? Would they even notice? Maybe they would be glad that we’re not here, you know, parking in their driveways and cluttering the streets. Whether it’s justified or not, the truth is, we probably all know this, we don't have a very good reputation in our neighborhood and among our immediate neighbors around here. And yet we have been called, we have been called – this is our backyard, Jerusalem, and Judea – we have been called to reach them with the good news about Jesus. It's hard. And we live in a city that is, what, 75%, 80% African-American. Take a look around. How are we doing? What does it mean for us to reach across ethnic barriers, cultural barriers, socioeconomic divides? We haven’t mentioned the growing Latino and Asian populations in our city either. That is part of the enormously difficult, complicated, not straightforward, often uncomfortable work to which the reigning Christ has called our church, has called us – me and you.

We are a church with the resources to make a national and a global impact. Are we deploying those resources in a way that is consistent with what the Bible says is at the very heart of Jesus’ plan for the evangelization of the world? The whole of Christ’s plan, His entire strategy to get the Gospel to the ends of the earth, is local churches. It is the church. Are we planting churches? When was the last time we planted a church? And are we going – Elias Medeiros, I don’t know if you know him – professor at Reformed Seminary – a wonderful, joyous man who loves the Gospel and loves to equip men to preach the Gospel, likes to say that we have been called, by the Lord Jesus ourselves, “to go across the street and around the world.” That’s what Jesus is saying in Acts 1:8, isn’t it? That’s the mission. It’s big, scary, uncomfortable, awkward, outside of our comfort zone. But that’s the task.

And then think about who it is who has been called to do it. Are we all that better off than those eleven men in the upper room that day? If we’re honest, aren’t we afraid? Don’t our weaknesses, our liabilities, our cultural blinkers, our insecurities, our prides, our fear get in the way sometimes of being a witness? Aren’t we intimidated by evangelism? I am. Are we scared of being rejected? Don’t we pull our punches because we don’t want to give offense? Aren’t we scared we’ll say the wrong thing? And so the question isn’t merely historical, of historical interest, is it? “How are we going to get the work done? By what resources does Jesus realistically expect this extraordinary, vast, challenging mission to be accomplished when His servants are weak, flawed, broken, confused sinners like me or like you?” It’s not a matter of more money. Sorry Spence! It’s not a matter of more money, not really, not in the end. It’s not a matter of the right staff. It’s not a matter of a beautiful building fit for purpose. It’s not a matter of a sophisticated media strategy or any number of helpful things that sometimes gives us in His grace, has given us largely in His mercy. If we trust those things, in the end, actually we will fail to get the task done and we will certainly fail to bring glory to the name of Christ.

The Holy Spirit

So how do we have hope? Where will the power come? Where are the resources to fulfill the mission? Jesus tells us, doesn’t He, right there in verse 8. Look at the text. Verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses.” He’s already told them back in verse 4 to stay put in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is given to them. This is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the promise of the Father. And here’s what that baptism, that promise will do when the Holy Spirit is given to the church. It will empower and equip God’s people to be witnesses all over the world in fulfillment of Christ’s vision. The gift of the Spirit will enable and propel mission. When we think about the work of the Holy Spirit, too often, I think, we focus on experiences and emotions when we think about the Holy Spirit’s work in the Church’s life. But in Acts 1:8, Jesus says the primary ministry of the Holy Spirit is to propel ordinary, average, broken-down, often confused, usually stumbling, falling, sinful believers outward to be witnesses to the ends of the earth. That’s His work.

Now we do need to say that when the Spirit came in fulfillment of this promise in Acts chapter 2 on the Day of Pentecost, it came in a unique, never again to be repeated manner. The gift of the Spirit in the way in which it came in the book of Acts is unique. It is the once for all donation of the Spirit to the Church. And we ought not to expect Pentecosts again. And yet, there’s another sense in which the book of Acts tells us that much of what happens at Pentecost happens over and over and over in the life of the apostolic Church and ought to happen in the life of the Church in every age. The Holy Spirit comes upon the church, oftentimes on the same people who were right there in Acts chapter 2, to empower them at critical moments where they need boldness and courage and strength to press on and continue to preach Christ in the midst of persecution and hardship and difficulty.

One example – Acts chapter 4. You remember the story? Peter and John were arrested for preaching Christ. They are hauled in front of the Sanhedrin to give an account. When they’re released, the church gathers for a prayer meeting. That’s another interesting phenomenon in the book of Acts. At every critical juncture, the church’s instinctive response is to get on their knees corporately in prayer. Those two things, as I’m going to point out, the ministry and work of the Holy Spirit propelling mission and the church that prays together, are profoundly connected. So here is the church, at Peter and John’s release, on the brink of real persecution for the name of Jesus and for the preaching of the Gospel, they gather together and pray. If you look at Acts chapter 4, you’ll see a remarkable prayer. They don’t ask to be delivered from opposition, persecution, or hardship. They don’t say, “Oh, Lord, please will you take this away!” Rather, they pray, “Oh, Lord, sustain us in the middle of it. Equip us as persecution comes to be bold in proclaiming Christ.”

Proclaim with Boldness

And then we read these words – Luke says, “The place where they had prayed, the place in which they had gathered, was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the Word of God with boldness.” The great need of the hour, the most pressing, urgent need of the Church, isn’t more money! It is a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is for the place where we are gathered to be shaken and all of God’s people to be filled with His Spirit that you and I may go and speak the Word with boldness. That is our great need. How was the Spirit given? It was given as the church cried out to God in prayer together. Brothers and sisters, we badly need to be a people who pray. So as you fill out your pledge – I hope you will – I want you to see it as a commitment to praying. Jesus said that “Our Father in heaven knows how to give and will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him.” And so as you fill out that pledge, will you join me in committing to pray for revival, for spiritual awakening, that God would send His Spirit that we might be committed – you and I – in our context, in our neighborhood, among our friends, with our colleagues, to proclaiming the Word of God with boldness. There’s a call, a rallying call to prayer for the endowment of the Holy Spirit by whose power alone we may hope to finish the mission. The power.

Project

Next, notice the project. What is at the very heart of the vision, the task to which Christ has called us? Acts 1:8, look at it again. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my” – what? “You will be my witnesses.” That’s the task; that’s the project. That’s our great business – to bear witness about Jesus. The language he uses there can be understood in two different directions, the Greek grammar. It could mean, “You will be my witnesses” in the sense that “You will be witnesses that belong to Me. I chose you. I selected you. I equipped you. I command you to go. I protect you as you go. I’m the one who gives fruitfulness as you go. You’re My witnesses.” That is, “The witnesses that belong to Me.” That’s a possible reading, certainly true. I don’t think that’s what Jesus means here.

Rather, what He’s saying is, “You will be my witnesses” in the sense that, “You will bear witness to Me.” That is, “The witness, the testimony you give has particular content focused on the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. You’ll be My witnesses. You’ll be witnesses about Me to the ends of the earth.” In evangelism, a really good thing to do is to tell people your story – where you were in your lostness, in your confusion, in your sin; how God, in His grace, broke in and drew you to Christ. How even now, by His mercy and grace, He bears along with you. And though you often stumble and fall and often sin, He forgives and cleanses and equips you. And He is your joy and peace and hope. What a marvelous thing to do – to tell your own story with your friends.

Testify to Jesus’s Work

That’s not what it means to bear witness here. You’re not bearing witness to something that’s happened to you. Rather, you’re bearing witness to something Jesus has done. At least that was the task given to the apostles. And there’s a very real sense in which it is given uniquely and only to the apostles because, after all, they were eyewitnesses to the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. More than that, they are His inspired, authorized spokesmen in the world whom He sends to the church to interpret, explain, and apply the significance of the coming of Jesus and of His work in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures. And so there are no more witnesses in that sense because the apostolic witness is finished with their witness to us.

However, we have access to their witness today in the New Testament Scriptures. Don’t we? Their witness, their testimony to Christ, has been recorded in the New Testament and we can participate in their witness-bearing to Jesus to the ends of the earth by opening the Scriptures, by pointing people to the Word, by speaking the truth of the Word of God to the world. And so if the first point really challenges us and calls us to prayer, the second point, as we think about the great project, is a reminder and a call back to the Bible. To be people of the Book. People whose witness participates in the apostolic witness as we open the Word.

Power is in the Word

Now I don’t know about you, but I often find myself in conversations with unbelievers struggling to know what to say next, feeling the pressure of having the stone-dead, knock-out argument that’s going to suddenly persuade them and it never comes. Or knowing how to respond to that really difficult, challenging question or objection they may have. And I often fail. I think the message of this part of the text really helps take a lot of that pressure off by saying to us, “Of course it’s good to have answers. It’s good to have an outline of the Gospel in your mind ready to go. But it’s even better if you’ll simply open the Bible and read it to them, and say, ‘Actually, that’s a great question. I don’t know the answer. Maybe I can get back to you on that. But here’s what I do know. Let me read to you some words of Jesus.’” And just to open the Scriptures. The power isn’t in my clever argument. The power is in the Word, wielded in the hands of the Holy Spirit for whose help I ought constantly to be praying.

I remember when I was a student in art school we took a class trip to Paris and we were all a group of art students visiting the Pompidou Center in Paris, just a remarkable contemporary art gallery. And outside the Pompidou Center in Paris, there's a wonderful plaza. And while we were standing talking, there were some young French Christians doing street evangelism which is pretty unusual. Paris, and France in general, is a deeply secular place. And one of our group was a very bright young Christian girl named Amanda and she was so excited, so encouraged to see these evangelists, off she went to join them! It was a little rash of her because she didn’t have a lick of French, but anyway, off she went to join them! And eventually, poor Amanda found somebody, some victim, who had enough English to have a conversation. And they just came up to her and said, “Okay, so what is all this Jesus stuff about? Tell me the Gospel.” And she was so taken aback by the directness of the question, she didn’t know what to say. And words failed her, she burst into tears, and turned tail and fled. I will never forget the horror in her eyes at how badly she feels she failed in that moment because she did not have anything to say. She couldn’t summarize it. It just didn’t come. She was tongue-tied.

And maybe you can relate. I can relate. Our passage, I think, is pushing is to one simple way to resolve that problem – to become people of one Book who store up the Word of God in our minds and hearts so that when we don’t know what to say, when we don’t have the answers, when we don’t have the right words, we can always simply repeat the Word of God. After all, we get to be the instrument of speaking the very voice of God, the very Word of God to the life of someone who doesn’t know Him. That’s a far better strategy, more often than not, than any wise or clever technique we might adopt. What if you were to say to that friend or family member, “You know, what would you think if we read Mark together? We’ll just read a little bit of it and you can ask me any question you like. We’ll just talk about it.” If you let the Word of God go, who knows what God will do by His Word in people’s hearts.

It was said of John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress, and if you prick him anywhere, his blood is Bibline. He bled Bible. He was immersed in it, saturated; it sort of oozed out of him. Wouldn’t it be great as a church, as individual believers, if the Word of God saturated and permeated our lives such that, whether we feel like we have an answer or not, the first words on our lips, the ready answers and replies that we give, are the very words of God bearing witness, participating in the apostolic witness to the ends of the earth by opening the Bible with people. There’s a radical suggestion. Read the Bible with someone and see what God will do. The power. The project.

Program

And then finally, the program. In the book of Acts, you will notice if you read Acts 1:8 – “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth” – those three stages, and then you read through the book of Acts you’ll see it’s a virtual table of contents. So the first seven chapters focus on the work of the Gospel in Jerusalem. Chapter 8, the Gospel goes to Samaria. Chapter 8 through about chapter 20, you see the itinerant missionary endeavors of the apostle Paul throughout the Roman Empire. Chapter 21 to the end gathers momentum towards Paul’s arrival in Rome, the center of the known world – the symbolic ends of the earth. And there’s Jesus’ pattern in Acts 1:8. There’s a program according to which the Gospel advances until the story is complete.

Jesus Propels the Church Onward

But I want you not to miss the nature of the progress according to Jesus’ plan. You see, if you look at Acts chapters 1 through 7, even though He had given them the Holy Spirit to empower the Church, to go to the ends of the earth with the Gospel, they’re not budging. They’re in Jerusalem, the Church is growing, everything is great, they’re going nowhere. It doesn’t look like they have any plan to reach the ends of the earth, let alone Samaria just next door, until, that is, Stephen, one of the deacons, is martyred for his faith. And we read this, “And there arose that day great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of” – guess where? “Judea and Samaria.” Jesus is getting His mission done. And if the church won’t go, He’s going to find a way to propel them outward. And so He, in His providence, in His sovereignty, allows a season of persecution to fall upon the church. And Acts 9 verse 4, we are told that as they went – actually, no, Acts 8 verse 4, “Those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” The word for “preaching” there is “εὐαγγελίζομαι“. We get our word “evangelism” from it. That’s what they’re doing – ordinary Christians, scattered under the pressure of persecution. Everywhere they went, they literally, they “Gospeled.” They told people about Jesus everywhere they went. They went to Samaria, first of all, and they began to go to the ends of the earth.

Persecution unto Evangelism

Here’s the point. In other words, the providence of God, in this case wielding the instrument of persecution, propelled evangelism ensuring that Christ’s program got finished. The great Puritan, John Flavel, famously said that “providence,” the providence of God, “is like a Hebrew word. You can only read it backwards.” Isn’t that true? We don’t really know why this or that is happening to us. Sometimes we never do, but often it’s only with hindsight. Looking back we get to see, maybe only glimpses, of God’s design and purpose in our trials and difficulties and in our triumphs and blessings. “Providence is like a Hebrew word – best read backwards.” But we do need to try and read it and learn from the experience of the Church in the book of Acts and indeed the Church in history, all of which reminds us that what may at first appear to be disaster, may actually be Jesus fulfilling His program for the evangelization of the nations.

A familiar illustration of that I’ve used before has to do with the day the missionaries were expelled from China. You’ve heard me say this before. 1952, the last missionary left China, Western missionary, left China. At that point, there were 750,000 Protestant Christians living in China. And the expulsion of the missionaries was a catastrophe. It really was a disaster. It looked like the work was over. Today, there is a conservative estimate, 58 million Protestant Christians in China; 58 million since 1952.

The lesson is the same as the one here in the book of Acts, Acts chapter 8 – “What man intended for evil,” persecution, “God intended for good.” He’s working His purposes out as year succeeds to year. Isn’t that precisely the message of the passage? It’s the message of Cowper’s great hymn. Remember he says, “Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take! The clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break with blessing on your head. Judge not the Lord by feeble sense but trust Him for His grace. Behind a frowning providence, He hides a smiling face." Many of you have experienced that in the hard trials of your own daily life. As is true in our own lives, it is also true for the Church across history on a global scale. What may seem like a setback, what may often appear to us to be failure or opposition or difficulty, as we seek to be obedient to the mission Christ has given us, may in fact rather be King Jesus getting the work done in ways that will surprise us as the Gospel spreads to the ends of the earth.

Christ is on the Throne

If we are faithful to Acts 1:8, if we are faithful to our vision statement, we ought to expect it to cost us – certainly in terms of our financial contributions but also in terms of our emotional and physical energy and stamina, cost us in terms of our reputation; may even cost us friendships if we’re going to be faithful in sharing the good news about Jesus. It will be costly; it will be hard. There will be opposition. But “Judge not the Lord by feeble sense. Trust Him for His grace. Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take! The clouds ye so much dread, are big with mercy and shall break with blessing on your head!" You don't know all that Jesus is doing. Providence can only be read like a Hebrew word. It's read in reverse. He may, in fact, be working in ways you did not expect to deploy His servants and get His message to the people who most need to hear it. And so we ought to take comfort in the knowledge that Christ is on the throne, and the work to which He calls us He will equip us for and He will so superintend and govern that it cannot fail. It cannot fail!

Let me close with this final illustration. I was reading, Thursday past, in Time magazine, reports of a survey, the results of a survey from the American Psychological Association. They found that 63% of Americans consider the future of our country a source of significant stress in their lives. That is more than any other stressor in American life, statistically. The greatest source of stress for the greatest number of Americans is about the future. Apparently, we are really concerned about an uncertain future. Christians know the answer to that, don't we? We’ve seen the end already right here in the middle of it all. We’re seen Revelation 7 and that final scene when the work is done and the vision accomplished and the mission fulfilled, as a vast, innumerable company is gathered around the throne of God and of the Lamb from every tribe and people and language and nation, the ends of the earth adoring their Redeemer. We know the work will not fail. We know the work will be done. And so we don’t need to worry about tomorrow or about the day after that or whether or not we are up to the task or sufficient for the challenge. Of course we’re not. Of course we’re not! King Jesus is, and He gives His Spirit to His children when they cry to Him and then He uses us, in extraordinary and often surprising ways, to get His mission done.

Will you join me in giving yourself in pursuit of the vision to which we have been called?

Let’s pray together.

Lord Jesus, we confess, I confess that we’re often scared to talk about Jesus when opportunity comes. We’re intimidated, we worry we won’t say the right thing, we don’t want to be judged, we don’t want others to feel judged by us. We don’t want to imperil friendships, and more often than not, sometimes we keep our mouths shut when we often speak. So would You forgive us for that, please? For failing to be witnesses when You've called us to be. And would You help us by pouring out afresh the Holy Spirit, that the place where we are gathered might be shaken? And having been filled with the Spirit, we might go to speak the Word of God with new boldness. And as we do that, O Lord, would You do what You did in the book of Acts and begin to add to the number daily those who are being saved? For we ask it in Jesus' name, amen. 

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