Encouraged to witness…

Sermon: Sunday, 17th September, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Acts 8:1-8

Is 2023 a good time to be alive in Scotland? Perhaps you wish you’d lived 100 years ago when the churches in the town were much fuller. Perhaps you wish you’d lived in Israel in the days Jesus was on the earth. Scotland seems so secular these days. So many people believe it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you are sincere. Many seem to reject Christianity, without even knowing what it is really about. It’s easy to have a negative outlook. But I’d like us to be encouraged by this wonderful passage this morning, by understanding the times we are in today. There’s no point in false hopes or groundless positivity. However, this passage is full of truths which ought to encourage us, if we are able to grasp them and think deeply about their implications.

So, what are some reasons to be encouraged in these days?

1. Jesus is still at work in the world

The book of Acts is written by Dr Luke, the same person who wrote Luke’s Gospel. In a way, the book of Acts is just Luke, volume 2. Acts is the sequel to Luke. Both of these books are dedicated to a man called Theophilus. We know almost nothing about this man, but some think he was a high-ranking government official, who is a believer, but has some doubts about the faith. Luke wants to assure him of the truthfulness of the gospel. Luke wants Theophilus to know that all that is recorded in Luke and Acts really happened. It is trustworthy information, from eyewitnesses who saw these things. ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven…’ Notice the word ‘began’. The implication is this: even though Jesus will no longer be with them physically, because he is going to Heaven, he will continue to be at work in the world by his Holy Spirit, through his apostles and through the church.

Even right now as we worship in Kirkcaldy Free Church, Jesus is with us by his Spirit, and is at work in our lives. He is the King and head of the church. He continues to bring new people into his family, and continues to help Christians on a daily basis. This is enormously encouraging. When we see people becoming Christians, and we have in recent months, we are seeing Jesus at work. When we see Christians, over time, wrestling with their sins and problems, and making progress, this is Jesus at work. We need to grasp this and we need to believe it.

In the book of Revelation chapter 1, we read about seven lampstands which stand for the seven churches: ‘I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest.’ (Revelation 1:12-13) Jesus is with us and amongst us, working in our lives. It is often said, and helpfully so, that the title of this book ‘The Acts of the Apostles’ is not a good one. It is not the God-given title. A better title suggested is ‘The Acts of Jesus Christ, by the power of his Spirit, through the church”. We are part of the church. So, let’s not be pessimistic about the church, or cynical about her, but believe that we are the instrument through which Christ continues to be at work in the world. Be encouraged.

2. The Holy Spirit is at work in the world and within us

We must not miss the drama unfolding in this chapter. For hundreds and hundreds of years, God had been promising that a day would come when his Spirit would permanently indwell his people, giving them enormous power. In the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit would come on particular people, at particular times for particular tasks. For example, a prophet or a king might receive the Spirit’s filling for a time, in order to help them with their God-given work. However, in the Old Testament, these people would know the Spirit in a more temporary and external way. However, a day would come, God promised, when the Spirit would be poured out on all Christians, to help us live for Jesus, and be his witnesses on the world.

‘For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams. Some will say, ‘I belong to the Lord’; others will call themselves by the name of Jacob; still others will write on their hand, ‘The Lord’s,’ and will take the name Israel.’ (Isaiah 44:3-5)

‘I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.’ (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

These are wonderful promises. And as Jesus is about to leave the disciples and ascend into Heaven, he says, ‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.’ (Acts 1:4-5)

What a tremendous time for us to be alive! We are in the ‘last days’ when the Holy Spirit has been poured out on all Christians, so that we can be empowered to tell people about him. Why is the Holy Spirit given to us? One reason is clear: so that we, ordinary Christians, will be able to share our faith with other people. Read v 8: ‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’

Again, we can be pessimistic about sharing our faith in Fife. We can think all kinds of negative thoughts, like: no one will be interested in what I have to say; or I can’t possibly explain the gospel to other people- that’s a job for ministers and elders; or I won’t be able to answer questions I’m asked. But none of these things are true. What is true is that God has given us an enormous task of spreading the gospel world-wide, but when he calls us to a task he always provides the power to carry out the task. You are a witness of Jesus Christ. All Christians have the power of the Spirit to give us understanding, and give us the words to say, and give us the ability to live consistent holy lives, and give us boldness to speak to people. Is this a good time to be alive in Scotland? It’s the age of gospel proclamation, when the good news is to be taken to the ends of the earth.

3. The disciples’ confusion

The disciples must have been absolutely pumped with excitement at what Jesus was saying. At long last, the days of blessing were coming- just a few days away. Their expectations are sky high. However, they have the wrong expectations. We can see this from their question: ‘Then they gathered round him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6)

The main point of their confusion flows from assuming that the Kingdom was going to be a political kingdom. They are thinking of a geographical kingdom, like the United Kingdom. But Jesus’ Kingdom is a spiritual one and not limited to one nation, not even Israel. In fact, Jesus Kingdom was now going to be international. The church was not going to be national, but international and universal in scope. And the Kingdom was not, as they thought, going to arrive quickly. They ask if Jesus is going to ‘at this time’ restore the Kingdom. Jesus corrects their thinking on all of these points, telling them not to focus on the timing of the Kingdom, but rather on the task of the Kingdom.

The disciples have a limited vision of where the Kingdom would be. Their minds are on the country of Israel. They want Roman power to be broken there and be an independent nation again. They want the glory days of King David and King Solomon. Jesus broadens their horizons. Christian mission would include Jerusalem and Judea, but would also take in the despised Samaritans and even further afield- the very ends of the earth. Even in our own church, we can see how Jesus’ statement has come true. We have people from Moldova and Romania and Nigeria and Slovakia and Brazil and Bulgaria and hopefully help coming from the US and even some Irish people. I’d love to see more nationalities here. The good news that Jesus is able to forgive sinners who place their trust in him is news that the whole world needs to hear.

4. The task of the church

We’ve already seen this a little but let’s think more about it. The apostles were called to be witnesses to Jesus locally in Jerusalem. But they were also to have a regional concern for those in Judea. And they had to take the message to their historical enemies, the Samaritans, and even beyond that to the ends of the earth.

What about Kirkcaldy Free Church? Of course, we must have a concern for our own town of Kirkcaldy. But the ripples must go beyond our own doorstep, to the region of Fife. But that’s not far enough. We should be concerned with Scotland and Europe and the farthest places on the globe. When you throw a stone into the water, the ripples go from the centre and continue to go out wider and wider. This is a picture of what our missionary interest ought to look like.

We must start locally. This is our Jerusalem. Sometimes it is hardest to witness at home, to our children and our spouse and our siblings. Bringing our children to church and worshipping with them at home is part of being Jesus’ witnesses at home. Are we doing this? Are we reaching those closest to us? That surely includes our immediate neighbours and work colleagues. Pray for opportunities to speak with them about Jesus. We run the church café on order to reach people locally. We must also use our own homes too, spending time with people, getting to know them.

However, we also have a responsibility to reach those further afield. How wonderful that we can be involved in supporting a church plant in Leven. We are not just focused on our own patch that we are blinkered to real gospel need in Fife at large. We must reach beyond our own locality. We think of Scotland, and we pray for a healthy gospel church in every community in Scotland.

Finally, we care deeply about gospel impact all over the world. We get involved in Blythswood and Steadfast Global and Wycliffe and Tearfund and Overseas Mission. This week I was privileged to interview a young man from Brazil who wants to come and minister in Scotland. He is Brazilian but he sees the gospel need in Europe and in Scotland in particular. He understands that his gospel interest should not just be limited to Brazil, but to the ends of the earth. He has a broad missional horizon.

A challenge for today – it’s true that being witnesses for Jesus will not be easy. Some people might not want to listen. Others might not want to be friends with us any more. Some people will be offended. Does that mean we should retreat, and just keep our faith to ourselves? Are we to be some kind of private Christians? Just because it is a costly and self-sacrificial activity?

Of course not! Now it is our turn to be witnesses for Jesus. That’s one reason why we need to get involved in our communities, and in the lives of friends and neighbours. We have good news to share. That’s why we need to keep on praying as we do this, depending on the power of God. And we need to go out in faith, with the message that Jesus Christ is the only King and the only Saviour. Tell other people about Jesus. We have been given the power to do so.

‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ (Acts 1:8)