There is a rather nice book with the inspiring title of “The Bible – the Best Bits” which does exactly what it says on the tin. So I thought for our last sermon in this series we could look at Acts – The Best Bits. Back in 2014 we had a series of 13 sermons on the life and growth of the Early Church in Acts 1-8. Through this year we have heard 15 sermons on the Spreading Flame of the gospel in the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. If you missed any of these they are all online on the blog for you to read. Out of all of these passages, I wonder what would stand out for you as your Best Bits of Acts?
There are actually three main themes in the Book of Acts. Three intertwined strands of the shared life and the bold witness of the first Christians. We shouldn’t separate them. Conveniently we find all three strands illustrated in the final chapter of Acts.
1 Spectacular miracles and spectacular growth
Paul and his companions were on the way to Rome when the boat they were on was shipwrecked. Miraculously they all survived. Then we read
ACTS 28:1 Once safely on shore, we found out that the island was called Malta. 2 The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold. 3 Paul gathered a pile of brushwood and, as he put it on the fire, a viper, driven out by the heat, fastened itself on his hand. 4 When the islanders saw the snake hanging from his hand, they said to each other, ‘This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, the goddess Justice has not allowed him to live.’ 5 But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. 6 The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
A miracle of healing for Paul! Which led on to other miracles, starting with the father of Publius, the chief official in Malta.
8 His father was ill in bed, suffering from fever and dysentery. Paul went in to see him and, after prayer, placed his hands on him and healed him. 9 When this had happened, the rest of those on the island who were ill came and were cured.
Signs and wonders. Miracles of healing and deliverance from demons. The Book of the Acts of the Apostles should really be called the Book of the Acts of the Holy Spirit. Time and again we have seen miracles, from the very early days of the church in Jerusalem.
Acts 2:43 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.
Then there was the healing of the lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple who went walking and leaping and praising God. Miracles of healing and deliverance through Peter and John and the other apostles and later by Paul and Barnabas. Even dead people like Dorcas and Eutychus brought back to life. Peter twice and Paul and Silas all released from prison by God’s supernatural intervention. Signs and wonders, miracles of healing and deliverance, and prophecies, dreams and visions. We have said before that the first Christians were “naturally supernatural.” They expected the Holy Spirit to work in power amongst them and they were never disappointed. All these things give us faith to pray for healing and to expect similar miracles in the lives of Christians today.
At the same time we have seen how these signs and wonders led to the growth of the church. God worked in miraculous ways and people asked “how did that happen?” The disciples replied, “God did that”, and people put their faith in Jesus and were saved. We saw that pattern in Acts 5
Acts 5 12 The apostles performed many signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. 13 No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. 14 Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. 15 As a result, people brought those who were ill into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. 16 Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing those who were ill and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.
More and more people were becoming Christians and forming churches. Spectacular miracles and spectacular growth. That is the first strand of the life and witness of the early church. But we mustn’t think that everything in the garden was rosy. That was just one thread in the book of Acts – not the whole picture. Sometimes people say, “If only we could get back to the church it was in the book of Acts.” Those people are thinking of the successes and the growth. They clearly haven’t read the other equally important bits of Acts which talk about
2 Discouraging problems and failures
If you like happy endings, Acts is a very disappointing book. Because we are hoping that God’s chosen people the Jews would receive the gospel and believe in their Messiah Jesus, but in general they do not. Most of the time the Jews rejected and persecuted the apostles just as they had rejected and persecuted Jesus. We see that in Acts 28 too.
ACTS 28 23 They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. He witnessed to them from morning till evening, explaining about the kingdom of God, and from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets he tried to persuade them about Jesus. 24 Some were convinced by what he said, but others would not believe.
In that sense the Book of Acts is an anticlimax. We keep looking forward to the turning point when Jews will be saved but time and again God’s people reject God’s Saviour. As the prologue to John’s Gospel explains, John 1:11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”
Acts 28 25 They disagreed among themselves and began to leave after Paul had made this final statement: ‘The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your ancestors when he said through Isaiah the prophet:
26 ‘ “Go to this people and say,
‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’
27 For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.”
28 ‘Therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!’
The Jews rejected Jesus, so God sent Paul to the Gentiles. But this rejection and persecution was not the only problem the Early Church faced. Often the response to the gospel was not opposition but apathy. Then there were internal divisions in the church, like those Jewish Christians who wrongly tried to insist that every new Christian should also become a Jew, in the case of men by being circumcised. We thought about how Paul and Barnabas had an argument and went their separate ways. And there were the personal failures of disciples like Ananias and Sapphira who lied to Peter to try to appear more holy and compassionate than they were.
It is easy to overlook the problems and failures in the Early Church, and to forget the fierce persecution they faced. All the apostles apart from John were martyrs! The truth is that discouraging problems and failures were the second strand of the life and witness of the first Christians. They are also part of the experience of all churches throughout the ages and still today. The lesson from Acts is that we mustn’t just give up when things go wrong or turn out different from what we hoped for and expected. We should persevere. And we shouldn’t try to evaluate what we are doing by trying to measure how “successful” it is. Our call is to be faithful and prayerful and obedient and leave the outcome to God.
Somebody once gave some wise advice. “If you find a perfect church, stay away from it because you will spoil it.” Churches will always have problems and failures and discouragements as long as they are full of imperfect people serving God in an imperfect world. We mustn’t brush those problems under the carpet but rather pray that God in his grace will still use us to fulfil his purposes, however imperfect we are. We should accept each other as God in Christ has accepted us. God accepts our failures. We should recognise that in God’s purposes a perfect and flawless church would be less effective in reaching this imperfect flawed world.
Spectacular miracles and spectacular growth. Discouraging problems and failures. And
3 Everyday faithfulness and humble service
In today’s reading it is interesting to discover what it was which encouraged Paul and caused him to give thanks to God.
Acts 28 12 We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days. 13 From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. 14 There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome. 15 The brothers and sisters there had heard that we were coming, and they travelled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these people Paul thanked God and was encouraged.
In this case it was not spectacular miracles of huge numbers of converts which encouraged Paul and caused him to give thanks to God. It was just the ordinary everyday thoughtfulness of a bunch of Christians who bothered to make a journey of 43 miles just to meet Paul and escort him into Rome.
When we come to the ending of Acts we might hope for some exciting climax to the story of the Early Church but instead it is unspectacular and undramatic, even down-beat and comparatively boring.
Acts 28 30 For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. 31 He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!
No more journeys for Paul – just sharing the gospel with anybody who came to visit him at his house. Everyday hospitality and conversations. But then don’t forget that after his conversion Paul had spent the first 13 years of his Christian life out of the limelight, 3 years in Damascus and 10 years in Tarsus before Barnabas brought him to Antioch. Then we read of 18 months making tents in Corinth and teaching in his spare time, and another 2 years in Ephesus, as well as 2 years in prison in Caesarea. And much of the time and effort on Paul’s missionary journeys had been spent in the “unglamorous” task of raising money for the poor Christians in Jerusalem.
Then we shouldn’t forget that alongside his preaching and teaching, perhaps the even greater service Paul performed for the church was writing all his letters. Just writing letters. Paul never imagined they would be collected and one day form more than a quarter of our New Testament. Those letters tell us what everyday life was like for the first churches.
Ephesians 1 15… ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, 16 I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.
Paul thanks the Philippians for being his partners in the gospel.
Colossians 1 3 We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all God’s people.
1 Thessalonians 1 2 We always thank God for all of you and continually mention you in our prayers. 3 We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labour prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
2 Thessalonians 1 3 We ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters, and rightly so, because your faith is growing more and more, and the love all of you have for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.
Paul doesn’t talk to the churches he had planted about spectacular miracles or spectacular growth. He talks about faith and love, and hard work and endurance, and perseverance in the face of persecution and trials. Everyday faithfulness and humble service. And while we thinking about Paul, we should not forget how he spent very much of his time. In prayer. By himself. Just praying.
Paul the apostle to the Gentiles was content to serve God faithfully in quiet and unspectacular ways. For much of his life, nothing exciting was happening. No miracles. No dramatic conversions. Just everyday faithfulness and humble service. Hospitality and talking about Jesus one-to-one. Just writing letters and praying. If Paul was prepared just to “plod on” with little encouragement or incentive, we should be the same. Just continuing in love and faith and prayer supporting and encouraging one another, caring and sharing and bearing one another’s burdens in the routines of church life. Pressing on to the end especially when it seems as though nothing is happening at all. Because to do so is just as spiritual as the exciting and dramatic stuff. If not more so.
Very soon after the day of Pentecost we read this snapshot of the life of the Early Church in Acts 2:42. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Even in the middle of everything that was happening during those incredibly exciting days, the first Christians devoted themselves to the ordinary activities of church life. And Acts 2 goes on to speak about the amazing love the first Christians showed for each other in practical ways. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
Teaching. Fellowship. Worship. Prayer. Giving to people in need. Because those things are just as important as the dramatic and the exciting things – if not more so.
Acts – Best Bible Bits. The Bible shows us what church life will be like. We can pray for and expect spectacular miracles and spectacular growth. We can’t expect to escape discouraging problems and failures – yes and even persecution. But we shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if much of the time our life together is simply about everyday faithfulness and humble service. That is the way it was for the Early Church and that is the way it will be for us too. And that’s why the church continues to grow.