I’d like to share a story with you. I warn you it is tragic and has no happy ending. But it is important. Sadly, I’ve seen this story play out again and again, though with different details. And admittedly, this is a compilation of multiple stories with some dramatic license taken on my part. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (and keep from shaming the guilty). You probably know these people or some like them.
The Jerusalem church grew like wildfire. No doubt, the quickly developing relationships within that local body helped promote the rapid and sustained growth. According to Acts 4:32, the “full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul…” Unity produced stability. Stability produced growth. If we want to grow like Jerusalem, we need unity. But why?
(If you landed on this post without seeing the others in this series, let me explain what is going on here. Right now, when I write about God’s Way for Our Congregations, I’m in the middle of a series on the Jerusalem church and it’s success. This is the 14th post in the series. I know, I know, that’s awfully long, but there is a lot to learn from the Jerusalem church. I encourage you to check out the introduction to this series to know more about what is going on and to find an index of the posts in this series as they are put up. Enjoy.)
Why is Unity So Important?
Philippians 1:27-2:11, provides a great outlook on why unity is necessary and how to achieve it. Today, we’ll start with why unity is necessary.
Philippians 1:29-30 demonstrates that unity within the congregation is necessary because when we venture into the world, we are going to suffer. Satan can’t stand that we have dedicated our lives to Jesus Christ. He is doing anything and everything in his power to get us to separate from Jesus. One of the easiest ways to accomplish that is to separate us from Jesus’ family. If we are isolated, disconnected, unassociated, we are easy pickings. The mountain lion doesn’t attack the gazelle in the middle of the herd. He looks for the one that is separated and disconnected.
Because of our suffering, we need connection to people who understand where we’ve been and where we are. We need people to rely on. We need a safe haven of friends to uplift us. For a good example of that, look again at Jerusalem. In Acts 4:1-31, Peter and John had been taken prisoner for healing a man. (Imagine that! “Um, yes sir, we have to arrest you for healing that man. We can’t have any unauthorized healings going on around here.”) When they had been threatened and released, where did they go? They went to their friends. What did they do? They prayed. When Peter and John suffered, they had friends they could turn to for help and rely on for powerful encouragement. They had a unified group of believers who would help them turn to the only place they could get true strength and courage.
Why Is Disunity Such a Problem?
I don’t want to simply provide you with an unhealthy dose of guilt. However, I can’t think about this without wondering why there are so many churches that aren’t unified. Sadly, I think the problem is so few of us (myself included sometimes) let the gospel so affect us that either Satan or the world sees us as a threat. Therefore, they let us pass through without any notice. Because they aren’t attacking us, we don’t need a safe haven. Therefore it becomes too easy for us to turn in on ourselves and become the backbiters and devourers against which Paul warned in Galatians 5:15.
I’m not saying we should go out and pick fights with non-Christians or Satan. I’m just suggesting that when we let the gospel radically affect us, suffering will increase. When that happens, we will learn why we need unity in the body. Then we’ll understand why it helped Jerusalem so much.
(If you landed on this post without seeing the others in this series, let me explain what is going on here. Thursdays is my day to talk about God’s way for our congregations. Right now I’m in the middle of a series on the Jerusalem church and it’s success. This is the third post in the series. I encourage you to check out the introduction to this series to know more about what is going on and to find an index of the posts in this series as they are put up. Enjoy.)
Times Were Not So Different
I think we have a tendency to goldenize the past (yes, I just made up that word), or perhaps I should say we engoldify (made that one up too) the past. That is, we look around and see how bad things seem to us today and think the “days of yore” were golden. “Oh, we can’t be as successful as Jerusalem because the times were just different back then. Today, there is so much religious division, there is so much sin, and there are so many enemies, we just can’t have their success.” Baloney.
Granted, times were different. Perhaps we won’t have success using every method that seemed to work in those days, but we can still have the same success by having the same attitude and by following their same general example. I’m guessing going to the downtown square of Franklin and starting to preach will not have the same success rating that Paul had when he preached in the Areopagus in Acts 17:22. That sort of thing was common. Paul wasn’t actually standing out so much with his actions as he was with his teaching. Today, if I went down to the city square and started preaching, folks would think I was nuts. Of course, Paul couldn’t use a radio, a television, or a blog to preach. We can. The point for us to learn is not that we have to use the exact same methods and media as the Jerusalem church and early Christians did. Rather, we need to learn that we can keep teaching in ways that are normal today and we can have success as well. The times are not so different that our teaching will be completely and totally ignored–if we are teaching the truth.
Not as much religious division? Have you heard of Sadducees and Pharisees? What about Zealots and Herodians? “Don’t be a Christian, ” some would say, “Those guys don’t follow the law enough like us Pharisees.” Or they might hear, “There’s no such thing as resurrection, Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead. Just ask us Sadducees. We know what’s up.” “Christians aren’t political enough,” the Zealots might say. The Herodians might respond, “Don’t get caught up with those Christians, they don’t know which side of the toast their bread is buttered on. The Romans and Caesar are taking care of us. If you keep calling Jesus your king, the emperor will eat your for lunch.”
Then there were the pagan worshippers following after all kinds of different gods. We think times are tough because there is a lot of division among supposedly Christian churches. There are numerous people all claiming different ways to be saved in Jesus. During the days of the Jerusalem church, there were numerous people all claiming different gods that would save them. “You don’t have to follow that ‘Jewish god’ Jesus,” some would say, “Instead, follow Athena, Apollos, Zeus, or any combination.” Or they might hear “You don’t want to get mixed up with those crazy Christians, they think their God is the only one.”
Further, and this is very sad, there was even division that occurred among the Christians relatively quickly. The Judaizing teachers kept trying to get Christians to submit to the old law, especially enforcing circumcision on Gentiles. We see that happening in Acts 15. Jerusalem handled that division well, but Galatians demonstrates there was continued division among Christians over this issue.
The point being there was religious division, but Jerusalem still succeeded. So can we.
It is certainly true that sin is everywhere these days. The momentary pleasures of sin are lauded on the radio and television. Billboards invite us to sin. The internet provides a seemingly anonymous highway for sin. If we are not careful, we might believe that it is so much easier to sin these days that we just can’t be successful with a message of freedom from sin through Jesus Christ.
I’d like to address this by looking at two possibilities.
First, I really don’t think it is easier to sin today than it was during Jerusalem’s days. Romans 3:23 applied as much then as it does now. Everyone around the Christians had sinned then and everyone has sinned now. Doesn’t seem that different to me. “Oh, but the effects of sin have increased and the ability to escape sin have gotten harder.” Really? Ephesians 2:1-3 says we all became by nature children of wrath. That was true for them and it is true for us. Romans 7:24-25 says there is only one way to be free from sin and that is through Jesus Christ. That was true for them and it is true for us. There is a lot of sin now. There was a lot of sin then. Sin is hard to overcome now. It was hard to overcome then.
Second, perhaps you are right. Maybe there is more sin and harder sins to overcome now than in Jerusalem’s days. If that is true, does it really mean we can’t have success? Or does it instead mean there will be more people recognizing more quickly how much they need freedom from their sins? Perhaps if we’d quit being worried that people don’t want to escape sin and instead start showing people that we know the way to escape sin through Jesus Christ, we’d have much more success than Jerusalem and than we can possibly imagine.
People are so mean today. There are just too many enemies. There are too many people who are attacking us. There are the worldly, there are false denominations, there are cults, there are new agers, there are atheists, and on the list could go.
Really, you think there weren’t “new agers” in the Bible days? You do realize that most of the New Age movement is going back to the paganism of the early centuries, right? We’re dealing with the exact same stuff they were. Atheists have existed almost from the beginning. We addressed the issue of false denominations in the religious division point above.
Can we honestly make this point after reading Acts 8:1-3? Sure, we have people who put up blogs against us. We have people that say mean and untrue things about us. But very few of us have been chased out of our home towns by our enemies. Here in America, I bet only a handful could even talk about any kind of physical persecution they’ve received. I like to talk about the time I was called by the police after following up on a wayward brother and sister, but that’s the closest I can come to talking about real physical persecution. Do you know anyone that was beaten for their faith? Anyone that was killed for it?
Sure, we have enemies today and they are vicious in their attacks. But we don’t have so many enemies who are being so harsh that we can’t have the success they did. They had just as many harsh, mean enemies, if not more and they still grew. So can we.
Let’s keep getting rid of our excuses. Let’s keep remembering that God is on our side. He is working through us, so we can’t lose. But that is only true if we’ll rely on Him. He worked through the Jerusalem Christians. He worked through the Antioch Christians. He can work through us.
(Be back next Thursday for our continued look at Jerusalem’s success and how we can pursue it.)