No matter what I am doing in life, I find that I have an automatic desire to see real and tangible results. If I go out to eat, I desire to have food that is high enough quality that I am justified in paying for it. My son has started mimicking (or trying to mimic) the sounds that I make. At this stage, we aren’t really talking. We just make sounds back and forth and I probably sound like some cave-dad who lived thousands of years back! I desire that he succeed in mimicking those sounds. I am so happy when he does. With each book that I publish, I have a desire that people will procure that book, read it, and benefit from it. When I preach, I have a desire to see people grow closer in their relationships with Christ. When I build something, I desire to see it finished and to use whatever it is I build for its purpose. When I am striving to make disciples, I find that I desire to see tangible fruit. Where do I get my desire to see real and tangible results?
The resurrection of Christ, which we celebrate specially on Easter (or if you prefer, Resurrection Sunday), means people get to receive life. We were dead in our trespasses. Because of Christ’s sacrifice and because of His redemptive work, He conquers death for His people. This is a great promise. This earns a very real and tangible result. People are really saved. Lives are really transformed. God is really building His kingdom and establishing His creation. In Genesis 1, we read that God created people in His image. If God wins real and tangible results as He establishes His creation and does so by His own desire, then our desire to see tangible results comes out of our being created in God’s image. It is not difficult to deduce that our desire to see results is a godly and noble desire. Just like every desire, we can strive to fulfill that desire sinfully and according to our own will. Even Adam and Eve tried to fulfill their godly desire for knowledge by rebelling against God. Regarding discipleship, then, what are the godly results we should desire to see? What is the godly way in which we might win these meaningful results?
Acts 14:21-23 HCSB
After they had evangelized that town and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, to Iconium, and to Antioch, strengthening the disciples by encouraging them to continue in the faith and by telling them, “It is necessary to pass through many troubles on our way into the kingdom of God.”
When they had appointed elders in every church and prayed with fasting, they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed.
Before we arrive in this text of Scripture, Paul and Barnabas go through Iconium and Lystra preaching and doing good works. In Iconium, the word of God is not popular. They are persecuted heavily, but still see people coming to faith in Christ. In Lystra, the Gospel is so popular that the public begins worshipping them as gods. They see people come to faith and still end up being persecuted. We see two different extremes in the text. We read about one environment in which the word and work of God are out of season and one in which the word and work of God are in season. Both environments had their dangers, but the work of Paul and Barnabas remained the same. They were to faithfully make disciples by expositing and proclaiming the word that God had given. The mandate is for us to preach faithfully the word of God in season and out and in a way that people receive and understand God’s message. The people of God are to be making disciples who make disciples. The people of God are also to be disciples.
Why are we to be making disciples? First, Christ commanded it. Second, God created people, in the beginning, to multiply and fill the earth. People were also created in God’s image. Effectively, people were to be multiplying God’s image so that creation would bear His glory and His majesty. When people sinned, they marred the image of God about them. By Christ and through Christ, that image is being restored. In our time, we practice evangelism because that is how God is establishing His kingdom. That is how He is multiplying His image within all of creation. Evangelism doesn’t just mean that we get to see people come to Christ. We do, and that is awesome! It’s bigger. Evangelism means that, through Christ’s death and resurrection, we have a part in restoring the image of God and in bringing all of creation to bear the glory and majesty of the Creator! God will always be establishing His kingdom, but we will not always practice evangelism. We will always fill the earth with God’s image, but we will not always have the opportunity to reach new people with Christ’s Gospel. I think we will always get to make disciples of one another, but we will not always get to see new disciples. We are reminded, again, that there is an urgency. One day we will no longer have the opportunities to follow Christ that are afforded today. It is possible for us to miss out on what God is doing in the world in this time. I want to challenge us again to be making new disciples by proclaiming God’s word in a way that matters today.
This opportunity is precisely why Christ gave His life. It is why we celebrate His resurrection specially on Easter Sunday. Oh, I wonder how many Christians actually know the story of Easter Sunday? Why do we celebrate Christ’s resurrection specially on this day of all days? Christians originally celebrated Pascha annually. The holiday was celebrated two days after Passover and would be celebrated no matter which day of the week that date happened to fall on. In A.D. 325, Emperor Constantine decreed that Pascha could only be celebrated on a Sunday because that was the day of the week on which Jesus was resurrected. Sometime around the 13th century (A.D. 1200 and following) Christians started adopting the pagan worship rituals of the Greek fertility goddess, Eostre, hunting eggs and adopting the bunny symbolism. Thus, Easter was born and we celebrate it on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. Many of the traditions we have in the organizational church today are traditions that the church adopted from the pagan worship of a Greek goddess. So, we hunt Easter eggs instead of making disciples; though I don’t think that was the original intent. It is devastating. Why wouldn’t we celebrate Easter by telling the story of Christ; not just in the church building, but also with our families and as we do community events. Why wouldn’t we want to stand out from everyone else? Why try to entice people to come to an Easter egg hunt when we have something genuine and real and worth so much more? This week I received a flyer promoting an egg hunt. It was meant to entice people. Come fill a seat! There was nothing about the life-giving gospel and nothing about Jesus, who is the one conquering death on our behalf. How far the organizational church has fallen. Why would I preach a fluffy Easter sermon, the same one we all heard last year and the year before that when the word of God beckons us to receive it as it was given? Making disciples is the work that Christ gave to us after He was raised! People made that into a game. I hope you brought your Easter baskets to church today! Thank the Lord for His grace, a grace perfectly exemplified and made perfectly available through Christ’s death and a grace that grants those who believe in Christ the very resurrection of Christ!
We are charged to preach the word, in season and out.
What is the result of genuine discipleship? We see it in this passage of Scripture. Whether or not the word and work of God were in season, people came to believe. The fields were white for harvest. Paul and Barnabas went back through these towns strengthening the believers and ordaining elders in the churches. The result, first and foremost, was that people believed in Christ and received eternal and everlasting life. God desires that all people repent and receive eternal life! Secondly, new churches were planted and grew in number. Thus, we actually arrive at a Biblical way to view church numbers. First, we are not to worship them. We must never be guilty of strategizing for the purpose of increasing the numbers of attendees in the local church. This is precisely the reason many churches celebrate Easter in a very pagan way instead of actually honoring Christ. We worship Christ. We celebrate His resurrection. We do not worship numbers because in worshipping numbers, we prove that we think we are the center of the church, forgetting that this is God’s work and that God alone is to be glorified. Quantitative growth is also not evil. I say quantitative instead of numerical because people are not just numbers. They are people with real needs, with real desires, with real struggles, with real dreams, and with very real questions about God and life. We have a God-given desire to see tangible results because we were created in God’s image. So, I want to consider the Biblical view of quantitative growth in the genuine local church.
As we work through the pages of Acts, we see quantitative growth being celebrated. It is not the goal of discipleship. The goal of discipleship is repentance unto salvation. It is not worshipped, Christ is. Quantitative growth is evidence that real people have believed in Christ and have started experiencing the abundant life that Christ offers. The recognition of quantitative growth is ultimately celebration because of what Christ has done; it is worship to Him. Quantitative growth, so long as the local church does not worship numbers, is a good thing. Jesus did not give Himself as the sacrificial lamb and gain victory over death in the resurrection so that people, real people, would not be added to His kingdom. He did this work so that His church would be built. Oh, yes. Here is where we find quantitative growth being celebrated in the book of Acts: Acts 2:47, Acts 4:4, Acts 6:7, Acts 11:21, Acts 14:1, Acts 16:5, Acts 17:4, Acts 17:34
In Acts 19:18-20 we see numbers of repentant believers celebrated and described alongside the flourishing of God’s word. Quantitative growth in a genuine church that is practicing real discipleship with real people is evidence that God’s word is flourishing in that local church, in season or out of season. In Revelation 7:9-10, we see the final result of discipleship through evangelism on this earth. There is a great multitude from ever tribe, nation, and tongue worshipping around the throne of God, the God who desires that all repent and none perish.
We want to love people in the community and we want them to know that we love them. If you are reading this, I want you to know that I love you. Notice verse 22 here in chapter 14. Paul and Barnabas went through the cities where they had already been strengthening the disciples by encouraging them. They weren’t just looking to report some number at an annual meeting. They cared about people! They wanted to develop people! They wanted people to take hold of the faith and live the fullness of life in the victory of Christ’s resurrection! The purpose of continuing discipleship is to strengthen in the faith, not necessarily to teach something new. My goal in preaching isn’t to teach something new or revolutionary. It is to preach God’s word. By the reception of God’s word, we are all strengthened in the faith. We are drawn again into the beautiful lifestyle of repentance. One person isn’t necessarily smarter than another and one doesn’t necessarily know more than another. God has given us all different experiences. He has given us knowledge about things concerning which someone else may not have. We all bring that knowledge and experience, along with the love God gives, into the church body so that everyone might be strengthened. That is discipleship.
What is our focus? It is loving God and loving people- especially people in our community. If we love God and people, we want people to know the life-giving God. We desire to see tangible results in discipleship that honor God. What does this look like? What is the natural result of that focus? Numbers of people in the local church do increase in a healthy way, even when the truth of God’s word is out of season. Christ exemplified excellence in His life and ministry- even to the point of death on a cross and victory over death in resurrection. Do we love people in such a way that we are ready to practice discipleship with excellence, taking advantage of every opportunity afforded to us by Christ?
Speaking of excellence. If God is the God of beauty and His creation is excellent and good because He cared to form it that way, how can we ever hope to worship God rightly if we don’t pursue excellence in everything we do? How can I worship God rightly if I don’t pursue excellence in my marriage? If I don’t pursue excellence as a father, as a pastor, as a friend, how can I possibly hope to worship an excellent God? When I am decorating, hobbying, working, cooking, or drinking coffee, am I worshipping the God who creates beautiful things with excellence? When we church and when we practice discipleship, do we strive to honor God by reaching for excellence in all we do? In Colossians 3:23-24, we see this imperative: “Whatever you do, do it enthusiastically, as something done for the Lord and not for men, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.”
We don’t worship numbers, but we do love real people.
There are two tendencies. Some people will see numerical growth as the objective and will try to entice people to come and fill a pew. In response, we will say that we don’t worship numbers and use that as an excuse to become lethargic in our discipleship and in our love for real people in the community. Both tendencies are equally wrongheaded and sinful. The fact that we celebrate Christ’s resurrection in a world that is still sinful means that we are to be on mission, multiplying God’s image in discipleship, especially regarding evangelism.
Worshipping numbers places requirements on people that don’t need to be there. In discipleship, it is tempting for people to place unneeded burdens on others. In His resurrection, Jesus pronounced victory for the sinner! Still, for some reason we feel a need to require some work from the sinful person before we acknowledge that they can partake in the same victory that Christ has given us as a gift. Christ’s desire is to give this victory to sinful people. We were all sinners and Christ gave this victory to us. By His grace, He does this amazing transforming and resurrecting work in our lives! We want others to experience this!
When we look ahead to Acts 15, we see what would be equivalent to a large-scale denominational meeting. There was a dispute that arose in the church at Antioch (Paul’s home church). Some people were teaching that circumcision was a requirement for salvation (that people had to be circumcised as Jews before they could practice faith in Jesus). The council met and debated the issue from Scripture. They recognized that the Holy Spirit was doing a work and that unnecessary and unbiblical burdens should not be placed on people who desire to follow Jesus. There were just a couple of things that they encouraged:
“Therefore, in my judgment, we should not cause difficulties for those among the Gentiles who turn to God, but instead we should write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from eating anything that has been strangled, and from blood” (Acts 15:19-20).
The official decision was that people cannot earn salvation and so we should not burden people with any sort of works-based righteousness, which causes difficulties for them. If people are following Jesus, though, they will strive to abstain from sin- particularly idolatry and sexual immorality. Worshipping numbers? That is idolatry. Using this fact, that number worship is idolatry to grow lethargic in our discipleship? That is also idolatry. Those who willfully live in rebellion against Jesus are not really following Jesus. The invitation is open. Jesus, through this victory that only He can give, joyfully transforms our hearts and our minds as He establishes His own creation.
Placing requirements on people that God does not place on them work against the mission of God. There is much freedom in the church, and our tendency is to create works-based systems of some kind.
When Jesus made the invitation, and I want this to stick with us forever, this is what He in the midst of a wicked and sinful generation:
“Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
What grace is this? Are we encouraged? Are we convicted? Have we given into the success syndrome? Have we not loved people enough to share Jesus with them and desperately invite them into our fellowship? Have we placed unnecessary burdens on people? Do we offer people the same life-giving victory that we have been given in Christ through the power of His resurrection?
There is rest for those who are weary and burdened.
We are charged to preach the word, in season and out.
We don’t worship numbers, but we do love real people.
There is rest for those who are weary and burdened.