The Unstoppable Church
Out of the doldrums and into the obedience of faith
Acts 6:7 and Acts 5:42
Sailing ships, when close to the Equator, sometimes experience low pressure areas where the prevailing conditions can produce severe weather including violent thunderstorms and even hurricanes. But often too, and in some ways no less testing for the sailors, they can provide periods when the winds totally disappear and ships and their crews are left becalmed - sometimes for many days at a time. In the 19th Century the areas where this happens came to be described as “the doldrums”, a term derived from a word used for someone who was lazy, slow and dull.
These days we use the phrase “in the doldrums” to mean a state of stagnation, inactivity and zero progress. Most of us I’m sure have experienced times like this in our lives. And sadly too, I think many of us have had the same kind of experience in our spiritual lives. Times when we seem to be going nowhere, when our prayers don’t seem to be answered, when God’s Word seems to leave us cold, when new opportunities don’t seem to open up for us and we feel detached and remote in even the liveliest times of praise and worship at church.
I think there is an important lesson to be learned when we are in the doldrums spiritually. It’s this. In these times we may be desperately looking for God to move in our lives and feeling increasing frustration. But often, in fact, it is God who is waiting for US to act in obedience to something He has repeatedly been telling us we need to do. And we will make no further progress in our spiritual lives until we respond to what God wants from us.
My premise this morning is that the infant church that we see in Acts had something that the church today in the West has lost, or at least, has allowed to be side-lined. The “ship” of church, and its crew, are becalmed in the doldrums and we need to take urgent action to get back where God wants us to be.
Put yourself for a moment in the place of a Jew in Jerusalem in the time of Acts and imagine the trauma of seeing large numbers of your acquaintances, your neighbours, your closest friends and even members of your family, turning their backs on the teaching that your whole community has based their lives on for generations and embracing a completely alien way of life.
Imagine also seeing the quite unthinkable, as large numbers of those in the priesthood, the leaders of your faith - among them no doubt some who were local dignitaries or celebrities in Jewish society or those you personally looked up to and greatly respected, forsaking your ancient traditions and lining up with these new Jesus-inspired revolutionaries.
Luke records these events in an apparently innocuous summary in Acts 6:7 “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” Notice in particular though that phrase at the very end of verse 7 – “a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”
Jews, we know, are inseparably WEDDED – (perhaps even WELDED!) to obedience to the LAW; to fulfilling all the detail of the Law. Remember how Paul put it when he was challenging the Galatians about the inconsistency of their lifestyle as Christians in Galatians 5:3 . . . I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised (that is, chooses to live as a Jew) that he is obligated to obey the whole law. In other words, you cannot be a Jew and not have the Law at the very centre of your daily life and yet here, these priests, and there were lots of them, were described as being “obedient to the FAITH” rather than obedient to the LAW.
God’s gospel of grace was producing in these Jewish priests what management gurus today would describe as a “paradigm shift” - a fundamental change in approach and basic assumptions. The whole basis of their walk with God shifted from meeting the requirements of the Law by their own efforts and on to a righteousness received by faith in what God had done for them through Jesus.
Now it’s speculation on my part, but it seems to me that it is entirely possible that Luke, the author of Acts, may have adopted the phrase “obedient to the faith” from the Apostle Paul. After all, Luke, accompanied Paul on several of his journeys, and undoubtedly heard him preach on many occasions, and also, as part of his research for writing the book of Acts, he might well have sought out and studied Paul’s letters. In his letter to the Romans, for example, which is perhaps the pre-eminent expression of Paul’s doctrinal position, written so experts tell us, in AD 57 or thereabouts, that’s between six and thirteen years before the book of Acts, we find very much the same phrase used both at the opening of the letter and again at the very end. In chapter 1 verse 5 we read: “Through him (Jesus) we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith . .” And then, very significantly, in his doxology at the tail end the letter, he again says in Romans 16:26 “ . . . that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith . .
Certainly, in Paul’s mind and also in Luke’s mind, becoming a Christian leads us into a lifestyle that is characterised by obedience, sourced not from a sense of duty, or compulsion, but that springs from our faith. It is not a lifestyle based on rules or on operating within a rigid framework of good-deeds and behaviour. Rather, it’s a life, as the Common English Bible translates the phrase, of “FAITH-driven obedience”.
It is this faith centred lifestyle that opens the door to the intervention of the Holy Spirit and that is such a dominant feature of the church in Acts.
Now I think there is a battle going on both within the church as a whole, and in our individual lives today, that tries to stop us from walking in the light of the fact that as Christians, we are called and empowered by the Holy Spirit in us, to live Spirit-led lives, filled with the obedience that comes from faith and brings glory to God - not lives that are merely a demonstration of dutiful, routine or even grudging obedience.
This is an ongoing battle, I’m sure, because it is a key ingredient for living a fruitful Christian life that enables God’s purposes to be accomplished through us. So it’s a prime target for our enemy; a major strategy, to establish and maintain in us the deception that it is our efforts rather than our obedience to the Holy Spirit that allows us to be effective in God’s service.
This subtle confusion in our thinking continually pops back up in our lives to make us return to the idea that once we have accepted salvation by faith we then somehow need to keep ourselves worthy through personal effort and merit. It may sound plausible, and we may be doing it from commendable motives, but actually our thinking is completely flawed!
After all, if even our very best works, are as Isaiah 64:6 tells us, “filthy rags”, and completely unacceptable to God before we accepted salvation through Jesus, how can we now think that after our salvation these same best efforts could suddenly be the means of God accepting and favouring us, or the reason He will choose to accomplish His purposes through us? There is no rational logic let alone scriptural evidence to support such a conclusion.
Our salvation is by grace, through faith, every step of the way. In fact, we need to always be analysing our motives for works and service on this basis – “Am I doing this motivated by the obedience of faith and from the love that springs up in me as a new creature in Christ following the promptings of the Holy Spirit? Or, am I just trying to impress God, other people and even myself, that really I am a very good chap who deserves special reward and blessing from God?”
It is crucial that we root out this deception in our lives, because this kind of thinking will cause us to miss out on the God-glorifying fruitfulness that He intends for our lives and that only He, working through us can accomplish by the Holy Spirit. What we need then is NOT the obedience of our own effort and works but the obedience of FAITH.
This in fact is a message that Paul majored on throughout his ministry. Listen for example to his argument in Romans “What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” (Romans 6:15–16) But what is the obedience Paul is speaking of here that leads to righteousness? Well we know for a fact that it certainly isn’t the obedience of works, because Paul, more than anyone else, makes it abundantly clear, that it is NOT works that make us righteous – but FAITH. Listen to Paul in Romans 1:17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by FAITH from first to last,” And see what he says about himself to the Philippians in Philippians 3:9 9 . . . not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God ON THE BASIS OF FAITH. So Paul is clearly telling us that it is the obedience of faith that leads to righteousness.
So what had happened to that large number of priests mentioned in Acts 6:7 that made them obedient to the faith?
The short answer is that the gospel had happened! These priests had heard, understood and received the good news about who Jesus is and what happened when He came, died and rose again. In their hearts the revelation of what Christ had done for them suddenly dawned, and just like many of us here this morning, they reached out by faith and grasped it for themselves with both hands.
In explaining the life-transforming work of Jesus that we refer to as the gospel, Paul says in Romans 5:1 “Therefore, since we have been JUSTIFIED THROUGH FAITH, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,”
This principle of being “justified BY FAITH” is the very heart of the gospel. It is as though in the court room of God’s presence, we, while feeling with total conviction and intensity our guilt and sinfulness before Him, see Him, not donning the black cap to pronounce us “Guilty” and passing the death sentence, but looking us right in the eye and declaring us “Not guilty”. And it is not that “justification by faith” is some kind of a “lucky break”, or that we have been handed by chance a “Get out of Jail Free” card, or that we have somehow slipped under God’s radar and escaped our just deserts.
So how is it that God can be a just judge and yet declare the patently guilty, not guilty? Well, it is as Peter says in: 1 Peter 3:18 18 For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.“
Christ’s perfect sacrifice makes us perfect in God’s sight IF we will receive and accept what he has done for us by FAITH and hand over our life to Him to be our Lord and Saviour. In the words of Hebrews 10:14 14 . . . by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. This is the priceless gift that Jesus offers to everyone who will receive it by faith – what Paul calls in Romans 5:17 (ESV) “17 . . . the free gift of righteousness . . . through the . . . man Jesus Christ.”
The whole book of Acts provides a textbook demonstration of the difference that the obedience of faith will make to our lives and ministry. But I’d like us to focus briefly on Acts 5, verses 12 to 42. Turn to it if you like in your Bibles, tablets, smart phones or whatever, we won’t read it all now, but let’s just pick out a few key thoughts from it. Acts 5:12-42.
As we do this, I’d like you to be thinking “how far are we as a church, and as individuals, behaving like the early church, out of the obedience of faith?”
Radically, verse 12 tells us that these newly Holy Spirit filled Christians operated in TWO different spheres. It does tell us that they met together in Solomon’s Colonnade and I think that’s the kind of church that we immediately recognise today. It’s the place for the worship songs, the ministry of the Word and for fellowship with other Christians. That’s what we do; that for many of us, perhaps wrongly and sadly, is the major part of what church is. But look at what else verse 12 tells us about the infant church. It says: “The apostles performed many signs and wonders (where?) AMONG THE PEOPLE.” So this wasn’t taking place exclusively at meetings in Solomon’s Colonnade. This was out and about wherever people with needs were to be found. This was ministering to people outside the cosy confines of those who share our experience of faith in Christ. For these Christians, “church” happened outside, in the real world, where the people are. Church was not in any sense, just a private comfort club, sanitised from the presence of unbelievers; a place for a bunch of nice people who share a common faith but are really quite happy to let the world go its own sweet way, as long as we are left alone to do our own thing.
Verse 13 tells us that these early Christians who were obedient to the faith were respected and highly regarded by the people because, no doubt, of the amazing effect their ministry was having on the lives of ordinary people.
Verse 14 tells us that their ministry was undeniably effective because more and more men and women believed and were added to their number.
Verses 15 and 16 tell us that they attracted crowds of people, some of whom travelled from outside Jerusalem just to receive ministry from them, and their obedience of faith allowed God to demonstrate his healing power among them, and as it says: – “ALL of them were healed”.
Verses 17 and 18 show that their growing popularity also aroused antagonism and opposition from those jealous of the attention they were getting – and even landed them in jail.
Verse 19 illustrates how when Christians do their part by acting in the obedience of faith, God will sometimes intervene with miracles – because it says “. . . during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out.“
But look closely at verses 20 and 21. Where having rescued them from prison, that same angel tells them: 20 “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.” 21 At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. This is the obedience of faith in action. The angel had only rescued them in the middle of the night and yet by daybreak when most people were still in the shower or having their toast and marmalade, the disciples were already out there responding obediently and in faith to God’s command through the angel. Is it any wonder that God was able to use them so powerfully to accomplish his purposes among the people? When we act obediently in faith, God is immediately on the spot to confirm His word in power.
You see exactly the same determined obedience of faith after they had been re-arrested, and brought before the Sanhedrin. Far from cowering in fear at what might happen to them now, Acts 5:29 says 29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must OBEY God rather than men! And then they boldly accused their captors of guilt by complicity in the crucifixion of Jesus before confirming again their own call from God to obey Him by declaring: Acts 5:32 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who OBEY him.”
The remainder of this part of Acts tells us that Gamaliel, a wise Pharisee and teacher of the Law, famously and prophetically declared to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:38–39 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”
But just look what happened next. They FLOGGED them and then, while they were still smarting from the pain, ORDERED the apostles not to speak in the name of Jesus again. Only then did they let them go. Now it is certainly not a happy experience to be threatened by those in authority; but to be cruelly and savagely flogged for speaking up for Christ is quite another thing. These men would have left their encounter with the Sanhedrin, in severe pain, their backs no doubt raw and bleeding. But look at their immediate response – THIS IS THE OBEDIENCE OF FAITH – Verse 41: Acts 5:41 41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, REJOICING because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. And look at their subsequent response in Verse 42: Acts 5:42 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they NEVER STOPPED teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ. These men were UNSTOPPABLE. The obedience of faith made them, and it can make us, unstoppable in the service and purposes of God.
Here’s the point. If we want to contribute to God’s purposes through our lives then we need to live our Christian lives under the direction of the Holy Spirit and in the obedience of FAITH. We need not just to take the STEP of faith needed for our salvation, we need to learn to WALK in the obedience of faith.
But, “Ah!” you say, these early Christians must have had a special anointing that we don’t have today. Well, wait for it, scripture tells us we DO have the same kind of anointing. Listen to Paul’s words to the Corinthians: 2 Corinthians 1:21–22 Now it is God who makes both us and YOU stand firm in Christ. HE ANOINTED US, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. We have the very same anointing and while it is true that we will not all be used exactly like Peter or Paul, we do have the same anointing and can be used by God to fulfil the unique purposes that that He has in mind for each of us.
Whatever we may feel like, we actually lack NOTHING that we need to fulfil this calling from God on our lives, we just need to add the obedience of faith.
If we are born again, we have His Holy Spirit in us; if we have been baptised in the Holy Spirit, we have the anointing to minister within His authority. We have ALL the faith we need for obedience because it is the same faith we demonstrated when we were born again and received salvation. We have the message that changes lives, the gospel. It has already changed our lives and we must not keep it from those whose lives could be radically transformed by it - those whose eternal future is at stake. Maybe an angel didn’t get us out of jail and tell us to go out and “tell the people the full message of this new life.” But we do have a commission from Jesus himself who tells us in Matthew 28:19 (NIV84) 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations. . .
The obedience of FAITH opens the door to God the Holy Spirit to work God’s works with us as His instruments, His servants, and His ambassadors.
It is not our works or effort that will bring the fruits of the gospel in the lives of others, it is God’s works, worked through obedient faith by the Holy Spirit that will get us OUT OF THE DOLDRUMS and enable God to use us to accomplish His purposes and minister to those around us. We need to stop waiting for God to move and start acting in the obedience of faith by doing what He has been telling us to do from day one.
As a Church we can BLESS people, we can WIN people and we can see them GROW in their Christian lives, but it will not be as we come up with clever church programmes and plans. It will happen as we embrace the obedience of faith, and set ourselves to respond to the commands and promptings of the Holy Spirit not with a “maybe”, or a “I’ll think about it” but with the “Yes” of faith. This way lies an experience for each of us, no less dynamic and no less fruitful and effective than the lives of those who laid the foundations of the church of which we read in the amazing book of Acts. So, let it be said of all of us at Elim Hope Church we “NEVER STOPPED teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ”.