The Church’s core task
Sermon: Sunday, 25th April, 2021 Acts 1:1-11
What is the mission statement of Kirkcaldy Free Church?
‘Knowing Jesus, and making him known.’
For God’s glory, KFC’s desire is to make disciples and equip Christians to know Jesus and make him known in Kirkcaldy and in the surrounding area. We’re in the process of updating our vision statement, which is really a plan of how we’d like to go about knowing Jesus and making him known. Is our mission statement a good one? And how will we go about achieving it?
One of the best places to answer these questions is Acts chapter 1. For here, Jesus gives his disciples, and in turn, the church throughout the ages, including us, one of her primary tasks. As Jesus assigns his disciples with this ‘great commission’, we’re told both what to do and how to do it: ‘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)
All churches need to keep on reminding themselves of their core tasks. We are called by God for worship and witness, and this morning I’d like us to focus on witness. Our job as a church, is to be witnesses of Jesus Christ. This is no easy task in Scotland 2021; it has never been an easy task in any age. It is something which requires sacrifice, prayer, effort and love. Notice what Jesus calls us in verse 8: ‘my witnesses’. We’re not called to tell people primarily to live good lives, or about a philosophy or about the Free Church, or about religious traditions. Rather, our God-given job is to tell other people about Jesus Christ as the risen Saviour of the world. You will be ‘my’ witnesses.
Make no mistake, this is an enormous task. But along with the task God gives us enormous power. As we continue our studies in the Holy Spirit, it’s right for us to ask, why has Jesus given us his Spirit? He has given us the Spirit to drive us out into the world to tell others of him. What an astonishing task, first given to a handful of disciples – go and tell the whole planet about me!
We don’t want the great commission to be the ‘great omission’ in our lives. That can happen easily, especially if we are daunted by the task, and forget about the resources we have been given. We need a measure of confidence and boldness to do this, not self-confidence, but God-confidence, knowing that when God calls us to a task, he shall also equip us for the task.
Let’s put this passage in some context. Dr Luke had carefully recorded in his gospel all that Jesus began to do and teach (verse 1). However, now Jesus is about to ascend into Heaven. What is Jesus’ plan for his Kingdom, so that it will keep on growing and spread through all of the world? His ‘plan A’ is that growth will come through the witness of his people, the church, and there is no ‘plan B’.
Before we look more closely at the disciples’ question to Jesus in verse 6, and Jesus response in verses 7-8, I want us to remember that these disciples were the same ones who had been absolutely devastated by Jesus’ death. They had fled from Jesus in the garden, and as Jesus died, so had their hopes. What is it which transforms these men from cowards into fearless witnesses? I think part of the answer is in verse 3: After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
I love Gordon Keddie’s comments on this verse:
‘Had Jesus never risen from the dead, it is most unlikely that we would have ever heard of him or his disciples. All would have melted into the oblivion of falsified prophecy and unfulfilled promise. How then did the shattered followers of Jesus become a vanguard of the faith which within three centuries would dominate the Roman world? The answer is that Jesus Christ really did rise from the dead.’
Keddie is right. There’s no other explanation of the change in these men. They truly witnessed Jesus alive again; he must be the Son of God after all.
It’s fascinating to think of Jesus appearing to the disciples on numerous occasions, during the 40-day period between his resurrection and ascension. He gives the disciples something of a refresher course about his teachings and expectations of them. The course had two main strands; he taught them about the Kingdom of God, and also about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. What precious days these must have been for the apostles.
We’re told about one of these occasions in verses 4 and 5 when Jesus commands them to remain in Jerusalem and: ‘…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.’
Do not underestimate how excited the disciples must have been to hear this news. The disciples knew the Old Testament was full of prophecies about this special time. Passages such as Isaiah 44:3-4 ‘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.’ And passages like Ezekiel 36:24-28. This was a major event in the history of the world, and it happens just a few days later, on the day of Pentecost. These were exciting times to be alive. Let’s focus in on three great teachings from this passage. The headings are simple: the best of all possible gifts; the kingdom; and the task.
1. The best of all gifts
‘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)
In the Old Testament, God the Holy Spirit came upon certain people, at certain times for certain purposes. For example, prophets might be anointed with the Spirit in order to speak for the Word of the Lord. What a huge change for the people of God, as they move to an age when all Christians, as soon as they become Christians through faith in Christ, will be flooded or baptised with the presence of God as a permanent possession.
Remember, we must never think of the Holy Spirit as a mere force, or power, but as a person. The Holy Spirit is just as much God as Jesus is though without a human body. The fact that the Holy Spirit is God and is personal is obvious by what he does in the Bible. We first meet the Holy Spirit at the beginning of the Bible, hovering over the surface of the deep, involved in the Creation of the world. Last week, we were reminded of how it is he who brings new spiritual life to those who are dead. We can grieve him. He convicts the world of sin. These are things which are personal. No one can become a Christian without his work and no one can grow as a Christian without him either.
Friends, this is a wonderful Christian teaching Jesus is giving us. This is the best of all possible gifts. Our humanity is indwelt by the Holy Spirit of God. God is with us, and nothing can change that. It is he who cultivates the fruit of the Spirit within us. It is he who emboldens us to be Jesus’ witnesses. And it is he who helps root out the remaining sin in our hearts, and fashions us, day by day, into the very image of the Lord Jesus Christ. We call this process sanctification- God restoring his defaced image within us. He is making us more like Jesus, and he uses the Word of God to do so. We need to lay hold of this truth more and more.
Sometimes we forget this, but as a man, Jesus needed to depend upon the Holy Spirit in and for every aspect of his ministry. Luke 4:18-19 underlines this: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
Even in his death on the cross, Jesus was depending on the Spirit’s help. Hebrews 9:14: ‘How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!’ If Jesus depended on the Spirit for his work, how much more ought we to do the same. Thanks be to God that although the Christian life is not an easy one, we are the most resourced people of the universe, because we have the power of God pulsating within in us.
2. The kingdom
The disciples misunderstood what this new age of the Holy Spirit would mean. We can see this from their question, a question which Calvin says contains more errors than words: ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1:6) There are 3 mistakes or wrong presuppositions in their question.
Let’s unpack their mistakes, by first stating what kind of kingdom the Kingdom of God actually is.
God’s kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. The Kingdom of God is present where King Jesus rules over our hearts, bringing every aspect of our lives under his Lordship. They thought of the Kingdom as a return to the glory days of David and Solomon, which is why they speak of the kingdom being ‘restored’. The disciples are confusing the Kingdom of God with the old Kingdom of Israel. But the Kingdom of God is not a political one, and cannot be drawn on any map. God’s kingdom is his rule set up in the lives of his people. It is spread by the witness of his people, and not by the sword.
God’s Kingdom is an international one. The disciples speak about restoring the kingdom to ‘Israel’. Jesus needs to correct their thinking, informing them that it is something much more wonderful in scope- it will extend to the very ends of the earth. No race on earth is excluded. All are invited, including the Samaritans who were so despised by the people of Israel. How wonderful! Isn’t this the vision of the church John has in Revelation 7:9? ‘After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.’
God’s kingdom will come gradually. The disciples ask Jesus if he is ‘at this time’ going to restore Israel. They somehow expect the Kingdom to advance with great speed. In effect, Jesus says to them, don’t you worry about the time-frame, but rather just get on with the task of being my witnesses.
3. The task
Of course, the task for us as the people of God is to be witnesses for Jesus Christ wherever he has placed us. ‘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) I love the way in which Jesus starts with where they are, in Jerusalem, but then the reach of the gospel widens again and again, rippling out to cover the whole earth. Jerusalem and Judea, and Samaria and the ends of the earth – no place is excluded.
Our task in this (and every) church is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ saves the lost. We must be crystal clear in our minds that this is the age of gospel proclamation; the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon us in order to equip us for this task. We have all we need. The question is, will we prayerfully and intentionally share this good news with those we know? Surely, we must see this task as a privilege, rather than a burden.
Sometimes we make excuses for not doing this task, like I wouldn’t know what to say, or God wouldn’t use me, or that people aren’t interested.
‘The supply is surely available; but it is faith which plugs us in, and that is where the real challenge lies. There is no lack in God’s power; the problem is that we fail to trust and obey, to believe the promises and so to be empowered to fulfil his command.’ (David Jackman)
Let’s be clear, yes, only God’s Spirit can change people; however, he uses our prayers and our witness. This is true of our own conversions; once we were prayed for, and people shared the gospel with us. This is the age of the Spirit. This is the age of gospel proclamation. Think of a stone landing in the water and sending out ever-increasing circles: Jerusalem, widening to Judea, then Samaria and then the ends of the earth. There’s a principle here for us.
Start witnessing where you are, in your own family and church. We have a responsibility there. But the task does not end there. We shall be witnesses in Kirkcaldy, and in Fife, and in Scotland and throughout the world. We have something more precious than any vaccine to share, the good news of Jesus. We have the power available to help us be part of this task, in spite of our many weaknesses. And as we pray for opportunities, God will use weak people like us to make an eternal difference in the lives of many. Knowing Jesus, and making him known. That’s what we need to be about.