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ILL. One of the largest churches in the United States is the Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago, IL. Started in 1975, it now averages nearly 20,000 in attendance at its Saturday, Sunday, & mid-week services.
Desiring to reach non-Christians & those who, for one reason or another, have quit going to church they have deliberately tried to avoid many of the traditional ways of doing things in their 4 Saturday & Sunday services. Using drama, multi-media, contemporary music, & creative messages that connect with people’s lives, the services are specifically designed for individuals checking out what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus.
Even though those who are already Christians are certainly welcome in the Saturday & Sunday services, it is the Wednesday & Thursday night services that are specifically designed for them. It is at these services that the “family of God, the body of Christ” – the church – meets together for mutual instruction, inspiration, fellowship, & worship.
Frankly, even though I have difficulty with some of the things they do, & despite the fact that Time Magazine & others have criticized them as “a high-tech entertainment church, trying to relate to the MTV generation & not to the rest of the world,” they unashamedly preach Jesus Christ as Savior & Lord. And the result is that the congregation has grown, & grown dramatically.
Now contrast that with the story of another church, (which I will leave nameless) in Upper Manhattan, New York, as reported in a January, 2002, issue of World Magazine. The article says that in the early 1900’s through the 1960’s this particular church was a powerful witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, with more than a thousand active members. But their number now is about 120.
Why? Well, in recent years a subtle change crept in as their emphasis switched from presenting the Gospel to helping the homeless. They set up soup kitchens in the church building & began massive feeding programs for those in need.
Now, at first glance we would think that helping those in need is a very worthy & Christian thing to do, & it is! And they should be praised for doing so. But, at this church, prayers are never offered in the soup kitchens, nor is the name of Jesus ever mentioned - because they are concerned that someone might resent it.
Turning away from Christ’s command to “… preach the gospel…” they made no effort to communicate the good news of a Savior who forgives sins, changes lives, & frees us from the bondage of our sins. And the result was that they discovered that the same people were coming through their lines year after year with no improvement, no change for good taking place in their lives. The church was feeding their bodies, but ignoring, starving, their souls. And now the church there itself is almost dead. (Adapted)
Two very different churches, aren’t they? Both of them are very busy in what they are trying to do. But one is dying. Why? What is the church supposed to be? And what is the church supposed to do?
PROP. To help answer those questions we’re going to look this morning at the church ...
of the 1st Century – its beginning, its nucleus, its mission, & its assurance.
I. ITS BEGINNING
First of all, we must realize that the Church came from God. From the beginning of time, before the foundation of the world, God had in His mind the Church. And He promised that even the gates of Hades would not prevail against it.
So Jesus came into the world, & after His death & burial & resurrection, the Church is established. The Church begins on the Day of Pentecost.
It is in the 2nd chapter of the Book of Acts that we read about its beginning. The first chapter tells of Jesus meeting with the apostles on the Mt. of Olives & telling them that they are to be His witnesses “in Jerusalem, & in all Judea & Samaria, & to the ends of the earth.” He also tells them that they are to wait in Jerusalem until they receive power from on high. Then He ascends out of their sight.
So they go to Jerusalem, & Acts 1:14 tells us, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women & Mary the Mother of Jesus, & with His brother.
And now, starting with the first verse of the 2nd Chapter of Acts, we read about the beginning of the Church.
“When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven & filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated & came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit & began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
“Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: ‘Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? That how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?’” (Acts 2:1-8)
“Amazed & perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?’ Some, however, made fun of them & said, ‘They have had too much wine.’” (Acts 2:12-13)
In the midst of all this excitement, the apostle Peter spoke up & got the crowd’s attention. Then he said to them, “Fellow Jews & all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken of by the prophet Joel…” (Acts 2:14-16)
And beginning with those words he preached to them about Jesus. He told them, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders & signs, which God did among you through Him, as you yourselves know. …you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross. But God raised Him from the dead…” (Acts 2:22-24)
Listen also to Vs’s 36-41, “’Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord & Christ.’ When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart & said to Peter & the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’
“Peter replied, ‘Repent & be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you & your children & for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’
“With ... many other words he warned them; & he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized, & about 3,000 were added to their number that day.”
SUM. They had no sanctuary, no formal Sunday School, no colleges, no written curriculum. And yet with little of what we have today but heavily armed with prayer & the power of the Holy Spirit they were able to change the world of their day.
II. THE NUCLEUS OF THE CHURCH
Who were these men who made up the nucleus – the core group – of the early church? As Jesus prepares to give them the great commission, Matthew tells us, “Then the 11 disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.” (Matthew 28:16) Judas, the betrayer, was dead, & now there were 11.
So let’s take a closer look at these 11 disciples, as you look at them, realize that in a lot of ways they are very much like us.
A. First of all, they were just ordinary men – fishermen, a tax collector, men from the hill country of Galilee. There is no indication of anyone rich or influential or highly educated among them. They were just ordinary people.
Later on, there were some rich & influential followers. Saul of Tarsus would fall into that category. He had a great education. He was part of an influential family. And he was well respected among his people before he became a Christian. But we also need to remember that Saul had to be humbled before God could really use him.
SUM. So the first thing we notice is that the men who made up the nucleus of the first church were very ordinary. And that ought to be encouraging to us, because that is what most of us are, just ordinary people.
B. The 2nd thing we notice is that these men were imperfect. Listen as vs. 17 says, “When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some doubted.”
Don’t you just love the honesty of Scripture? It never tries to gloss over imperfections. Here they were, meeting with Jesus after His resurrection. He stands before them, & even though they can see the nail-prints in His hands & feet & the wound in His side, it says that some of them doubted.
They certainly weren’t perfect! Take Simon the Zealot. Today he might be called a redneck. And how about Simon Peter? You never knew just what he would say next. James & John had problems with their egos, always wanting to be first. And then there was Thomas, the Doubter.
SUM. No, the men who made up the nucleus of the first church were far from perfect. And that ought to be encouraging to us, because we’re imperfect, too. Everybody in this room has problems. And we all have our areas of weakness. So we’re in good company with them.
C. But they had one more characteristic which made all the difference. They loved Jesus & wanted to obey Him. Listen to the last part of vs. 16. It says that they “went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go.”
SUM. So in analyzing these men, we discover that they were ordinary people with lots of imperfections, but that they loved Jesus & desired to obey Him. They recognized Him as the Son of God who had risen alive from the grave. So whatever He commanded them to do, they sought to do it. They tried to put Him first in their lives.
That is what the church is. The church is made up of ordinary & imperfect people, who desire ...
to make Jesus both Lord & Savior of their lives.
III. THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH
The 3rd thing I want you to see is the mission of the church. Vs. 19 begins with these words, “Therefore go & make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father & of the Son & of the Holy Spirit, & teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
ILL. In the 13th Century, Nicolo Polo, the father of Marco Polo, was visiting the court of the great Kublai Klan. Kublai Khan was the Emperor of All China & he had never seen any Europeans before. He was delighted to meet this visitor from Venice & was strongly impressed by the Christian character & faith that he saw in Nicolo.
In fact, he was so impressed that he sent a letter back with Nicolo to Rome urging that a number of Christian educators be sent to instruct his people in the teachings of Christ. But this was still during what we call the “Dark Ages” in Europe, & the church leaders were too involved in the political upheavals of that day to give any serious attention to his request.
In the end, only 2 men were sent, & because the trip was so difficult, they lost heart & turned back without ever reaching China. So, because of the failure of the church of that day, Kublai Khan turned to Buddhism & that has been the predominant religion in that area ever since. (Adapted from SC)
Remember, the mission of the church is to make disciples of “all nations.” That’s why we encourage you to give to support missionaries around the world. Our field is not just confined to Brownsville. We are to reach out to the whole world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, to make disciples of them, baptizing them in the name of the Father, & of the Son, & of the Holy Spirit.
If you receive a letter signed by the President & the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court & the Speaker of the House, you know that it is an important letter. And when we’re commanded to baptize people in the name of the Father & the Son & the Holy Spirit you know that is important, too.
IV. THE ASSURANCE OF THE CHURCH
The 4th thing we need to see here is the assurance, the promise, that Jesus gives us. Listen to His words, “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
To the early Christians these were some of the most precious words Jesus ever spoke. Every time they gathered to worship they knew that soldiers might come & arrest them at any moment. They had seen many of their friends die. They had seen them tortured & heard their cries of pain just because they were believers in Jesus.
So when Jesus said, “I am with you always,” even in moments of persecution & pain those were precious, precious words.
They are probably not that precious to most of us today. But they might well become very precious to us in the future. More & more we’re seeing a widening of the gap between what the church is supposed to be, & what the world is, between the philosophies of the world & the philosophy of the church.
Already we are seeing the recognition of God being eradicated from our schools & public assemblies. Prayer, Bible reading, nativity scenes, Christmas stories, even the very mention of God – are no longer welcome in our public gatherings. We see the media turning against the church. And some are saying that committed Christians are a threat to our nation.
The church needs ...
to be ready. Jesus says, “I’ll be with you. No matter what happens between now & the time I come for you, I want you to know that I’ll never leave you nor forsake you.”
CONCL. I don’t know how you perceive the church. I don’t know if you picture a little church where you & a few of your friends can get together. Or if you see a church where thousands of people gather together in worship.
But I know this, the church does not exist solely for its members. The church exists to help reach the lost. And the moment we turn our sights inward, & begin to think that the church is just for us, then, people, we are no longer the church. We are a private little club.
We exist for a lost world. We exist to give ourselves away. We exist to touch a world that doesn’t know Jesus Christ & to show them the way to be saved from their sins & to live for all eternity.
ILL. In the Greek Islands near the home of Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, you’ll find an old olive tree that supposedly dates all the way back to his day. That would make the tree nearly 2,400 years old.
The trunk of the tree is huge, but it’s almost completely hollow & virtually dead. What few branches it has left are propped up by stakes driven into the ground. But each year it sprouts an occasional leaf or two, & it might even produce a few olives.
So I guess the tree is still alive. But it has long since stopped fulfilling its primary function. It is now simply an ancient tree for tourists to come & see. (Adapted from SC)
The church must never be like that. It is so much more than just a relic of the past. It is the body of Christ, the family of God, & it has been entrusted with the message of salvation for the world – for all those everywhere who will accept Jesus as their Savior & their Lord.