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God’s power for God’s purpose: The faith of the first Christians

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Acts 1

A friend once sent me some statements taken from performance evaluation sheets of government employees. Among them:

“His men would follow him anywhere, but only out of morbid curiosity.”

“Got into the gene pool while the lifeguard wasn’t watching.”

“Got a full six-pack, but lacks the plastic thingy to hold it all together.”

“Donated his brain to science before he was done using it.”

“If he were any more stupid, he’d have to be watered twice a week.”

“Some drink from the fountain of knowledge; he only gargled.”

“Gates are down, the lights are flashing, but the train isn’t coming.”

“This employee is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.”

Fortunately, the Lord feels very differently about those you will teach this Sunday. They are his answer to the world’s crying need for hope, help, and home. They are his salt and light, his hands and feet. Each person you will teach is called to be his disciple—a fully functioning follower of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the Lord has called you to be their discipler. Your ministry exists to help them find and fulfill theirs. You are the one person in our congregation most responsible for the spiritual development of those you teach and serve.

The first followers of Jesus were in exactly your position. It would be their job to bring all who would follow their Lord into full maturity in the faith. How would they do it? How will we?

Walk with the Lord personally (Acts 1:1-5)

First, we must possess that which we intend to give. We cannot lead others further than we are willing to go. I still remember the impact Henri Nouwen’s statement made on me when I first encountered it: “The great fallacy of our age is to believe we can be led out of the desert by a person who’s never been there.” Your class will heed your words only if they can first follow your example. We must be what we wish others to become.

Luke begins his second book with the same dedication which began his gospel (see last week’s introduction to Acts). His purpose in the first volume was to tell Theophilus about Jesus’ earthly ministry, all that he “began to do and to teach” (v. 1). Jesus knew the importance of setting an example, as did Luke. He recorded first our Lord’s actions, then his teachings.

His Gospel ended with the ascension of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:2; cf. Luke 24:50-53). His second volume picks up where the first left off: with the coming of the Spirit. Before Pentecost, however, the Master Teacher spent 40 more days with his followers. He proved his resurrection to them (v. 3), as it would be the crucial fact upon which the faith would be built (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:17-20). Then he taught them further on the Kingdom of God, the central subject of his life and work (v. 3a).

Finally, he urged them not to leave Jerusalem to begin their ministries until they possessed the “gift my Father promised” (v. 4), the “Holy Spirit” (v. 5). They could not serve their Master until they possessed his power.

Neither can we. We must walk with Jesus as fully as did his first disciples. He proves his resurrection to us when we meet with him each morning in prayer, Bible study, and worship. During the turbulent 60s, a reporter asked Billy Graham what he thought about the popular assertion, “God is dead.” Dr. Graham replied, “God is not dead—I spoke with him this morning.” We learn that our Lord is risen and alive every time we meet with him.

As we commune with him, he teaches us more about his Kingdom through his word. And he empowers us to live in that Kingdom and extend its reach as we depend upon his Spirit. Each day we are to ask the Holy Spirit to show us our sins, then confess them by faith (1 John 1:9). Then we are to yield that day to the Spirit’s control and guidance (Ephesians 5:18). When we take these daily steps, we experience the presence and power of Jesus as fully as did his first followers.

In the midst of a stormy sea voyage, one young soldier could stand the dread and anxiety of the ship no longer. He rushed to the control room and watched the captain wrestle with the controls of the huge ship. With skill and strength, he guided the vessel to clear water. Then he turned slightly, looked at the frightened sailor, and smiled. The young sailor returned below deck and assured the crew that the danger was over. “How do you know?” they asked. He answered, “I saw the face of the captain, and he smiled at me.”

Look on his face daily. And those you teach and influence will want the faith and joy you possess.

Seek his purpose passionately (vs. 6-8)

Perhaps you’ve heard the old story about the famous country farmer marksman. His aim with bow and arrow was legendary—he never missed the bulls-eye of his targets. A reporter went to investigate. He found arrows stuck all over the side of the farmer’s barn, dead-center in the bulls-eye. Then he watched the farmer shoot. He would let fly the arrow, then paint the target around it. The axiom is still true: if we fail to plan, we plan to fail. Only when we seek God’s purpose passionately can we fulfill it.

Jesus wanted his followers to understand clearly this purpose. They, like us, were more interested in predicting the future (v. 6); he is always more interested in redeeming the present (v. 7). None of us was placed on the planning committee, but on the preparation committee. We are to live each day as though our Lord will return this day. And one day we’ll all be right.

Remember the essentials of God’s plan for his people:

Our purpose: “you will be my witnesses.” A “witness” in a courtroom is a person who tells what he or she has experienced personally. We are all such, each day. At question is only whether we fulfill this purpose poorly or well. We are the Bible people read.

Our people: “you” will be my witnesses. “You” is plural in the Greek. There is no clergy-laity distinction here, or anywhere else in the Scriptures. Every member is a minister. We can reach the world with the gospel only when each one of us finds and fulfills our personal ministries.

Our power: the Holy Spirit will enable us to fulfill this purpose. We cannot win a single soul, change a single heart, or redeem a single life. Only the Spirit can convict us of sin and transform our lives. Your work can be accomplished only when the Spirit does it through you.

Our priorities: we are to begin in our Jerusalem, then extend our ministries to the “ends of the earth.” Every life you touch today is part of your mission field. Each person in your class should have a personal Acts 1:8 strategy. Beginning with you.

Fulfill his will urgently (vs. 9-11)

After Jesus made clear his plan one last time, he ascended back to his Father (v. 9). The ascension of Jesus is as real a fact as his resurrection, and as miraculous. One more time he gave his followers reason to believe in his divinity and serve his Kingdom.

Now our Lord reigns in heaven with the Father. We know these facts about his present place and rule:

He reigns as Lord: “God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

He reigns over spiritual powers: “[Jesus] has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him” (1 Peter 3:22).

He reigns over the world: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

He reigns over the church: “[Christ] is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy” (Colossians 1:18).

He reigns in worship: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise” (Revelation 5:12).

He reigns as Lord: “Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (Romans 14:9).

And one day he will return to the planet from which he ascended (Acts 1:10-11). The disciples were “looking intently” up into the sky; the words mean to stare with intense purpose. Then angels sent them about their business: don’t focus on Jesus’ departure, but prepare for his arrival.

We don’t know the timing or manner in which our Lord will return, for the simple reason that such information is of no practical application to our lives today. Greek philosophers were interested in speculative discussions; the Hebrew mindset was intensely practical and present-tense in orientation.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened to the dinosaurs or how many years ago creation began, because such knowledge would not change your life as you read these words. If you and I knew exactly how Jesus would return to our planet, such information would change nothing about our lives and work in this moment.

The Bible doesn’t tell us all we wish we knew, but all we need to know. Mark Twain was right: it’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me—it’s the parts I do understand.

Yield to his will specifically (vs. 12-26)

The last half of Acts 1 describes events which are less relevant to our lives and faith today than those we have studied so far. But the principles which these events teach have direct application to our work in following Jesus, especially when we face times where we must know God’s will for our next steps in faith.

Obey Jesus now (v. 12)

The disciples did exactly what their Lord had commanded them: “they returned to Jerusalem.” He had told them to wait there for the coming of the Spirit (v. 4). This despite the obvious dangers inherent in such a decision. The same authorities who had arranged Jesus’ crucifixion would likely be looking to eliminate his followers.

To return to Jerusalem was ill advised at best. But our Lord’s will is not always rational for us at the moment we receive it. Obedience leads to understanding, seldom the other way around. Obey that part of God’s will which you do understand. Do what you know to do, today.

Pray together constantly (vs. 13-14)

The “homogeneous church growth principle” suggests that churches grow best when they try to become and reach only a single kind of person. Jesus’ disciples give the lie to such an approach. No more disparate group was ever assembled on the face of the earth. Among them was Matthew the tax collector, whose former life had supported Rome in every way, coupled with Simon, the zealot who was pledged to the violent overthrow of the Empire. Peter, the man who denied Christ three times, prayed at the side of John, who refused to leave his Lord’s side. Jesus’ brothers, men who had denied his divinity, prayed with disciples who had staked their lives on it.

They all “joined together” (v. 14a)—the phrase means that they met in unity. The closer we get to the Lord, the closer we get to each other. When was the last time your class met together for no reason except to pray together?

These first Christians met together for a specific reason: to pray for God’s Kingdom to come to their lives and city. Chuck Swindoll is right: we can do much for God after we pray, but nothing until we pray. With whom will you pray together for God’s will to be done in your lives today?

Interpret life biblically (vs. 15-20)

Peter then stood and addressed the assembled group from the wisdom and word of God. He explained the fact of Judas’ betrayal as a fulfillment of David’s prediction, leading to an open opportunity for another to fulfill his leadership call (Psalms 69:25; 109:8).

Judas’ betrayal led to his suicide by hanging (Mathew. 27:5). After his death, either his body decayed in the manner Peter describes (v. 18), or was cut down with the described result. In this way, Matthew’s account is completed by Peter’s.

Judas’ actions did not prevent the purpose of God—they helped to complete it. When we interpret all that happens to us in light of the word and will of God, we are able to see his larger purposes and fulfill them by our own faithfulness.

When I taught science and faith classes at Southwestern Seminary, I encouraged my students to interpret science through the eyes of Scripture, not the reverse. Scientific “laws” are always being adapted to new discoveries, as is appropriate. But the word of God does not change; it is always his revelation to his people (cf. Hebrews 4:12).

When we seek biblical principles for responding to the circumstances of our days, we will walk in the will and power of our Father.

Trust his will personally (vs. 21-26)

Now the church must choose the person to take Judas’ place of leadership. This was a crucial decision, with much resting on the outcome. If the person chosen turned out to be a traitor like Judas, they could all die and their movement with them. They must step by sacrificial and personal faith into God’s will.

They established guidelines for apostleship: the person must have been with Jesus from the beginning of his ministry (vs. 21-22), and be willing to become “a witness with us of his resurrection” (v. 22b). Two men qualified: Joseph called Barsabbas, and Matthias. Their existence shows that more followed Jesus than we find named in the gospels. We are not told that these are the only two who met apostolic qualifications, but that they were the two “proposed” by the church (v. 23).

The apostles sought God’s will in this specific matter, through urgent and heartfelt prayer (v. 24). They then “cast lots” (v. 26), a typical Old Testament procedure for seeking the will of God (cf. 1 Chronicles 26:13-16). Most likely these were two squares or discs; when they both fell “up,” the positive resulted; when they both fell “down,” the negative was interpreted. In this case, the apostles may have written the names of the two men on two discs; whichever name came up on both was determined to be their answer.

Using such tools was in no sense gambling or stepping away from God’s will. Those who used these implements trusted that God would guide the stones or discs to reveal his will. Praying for God to “open or close doors,” or asking him to act in other circumstantial ways, is no less a belief that our Father will use events to disclose his will. Nonetheless, this is the last time “lots” were used in the Bible.

Matthias was the result of their prayer and lot-casting, so “he was added to the eleven apostles” (v. 26). This is the last we hear of him, causing some to suggest that he was not God’s will for Judas’ place among the apostles. Some go further, asserting that Paul was the twelfth apostle meant by God. But the fact that Matthias is not mentioned again in the New Testament is not a conclusive fact, for we hear no more from seven of the other apostles listed in verse 13. Such an argument from silence is speculative at best.

Where do you find yourself needing to know God’s will and purpose for your life today? Follow the example of these first Christians: obey what you know of God’s will, now. Pray with others, constantly. Interpret the events of your life through the eyes and revelation of Scripture. Trust his will personally as he reveals it to you, believing that it is “good, acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). And he will guide you through each step of your path in his will and ultimate purpose for your life.

Conclusions

Norman Vincent Peale once compared God’s will to a flashlight in the dark. The light does not show us all the way to our destination, but merely the next step to take. As we walk in the light we have, step by step, we find our way home.

Acts 1 has given you all the light you need for your next steps in the dark: walk with your Lord personally; seek his purpose passionately; fulfill his will urgently; and yield to his will personally. Lead your class members to do the same, by your example and by your teachings.

Imagine the results if every person who studies this text this week were to adopt its principles. And you have a glimpse into the mind and purpose of God for us all.