on defining the church (sermon summaries 11.19.06)

The first message this Sunday had the pivotal chapter, Acts 15, as our text. The title I chose was ‘How Should Christians Live?‘ The 15th chapter of Acts is the chapter that settled the Galatian question forever and really sealed the character of the Christian church for all time. The question the Judaizers were placing before the church was one of definition: What is the church? The answer was that the church is not a superior form of Judaism, nor is it simply another meaningless Gentile religion. It is an organism centered around faith in the living Son of God, separate from the world – the world that is Judaism and paganism at the same time.

The Old Testament religion of the Jews had long departed from God’s intent, first by centuries of dabbling with paganism pre-exile, second by a few centuries of idolizing the forms of religion itself through the rise of Pharisaism post-exile. Was there ever a pure Judaism? Only in the hearts of some individuals, sometimes more numerous than at other times, but really only on an individual, not a collective basis.

In Ac 15, we see the Galatian dispute arise in Antioch of Syria, after Paul has written the book of Galatians. He has no small disputation with the Judaizers, and the church in Antioch calls for a meeting of the apostles to settle the issue (the last meeting of the apostles as a group). In Jerusalem, once the dispute is engaged, Peter rises to testify in favor of Paul and Barnabas and the ‘anti-Law’ position. Peter does this, employing very similar language to that with which Paul rebuked him earlier (compare Gal 2.14-18 with Ac 15.10). Peter also points out that Jews will be saved by faith, just like the Gentiles (Ac 15.11), a not so subtle slap to the Judaizers, putting the Jews in second place to the Gentiles. Paul and Barnabas then testify, followed by James the brother of the Lord, whose proposal carries the day. Four requirements are placed on the Gentile church: no food offered to idols, no fornication, no blood, no things strangled. The blood and things strangled are rooted in the Noahic Covenant (Gen 9.1-6) and pre-date the law. The point of the decision is this: The church is going to be an organization where the only entrance stipulation is faith in Christ AND it is going to be an organization that demands separation from the world (all four issues were pagan practices). Today, the church needs to come to grips with this. It is not Galatianism to insist on separation from the world. It is paganism to insist otherwise. Today’s church is a pagan church and needs radical reformation.

Our second message dealt with the Third Missionary Journey, Ac 16-18, focusing on Ac 18.9-10, the Lord’s encouraging vision to Paul while in Corinth. The title was ‘Abased and Abounding‘. I began by surveying the frustration of Paul’s ministry as he entered Europe for the first time. In Philippi, he is beaten and imprisoned. In Thessalonica, he is driven out of town by a Jewish mob. In Berea, he is better received, but the Thessalonian Jews arrive to stir up trouble again, and he has to hotfoot it for Athens. In Athens, he is mostly mocked and ignored, with only a handful of converts to show for his efforts. When he arrives in Corinth, there is some success, but again rising opposition by the Jews. Paul knew what it was to be abased, he probably thought that he was about to be chased out of Corinth as well. But the Lord comes to assure him, giving him three commands: Fear not, keep on speaking, don’t be silent. The Lord also gives him three assurances: I am with you, you will not be harmed, I have much people in this city. This encouragement enables Paul to press on in Corinth where he stays an additional 18 months. During this time the Jews try to haul him to court before Seneca’s brother, the noble Gallio, who refuses to hear the case. The leader of the synagogue, Sosthenes, is instead beaten by the Greeks. Interestingly, a Sosthenes is named as an assistant of Paul in 1 Corinthians. It is possible that the Lord changed the heart of Sosthenes (otherwise why specifically mention his name?) At any rate, the Lord granted Paul a fruitful and succesful ministry in Corinth – much abounding. For our own ministry, we need the knowledge of the Lord’s presence – he guaranteed it in the Great Commission, this promise is for us all. The Lord may not keep us from trial, but he will be with us to keep us through trial if it comes to that. The knowledge of the Lord’s presence is the key to abounding.

Our last message covered the first three chapters of 1 Thessalonians, ‘The Testimony of Growing Believers‘. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians after being rejoined by Silas and Timothy in Corinth. He longed to be with them, but was prevented, perhaps by the bond Jason posted in Ac 17. In any case, he writes them a warm and affectionate letter designed to help them grow in the faith, something he desired to do by his presence, but could only do by way of letter in his absence. The first three chapters are sort of a ‘love letter’ between Paul and the church where he thanks God for their encouraging testimony of evident salvation (1.2-5, 9-10), for the remembered testimony of receptive hearts (2.13-16), and last prays for the desired testimony of ongoing faithfulness (3.8-13). The Thessalonian news was an encouragement for the apostle. The growth of Christians in a local church are encouragement for the pastor, and for any other Christians that observe them. We ought to grow for the Lord’s sake, but the fact is your growth is a great benefit to those who minister to you.

We had a good day in the Lord with a few visitors who are former members. These folks made some poor choices in the past, and seem to be stuck in those choices at the moment, but we are glad for the opportunity to minister to them once again.

Regards,
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

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