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acts

March 24, 2008

Do you know those times where you have a word or phrase bouncing around your mind for days or weeks at a time? I’ve had one of those recently and I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about it. The phrase is this: “Give your best to your local church.” It is easy, I know, to offer our best to believers other than those in our local churches. There is often affirmation and excitement in ministering elsewhere. Sometimes the local church can seem so drab, so normal in comparison.

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of preaching at Grace Fellowship Church (a.k.a. my church) as part of a series we’re doing on the book of Acts. It is a series that is a refresher course, of sorts, reminding us what the early church was all about. When we understand that Acts is meant to be more than mere history, we see that there is much we can and should learn from the example of the first Christians. I spoke on group evangelism in the early church and discussed the local church in Antioch and their example of sending men on foreign missions. I showed how these men were called by the Spirit, commissioned by the church, and then sent by the church and the Spirit. I focused on the fact that these men were not renegade missionaries, sending themselves to the mission field, but that they were men who were called through and on behalf of a local church.

I began my sermon by reflecting on something that had been of interest to me. The three days prior to preaching I had been in Orlando, Florida for the Ligonier Ministries National Conference. It was, by any measure, a fantastic conference. We were able to hear some exceptional messages by some great preachers. We heard from Sinclair Ferguson, Steve Lawson, C.J. Mahaney, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul. They brought us the Word and brought it with power. I truly enjoyed the conference and benefited from it. Yet even while I sat there with 5,000 other believers, I couldn’t help but note a tiny little voice in my brain (or was it in my heart?) saying, “I’d rather be at Grace.” It is not that there was anything wrong with the conference. Far from it! It’s just that God has built into me and into all believers a heart for the local church. God has done something amazing in building the local church and in grouping us together in these bodies. The longer I stay at Grace and the more I commit myself to her, the more it feels like home. I took just a moment to thank the people in that church for being that local church to me and to my family.

You know, the more I travel and the more I see of the church at large, the more I come to love her—but even stronger, the more I come to love my local church. These local churches, which can be found from one end of the world to the other, truly are the hope for the world. It is to these bodies, more than any other, that God has entrusted His message. And it is through these local bodies that He seems to do His greatest work. These bodies are the most natural context for all manner of Christian ministry.

Like you, I’ve seen pastors who have sacrificed their families and their churches to the altar of ministry. They travel the world speaking at ministry events, all the while missing the opportunities to minister in their community of faith. They become disconnected from the local church, opting instead to minister everywhere else. But I’m convinced that God calls us first to our local congregations and only then to wider ministry. As I’ve traveled and as I’ve seen churches all across North America, I’ve seen like never before the importance of a commitment to a local church. I enjoyed talking to Steve Lawson some time ago and hearing from him that travel and ministry has only caused him to miss preaching at his own church one Sunday in the past year or so. He speaks at many conferences, but always attempts to be home on Saturday so he can minister to his own congregation on Sunday morning. There are many like him—many men who love to minister elsewhere but who mostly love to minister closest to home.

In my younger days I used to go to many Christian concerts and I would often have opportunities to talk with band members. I often noted how many of these men would continually speak of their families. I took this as a good sign! These men had families they loved and it was clear that, though music was what they did for a living, their hearts were with their wives and children at home. They spoke this way deliberately, I’m sure, and did it to guard their hearts. They took every opportunity to share with others about the people they loved. Likewise, many ministers are thrilled by what God is doing in their local congregations. It is always exciting to hear a pastor share the things God has done and to share in his excitement.

Give your best to your local church.” I am still working out the details of all of this in my own life. I am still working on ensuring that my first commitment to Christians is to those within the community where God has placed me. I’ve begun to reevaluate how and when I travel; I’ve begun to reevaluate the things I write about; I’ve begun to ask how I can give my best to the community of faith closest to me. It’s an ongoing process and one I’ve really only just begun.

In a couple of weeks I’ll have the opportunity to preach once more at Grace. This time I will speak about the importance of prayer in the early church and I hope to take as my text the closing verses Acts 4:23-31—that passage that allows us a glimpse into an impromptu prayer meeting in the early days of the church. Peter and John have just been released after interrogation by a religious council and the very moment they are freed they “went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them.” They went straight from the council to a gathering of the local church and there they prayed for boldness and for success in ministry. Something here caught my eye. Even with my rudimentary Greek I was able to see that the word “friends” was missing from the original text. This is a translation that takes just a little bit of liberty (which, of course, translations often have to do). Almost every translation offers something different here but what the text really seems to say is simply that upon their release “they went to their own.” And what a great phrase that is! No sooner had they been released than they went to their local church, the most natural context for them to minister and to be ministered to, and together they joined their voices in prayer to God. This passage shows the local church in action; the local church doing what they do best; the local church doing what God decreed that they should do.

It’s this kind of commitment I want to have for the local church—a commitment that considers that church my own. And it’s a commitment I’m sure we can learn from the book of Acts.

February 28, 2008

Roy Halladay is the kind of athlete that other players just want to be around. For many years now he has served as the ace of the Toronto Blue Jays’ pitching staff and he is consistently one of the top players in the game. He has achieved his success not only by having innate talent, but also (and primarily, I’m sure!) by working very, very hard. He drives himself relentlessly, training both his body and his mind so he can do his absolute best all the time. He expects no less. Other players on the team love to spend time with him. Just being near him and observing how he trains himself is valuable for other players. Many of the Jays would testify that being near him, watching him and copying him has made them better athletes. That’s often the way it is, isn’t it? Solomon knew this and said, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” We become like those around us.

I’ve been asked to speak a couple of times in the next few weeks on the book of Acts and I’ve been reading the book in my times of Bible study. Acts has long been my favorite New Testament book. I love it for its history, describing the earliest days of the church, and its theology, showing how early Christians began to work out Christian theology. There is something pure and inspiring in the early church and its something we’ve been trying to recapture ever since.

Whenever I read through Acts there are certain stories, passages or phrases that stop me every time. One of these is in the fourth chapter. Acts 4:13 reads like this: “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.” Hauled before the Jewish Council, John and Peter were asked by what power they had healed a lame beggar. Peter, though only a fisherman in a time of great rhetoric, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and went straight to the cross and to the gospel, speaking boldly and confidently. This left the religious authorities perplexed. How was it that ordinary, uneducated, common men could know so much and do so many great things. How could they speak with such authority? It seems it was right here that one of them had a little burst of inspiration and suddenly recognized that these men were two of Jesus’ disciples. They had gotten rid of Jesus, but now here were His followers, healing in His name and teaching men about their Master. Here they were speaking on behalf of Jesus. Matthew Henry says, “When they understood that they had been with Jesus, had been conversant with him, attendant on him, and trained up under him, they knew what to impute their boldness to; nay, their boldness in divine things was enough to show with whom they had had their education.” The authorities looked at these men and realized they had been with Jesus. This explained their behavior. Suddenly it all made sense. They weren’t happy.

I find that phrase such a challenge and such an inspiration. “They had been with Jesus.” It is inspiring to know that the source of the disciples’ boldness and confidence was not anything in themselves, but was a direct result of the time they had spent with Jesus. By living with Him and communing with Him, they became like Him. It was inevitable. For three years they sat at His feet, followed Him from town to town, and acted as His deputies. For three years He trained them and for three years they became increasingly like Him. They walked with the wise and became wise.

It is easy to be jealous of those disciples. There isn’t much most Christians wouldn’t give to be able to spend three years with Jesus. We can only imagine how that would change us, mold us, shape us. But there is reason to rejoice, nonetheless. God has given us His Word that we might learn to live as He would have us live. The Bible is perfectly sufficient for all matters of the Christian life. We, too, can be with Jesus by communing with Him in the Word. And this is the challenge for us. If we wish to be like Jesus, we need first to be with Jesus. Listen to Matthew Henry once more. “Those that have been with Jesus, in converse and communion with him, have been attending on his word, praying in his name, and celebrating the memorials of his death and resurrection, should conduct themselves, in every thing, so that those who converse with them may take knowledge of them that they have been with Jesus; and this makes them so holy, and heavenly, and spiritual, and cheerful; this has raised them so much above this world, and filled them with another. One may know that they have been in the mount by the shining of their faces.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones says something similar. “May we all learn the lesson of this old incident. Let us meet with this Jesus and listen to Him, and soon we, too, will become phenomena. We will become men and women who are enigmas to everybody else.”

Have you met with Jesus? This is the challenge for us. We are to study the Word and to learn from it, immersing ourselves in it, so that people will look at us and hear us speak and see and hear something other-worldly. They will only be able to conclude, “They have been with Jesus!”