Acts 2vs14-41. Church Growing Pains.
I calculated that during my seven years and eight months as pastor of
Redruth Baptist Church I preached or taught at 571 meetings. Some members of the congregation were there for the majority of those messages. I sometimes wonder if they deserve long service medals.
Have you noticed how sometimes the clock hardly seems to move when some people are in the pulpit? You sit down after a song and settle back into the seat with all good intentions of listening and getting what you can from the message. It is quite quiet and you hardly dare move a muscle. When your back aches, your nose itches, your eyelids droop, and your head seems to close in on you making you almost drop off to sleep, you look at the clock. Five minutes have passed. Twenty-five to go. Your back, nose, eyelids and head all complain in unison.
Yet there are other times when gifted preachers are preaching and an almost accidental look at the watch shows that already nearly an hour has gone by! You, like everyone else there - and there do seem to be more than usual - have been enthralled and absorbed in the message of the Scripture and its meaning in your everyday life.
What makes the difference? On the first occasion you have probably heard a pulpit-filler, while on the latter you heard a real preacher.
A quick look through some of the sermons in the book of Acts will give more indications.
1. Acts 1vs15-22. Peter preaches to the assembled believers in a prayer meeting. The background of constant prayer, vs14, definitely helped. Peter linked the events of the day with Scripture. By doing this he showed them all that God was working. He ended his sermon by a call to action, vs21 and 22. The call was immediately taken up and put into practice.
2. Acts 2vs14-39. Peter preaches to the large crowd who came together in bewilderment hearing their different languages being spoken by the people in an upstairs room. This time the background was Pentecost. The preacher and his team were all filled with the Holy Spirit. He was enabling them to speak the wonders of God in this variety of languages, 2vs4 and 11. Again, Peter linked the day's happenings with Scripture. He centred on the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. He pointed out God's activity in all of this: vs22 God worked miracles through Jesus, vs24 God raised Jesus to life, vs33 God the Father gave to God the Son the promised God the Holy Spirit - and the sounds of both blowing wind and bold witness were evidences that the Almighty God was demonstrating something of Himself to those people. The fact that God was at work was both audible and visible, vs33.
Peter did not make an appeal for action this time round. He did not have to. The crowd were convicted by the Spirit of God. Verse 37 says "they were cut to the heart". Three thousand voices were raised as one. They appealed to the preacher "Tell us, what shall we do?" Peter faithfully told them how to get right with this awesome God. "Repent and be baptised, receive forgiveness and the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ". The largest baptismal service ever took place immediately. If they had the same pattern in that service as we do in our baptismal services today, with a 2/3 minutes testimony by each person, it would have taken about six days! Perhaps my method is not biblical! We know about 3000 were added to the church. We don't know how many heard but responded negatively. Perhaps any who left early did so because they could not hear - after all there was no amplification available. I somehow doubt that many could walk away from God's revelation of Himself like this.
3. Acts 3vs12-26. Peter preaches next to a smaller crowd who ran to Solomon's Colonnade having heard (or seen) that the crippled beggar by the temple gate was now dancing with delight since being helped to his feet by Peter.
The miracle-working preacher immediately points away from himself and to God. Vs12 and 13 "Not me, but my Master". He goes quickly from the miracle to the message of the miracle. He uses the healing as a signpost to direct people to Jesus Christ. He speaks of the cross and the empty tomb. He shows how the events fulfil God's promise of Scripture. He appeals to the crowd to "repent and turn to God", vs19. The sermon was interrupted when the temple guard arrived to arrest Peter and John. That must have destroyed any man-made atmosphere. But there was still a large response, 4vs4, which shows that true preaching depends ultimately on God's power.
4. Acts 7vs2-53. Stephen preaches a sermon before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling Council). The opportunity arose when he was charged with blasphemy, 6vs11. He spoke about the history of the Jewish nation. He knew that all his hearers would be familiar with that. He highlights what God was doing in his dealings with Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon.
Some may say that Stephen was foolish in his direct application of the message. Stephen saw himself as being faithful to God. He was using his God-given grace, power and wisdom, 6vs8 and 10. Fearlessly, he bore testimony to the resistance God's people had towards God's prophets. He described the Jewish leaders as possessing the Law of God but not practising it. To say that his hearers did not receive this too well would be an understatement! In anger and unleashed hatred they killed him. Stephen's success as a preacher brought him an ugly rejection on earth but a glorious reception in heaven.
5. Acts 10vs34-43. Peter preaches to Cornelius' household in Caesarea. The meeting came about after much prayer and sincere devotion. There was an angelic call to the audience and a God-given vision for the preacher, vs3 and 17. Both Peter and Cornelius were walking in obedient faith after God.
Peter's message began with his own testimony. He explained why he had come to a meeting that he wouldn't have come to a week earlier. He shows how God acted for the whole of mankind. God anointed Jesus and was with him in his doing good, vs38. God raised Jesus from the dead, vs40. God prepared witnesses to preach the message of peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ, vs36 and 42.
Without any warning God moved into that house and into the open hearts of the people. The large gathering, vs27, was speaking in tongues and praising God, vs46. The preacher knew when to stop. Whatever he planned was now put aside as preacher and people responded to the overwhelming presence of God. Peter sealed a commitment by ordering the Gentiles be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ.
When he was asked later to give a report of what had happened, he was able to, precisely, 11vs4. At every moment all through these exciting events, Peter was listening to God and learning from Him what was happening.
6. Acts 13vs16-41. Paul preaches to the assembled synagogue in Pisidian Antioch. The great missionary had a strategy of going to the synagogue wherever he was in order to meet with, and perhaps speak to, the congregation, 13vs5, 14vs1, 17vs2, 17vs10, 17vs17, 18vs4, and 19vs8. He also used other platforms to speak from such as the proconsul's home, 13vs7, the riverside place of prayer, 16vs13, the market place 17vs17, the Areopagus 17vs22 (by invitation), and the lecture hall of Tyrannus 19vs9.
From this sermon in Acts 13vs16 onwards we can learn how he spoke to the Jews. (What he said did vary according to where he was and to whom he was speaking.) He did not 'compromise' or change his message. He began where his hearers would identify with what he was saying and then he led them to the cross of Jesus Christ.
He focuses on what God has done in history and is doing today. Through the captivity, the Exodus, the promised land, the judges and kings, he traces God's hand. By quoting John the Baptist Paul speaks about events most of his hearers had lived through.
When he speaks about Jesus Christ, no less than four times he drives home the same vital point: God raised this Jesus from the dead, vs30, 33, 34 and 37. In this sermon the application is by way of a warning. The prophets had foretold that some people would choose to scoff at, rather than submit to, this teaching. Paul lovingly says: "Take care that what the prophets have said does not happen to you" vs40. When God is at work the call to attend meetings comes to both the preacher, vs42 and the congregation, vs44. The results of the preaching are shown to us in verses 45, and 48-50. There was a spreading of the word of the Lord and a stirring up of persecution for the servants of the Lord. Some received the word gladly and others rejected it with hostility. The preacher had no control over either response. That was between individuals and God.
7. Acts 14vs15-17. Paul and Barnabas preach to the crowd at Lystra who are wanting to deify the evangelists after witnessing the healing of another lame man.
This preaching was in immediate response to an error beginning to take hold of the people around and about. "Don't look at men look at the Maker!" See behind the events, whether supernatural or everyday, the testimony of God to Himself.
8. Acts 17vs22-31. Paul preaches to the meeting of the Areopagus in Athens. The comment of Luke in verse 21 sets the context. These were men who liked to discuss and debate, not to come to the truth and make a decision, but simply because they liked discussing and debating. This makes even more startling Paul's chosen topic: a clear declaration of the One they call the Unknown God. The Athenians were open to admitting they did not know everything. Paul seizes the opportunity and proclaims God the Creator, vs24, God the Spirit, vs24, God the Sustainor of all life, vs25, God the truly self-sufficient, vs25, God the planner of human history, vs26, God the encourager of men to worship Him, vs27, God the omnipresent, vs28, God the commander, vs30, God the Judge, vs31 and God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead, vs31. The response shows that while the majority either sneered or stalled, among the minority both men and women were soundly converted.
If I draw together some of the characteristics of these sermons we should get a picture of what it is to preach relevant sermons. Immerse preacher and congregation in prayer. Apply the Scripture to daily life. Analyse daily life using Scripture as the gauge. Seek the fulness of the Holy Spirit for speaker and listeners. Major on what God is doing. This needs emphasising. All good preaching is God-centred and not man-centred. The danger in starting with man's needs is that God is involved on man's terms and for man's benefit. In all of our examples the listeners are told about a God before whom they are accountable for their response to His actions.
Other characteristics of relevant sermons include beginning with subjects or illustrations that are known to the people. Never be afraid to apply God's truth directly. Accept the consequences of doing so. Be ready to stop preaching when God moves in a special way. Drive the central theme of your message home repeatedly. If it takes three, four or seven direct blows to knock in the nail of truth, never mind the noise of the banging - drive it home. Always bring people to a point of action. Let no-one leave without having said 'yes' or 'no' to God. How we need God to raise up more preachers in our churches!
In Acts there are at least fifty-seven references to different people preaching the message in some form. They "declared the wonders of God", 2vs11. They "never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ", 5vs42. They gave "attention to prayer and the ministry of the word", 6vs4. They "proclaimed the Christ", 8vs5. They "preached the word wherever they went", 8vs4. They "proved that Jesus is the Christ",9vs22. They told "the good news about the Lord Jesus", 11vs20. They "spoke so effectively that a great number believed",14vs1. They "taught and preached the word of the Lord", 15vs35. They "reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and to rise from the dead", 17vs2 & 3. They "spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God", 19vs8.
It is true Paul preached a rather long sermon in Troas, but even that ended with a mighty miracle that led to more preaching, see Acts 20vs7-12.
In his farewell speech to the Ephesian elders, Paul sums up his own view of his preaching amongst them: "I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God"., 20vs27. His methods are shown in vs20 and 21: "I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus".
Bible teaching and preaching need to be emphasised again in order to see people coming to faith. Romans 10vs17 says "Faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ". The local church should commission people to preach the message of Christ. This enables others to hear and to have enough faith to call on the name of the Lord and be saved, Romans 10vs13-15.
Just because some church sermons are not up to the mark a certain group of people today want to relegate preaching to a back seat. The answer to boring sermons is not to ban preaching. It is to be much more selective as to who is in the pulpit. Pulpits are for preaching and therefore not for every pastor, not for every public speaker, not for every person in the church on a rota, and not for anybody who is willing to fill the empty place. There are times when an empty pulpit would speak more eloquently than a full one - but the congregations do not generally want to hear that truth! If we said 'No' to more people entering the pulpit, we may be able to say a wholehearted 'Yes' to more of what is said from that same pulpit.
Let every local church recognise who has gifts to develop. Let them be like the church at Lystra that released Timothy to be schooled by Paul and Silas, who then sent him to different places with the commission to "Preach the Word", 2 Timothy 4vs2.
Let every individual who feels called to preach study the progress of Timothy, which is outlined later, in chapter 17 of this book.
Define the difference between criticism of a preacher and discerning whether God is speaking. (See Philippians 1vs9 and 10).
"You will preach better with training".
"You must preach the message as God gives it - you don't need to prepare".
Are both these statements valid?
Is there a middle line between them?
Is there a way they can go together?