Preached at Hillcrest Chapel on 5.6.18 to kickoff their missions emphasis month.
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.
He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.
So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
* * *
In eighteenth century France and Britain, emerging technology brought massive wealth to a small segment of the population. A fortunate few benefited from wealth creation on a scale never seen before in the history of mankind, but the majority did not benefit. The majority was exploited, the laboring class was yoked to turn the newly created gears of industry. And a deep rift of inequity formed between rich and poor.
Does any of this sound familiar? It’s been said that history doesn’t repeat but it often rhymes.
In France, anger and resentment about this inequity led to a bloody revolution in which more than 50,000 people were guillotined, shot, or died of disease. But in Britain, something different happened. Historians almost universally agree that in Britain, instead of a bloody revolution, the Great Awakening happened.
The Great Awakening was led, in the early days by the Wesley brothers—John and Charles. And it even spilled over into the United States a bit. It lasted for several decades. And during the Great Awakening, huge swaths of the population of Britain became believers in Jesus and joined churches. And that led to a period of healing and social reform. Some of the byproducts of the Great Awakening included: the end of the transatlantic slave trade, eventually total abolition of slavery in the entire British empire, the first prohibitions of child labor, universal education, a massive increase in literacy, and an explosion of new literature and arts.
Why did this happen? Well, because large swaths of both the rich and the poor were transformed as they encountered Jesus and experienced the original world-changing essence of Christianity, real Christianity for the first time.
Eighteenth century Britain wasn't the first time that kind of gospel revolution happened. It happened in first century Rome. It happened in third century Rome. It happened about fifteen years ago in mainland China. It's happening today on the continent of Africa. And it won't be the last.
But thinking about this history of gospel revolutions, and studying this passage in Acts 1, raises some question for me:
- What is the essence of Christianity?
- How was it made available to so many people so fast?
- What can we do to usher in a gospel revolution in western Washington in 2018?
What is the essence of Christianity?
In large parts of the world and for huge portions of history, the church has appeared very different from the infectious, world-changing, revolutionary force that it's intended to be. The shorthand way to explain that, for some folks, is to say that it's dead. The church is dead. Christianity is dead. It's not dynamic, revolutionary, or world-changing. You might even feel that way about the church in general and Christianity in general.
You might feel that the church—not referring to any particular local congregation, here, but to the capital-c, church, institutional church—and you might feel that it is at worst a power-hungry, controlling, sometimes abusive institution. At best, it's a warm, fuzzy, vaguely comforting place and thing. Maybe that's how you've experienced church before. Maybe you grew up in a church that wasn't the epicenter of a revolution but existed somewhere on the spectrum from controlling to vaguely-comforting. Maybe that's the experience of Christianity you've had.
And I would submit that's that case because Christianity is largely misunderstood.
Anywhere that Christianity has been understood—the original essence of Christianity, anywhere that it's been fully and correctly understood, it stokes a social, moral, and economic revolution. Every single time.
And anywhere that Christianity is not having that effect, it’s because Christianity has been largely misunderstood.
I would go so far as to say that the majority of the population of Bellingham, THINK they understand what Christianity is about, but they don't. They mis-understand it in a way that neutralizes its power.
Someone who says: Christianity is nice. It's sweet. It's good—useful, even—for many people. They might say they like the message that: God loves us. Jesus died for us so that God can forgive us. And we should forgive other people too. We should be loving people because of what Jesus did for us. What's the big deal?
But that can't be it. That can't be all, right? Because awareness of those facts alone does not lead to a gospel revolution.
Think about the Christianity that you've seen in your lifetime. Did most of it include consensus on those facts and yet still fall short of revolution? Has the Christianity that you've experienced in your lifetime, either personally or in the lives of people you know, have you seen it do what Christianity did in eighteenth century Britain? Have you seen millions of people swept up into a joy and peace they've never known? Have you seen Christianity totally re-make a society?
Because there's more to it. Because Christianity has been largely misunderstood. So what is the original essence of Christianity. What is the missing ingredient? Well, it's right there in the text, in verses 1 and 2.
"In my first book, O Theophilis, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to teach and do."
There it is. First of all: Christianity is not a thing that you and I do. It's a thing that Jesus has already done.
That is really important.
Most people misunderstand Christianity because they make it a thing that they need to do, at least in part. Sometimes people get it half-right.
Sometimes people say, there's a thing that Jesus did. So now there's a thing, or a set of things that I need to do. It becomes transactional, cold, and lifeless.
But that's not correct. Christianity is not a thing that you do. Not even in part.
Christianity is not about being good. Christianity is not about living a good life. It is about what he has done. Christianity is about what Jesus has done.
And what has he done? He suffered. Verse 3. “He presented himself: alive! After his suffering.”
It's not enough to be a good person. Because the wrong things that we do—that we all do—leave behind a mark. You can try all you want to be a good person, but everyone falls short of their own standard for themselves. And what then?
Some people believe, when you fall short, when you transgress, you just . . . you know, feel bad about it and say you're sorry and God says, "okay well, you tried your best and you seem sincere."
Would that work in a court of law? That approach? How would we the voters treat a judge who sentenced someone guilty for a serious crime, and then said, "you seem genuinely sorry, though. So just don't do it again."
We wouldn't tolerate that. That wouldn't be a just judge. We couldn't run a society that way. It wouldn't work. There must be payment. There must be justice. And if that's the case of a human judge, how could we lower our standard for God?
Sin must be paid for.
God looks at us, at you and I, and he says, "I see your sins. I see how you've mistreated creation. I see how you've been unkind to people that you should love. I see your sin. And I hear that you're sorry about it, but there must be a payment. Sin must be paid for."
And then . . . Jesus—verse 3—suffered.
In the book of Luke, the other book written by this same author to the same recipient, the author explains everything that tiny word means.
He stands up to death and destruction. He faces down the worst unseen terror, and he says: "You can't take my people. I won't let you." He put himself in harm's way. He put himself between us and the death which had every right to take us. And so that death fell on him. He suffered the punishment that we had earned because of our sins, the ones we're sorry for and the ones we're defiant about. He faced the death that was ours by right, and said, "No. Not these. They belong to me, and you cannot take them."
And that death, the one that had come for us, it fell upon him. And he suffered.
He soaked up the full punishment that we deserved, you and I. It was spent, all of it, on him.
And then, because he is from the beginning, because he's got the whole world in his hand, because there has never been and can never be a barrier that he couldn't overcome or a force that could overcome him, 3 days after he faced down death and destruction—he rose from the dead.
He came back to life. In physical form. His body was dead and then he brought it back to life. He didn't become a mystical Jedi spirit. He didn't continue on in an ethereal sense. No. The body of Jesus was re-animated and his spirit re-inhabited it.
I know, nuts right? But that's not everything. See, look how the author explains it in verse 2: ". . . with all Jesus BEGAN to teach and do."
Don't you see? Every other major religion has a dead founder.
Buddha? He's done teaching. He's done doing.
Mohammed? He's done.
Those dudes, even their followers agree: those guys are done teaching. They are done doing.
But not Jesus. Jesus is just getting started. What he began while he was here on earth has and is continuing. And it continues in the same way that it began—through his power. Because Christianity is not something that you and I do. It's something that Jesus has done and is continuing to do.
Philippians 1:6: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
The essence of Christianity is this: Jesus died in my place, in your place. Then he rose up from the grave, overcoming death. And then, he ascended. He departed earth. He returned to his home in heaven, and was seated at the right hand of the father.
So then, how was it made available to so many people so fast?
Well, after he died and rose from the dead, Jesus ascended.
Why did he do that?
Did he want to get away from us? Did he want to move to a warmer climate? Did he enter a leisurely retirement? Why didn't he stay here on earth?
Well, he had a really good reason. When Jesus was talking to his followers about this in John 16 he explained it. He said: "I have to go up so that I can send the Holy Spirit to you." And in Matthew he says that because of this, "You will do even greater deeds than I."
The Ascension is not the most loved part of the gospel narrative, but it is no less important. The incarnation—the physical ministry of Jesus—the crucifixion—his death in our place—and his physical resurrection from the dead—all of those elements get more press. But the ascension is just as important.
If the rest of the story, those other elements, are the dynamite, the source of power, the ascension is a detonator which unleashes that power out in the world.
Jesus didn't ascend to heaven in order to get away. He did it so that he could be here in a new way.
See, when Jesus was physically here on earth: he did the work. He did the ministry of teaching and healing, of comforting, of reversing the curse of sin and death. He did it all. But he could only do it where his physical body was located. He could only do his work where he was. He chose to bind himself in a physical body, to take our place in our shoes. So when he was here physically doing and teaching, he was limited by the location of his body.
But now. He's ascended. He's on the throne. And his power reverberates throughout the entire world. His work is being done all over the place. It's not limited to the location of his physical body. It is everywhere. Today he is at work everywhere in a way that he wasn’t during his earthly ministry.
The essence of Christianity is this: Jesus came here, took our place, stood between us and the death we deserved and now he works through us from heaven.
So if when I set out to do ministry, and I think: "Another day, another service project. Ho hum." When I think that, I've forgotten the ascension.
If when I hear from people toiling, doing good work, Kingdom work and I think: "That's not going to make any difference in the end. The problems are too big and the resources are too small." When I think that, I've forgotten the ascension.
I shouldn't expect ho-hum. I shouldn't expect business as usual. I shouldn't expect status quo to be intractable. I should be eagerly anticipating Christ himself to work in and through me. I should be expecting revolution! I should be expecting total reform of society.
Lord, I believe. Forgive me for my unbelief.
Do you expect revolution? You should.
So. If we should be expecting total community reform, if we should be expecting revolution, how do we bring it here? How can we spark a gospel revolution in Western Washington that starts in 2018?
In short: truth becomes power.
This truth that we've been talking about—
- The fact that Jesus' death was necessary because of my sins, because of the mess that I made which I was utterly incapable or resolving myself
- The fact that Jesus took the death we deserved and overcame it
- The fact that Jesus now works through us from heaven
- The fact that Christianity is not something that I do but something that Jesus did and is continuing to do through us
These things become power when they are believed. Truth becomes power when it is understood and believed.
These truths become powerful mostly in the way they change an individual's understanding of themselves. Particularly, these truths—which collectively we call the gospel—when believed, affect an individual's understanding of themselves in 3 ways.
Identity—When believed, these supersede a person's sense of identity, such that their personal allegiances are all downgraded. No longer is a person predominantly a republican or democrat, black or white, man or woman, these categories that we use to define ourselves melt away into insignificance. If the gospel is true, I am a Christian first and any other category I'm in comes second.
And what effect does that have? Well, if I hold less tightly to my preferred categories, it becomes much easier for me to connect with people who are in another category. It fosters a sense of unity and of connection that isn't otherwise possible, apart from the gospel of Christ.
So ask yourself, does that sound like you? This is how the gospel, when understood and believed, affects a human person. Have you been effected in this way? Do you understand your identity as Christian first, everything else second? Are you able to connect with people from all walks of life and empathize with them, identify with them, commune with them because you don’t have a strong allegiance with any rival group? Are you more Christian than you are republican? Are you more Christian than you are black? Are you more Christian than you are woman? Does that sound like you? Because, that’s what it looks like when the truth of the gospel is truly understood and believed.
Humility—The true gospel and a complete understanding of it is destructive to the human ego. There's no room for self-congratulations or self-sufficiency in the heart of a person who has been saved by the work of Christ and is a recipient of his ongoing work from the throne of heaven. If I made a mess so big that it took an effort that extreme to reverse it, who am I to take credit for any good things that happen in my life after and because of the work of Christ?
Truth becomes power as the message of the gospel makes a proud man or woman humble, and that opens the door to the ministry that a proud person would never stoop to do.
Does that sound like you? No task beneath you, no responsibility too small, no person too insignificant. Does it? Because that’s what it looks like when the truth of the gospel is understood and believed and becomes power and leads to revolution.
Confidence—Conversely, a complete understanding of the true gospel creates an infectious confidence. If the God of the universe has chosen me, and forgiven me, and now works through me, insecurities and self-doubt melt away. Who cares if I'm not smart enough, experienced enough, or if my jaw isn't square enough. It isn't me who works anyway. It's the Lord's work in me.
When gospel truth is fully understood and believed by the people of God, it becomes gospel power and it leads inexorably, inevitably, unstoppably to revolution.
Does that sound like you? Or are you hung up on your inhibitions, your self-doubt, your timidity. Do you hesitate to speak, to serve, to risk because you’re not sure if you have what it takes to succeed. Friends, here is the message of the gospel: you don’t have to be smart or skilled, because Christianity is not something you do it’s something that Jesus has done and continues to do in and through you. The gospel, when understood and believed, creates an uncanny, a supernatural sense of confidence and humility, and reforms a person's identity so I ask you: has that happened in your heart?
If the truth of the gospel became power in the hearts of everyone in this room, a gospel revolution would come to this city.