Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks

Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks

Acts 2.42-47

Dr. Jim Denison

America has a new hero. How did you feel when the Falcons won last Sunday? Some of you probably didn’t care, but anyone who knows their coach, Dan Reeves, is thrilled.

Dan’s brother was very active in our church in Atlanta, so Dan and Pam visited often as well. Pam was in Janet’s women’s Bible study on Thursdays. Dan invited me out for some of training camp and we ate lunch together; he signed two footballs for our boys; and just this week we got a note from him thanking us for our prayers. He and Pam are strong believers, and a class act every single day.

One day at the Falcons’ camp Dan said something which really surprised me. He said that he and Pam felt that God had called them to this job. I asked him what he thought God wanted him to do. He said, “To influence the men on this team, and anyone else I can, for God.” He saw football as a means to that end.

And now through the amazing success of the Falcons under his leadership, his recent heart surgery, his winning “Coach of the Year,” and his national exposure, God is fulfilling exactly that call in his life.

Dan is from Americus, Georgia, a town so small you’ve never heard of it. He is a humble and gracious man. If he were here today he’d say, “If God can use me, God can use anyone.”

Let’s see if it’s so. We’ve discovered the passion and the power of the early church. Today let’s learn what we can about their people, and see if we can be like them. Here’s what we’ll find: if God could use them, God can use you and me. If only we want him to.

“Unschooled, ordinary men”

Let’s do a comparison between them and us

First, where were these people from? Their leaders were Galileans; we would call them “country folk.” Not one of them was from Jerusalem or any city you’d recognize. And the vast majority were foreigners, from all those fifteen nations Luke listed earlier (2.9-11).

Many of us are not from Dallas, but many of us are. And the vast majority of us are from some place like Dallas. What about you?

Second, how educated were they? The religious leaders in Jerusalem called them “unschooled, ordinary men” (4.13). By comparison, the number of college graduates in our community is 132% higher than the national average, and post-graduates is 101% higher. How educated are you?

Third, what of their faith history? The oldest people in the church, spiritually, are Peter and Andrew, James and John, and they’ve been followers of Jesus for three years. All but 120 of them are only a few days old in the faith. By contrast, the average length a person has been a member at Park Cities is fifteen years. How long have you been a Christian?

Fourth, what of their resources? The New Testament has not yet been written. There would be no professional “clergy” for 250 years, no buildings for 300 years, no seminaries or church choirs for 400 years, and no printed literature for 1400 years. They had virtually none of the resources which we are using this morning.

Yet in just thirty years their movement spread from Jerusalem to Rome, and from 120 to multiplied thousands, soon millions. In Acts 17.6 their enemies said they had “turned the world upside down,” and they soon became the mightiest and largest religious movement in human history.

So if they didn’t have strong education, years in the faith, or great resources, what explains their incredible success? What did they have which we need?

The “four-fold cord”

The key to the people of apostolic Christianity lies in a Greek word I need to teach you: proskartereo. This word means, “to be devoted to.” To make something your passion and your highest priority, to give yourself exclusively to it. What was the passion and highest priority for these early Christians? Think of the answer as a four-fold cord, a rope made of four strands interwoven for strength, the rope to which these Christians clung for life itself.

First, they clung to “the apostles’ teaching” (v. 42). Having no New Testament, this became the word of God for them. They didn’t just read the word of God, they staked their lives upon it. They learned and obeyed the Bible.

All through the Book of Acts we find these Christians reading, quoting, and depending upon the word of God (cf. 1.20; 2.16-21; 25-28, 34-35; 3.22-26; 4.11; 4.25-26; 7.2-50; 8.32-35; 13.33-36, 41, 47; 15.16-18, 21; 17.3, 11; 18.4; 23.5; 28.23, 26-28). I count forty-nine different Old Testament passages they quoted from memory and used in their lives and ministries. They were saturated in Scripture. It became their food and drink, their sustenance and life.

Second, they were devoted passionately to “the fellowship,” the koinonia. Fellowship has been defined as “two fellows in one ship.” Imagine 3,000 people in one ship and you’ve got a good picture of these first Christians. They sold their possessions when necessary to give “to anyone as he had need” (vs. 44-45).

Even their enemies noticed; Tertullian (died 230) quotes their admiring statement, “How they love each other.”

And they extended their ministry to those outside their “ship” as well. When unwanted newborns were thrown out with the trash, these Christians would rescue them and adopt them into their families.

When the plague swept Jerusalem and everyone abandoned the sick and dying, the Christians stayed behind, risked their lives, and cared for them.

They clung to the word of God, and to the people of God.

Third, they were passionate about the “breaking of bread.” Now I am too, especially after church on Sunday morning, but Luke means far more by the phrase than we do.

This is Luke’s term (cf. 20.7) for what Paul calls the “Lord’s Supper” (cf. 1 Corinthians 10.16; 11.23-26) and Christian worship. The Didache (the earliest compendium of theology in Christian history) makes this clear, and the commentators agree. These believers were passionate about the worship of God.


The Problem with Granddad’s Drill

The Problem with Granddad’s Drill

Acts 2.1-11; Ephesians 5.18

Dr. Jim Denison

In 1981 Janet and I purchased our first house , in Arlington. It needed much work, so my Granddad came down to help. He lost his farm in the Depression and became a carpenter, and worked until he died a few years ago at the age of 99. He built a tool shed, sheet-rocked the garage, redid the kitchen, and generally transformed the house for us.

I still remember his reaction when he looked at my tools his first day with us. I had a socket wrench, a hammer, and a few screwdrivers to my name. So first thing, he took me to Sears and bought me a drill.

He had to show me how to use it, to change the bits and so on. I’ve used it ever since. But one thing he didn’t have to explain was the fact that the drill must be plugged in to a power source. Unplugged, it’s of little use. There’s nothing wrong with it—it just needs power. So it is with the church today.

Last week we walked through the Book of Acts and saw the power of God working on every hand. 3,000 saved at Pentecost; a crippled man healed; fearful disciples now preaching boldly to the Sanhedrin; the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira; the conversion of Saul, Cornelius, and thousands of people across Paul’s journeys; miracle upon miracle.

Here’s my question: can God really do today what he did then? Can we have the same power in our lives which they had in theirs? If we can, why don’t we see that power more? More miracles, healings, proof of the Spirit at work? Can we truly have this power, or is this just rhetoric?

Many of you have that question. We read about miraculous power across the Book of Acts, but wonder if this is still possible today. If it is, why don’t we see it more?

Let’s see how the Spirit worked, and how he still works today.

How did the Spirit work?

The first Christians are meeting in an upstairs room of a house in Jerusalem; tradition says it was the same place where Jesus took his Last Supper with them. They are spending this time exclusively in prayer and worship (1.13-14).

Now comes the day of Pentecost, one of the three great Jewish holidays, 50 days after Passover (early June on our calendar). Every male Jew living within twenty miles of Jerusalem was legally required to come, and Jews from across the world would crowd the streets of the city for the party.

Suddenly, while the first Christians are in prayer in their upper room, the Holy Spirit moves in a way never before seen in human history.

Previously the Spirit would come “upon” people for a particular purpose and time (cf. Judges 14.19). This is why David prayed, “Take not your Holy Spirit from me” (Psalm 51.10). No one after Pentecost needs this prayer.

For now the Spirit moves “into” us, taking up residence forever. These Christians are “filled” with the Spirit—he moves into their lives. They are empowered by him for the purpose Jesus had assigned them: to be his witnesses.

In fact, each believer is so empowered that he or she begins immediately to go into the crowd to tell about Jesus.

Thus the people say in surprise, “How is it that each of us hears them?” (v. 8); “we hear them declaring the wonders of God” (v. 11). Not Peter yet, but each of the 120 fulfilling God’s purpose by God’s power.

And this in a miraculous way. People from across the world have crowded into Jerusalem for the festival. Fifteen different nations are listed here by Luke, each with his or her own language. But by the Spirit’s power these Galilean Jewish Christians speak of Jesus in languages they have never learned.

Imagine how it would feel to hear yourself speak words you don’t know, in a language you’ve never learned, and you’ll have something of the wonder and joy these men and women felt. Imagine being far from home in a distant country, surrounded by languages you do not know, then hearing the gospel in your own native tongue. You think this person is an American, but discover that he’s a German, or Spaniard, or Frenchman, and he’s just as surprised to be speaking English as you are to hear it.

Their response then was the same as today. Some are confused: “Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, ‘What does this mean?'” (v. 12). Some criticize: “Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine'” (v. 13).

But others are convicted: “When the people heard this they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?'” (v. 37).

And these celebrate as well: “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (v. 41).

And the Spirit continued to empower God’s people to accomplish God’s purpose.

He “filled” Peter as he preached to the rulers and elders of the nation (4.8).

He “filled” all the first believers with his power (4.31).

He convicted Ananias and Sapphira of their sin (5.3).

He witnessed to the Sanhedrin through them (5.32).

He empowered the deacons and specifically Stephen (6.3, 10; 7.55).

He directed Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch (8.29) and led him away after the man came to faith (8.39).

He empowered Paul for his life and ministry (9.17; 13.4, 9).

He encouraged the entire church (9.31).

He directed Peter to go to Cornelius the Gentile (10.19; cf. 11.12).

He called Paul and Barnabas to their missionary work (13.2), led them to Europe and the West (16.6), and empowered them throughout their ministry.

When does the Spirit work today? (Eph. 5.18)

Do you want God’s Spirit to work in your life and church like this? Do you believe Scripture when it says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13.8)? Do you believe that God can do anything today he wishes, and that he could move in our lives with the same power we saw in theirs?


The Story of Jim the Farmer

The Story of Jim the Farmer

Mark 4:1-20

Dr. Jim Denison

Every day in America 108,000 people move; the government issues 50 more pages of regulations; 40 Americans turn 100; we purchase 45,000 new cars and trucks and wreck 87,000; 20,000 people write letters to the president; dogs bit 11,000 citizens, including 20 mail carriers; we eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 167 million eggs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy. We then jog 17 million miles to get rid of it all. We are busy people.

As a result, time is our most valued currency today. In every survey I’ve seen, people would trade money for more time, every time. Wouldn’t you?

If someone could show me the best way to use the little time I have, I’d listen. When this new year is over, I want to have spent it in the best way possible. I want the joy of knowing that my life this year has been worthwhile. Don’t you?

So, what will bring us our greatest sense of joyful satisfaction and significance? I’d like to answer that question with a parable today.

My parable

A young man and his wife moved to rural Mansfield, outside Fort Worth, to become pastor of New Hope Baptist Church. Someone suggested that they do some landscaping around the parsonage and plant a garden. It looked easy, and they were foolish, so they gave it a try. And they failed abysmally.

One year the pastor scattered grass seed around his back yard, but some got on the concrete porch. Before he could sweep it back into the bag the birds found it and ate it all. And he learned that the ground must be broken up before the seed can sprout.

The next year they planted where the old driveway had been. Even though it was grown over and they raked and weeded and watered, the limestone just under the surface was their undoing. The plants shot up quickly, but couldn’t get rooted and died. And he learned that the ground must be plowed down before the seed can grow.

The next year their garden started well. But they hadn’t pulled all the grass burrs and weeds out of the soil, figuring they wouldn’t hurt things. They were wrong. That year while others harvested their gardens, this couple mowed theirs. And he learned that the weeds must be pulled before the seed can survive.

Sometimes the birds eat the seed; sometimes the plant dies for lack of roots, or because of weeds. And sometimes the seed bears a great harvest, even a hundredfold. In each case the seed is the same. When the ground is broken and plowed and weeded, it can grow.

But in no case can the seed grow without a farmer. And that’s the point of Jesus’ parable, and of my horticultural failures as well. The seed needs a farmer. So does the gospel.

It is clear that the seed in Jesus’ parable is the gospel; cf. v. 14, “The farmer sows the word.” Matthew’s version calls it “the message about the kingdom” (Matthew 13.19). The farmer shares his faith, explaining the gospel to others. This is your job and mine.

If you have seed, you must sow it. It’s no good in the bag, or in your hand. It only makes a crop when it’s in the ground. If you’re a Christian—if you have the seed of the gospel in your heart and life—you must sow it. So must I.

What joy!

But we know all this. We know we should share our faith.

We’ve all heard the Great Commission: “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” We know that Jesus’ last words to the church were, “You will be my witnesses.” We know we are supposed to take Christ to our city and world. But if you’re at all like me, the thought of evangelizing others is not always a pleasant one.

Let’s be honest about it—if we liked witnessing, we’d do more of it. But the facts are clear. Scholars in evangelism estimate that ½ of 1% of Southern Baptists share their faith regularly in any given year. One percent of the Christian church’s growth is by conversions from outside the congregation. And you know that Park Cities can only document twenty-two adult conversions in 1997, though we are one of the most mission-minded and mission-giving churches in America.

If you’d known this was going to be a sermon about witnessing, how would you have felt about it? Guilty? Bored? Uninterested?

Here’s the surprise: the Bible consistently connects witnessing with joy. Not boredom, or guilt, but joy. Hebrews 12.2 says that Jesus saw his saving mission this way: “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising its shame.”

In Jesus’ three famous parables about lost things we find the same reaction. When the shepherd finds his lost sheep he rejoiced (Luke 15.5); when the woman finds her lost coin she rejoices and throws a party (v. 9); when the father finds his lost son he is thrilled (v. 24).

Here’s how the angels feel when someone responds to our witness by becoming a Christian: “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent” (v. 7).

Here’s how Paul felt about the preaching of the gospel: “Because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice” (Philippians 1.18).

Even when they were punished for witnessing, the early Christians rejoiced in the privilege of sharing their faith: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 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” (Acts 5.41-42).

Now, what did these early Christians know that we don’t?

Why joy?

First, they knew that the seed is good news. The “seed” in the parable is the “word” (v. 14); Matthew’s version calls it “the message about the kingdom” (Matthew 13.19).


Writing Acts 29

Writing Acts 29

Acts 1.1-8

Dr. Jim Denison

This morning we have an unusual Scripture passage—the entire book of Acts. Don’t worry—we won’t be reading the text past lunch. For the rest of January we’ll be discussing themes within the Apostolic Christian movement, the church of the Book of Acts. And so today we’ll overview the entire twenty-eight chapters, then decide how we wish to write chapter twenty-nine.

Here’s the question we need to ask throughout: what was their passion? Why did they do what they did?

No movement is successful without a passion, a galvanizing, catalytic purpose which drives and motivates us. Light diffused is a bulb—focused, it’s a laser. What was their passion? What should ours be?

Drawing the blueprint

Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16.18). The book of Acts tells us how he did it, and is still doing it today.

The Master Carpenter knows that a building has three requirements: an excellent blueprint, a strong foundation, and an effective structure. So Jesus first draws the blueprint in his last words on earth. You know them well.

The purpose of the church is clear: “You will be my witnesses.” We “will be” his witnesses—this is not optional. This is our reason for being.

The people is clear: all believers. “You” is plural—not just Peter or James or John; there is no clergy in the book of Acts. This is the life purpose of each Christian.

The power is clear: the Holy Spirit enables God’s people to fulfil his purpose. We cannot convict of sin or save souls. We can only share our witness, trusting the Spirit to use us to bring others to Jesus.

The priority is clear: we begin where we are. They started in Jerusalem because they were in Jerusalem, then moved to Judea, Samaria, and the “ends of the earth.” We plant the seed where we’re standing. We begin with the people we know, then take Christ to our city and world.

In a biography of Alexander the Great, the writer describes the panic felt by the Greek army when Alexander died. They discovered that they had marched off their maps, and had no idea where they were or where to go.

This will never happen to us. Here Jesus gives his followers a map we’ll never march off of—a blueprint we will use until the end of time. It is so simple that any Christian can understand it, and so challenging that we must never think we are finished.

Laying the foundation (1.8-8.1)

Now, blueprint in hand, Jesus begins to lay the foundation. First he settles the leadership of the church to replace Judas: “they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias, so he was added to the eleven apostles” (1.26).

Then he empowers his church by his Spirit. We’ll study this event in detail next week, and see how it can happen to us today.

The Spirit falls on the day of Pentecost: “all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit” (2.4). The Spirit empowers them for personal evangelism: “how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” (2.8); “we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” (2.11).

The Spirit empowers Peter for public proclamation, with the result that “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day” (2.41).

The Spirit empowers Peter and John for personal ministry with the crippled man outside the Temple: “he jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God” (3.8).

The Spirit empowers the first Christians with bold courage: “know this, you and all the people of Israel: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed…When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (4.10, 13).

The result for the entire church: “After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4.31). Then the Spirit expands the church:

The Spirit purifies God’s church from the deceit and corruption of Ananias and Sapphira (5.1-10) and “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events” (v. 11).

He grows their numbers: “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number” (5.14).

He empowers their witness: “Peter and the other apostles replied: ‘We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (5.29-32).

And he gives them great joy even in suffering: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 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” (5.41-42).

The Spirit gives the church more servant leaders, the first deacons. Here’s the result: “The word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (6.7). Things are going extremely well in Jerusalem, reaching even the priests for Christ.

But there’s a problem: they’re still in Jerusalem. When the foundation is poured, we must then build the house.

A few years ago a church in west Fort Worth laid the foundation for a new building and completed the frame, then stopped. For a long time it stood that way, a sad reminder that beginning isn’t enough.