Acts 6. Church-growing:
The word increases, the disciples increase...
We went to Guernsey on our honeymoon, four years ago this summer. On our first evening we decide to walk into the town of St. Peter's port to get a meal. I'd been
to the island before so I confidently led the way, leading my wife through the country lanes into town.
We needed no map. I knew where I was going. I would lead my wife with confidence! Sadly what I percieved as a straight and familiar road was slightly curved and my
bearings were a little off. Soon we were lost. In the evening sun it was pleasant enough but it was our first tense moment.
Eventually we found our way back to where we began, picked up a map from our room and began again... things are not always “romance and righteousness” in marriage, and nor were they in the early church.
The story in Acts begins with great glory, the Spirit sweeping in and changing lives... but the honeymoon doesn't last long and soon tensions and challenges appear. Nonetheless, we must remember as Paul would preach in Acts 20v28 Paul that Jesus bought the church with his own blood.
This is the glorious story of Jesus' bride... bought with the blood of calvary... rescued from the fires of hell to know the eternal pleasures of being in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ forever. We dive back into Acts this summer term in chapter 6.
Let's recap last term.
Josh Harris writes: "Acts 1 is the first page of church history... you and I trace our spiritual ancestry to that page. There, Jesuscharges his followers with being his witness to the ends of the earth. Then he returned to heaven. A few
paragraphs later the mighty wind of the Spirit blows into a meeting of 120 waiting expectant believers.. and the church is born"
This is our story. The story of the church. By Acts 6 there are 10,000 disciples... today... who knows. Its unstoppable. But how does it grow? The church is not out there – its us, you and me together.
Our obituary is published frequently – but reports of our death are greatly exaggerated. It will triumph. Jesus said so. Terry Virgo asks if the future has a church - and he knows it does! Harris pleads: fall in love with the church.
But how does the church grow?
Many succomb to lies in this matter. Some to inaction – concluding if they wait and perhaps pray God will bring people flooding in.. and yet we're still closing more churches than we're planting.
William Carey exposed this for a lie. God uses means. William Carey sparked the modern missions movement when he defied the inactivists. They said if God wanted
to save the heathen he would. Carey knew that God always uses means... he uses people to pray and to preach. In rural Northamptonshire, near where I grew up, missions flame was reignited. And it continues to burn... and it must burn on!
Others say go for relevance. Knock off the edges. Be cool. But we're not cool we're Jesus' people. We need not make the gospel relevant. It is. But mankind has never wanted to hear the gospel. People prefer junk to jewels. They prefer idols to Jesus.
As John Piper observes, and Matt Redman has put into song. Missions exist because worship doesn't.
One more remark before Acts 6.
Why am I talking about church growth here in the Christian Union?
• Firstly, because second to talking about God's grace there's nothing I'd rather talk about than the church. I love the church.
• Secondly, because Acts 6 tells me I must - I have no choice!
• Thirdly, because although the CU is not The Local Church it cannot be divorced from the church. We all represent local churches – sending and receiving churches.
As the Christian Union we are at work in church growth, but not in growing a campus church. We have no interest in building a campus church. Why not?
• Firstly, its unsustainable because you'll move on fast. No one can stay for long.
• Secondly, its unbiblical – church cannot be homogenous. It must be diverse to display the glory of the gospel. The more diverse the better... a student-only church does not do that. So, we say no to campus church, instead we form a mission
team growing our churches in Guildford and nationwise.
So, to Acts 6.
These are the Acts of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit empowering God's people to testify. As Jesus said, testifying to his resurrection!
See 5v42, daily, unstoppable. Spirit-sent from Jerusalem, to Judea & Samaria and out to the End of the Earth. In Acts 6 they are numerous but they're still in Jerusalem. By Acts 28 they'll reach Rome, the ends of the earth... Everything else is Acts 29, at the ends of the earth.
Among the Acts of the Spirit are the acts of satan. The devil is defeated at the cross, but he fights on. He has but two strategies.
From outside – stiring persecution against Jesus. Twice Peter and John have been arrested and told to stop testifying. But they will not be silenced.
From inside, turning disciples back to sin. Ananias and Sapphira are satan-filled when they should be Spirit-filled, in Acts 5.. they lie to the Spirit and die.
The devil wants to silence the church so that God's rule will not be manifest in this world. If the church stops testifying to Jesus' resurrection then the lie that satan still has a claim on us can be maintained.
Now in Acts 6 another internal issue. Its financial again. And if it cannot be resolved then the very mission of the church is at stake. Get this wrong and the church silenced. Silenced so that satan's influence goes uncontested.
1. Growth brings Struggle
The church unites sinners. The Jerusalem church comprises of Greek and Hebrew Jews. Two languages. Two cultures. One Christ.
Sinners called out of idolatry to the worship of Jesus. What a work of sovereign grace! The same work that has happened in us. Corrupted to enjoy sin, when we were made to enjoy the Lord Jesus Christ.
What an Almighty Saviour we have. Among those 10,000 were the worst of sinners. Among that number were members of the mob who once cried out "Crucify Him!" and now cry out “Magnify Him!”
Churchless Christianity is no Christianity at all. You cannot be a churchless Christian. Someone said you may be going to hell if you're not a member of the local church you attend. They push the point strongly, but the point is true. God's plan is corporate. Its not me and Jesus, is me, you and Jesus. Its not
easy, but church is not optional.
And we should grieve to see the church spoken ill of. And we should weep when God's people speak ill of the church. Jesus loves the church... we must also. And yet, putting sinners together under the same roof is never easy. Its true of marriage. And it is true of the church. The early church was fraught with trouble. The church grew, but it was forever fighting against sin. The New Testament is predominantly correctional against pain and problems.
In Acts 6 division arose. v1. Greeks complaining against Hebrews because their widows were being overlooked in the distribution of food. It was a failure in funding. The money was kept centrally and it was not being distributed aright.
Widows were being overlooked.
God cares for widows, as he does for all his people. Growth was an administrative nightmare, and Christians were going hungry. When one part suffers the whole body suffers. The unity of the Spirit in the church is at threat. One faction complains against another.
There is daily crisis in the church to maintain what Jesus blood as wrought for us. It will happen. Parties and factions form within the body. And it is terrible. One party considers itself wronged – rightly or wrongly. Division arises. The gospel is refuted in the life of the church.
How we must examine ourselves... how we tolerate sin when we ought rather have the Holy Spirit lead us into war against our sin. Today the needs in the community of believers, here on campus are not physical, generally speaking. We have debt but we are well provided for. The global church is different but we are terribly priviledged. There are needs – loneliness, depression, academic pressures... and they matter. We must care for one another.
The needs are less but nonetheless we opt to divide. Friendship groups become cliques and factions. Divided over image or church...campaigning for our own agendas when we ought to be delighting together in the grace of God. Standing together to speak of that grace. And when we resist the urge to fight, we separate and divide... we stand apart.
The Incident with the Unfed Widows could have split the early church in two, on racial grounds. Would we do that? Divided over trivial matters of image and style? Opinion and selfish preference? What a precious priviledge to be united in Christ.
A friend working with Christian Unions outside the UK reports on one campus some seventeen evangelical student groups. Seventeen! How do you divide that many ways? The Holy Spirit calls us to unity, we must maintain the unity of the Spirit. The idea of Christian community is great, said Bonhoeffer, the experience is hard. Really hard. We're to be together, not tribal. Struggling in Spirit-unity.
2. Growth needs Spirit-filled service.
The complaint comes before the leaders. Quite rightly. Yet there is a problem. The leaders have already been set apart by the Holy Spirit for a particular work.
They are holy for the chief work of the church. They're set apart and empowered, like the rest of the church, to testify that Jesus is the Christ. And they did it daily.
They assert and prove, preach and persuade that Jesus is the Christ... with great fruitfulness. They could give this up and turn to what they call "waiting on tables" - or "table-ministry". Not so much being waiters, but bank clerks. But they have to say no. They will help resolve the problem, but they cannot be the answer to the problem. Our church leaders are drowning under countless good causes that would lead them away from prayer and preaching.
Speaking and teaching and explaining about Jesus cannot be neglected. And, neither can prayer - see v4. They must "give attention to prayer and the ministry of the
Prayer and preaching, the church's chief priority. Preaching and prayer cannot be neglected. Practical needs matter, but the mission of the church must not be neglected. The Spirit's sword must not be taken away.
They learn from Moses after the Exodus and delegate. He too was a minister of God's word:
Firstly, nominate qualified people: known to be Spirit-filled and wise.
Secondly, bring them to the leaders for approval.
Thirdly, v6, everyone prays for them. Some think that says the apostles prayed, but the translation is better put that the whole community laid hands on them and prayed.
Let's explore that qualification:
What does it mean for a disciple to be Spirit-filled?
Remember that: "Bible words have Bible meanings".
In Ephesians being Spirit-filled describes those who love the
In Galatians being Spirit-led describes those who love God's people and God's ways.
In Luke's writings?
In Luke 11 it is about being a Christian. Those who have eternal life have the Holy Spirit. But it seems unlikely that that is the meaning in Acts 6. How can it be? It wouldn't need saying.
By Spirit-filled Luke means those who are empowered by the Holy Spirit to testify about Jesus. It can be all Christians, it may not be.
That's what Jesus said in Acts 1. And its what happened in Act 2 - in all the languages of the world the Spirit-filled disciples testified about Jesus, and chief among them Peter.
Seven Greek's are chosen. We know that from their names. They're Spirit-filled. The apostles accept the nominations and then the whole church prays for them... Five are
only remembered here, but two will recur.
Firstly Stephen. Stephen gives the longest sermon Luke records. Its a brilliant explanation of the gospel of Jesus Christ - the story of God's salvation of his people. The Holy Spirit empowers Stephen to testify boldly. So boldly
that he goes to his death as a martyr.
Secondly, Philip. We find him on the road explaining who Jesus is from Isaiah 53. Preaching Christ from the Old Testament.
These men were bank clerks and yet they were among the greatest preachers of the gospel that the church has ever known. Spirit-filled, marked by depth of character and conviction.. who cares about skill and image... these men were full of the power of the Holy Spirit and God worked powerfully through them.
The church is the best place on earth. The idea is great, the experience is hard. But Jesus died to buy us for himself. He is at work in us by the Holy Spirit, by his glorious grace. The Lord Jesus came to live, die and rise so that his name would be proclaimed to the ends of the earth – the earth full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus Christ!
And the word about Jesus Christ will be the means by which the nations are reborn. Growth brings struggle, it requires spirit-filled service... and it will grow by
3. Growth is by speaking of Jesus.
v7. "...the word of God spread, the number of disciples increased rapidly... " Or rather, "the word increased, the disciples increased"
The Spirit-exhaled word of God taught by Spirit-empowered people leads to the new birth of many. It is the enduring word of God that recreates people. It is by the Word of God, the Spirit's sword that men become disciples... students of Jesus.. obedient to the gospel!
And even Priests obey. Significant because Stephen will be martyred on the charge of preaching against the temple. And yet he preaches the true temple of God – the Lord
There is direct correlation – spread the word of God, people will become disciples. Shut up and stay silent and people will not be saved. Not saved by effort. Nor desire. Nor works. Nor image. Nor race. Nor religion.
Saved only by the sovereign grace of God by the preaching of the Word of God. The Holy Spirit convicts of sin and calls men to eternal life – to Jesus Christ himself forever.
This is and has always been the story of the Kingdom of God. John Stott puts it clearly: the kingdom grows as the Lordship of Jesus Christ is consciously acknowledged.
The early church knew this. Satan knows it – its why he conspires to silence the church from inside and from outside.
How will the church grow?
The Lord Jesus lived. He died. He rose. He is ascended. And the Lord Jesus gives the Holy Spirit so that by means of the prayer and preaching of his disciples his fame
would spread, his word would increase and his disciples would increase.
There will be struggle. We need the Spirit's power. And we must speak. Satan conspires to stop us speaking – we must not give in. The gospel will triumph unstoppably, but we could step away from it... wandering off the main road of God's purposes and lost in the country lanes of division and distraction.
The spread of the word will bring an increase in the number of disciples – individuals, one student at a time becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ! These are the Acts of the Holy Spirit in his church! If we are to grow the church of Guildford, of this nation and beyond then we must give ourselves to the work the Holy
Spirit has for us.
Spirit-people and therefore word-people.
Praying people who are preaching people.
Josh Harris again: "..their faithfulness to the Saviour is directly connected to the fact that two thousand years later, you and I know Jesus. If they hadn't stood for the gospel in their generation, we wouldn't be here in ours. They lived out God's word, they met in fellowship to give witness to the gospel; they proclaimed Christ Crucified with the word and their lives. Through them God saved and discipled the person who shared the good news with another... who witnessed to another... and another... on through the generations til we come to the person who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with you and me... and so here we are... this is our time..."
And for 40 years, generation after generation has grasped that baton here at the University of Surrey. They ask us, will we hold our lives cheap, even to death, for Jesus' sake? They ask us, where are the lovers of Jesus, who love the souls of men more than their reputation, comfort or lives? They ask us, where are the men and women of vision? They ask us, where are the men and women of prayer?
This is our time, what will we do with it? Will we stray from the the work of spreading God's word? Here or elsewhere... or will we be obedient to the Holy Spirit, empowered by him to pray and preach the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
Note this is the script I spoke from not a transcript of what I actually said. There are a number of differences.
Delivered at University of Surrey Christian Union. May 4th.
Intro idea from CJ Mahaney on this passage - but the story is mine and is true. Josh Harris quotes from Stop Dating the Church as is the "You may be going to hell" quote. Terry Virgo reference is the title of his book. Closing questions from Howard Guiness Sacrifice. Much helped in preparing by Chris Green's book The Word of His Grace.