We are in the middle of our IDOLATRY sermon series. So far, we have…
(1) defined idolatry as PLACING anything in God’s PLACE.
(2) identified personal idols as those things that we FEAR, LOVE or TRUST more than God.
(3) marveled as Jesus loved US more than himself by going to the cross to win forgiveness for our idolatry.
(4) been empowered to discover our own idols and get rid of them
In order to do this, I think it’s helpful to consider the places you visit each week and identify the idols that tempt you in each location. For example…
…work, where your boss sends you email reminders to worship idols of money and career every five minutes on the five minutes.
…the local bar, where you go every Thursday to practice some Thirsty Thursday Theology.
…your gym, where bowing down to do burpees quickly becomes bowing down to your bodacious body.
…your couch, here you have a nice little altar set up to the Netflix God.
… the bedroom down the hall from yours, where this tiny little 5-year-old God that demands all of your time and energy be spent pretending to be a Paw Patrol Character with them.
But, as you consider places where idols tempt you to worship them, how many of you thought of…
If we were playing Family Feud and the topic was “Place You’d Find an Idol in Modern America”, giving the answer “Church” is something that would cause Steve Harvey to do a double take.
Today we will be warned from God’s Word not to be deceived: church can absolutely be a place where idolatry lays hold of our hearts. We’ll consider if any idols have taken their way into our hearts and ask God’s help exposing and removing those idols. Before we do that, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth. Your Word is the truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see; open our ears to hear what you want us to hear; and open our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. Background of Ezekiel
The lesson for this morning comes from Ezekiel 8. A bit of background:
In 597 B.C. the Babylonian Empire defeated the people of Israel and carried many people back into Babylon as exiles. These people were apart from their country, apart from where they grew up, and apart from their families.
But the truth was that God had ordained this exile. For years, God had been warning the people of Israel through prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah, that this would unless they stopped worshipping idols and returned to worshipping the true God.
They didn’t listen.
So, God allowed the exile.
One might expect the exile to be what finally caused the people to change their ways, right?
Enter Ezekiel. Ezekiel is one of the priests of God who had been carried off with the exiles to Babylon. In Babylon, God transforms Ezekiel from a priest that brings requests from the people to God to a prophet that brings messages from God to the people. God had Ezekiel present these messages to the people in strange ways.
Once, God had Ezekiel go the city square and lie down on his side for 390 days. This was to represent how the 390 years that the people had been engaged in the sin of idolatry. (Ezekiel 4:5)
Another time, God had Ezekiel build a miniature model of Jerusalem. Then, he took an iron pan and placed it as a wall against the model, representing a Babylonian siege that God would send against the people of Jerusalem. (Ezekiel 4:3)
Yet one more time, God had Ezekiel shave off his beard. Then, he took a third of the beard shavings and burned them (to represent the third of Jerusalem that would be set on fire), a third of his beard shavings he threw into the wind (to represent the third that would flee the city and be scattered), and a third of the beard shavings he threw into the air and slashed with his sword (to represent the third of Jerusalem that would die by the sword). All these things would happen if the people didn’t return from idols to the true God.
These action prophecies led to Ezekiel garnering quite a following. Many of the elders in the city spent time with Ezekiel hoping to be present for another strange prophecy.
On the fifth day of the sixth month, in the sixth year of the exile, Ezekiel is chilling in his house with some of the elders. (I imagine they’re drinking some wine and watching the latest episode of the Bachelor).
When suddenly, Ezekiel goes into a trance.
He sees the figure of a man.
Chest of blazing fire.
Legs of glowing metal.
It’s the LORD.
And the LORD reaches out his hands,
Grabs Ezekiel by the hair,
And lifts him into the air.
He soars with Ezekiel out of the walls of Babylon.
He skyrockets him past the desert plains.
He lifts him up past the mountains.
And sets him down in Jerusalem.
Right in front of God’s temple.
I’m sure Ezekiel was filled with excitement:
This is my home!
This is my temple.
This is where I worked!
That is where I carved my name into a rock.
Over there is where little Suzy Lou gave me a kiss on the cheek in grade school!
As Ezekiel’s looked around his home…
He saw something…
II. Church Idols
(1) The Idol of JEALOUSY
The Spirit…brought me to the entrance of the north gate into the inner courtyard of the Temple, where the idolatrous image of jealousy, which provokes jealousy, was located. (8:3)
Can you imagine that? This is God’s holy temple. The place where you worship God and only God. And yet, there at the entrance welcoming you as you come in, is an idol.
At the entrance of our church, we’ve got some flowers.
We’ve got a bench.
We’ve got a sign that says, “worship this way.”
How would you feel if next week there was a big old statue of Buddha out front?
The idol that was in front of the temple is simply identified as jealousy.
While churches today might not have an actual, statue like idol at the entrance to their church, the IDOL OF JEALOUSY is absolutely a threat.
A while back, I noticed a young child that was in tears throughout the worship service.
Having a hard time.
Afterwards, he was still having a difficult time, so I asked him, “What’s wrong?”
“My brother ate the last goldfish. I didn’t get as many!”
Mom said, “Yep. That’s pretty much all we cared about throughout worship.”
Jealousy is a threat to take over your time of worship and craft an idol in your heart.
“Would you look at that person? He’s got so many friends. I wish I was more like him.”
“Really? She’s engaged and I’m not? How is that even possible? I’m way better looking.”
“That musician is very talented. So…it’s kinda cool they just made a mistake…Knock them down a peg or two.”
“That guy shouldn’t be on church leadership. I’d do a much a better job than him.”
“Look! There’s pastor capitulating to the new people again. When he’s gonna spend more time talking to me!?!”
The thing about the idol of jealousy is that it provokes jealousy.
Remember the first sermon in this series? God said, “You shall have no other Gods… for I am a jealous God visiting punishment on those who hate me.” (Exodus 20:3)
You might be consuming with jealousy for other people.
That leaves God jealous for you.
And Ezekiel was in shock.
And God tapped him on the shoulder.
And said, “You will see even great abominations than these.” (v.6)
(2) The Idol of REPUTATION
Next, he brought me to the entrance to the courtyard, and I looked and saw that there was a hole in the wall. (v.7)
Instead of telling Ezekiel to get out his spackle and a trowel to fix it, God tells him, “to dig through the wall.” So, Ezekiel does. I don’t know that he had some kind of Ancient Hebraic shovel, but he dug until he had a space big enough for his body to fit through.
Then, God told him, “Look around at the abominations in this room.” (v.8)
As Ezekiel enters, he notices the walls are engraved with “Every form of creeping creature and every kind of detestable animal and all the filthy idols.” (v.10) This is most likely a reference to the Gods of the Egyptians. Hieroglyphics – that glorified hawks, cats, and beetles as Gods.
But Ezekiel hadn’t discovered ancient room that no one knew existed.
People knew about it
Temple people knew about it.
In fact, inside the room was a group of about 70 Israelite elders, burning incense and praying to the carvings.
But what’s interesting is that these men were hidden! From the outside, the room looked like a temple of God, but hidden deep within the inside? Idolatry.
They wanted to protect their REPUTATION. It’s the only reason that they kept up appearances as “priests” of God. They craved the REPUTATION of God followers even though their hearts were far from him.
REPUTATION is just as much an idol today.
“I don’t want to be at worship today. But I better go so that it looks good to others.”
“Lots of prayers on social media for the Coronavirus. I’d better post one too so I look like a good Christian.”
“I can’t confess my secret sin of pornography to the elders, because they might look at me funny. I’ll just put on a smile, act like everything’s ok, and keep sinning.”
Want to know the ironic part of this?
REPUTATION worshippers think that everyone is fooled.
According to verse 12, the worshippers in the secret room were saying:
‘The Lord does not see us.’ (v.12)
Because the one that was seeing them do this, was the very one they claimed didn’t see them.
And God sees it when reputation becomes our idols.
And he hates it.
But God wasn’t done yet.
God grabbed him by the hand.
And said, “You will see even greater abominations...” (v.13)
(3) The Idol of PROSPERITY
Next, God brought Ezekiel to the entrance of the gateway of the House of the Lord that is on the north side, and right there (he) saw women sitting and wailing for Tammuz. (v.14)
Tammuz was the ancient Mesopotamian God of fertility. According to religious myth, when Tammuz was healthy then the land would be fertile. He’d bless the farmer with healthy crops. He’d give them an abundance of grain. He’d make sure that there was a BULL market in ancient crops.
But when things went poorly, perhaps during winter or a famine, Tammuz had died. Then, it was up to the worshippers of Tammuz to bring Tammuz back to life through mourning and crying.
(Sounds like some kind of Disney movie: “If you shed a tear of true love for your idol, then Tammuz will come back to life.”)
But really, it wasn’t Tammuz they loved.
It wasn’t Tammuz they were sad that died.
It was their PROSPERITY.
PROSPERITY is a big idol in the modern church.
People that worship just to get a better job.
People that worship just to get more money.
People that worship just to find themselves a happily family.
Not that any of those things are bad on their own.
But LOVING them more than God is.
Even right now. There’s a pandemic of COVID-19.
And we’re praying to God to get us through this.
To keep us from illness.
To keep our jobs strong.
To keep our economy prosperous.
Are we doing so because we LOVE God?
Or because we LOVE prosperity?
Because we TRUST God to take care of us…
Or we don’t TRUST life without stuff?
Because we FEAR God and know he’s in control…
Or because we FEAR the virus and think it is?
Worship is not a means for you to get PROSPERITY.
It’s a way to show trust in God when there isn’t PROSPERITY.
Because think about this.
You don’t have to mourn to bring the real God back from the dead.
He did that on his own.
God turned Ezekiel around.
And led him away from the entrance.
And said, “You will see even greater abominations than these.” (v.15)
(4) The Idol of REBELLION
Finally, God brought (Ezekiel) to the inner courtyard of the House of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple of the Lord, between the vestibule and the altar.
This is the main event.
It’s the place where priests would offer sacrifices to God.
It’s the place where priests would offer prayers to God.
It’s the place where priests would sing worship songs to God.
Usually that was done facing the altar (not that God was the altar), but it was a visual reminder that all of their worship was directed to God.
These men weren’t facing the altar.
Their backs were.
There were twenty-five men, showing their backsides to the temple of the Lord with their faces toward the east, and they were bowing down to the sun. (v.16)
They didn’t care what God wanted.
They did what they wanted.
And what they wanted was to be like all the other nations.
Worship isn’t about you.
It isn’t about what you want.
It isn’t about what you like.
It isn’t about what you desire.
It’s about God.
And here’s the warning, if you are making worship all about YOU, then it’s as if your back is turned to the altar.
As if you’re worshipping the sun.
As if you’re stinking a branch up God’s nose.
Look at that figure of speech in verse 17, “They are even sticking the branch up my nose!”
It’s the Old Testament equivalent to thumbing your nose at God.
Only the phrase is usually “stick a branch to my nose.”
God says that this open rebellion isn’t just a branch to his nose, but a branch up his nose.
This seems like a TERRIBLE idea.
III. The Church’s Real God
How does the REAL God feel about all this idolatry among his people?
“I also will act in wrath. My eye will not show pity, and I will have no compassion. They will call out to my ears with a loud cry, but I will not hear them.”
This segues directly into the very next chapter. Where God tells his servants to go through out Jerusalem and bring destruction to all who worship idols. And the messenger is about to go.
But before he does, he gives the messenger one last instruction:
The Lord said, “Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a TAV on the foreheads of those who moan and lament over the abominations being committed in her.” (v.4)
Those were the ones that God wouldn’t destroy.
Those who heard his message and repented.
But we need to talk about this “tav”. It’s a Hebrew letter that makes the sound of a “t”.
In the modern world, it looks similar to a lower case “n” just with a rocking chair like foot to the bottom left and a crossing between the two strokes at the top.
If you trace the history of the tav back to the time of Ezekiel?
It’s a cross.
Not that anyone who read this at Ezekiel’s time said, “There is a savior who will come and die on the cross to remove our sins of idolatry in God’s temple…” But as we look back and see what Ezekiel was saying, “Isn’t this amazing?”
Jesus has covered your sins.
His death on the cross has covered.
He has covered your idolatry of jealousy.
He has covered your idolatry of reputation.
he has covered your idolatry of prosperity.
He has covered your idolatry of rebellion.
He has covered you with his blood, called you his child, and made you his church.
Rejoice! You are forgiven!
IV. What Now?
(1) Honor God in Church
This is the main principle of worship. We want everything we do to be Christ centered.
It’s why Jesus comes up so much throughout the service:
In the songs.
In the prayers.
In the lessons.
In the kids’ lesson.
In the artwork.
In the bulletin.
On the powerpoint.
in the sermon, etc.
That’s absolutely what God has called us as church leadership to do.
But God also calls you to honor God in worship.
To throw out your jealousies.
To throw out your worries about reputation.
To throw out your desires for prosperity.
To throw out your own sinful wants and desires.
To worship God.
(2) Honor God AS Church
The Bible teaches in 1 Corinthians 6:19 that “you are the temple of God and the Holy Spirit lives in you.”
God loved you.
He bought you.
He threw out your idols.
And made your heart his temple.
In your heart, there’s a sign outside that says, “God is worshipped here.”
Because when you do, this whole thing about idolatry in church flips.
Instead of idols entering God’s domain of the church,
God’s church enters the idol’s domain of the world.
At Gethsemane, we get a goodly amount of mail. At times, I’ll open the mailbox and it will be chocked full of letters. If I’m honest, I feel excited. Maybe I’ll get something cool.
So, I read the envelopes:
Precious Lambs’ Director.
Precious Lambs’ Director.
Letter to Julianna.
Letter to Julianna.
Let me look inside:
I didn’t have Julianna’s address.
Could you get this to her.”
Maybe you feel the same way. If the letter is for someone else, it isn’t that exciting to you.
Our next sermon series is called Dear Church. It’s a study of the first chapters of Revelation. These first chapters contain a collection of seven letters written to seven first-century churches.
Yet none of these letters are addressed to “Gethsemane Church in Raleigh.”
None of them have the address of delivery listed as 1100 Newton Road.
None of them have your specific name on it.
So, you might wonder: “How valuable is studying a bunch of ancient letters that aren’t written to me?’
Today our goal is to identify the author, identify the recipients and discover the value these letters have for us. Before we begin, a prayer: O Lord, strengthen us by the truth, your Word is truth. Open our eyes to see what you want us to see, our ears to hear what you want us to hear and our hearts to believe what you would have us believe. Amen.
I. The Writer
Our lesson starts in Revelation 1:1-2. It says: The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servant what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw. (Revelation 1:1-2)
A couple of notes:
The word Revelation is the Greek Word apocalypsis. It’s where we get the word Apocalypse. It means the “unveiling of something that previously was hidden.” In this case, what is being unfolded is the future of the Christian church.
The writer is a guy named John. This is John the Apostle. The apostles were a special group of twelve men that Jesus had specially called to follow him for three years of ministry and continue his ministry after he left. During the time he was with Jesus, John learned deep theological truths and witnessed other worldly miracles.
In fact, John was one of a group of three Apostles that were witness to a few special events:
John saw Jesus’ face transformed into a brilliant sun like light.
John saw Jesus touch a dead girl’s hand and bring her back to life.
John saw Jesus in deep anguish as he prayed deep within a garden the night before he died.
John saw Jesus die.
And John was an eyewitness to Jesus’ resurrection.
As a result, John wanted to share his experience. He wrote a book in the Bible called John. In that book, he wrote about all that Jesus said and did while on earth. Later, John wrote a letter to believers everywhere called 1st John. It encouraged believers in their Savior Jesus. Finally, John writes two more letters called: 2nd and 3rd John that deal with supporting the truth of God’s Word.
That’s four books of the Bible that John had already authored. Revelation is his 5th book.
This letter has value, because it comes from a guy whose life was intimately connected with our Savior.
Look what else John says about himself: I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (1:9)
Notice that John calls himself brother. Even though he has led an impressive life, John does not refer to himself as “The apostle” or “the guy who knows a lot more than you.”
John calls himself a brother.
A brother in sin.
A brother in salvation.
A brother in faith.
A brother in the church.
A brother in suffering.
Like you, John knew suffering.
He knew the physical pain of life on this earth.
He knew the emotional pain of being ridiculed for his faith.
He knew the spiritual pain of fighting sin, of fighting guilt, of fighting loneliness.
Matter of fact, John wrote this letter while he was on the island of Patmos. He had been exiled there because of his faith. He was alone. He probably felt lonely. He was familiar with suffering.
This letter has value, because it comes from a guy who understood the struggles of believers.
II. The Voice behind the Writer
John wasn’t a millennial.
He’s never been to the Triangle.
He didn’t own an iPhone.
He wasn’t familiar with how to run Windows 10.
He didn’t know any of the characters from Stranger Things.
John didn’t know what it was like for 21st century believers in Raleigh NC.
His letter might be valuable for a history class,
But not nowadays…
Look at what John writes next:
On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit. The Lord’s Day would have been Sunday. The fact that John was in the Spirit seems to indicate that he was in some form of worship.
Maybe singing songs to God’s praise.
Or on his knees in prayer.
Or preaching himself a sermon and writing down his own sermon responses.
In the middle of worship all by himself.
On the island all by himself.
In prayer all by himself.
John heard someone else:
I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, which said: “Write on the scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.” (v.10)
Do you get it?
John’s letter; isn’t his own.
He wrote it down.
But it came from someone else.
It’s kind of like Siri. If you’re driving down the road and you don’t want to text and drive (because you shouldn’t text and drive), you can tell Siri: “Siri. Text Julianna: Hi Love, I’ll be home at seven.” Siri will write it down. Siri will send the message. Siri will let Julianna know: “Hi Bub, I’ll be home at eleven.”
Jokes aside. When you send a message through Siri, Siri writes it down, but it’s really your message.
It’s the same thing here.
John wrote it down, but the letter come from this voice.
So, who is the one behind John’s letter? The text is full of clues:
(1) Trumpetlike Vocal Chords
It says the voice was like a trumpet. (v.11) On the one hand, it could be a reference to the decibel level. A trumpet is loud and boisterous, so this simile may be a reference to the voice being loud and boisterous. (There’s a reason the trumpet plays the daily wakeup call in the military)
Or perhaps has a brass instrument like quality to it. It literally sounds like a trumpet with a nasal, air filled quality to its melodies.
Either way, trumpetlike vocal cords are other worldly. Because most people can’t speak louder than a trumpet. And most people can’t speak in a voice that perfectly mimics a trumpet. (Go ahead and try – I’ll wait.)
(2) Surrounded by High Priest Gear
When John heard the voice, he turned around to see where it was coming from. He wrote, “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. (v.13)
All that language is very Old Testament.
Old Testament worship involved these very ornate golden lampstands that held the burning candles during worship.
Old Testament worship was led by a high priest who wore a long white robe reaching down to cover his sandals.
Old Testament worship robes were decorated by a golden sash across the chest.
John, who was familiar with Old Testament worship, would have understood that this was a high priest.
The only thing he wouldn’t have understood was…
Where did the high priest come from?
And how did he set up the lampstands without making a sound?
And can you get the golden sash on sale down at Target?
Look at John’s description of the high priest. He describes him as, “like a son of man.” (v.13)
A son of man is a human.
Just like a son of a cow is a calf.
And the son of a cat is a kitty.
But John is careful in his words. He doesn’t say, “a son of man,” but, “like a son of man.”
As in similar, but not quite.
As in like, but also unlike.
As in human, but more…
(4) Otherworldly Facial Features
Verse 14 describes why John didn’t consider him your average human. He writes, “The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire.”
White hair isn’t unheard of. It’s common. Yet the emphasis on it being “white like snow”; gives the impression this is an otherworldly type of white.
And check out the eyes!
Yes, there are now contacts that exist that you can put into your eyeballs to change the color of your iris. If you have blue eyes and want brown, there’s contact lenses for that.
If you have brown eyes and want blue, there’s contact lenses for that.
If you have regular colored eyes and want yours to look like fire, there’s contact lenses for that.
Those colors contact lenses weren’t invented until 2010.
And contact lenses in general didn’t exist until 1887.
That’s fire in his eyes.
And that’s not it for the otherworldly facial features:
In verse 17 it says, “Coming out of his mouth was a sharp double-edged sword.”
And in verse 18 it says, “His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance.”
(5) Otherworldly Footwear
Look at verse 15: His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace.
Bronze is a precious metal. It’s used in making beautiful plates, decorations, and lampstands.
How many of you today are wearing bronze shoes?
How many of you own bronze shoes?
How many of you have ever seen bronze shoes?
But then, notice that the bronze was glowing! Did you know that bronze begins to glow & melt at about 1562 degrees Fahrenheit?
This is other worldly.
(6) Trumpetlike Riverlike Vocal Chords
I love this note. Because earlier John said that the voice was like a trumpet. And then at the end of verse 15 he says, “his voice was like the sound of rushing waters.”
What’s the deal? Can John not tell the difference between the sound of trumpet and the sound of a river? Nope.
John’s just in such shock at the other worldly voice of this being that he is struggling for metaphors.
The voice is that amazing.
(7) Star Grasping
Verse 16 records, “In his right hand he held seven stars.” There is no distinction here.
It doesn’t say, “In his right hand were seven things like stars.”
It doesn’t say, “Seven lights like stars.”
It doesn’t even say, “Seven shapes like stars.”
Legitimate, gas burning entities.
Three white dwarves.
Four red giants.
Four red dwarves
And three blue giants.
Regardless, the fact that this being has legitimate stars in his hands…
(8) The First & the Last
Because the voice speaks again and said this: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last.” (v.17)
Think about that.
The voice says He is the First.
As in before all the sun.
As in before the moon.
As in before the earth.
As in before Adam.
As in before Eve.
As in before everything.
And the voice says He is the Last.
As in after the sun.
As in after the moon.
As in after the earth.
As in after all Adams.
And after all Eve.
As in after everything.
(9) Formerly Dead
The voice continues, “I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever!” (v.18)
How many people do you know who are dead? Lots.
How many people do you know who are dead, but then came back to life?
Did you know the Bible records at least 9?
The widow of Zarephath’s son…dead; brought back to life.
The Shunnamite woman’s son…dead; brought back to life.
A random Israelite body…dead; brought back to life.
The young daughter of Jairus…dead; brought back to life.
The young man at Nain…dead; brought back to life.
Jesus’ friend Lazarus…dead; brought back to life.
Tabitha, the faithful church widow…dead; brought back to life.
Eutychus, the sleepy church goer…dead; brought back to life.
But did you know…
All those people died again.
There’s only one.
Only one who died.
came back to life.
And stayed alive.
This letter is from JESUS.
The one who lived for you.
The one who died for you.
The one who rose for you.
The one who lives for you.
The one who protects you.
The one who rules all things for you.
The one who will take care of you.
The one who will bring you home to heaven.
The one who will grant you eternal life.
This is a letter from Jesus Christ himself!
III. The Recipients
But there’s more. Look at the people to whom Jesus wrote this letter:
Jesus said, “Write, therefore, what you have seen, what is now and what will take place later. 20 The mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand and of the seven golden lampstands is this: The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
And to be fair John mentions the seven churches that will receive the letter earlier. The churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. (v.11)
Numbers are important in Revelation.
A few numbers come up frequently.
3 is the number of God. It represents the Triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
4 is the number of humanity. It’s close to God, but not quite. It represents the four corners of the earth that humans live upon.
7 is the sum of the two. It represents God in communion with humanity. It represents where God graciously connects with the souls he loves. It represents the place where God brings sinful lost humans into his family.
We’re talking about the Church.
Here’s the truth:
This is a letter written to YOU.
These letters are important.
Because they are written to YOU.
And they have been preserved for YOU.
And they are being proclaimed to YOU.
And these words are from Jesus for YOU.
IV. What Now?
There is no letter you have ever received more important.
No letter you’ve ever received with more value.
No letter you have ever received that comes from a higher place than these letters from Jesus himself.
Make sure you’re here.
If you can’t be, listen online.
Don’t miss the very important words of Jesus himself.
He loves you.
He cares for you.
He has a message for you, dear church.
Last week we continued to follow the apostle Paul as he left Athens and went alone on to Corinth. It seemed an impossible task, one man against a city of very devoted sinners. Of course, it wasn’t the first time God sent a man alone against unbelief like that, but it was an intimidating prospect, nonetheless.
But Paul did not stay alone for long. He reached out on common ground, met like-minded people, and before long a small congregation was blossoming. In fact, this pattern repeated most places he went. Even where he was forcibly driven out, he left behind a contingent of the faithful who continued the work after he departed. Though he made his rounds, sharing Jesus, strengthening churches, and moving on, each place he worked carried on the work without him.
Today, it is that effect in particular that we want to look at. That from the efforts of one, many can come to faith by God’s power. And each one of those many can reach out to just as many more. Let’s begin by taking a look at our reading for today, from Acts 18:
Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken. They arrived at Ephesus, where Paul left Priscilla and Aquila. He himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to spend more time with them, he declined. But as he left, he promised, “I will come back if it is God’s will.” Then he set sail from Ephesus. When he landed at Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and then went down to Antioch.
After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and traveled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.
Meanwhile a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria, came to Ephesus. He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures. He had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and he spoke with great fervor and taught about Jesus accurately, though he knew only the baptism of John. He began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they invited him to their home and explained to him the way of God more adequately.
When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, the brothers and sisters encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him. When he arrived, he was a great help to those who by grace had believed. For he vigorously refuted his Jewish opponents in public debate, proving from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.
One hates to talk numbers when discussing the church. God wants all people to be saved. He does not measure success in numerical terms. The effectiveness of the Gospel or a congregation should not be measured in numerical growth. It’s a slippery slope to talk numbers.
That being said.
Foregoing issues of doctrinal divide and incorrect teachings, the number of people in the world with saving faith in Jesus could probably be estimated in the hundreds of millions. The number of people who have passed to heaven in the faith in the last 2000 years makes that number significantly higher. Imagine what that number would look like though, if Paul had been the only one teaching people about Jesus. If everyone who had come to faith by his efforts simply took that faith home and enjoyed it for themselves and that was that? God is all-powerful, but humanly speaking – how fast can one person share the faith with the world?
In fact, even Jesus himself said the task was too great. He said the workers were too few and to ask for more workers. He turned to his disciples, told them to pray for more workers that the lost and helpless sheep might get what they so desperately need.
And we’ve seen through the book of Acts how desperately people need Jesus. And people haven’t changed much since our time. As we look at the people in Acts who need Jesus, we don’t just see the same people in our world, we even see ourselves. We see either what we once were or struggle every day not to turn into.
We saw the group that loved just indulging in everything life had to offer in order to try to find happiness on any given day. Do you know that person? Have you tried it yourself? Or even given into it a little bit? The rush of whatever is great… but at the end you have to face reality. And it’s never the same the second time. You have to go bigger and better. And you get caught in an endless loop of one-upping everything that went before. Doesn’t even have to be a sinful vice. Could just be a hobby or vacation or something. You’re working towards that one thing that you say, “when I get here, I’ll be happy and content and everything will be good.” But it’s a hamster wheel. It doesn’t work. And you just have to do it all over again. It’s a hollow chasing of the wind.
We saw the group that preferred to work for satisfaction. That’s just as deceptive a trap. Either you work really hard and end up with a false sense of security from how great you are… or you more likely stumble and make mistakes and end up utterly discouraged that you just can’t seem to get it right. It’s just as bad as chasing those hollow pleasures to think that somehow my life, my worth, my joy has to come from how good I am at something. I can’t stop moving and working because if I do, I’ll realize how empty it really is and it’ll all come crashing down.
And the less said about the town of Corinth and their worship of Aphrodite, the better. Sexual sin is some of the most prevalent in our world. We all know someone caught up in it and we’d be utterly foolish to think that as Christian believers we are above it or immune to it.
All of these people in our world are people chasing empty lives, knowing on some level that something is missing but unable to fill it. And before we look down our nose, they are exactly what you and I would be except for God’s grace in saving us. They need someone to save them. They need a God who died to make these things right. To give them joy and comfort that lasts, water they can drink and never be thirsty again. They need Jesus to fill that void and calm their desperate pursuits.
Just like we needed Jesus to do the same for us. And to help us daily that we don’t go back to those ways. We’re here to plant Jesus in the heart of North Raleigh and beyond…because North Raleigh is full of hurting people who desperately need it.
But this is not a job that one man can do. It’s not even a job that a small team of called workers can do. It is the calling of every Christian to multiply the faith wherever you go.
Jesus told the disciples to pray for workers and then what happened next? He made his disciples workers and sent them out to work. Paul made friends of Priscilla and Aquilla and before long they were travelling with Paul and teaching other believers
And what about that list of people Paul sent greetings to in Rome? You know, at the point Paul wrote that letter, Paul himself had never even been to Rome? And yet he had a laundry list of people he personally knew who had gone there to carry out ministry for Jesus.
The mission of the church can be summed up simply in two words: Grow and Go. We are to grow the faith of existing believers and we are to go with that faith to share it with others. If you look at Jesus’ great commission that is exactly the directive you’ll find him giving. But the great way about how God works is that each person the Holy Spirit works on and brings to faith is another person to carry out that same mission. One reaches many, the many reach many more, and on and on it goes.
We are a congregation. A gathering. We are very different, with different backgrounds, different attitudes and quirks and foibles. But we are united as a gathering of believers in Christ to carry out his mission. This is not a passive club that we show up to, put our dues in the offering plate and go home with a little bit of salvation. The believers are the church and the church is the believers. Yes, to guide our path we call a man specially trained to lead and shepherd us. Yes, we call teachers to bring up our children. Yes, we appoint leaders to help keep the chaos a bit organized. But you are still the church.
And the ministry of the church is more than Pastor Kiecker can do alone. It’s more than the preschool teachers can do alone. It’s more than the church council can even do alone. It’s up to all of us. Every believer working together to accomplish that mission to multiply the church, to share the gospel message, give the Holy Spirit his moment to work and bring others to the faith you know and treasure.
We’ve talked about the people who are hurting, we know how badly they need it. We know that could just as easily be you or me. And yes, maybe they’ll reject it. God doesn’t hold us accountable for that. He does hold us accountable if we never speak up. If we never do anything. How can anyone believe if they don’t hear and how can they hear if we don’t speak?
Now, I know we’re not all equally equipped. That’s part of the reason we have different roles in the church. We are not all here to do exactly the same things. But we all have gifts that can be used to carry out this ministry. Use them! Maybe it’s not a direct outreach effort, but it’s still work that supports that outreach. Whether it’s helping worship run smoothly for the visitor or keeping our facility beautiful to glorify God or taking some task off another’s plate so they can focus on larger priorities – we all talents and gifts to contribute to the ministry.
And let me just backpedal for a second and point out that ministry is not all about outreach, either. Remember I said the mission of the church is to Grow and Go. Becoming a believer means we are saved, 100%. But it’s also not the end of our earthly walk with God. Faith needs to be fed, nurtured, and grown. The ministry to strengthen faith right here in our own midst through regular worship and study and devotion is just as vital as the ministry to reach outside of our congregation. Look at Priscilla, Aquilla, and Apollos strengthening each other through instruction and study of God’s word prior to really tackling the task of reaching out.
What are you doing to grow? Are you making a point to attend Sunday bible study or one of the mid-week groups? Do you have a devotional habit to dig into scripture regularly on your own? Do you have someone you can reach out to for help when you wrestle with a difficult section of the Bible? If you don’t feel up to the task of reaching out, then start by reaching in – grow your faith in the Word here and help others do the same. And, if you’re not sure where to start – which is super common, then ask. Ask Pastor Kiecker, ask me, ask the leadership. Any of us can point you in the right direction and give you resources to get started.
Brothers and sisters, we are the church. We are the gathering of believers called to do his work. Study his word, learn from him regularly, build yourself up in that truth and then share it out there with those who so desperately need it. Ultimately the work of salvation is up to the Holy Spirit. He is the one who changes hearts and brings people to faith. The success of our mission is in his hands, not ours. But he has chosen to rely on us for the opportunity. Study the gospel, share the gospel, that more can know Jesus, that more can share Jesus, that the most can be saved. Amen.
Last we left Paul, he was sharing the Gospel of Jesus in the city of Philippi. A time in his mission work that is filled with amazing stories: