When we lived in North Carolina, we had been at a church for about eight months. We took the youth to summer camp, and our being at summer camp meant there were always pictures being taken. When we arrived back home and looked at the pictures, I saw that I was much bigger than I thought. I stepped on the scale and, since we started at that church, I had gained forty pounds (yes, we were at a Baptist church). Have you ever been in this scenario? I felt sick to my stomach. I had gained so much weight! I had to make a decision: do something different or keep gaining. I decided to do something different. I found a decent diet plan and started developing a new lifestyle. I was able to lose all the weight that I gained. In order to live well, I had to do something different. There is some great insight here regarding every arena of life.
Here, I simply want to ask, what are we doing to participate as effective disciple-makers in the place and time we are? Do we have the sort of lifestyle in our time that will help us to make disciples well, or have we become sluggish and unhealthy because we don’t want to do something differently? On this Palm Sunday, as we remember Jesus entering Jerusalem victoriously on the back of a donkey, I have to ask: Are we participating in the same mission that Jesus is leading? Are we willing to use the means that God has given us to use?
Acts 11:19-26 (HCSB)
Those who had been scattered as a result of the persecution that started because of Stephen made their way as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, speaking the message to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, Cypriot and Cyrenian men, who came to Antioch and began speaking to the Hellenists, proclaiming the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a large number who believed turned to the Lord. Then the report about them was heard by the church that was at Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to travel as far as Antioch. When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he was glad and encouraged all of them to remain true to the Lord with a firm resolve of the heart, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And large numbers of people were added to the Lord. Then he went to Tarsus to search for Saul, and when he found him he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught large numbers. The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch.
In Jeremiah 33:2, we read that God forms the world in order to establish it. We previously learned something very significant about the nature of God regarding His heart for all people. God establishes everything that He creates. His work of creation and recreation (particularly in the regenerating of our hearts) is a finishable work. God’s establishing of His creation is not a finishable work because it is a state of things. God is always working with us. He is never finished with us. He is always carrying His creation to new heights. He is always doing fresh things. He is always amazing us. He is always, now and forevermore, establishing His creation and His dominion. There would be a major problem if the church looked methodologically or technologically like it did fifty, one hundred, or even one thousand years ago. God is doing fresh things all the time (as we perceive time). This doesn’t mean that morality changes. Moral law is found in the character of God and cannot change. God doesn’t change, for He has always been establishing His creation. He has given us new technology. He, in His providence, allows culture to evolve. He gives people vision for fresh ways of doing things. The Gospel does not change, but because God is always establishing His creation, there are fresh methods to be used to communicate the same Gospel with each new generation and in each new age, and there will always be more to learn about our Father in Heaven (who will do something different in the future when He dwells with us on the earth, Revelation 21:1-4). If we have a love for people like God has, wouldn’t we want to make disciples using any fresh means that God has given?
I have a feeling most Christians reading this want to see people reached with the Gospel. We have three hang-ups. First, we find ourselves using the same methods that people used in the past and those methods no longer work because they are not modern methods or means of communication. Churches can no longer place an ad in a phone book or newspaper and expect people to see it. The problem is not that the message is falling on deaf ears. It is that the message is not reaching people at all because we are not meeting people where they are at. The local church is so loud, but no one hears because we aren’t using platforms that people actually use today. Second, we don’t know what modern communication looks like because we haven’t been good stewards of the opportunities that God has given us by keeping up with technology and culture. If you want to demonize the way that technology and culture change through time, I might remind you that God, the one who is sovereign, has, in His own providence as He works all things together, allowed those things to change. I am not going to critique God on what He has providentially worked together for His own glory. Many Christians don’t even know where to start. Third, we mistakenly advertise our churches rather than the unchanging Gospel. We make evangelism about us rather than about the new things that God wants to do in the hearts and minds of people. We use God to try and establish our own kingdoms rather than participating in God’s establishing of His own creation.
In this text of Scripture, we are reminded of the persecution that broke out against the church as Paul (Saul) reacted to Stephen’s ministry in Jerusalem. Because of this persecution, the church was scattered. As the church was scattered, people proclaimed the message of God. God’s hand was with them and a large number of people were turning to Him as a result of this persecution. The church in Antioch was born. God is working all things together. He even uses the terrible things people do to establish His creation. Here, we get to read about something very interesting and something I think the church today needs to grasp onto. The Jews were rejecting the Messiah, but the Hellenists (Greeks) were believing. God was interacting with, saving, and giving the Holy Spirit to a new group of people: the Gentiles. God, dare I say it, was doing something new.
We might even remember Peter’s astonishment in chapter 10 as God was doing this fresh, new, and exciting thing (something He had always planned to do):
“While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came down on all those who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (Acts 10:44-45).
God had, for a long time, established His kingdom through the Jews. Now He was indwelling and using Gentiles, too. He was doing something fresh and exciting. The Jews were astounded or amazed at what God was doing. The amazing truth that we get to grasp is this: He continues to do fresh and exciting things! I want to prove this in the Scriptures.
In Genesis 1, God creates the world and on each day of creation creates something new that had not yet existed. By God’s nature, He does new, fresh, and exciting things from the foundation of the world. In Acts 13:41, Paul quotes from Habakkuk 1:5 insisting that God is in the business of doing new work in the prophet’s day and also, then, in his own day. He even goes as far as to insist that all of those who are not excited about the new things that God is doing are scoffers (that they mock God). Since God doesn’t change, it will always be the case, even in the resurrection, that He is doing new, fresh, and exciting things. Here I have to make a clarification: what is morally right or wrong will never change because morality is wrapped up in God’s character. When we say that God is always doing new things, it does not mean that the essential nature of things changes. Lust will always be morally wrong, but God will use new technologies to continually establish His creation! It might help us to think through this philosophically. If God is creator, then the act of doing something new, which He did in creation and on each day of creation, comes out of His essential nature. There would be a major problem for Christians if the God they worshipped was static in His existence or somehow was not doing new stuff as He established His own creation. For some of us, this is a mind-blowing revelation! Whoa! God is always doing new stuff! He is active! He’s not just waiting in the air. He’s not just sitting there judging me with those judgy eyes. He is actually establishing me despite my sin! His love and His saving grace are really unconditional! If doing new things is an action that stems from God’s essential nature, then creativity, trying new things, developing new technology, planning new ways of doing things, and even embracing new genres of music are all things that are morally right according to Scripture. At the same time, our getting stuck in our ways or being really stingy about doing things a certain way that we have defined is morally wrong according to the Scriptures. The Scripture themselves will always stand, not having one letter pass away (Matthew 5:18). People have always been saved by grace through faith. People have always been depraved without God (yes, even Adam and Eve). Jesus has always existed as the Son, one with God. These things describe essential natures of things. The Scriptures present God as a God who is always doing new things. The regeneration of the heart is a new thing given after depraved people rebelled against God in the Garden. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit is a new thing given at Pentecost. The inclusion of the Gentiles to actually receive the kingdom is a new thing. My conversion was a new thing. So, I find that essential natures never change. My essential nature will always be depraved. God is always doing new and exciting things to establish His creation. The Holy Spirit arrests my will and will forever abide with me (John 14:16). This is a new thing that God has done to establish me as part of His kingdom so that I am no longer a slave to depravity. If the Holy Spirit were to leave and Christ remove His regenerating power, I would still be lost in sin and unable to follow Christ. Thank the Lord that He does new and everlasting work!
This is going to reveal something very important about our tradition and the way that we have done things in the past. First, those things are to be celebrated so long as they were in line with Scripture. Second, those things are not to be worshipped. We can’t be afraid to move on to new things while celebrating what God did through the old things.
The question presented to us is this: Will we embrace the new things God is doing, or will we stand against God as He continuously establishes His creation? Will we participate as God establishes His kingdom? How are we participating in our day while remembering the great things that God has done?
God is always doing new things.
The church’s participation
The past five months have actually been an amazing journey for me. God took the time to show me that I didn’t need to make progress and I didn’t need to be building to please Him. He took the time to teach me how to rest in Him without doing pastoral work (which I have done since I was eighteen). It has been so refreshing. It was a new experience for me and God was teaching me something new. About two weeks ago, all of the sudden, I felt this urgency to a degree that I have never felt before. It was like God opened the gate and fired the gun so I would start running again with a greater intensity than before. I am ready to see all of this new stuff that God is going to do. I am so ready to jump back in. I feel such an urgency to get the Gospel to the people of Chickasha, of Oklahoma, and around the world. My mind is racing, figuring out how we can do that in our day and in this culture. God is doing a new work in me as He will continue to do year after year. I am just in desperate need of a home church in whom God is also doing new and exciting things. Over the last couple of weeks, I have felt such an urgency for the Gospel that I can no longer wait. I have to get started.
Through the book of Acts, we read about the same sort of urgency. It was an urgency that caused the people of God to quickly embrace the new things that God was doing. They organized with other churches in the area to send humanitarian aid throughout the Roman empire because there was a famine (Acts 11:27-30). It only took one year before this new local church had trained people to be teachers and elders and were sending out missionaries (Acts 11:26, 13:1-3). There was an urgency. The Holy Spirit was directing and these things needed to be done at that moment. The church could not wait. God had spoken. There was a mission. Brothers and sisters, there is a mission.
The church in Antioch is only one year old and we arrive in Acts 13:1-3:
In the church that was at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius the Cyrenian, Manaen, a close friend of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul.
As they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work I have called them to.” Then after they had fasted, prayed, and laid hands on them, they sent them off.
This local church was so serious about following Christ that, after only a year, they had prophets and teachers. They were actively and intently training people for ministry. They were fervently serving the Lord and fasting. They were commissioning and sending missionaries to plant other churches. They were doing something that, at the time, was new. Do you feel the urgency that the people of God had to follow the Holy Spirit’s direction? They weren’t waiting! They were, by God’s grace and power, getting things done! I want to get things done by God’s grace! Lord help us. Help us to feel in the depths of our bones this urgency that You have for us! It’s not a game. Let’s get to work! Let’s do this thing in a way that makes a difference today!
In Acts 17, Paul arrives at this place in Athens named the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. Before, He had explained the Scriptures by using the prophecies and stories of the Jews. Here, he is speaking to Greeks and he changes his game plan. He uses Greek philosophy to lead into a conversation about the Gospel! In Scripture, we have an example, because there is such an urgency, of Paul using modern methods of communication that are relevant to the culture he is in so that people might understand the message of Christ. He didn’t hesitate or question whether or not it was okay. He also did not make the Gospel about himself or his own ministry. The fancy word for this is contextualization. It is necessary. We must communicate in a way that matters. We must use the technology that is used to communicate in our time. Every church needs a decent website and video ministry in the current age; doing outreach on social media because that is where people are. As time goes on and culture changes, different vehicles will need to be used to share the same message so that the message is heard and understood. God is always doing new things! There is an urgency! Will we have a part in the mission of God today? Will we sit on our hands or follow hard after Christ? Will we make disciples?
That is what it means for us to be relevant- to communicate the Gospel in a way that people actually understand and are drawn to repentance. Here is what being relevant does not mean- trying to entertain people or entice people to fill a space in the church building on Sunday. There are too many people who try to be relevant by forsaking the Gospel. This does not work. This makes the church about people. We can be relevant without sinning, as we abide in Scripture, and to make sure all people receive and understand the message of God. We do not forget that repentance is the point of discipleship. There is a great urgency. Remember, in God’s providence, He has placed us in this current technological and cultural context as He works all things together. I think He knows what He is doing.
The Holy Spirit leads us to do new things.
Here is my broken heart. I want to share it with you. My wife and I have been interviewing and talking with church after church over the past five months, trying to discern where God might have us serve. Every single church body has verbally said that it desires to reach people with the Gospel and really make disciples. Every believer says that this is what he or she wants to do. Here is the problem we have found, the very reason we have had to say, “no,” to church after church (after church after church): They are not willing or ready to actually do what it takes to make disciples in the current age. They are not following Jesus today, they are following Him fifty or sixty years ago. They say one thing and prove another by their actions. It breaks me. This has actually been the greatest source of discouragement in my life. No doubt, God was doing some great things, things that need to be celebrated; but we also need to follow Him today, recognizing that God is always doing a new work. Moral standards don’t change. Truth doesn’t change. God doesn’t change. The Gospel doesn’t change. God’s essential structure for things doesn’t change. God does do new stuff. The people who follow the direction of the Holy Spirit also do new stuff.
When I was born, I was kicking and screaming. As I grew, I learned to talk. I eventually learned how to dress myself. Each new grade in school was different. Every stage in life presented new challenges and I had to adapt. I got married. I had a son. We do different stuff throughout our lives. If I were to hold on to the way I had always lived, I would have never been a good husband or father. Could you imagine if I still lived like a single man or pretended that I didn’t have a son? My wife would look at me and ask if I could hold baby while she uses the restroom. My answer, “Sorry, honey, I’m playing video games!” When I would get my paycheck, I’d go buy some new stuff for my man cave instead of making sure bills were paid and we had food in the fridge. It would be terrible. We call it growing up. Why would any arena of life be different? It’s like God designed the whole world to be dynamic, always growing and being established. Do you see the danger when we get too cozy or comfortable in our pews or when we just go through the motions as local churches? Do you see the danger when we grow stagnant at home, work, with family, and so on?
I want to be creative in life and ministry. I want to plant churches and campuses. I want to send missionaries. I want to train pastors. I want to enable as many people as possible to do what God has called them to do. I want to disciple my children in the home. I want to come up with new things we can do as a family. I want to train my children to do everything that God is calling them to do. I want to find creative ways to reach my coworkers or classmates with the Gospel. I want to make disciples today. I hope that you do too. We need to follow Christ in our time. Let us take every opportunity. Let us utilize every avenue. Let us communicate using every available platform. Let us do so in a way that helps contemporary people understand what we are saying and come to repentance before the God of the universe. I saw the new movie, I Can Only Imagine, this weekend. I wasn’t crying, rain was just falling from my eyes! God is really doing that stuff! One question remains for us to answer. Are we, together, with Christ as He does that stuff?
God uses us as He establishes His kingdom.
God is always doing new things.
The Holy Spirit leads us to do new things.
God uses us as He establishes His kingdom.