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.

They worshiped him publicly: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts” (v. 46). This was their regular practice: “All the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade” (5.12), the eastern edge of the outer court. This was their “sanctuary,” where anyone could see them.

And they worshiped him privately: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (2.46). They worshiped on Sunday, and all during the week. Theirs was a passion for the worship of God.

And last, they were passionate about “the prayers” (2.42). The definite article is clear in the Greek: not just occasional or sporadic praying but a definite schedule and discipline. They were so passionate about praying that they scheduled it and practiced it habitually, the same way you and I schedule appointments important to us.

And the results were quite amazing:

“Everyone was filled with awe” (v. 43), living in reverence of God. “Many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (v. 43). The Holy Spirit moved through them with amazing power.

They worshiped and ate together “with glad and sincere hearts” (v. 46), living in the joy of Jesus. Someone said, “A gloomy Christian is a contradiction in terms.” They “enjoyed the favor of all the people” (v. 47). When a church is on fire, people will come from miles around to watch it burn.

And most striking of all, “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47). Only God can convert souls and grow his church through changed lives. They did their part, and he did his.

The people God uses

The people God uses would seldom have been nominated by their peers for the honor. Some you’ve heard of, some you haven’t. Some became famous:

Dwight Moody’s family was so poor, the children carried their shoes and socks until they got in sight of church, then put them on, so they would last longer.

Billy Graham was a farmer’s son from the country hills of North Carolina.

Chuck Colson was a convicted felon before his conversion.

Mother Teresa was a frail, unknown nun laboring in obscurity in India, before the world found her.

Others should be famous, but aren’t:

Have you ever heard of Samuel Mills? He was a freshman at Williams College who became the leader of a small prayer group on campus. A spiritual awakening began among them when spread to Yale, Amherst, Dartmouth, and Princeton, leading to the conversion of half of their student bodies. And this prayer movement began the modern missions movement in America.

Have you heard of a city missionary in New York named Jeremiah Lanphier? He and two other men began praying for revival and awakening, and others joined them. Their prayer movement led to the Third Great Awakening in American history. It spread to Ireland, where the courts were adjourned because there were no cases to try and jails were closed because there were no prisoners to keep.

There’s a woman named Nancy who lives in a wheelchair in Philadelphia. She runs ads in the pesonals section of the newspaper which read: “If you are lonely or have a problem, call me. I am in a wheelchair and seldom get out. We can share our problems with each other. Just call. I’d love to talk.” Each week at least thirty calls come in. She spends her days counseling people and helping them to Jesus.

Why did God use them? Because they wanted him to. Because they had a proskartereo kind of passion for Scripture, for prayer, for worship, and for the people of God. Because they paid the price, with joy.


It’s been said that God can hit straight licks with crooked sticks, and we’ve seen that it’s true. Here’s the irony: every single thing these early Christians did, we can decide to do today. These are the four keys to being used by the Spirit of God, the four-fold rope to which we can cling today.

Many of you already have this rope in hand. And God is using you, in ways you can see and ways you cannot. Some of us need to take the rope, again or for the first time. If we want God to make our lives meaningful and significant for all eternity. The choice is ours.

Friends, the rope holds. One last example: my friend in Midland, Texas named Fred Schantz. Fred works for one of the oil companies out there. We started churches in apartment communities, and Fred volunteered to lead one. Soon he was their pastor, preaching and leading worship on Sunday in the apartment clubhouse, then spending the week visiting the people.

One Sunday he noticed that two teenage boys who regularly came to worship were missing. That week he knocked on doors, looking for them, and found them involved in an occult ritual. He got them out of the room, took them out to dinner, and drove them back. Late that night, they were still talking. He turned on the dome light of his pick-up truck, the three of them got in the back, and he led both of them to faith in Jesus. The next Sunday he baptized them in the apartment swimming pool.

God used Fred. Can God use you?

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?

Then why doesn’t the Spirit work like this today in us? Where he doesn’t, the simple reason is that we haven’t asked him to. We haven’t done what Scripture teaches us to do, that we might know his power today.

So, what are we to do? Ephesians 5.18 is our key: “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit.” Let’s walk through this verse, step by step, and experience it in our lives this morning.

First, receive the Holy Spirit in salvation. This verse is to believers, and it assumes that we have already asked Jesus to forgive our sins and be our Lord. When we do, the Holy Spirit moves into our lives (cf. Romans 8.9). Have you made this decision? If you have not, make it right now.

Second, decide that you need his power. Not just his salvation, but his power. A carpenter knows that a drill needs power. Do we know that our church, our lives need power as well?

To be “filled” by the Spirit means to be under his control. Just as someone drunk with wine is “under the influence,” so a Christian is to be “under the influence” of the Holy Spirit.

The first Christians needed this power, and they knew it. They were 120, charged with taking Christ to a hostile nation of 4,000,000 and an ungodly Empire of 25,000,000. This meant that each Christian had to win more than 30,000 just in Israel to fulfil God’s purpose for them.

But Jesus had promised them his help: “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke. 24.49). So they stayed in Jerusalem, at the risk of their own lives, until they received the power they needed.

You and I need this same power today. Listen to Zechariah 4.6: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty.” This verse should convict us every time we hear it: “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power” (1 Corinthians 4.20). Do we have all the power we should? All that we need?

My friends, God will not do for us what we try to do for ourselves. If we are comfortable and complacent with our spiritual lives, our witness, our ministry in this city and world, then we will not know the power of God’s Spirit.

A drill can do some good on its own, without electrical power, as we use our own strength. Some of us like the credit, we don’t like being dependent on others, we’re convinced we can do it ourselves. But we cannot.

This step is the hardest for most of us, and essential: we must admit that we need him. That we need him as desperately as these first Christians did. Only then can he move in power in our lives.

So I ask you, are we winning enough people to Jesus? Are you? Do you want the Spirit to have control of your life? To empower you? Make this decision right now. If you do, you can proceed to the next step.

Third, be cleansed from all that hinders him. I can connect my drill to a socket and still have no power if the plug is corroded. The plug must be clean for the power to flow.

In the very same way, we are seeking the power of the Holy Spirit, and he cannot fill and control a dirty vessel. He cannot give his power with a dirty plug. We must be clean first.

2 Chronicles 7.14 is clear: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” If we confess, God will forgive. If we are clean, God will move in power.

Are you willing to be cleansed from everything which hinders the Holy Spirit in your life? Then take a moment for a moral inventory. Write down anything which is hindering the Spirit in your life. If you’re not sure, ask him and he’ll show you. Confess these sins specifically to God, and claim his cleansing. Cleanse the “plug” and you will know the power.

Last, ask him to control and empower your life. The drill doesn’t have to do this, for it has no will. But we do. And we must ask the Spirit to control and empower us, before he will.

Will you do this, right now? In prayer, simply ask the Spirit to take control of your life, your mind, your time, your abilities. Surrender your will to him. Promise to obey him wherever he leads you.

And believe that he has. Nowhere does the Bible describe how it “feels” to be empowered by the Holy Spirit. Some of you will feel something unusual; others will not. I seldom do. The proof is in the results, not the feeling. So step out in faith, believing that the Spirit has empowered you, for he has.

And do this daily. The literal Greek is, “Be continually being filled.” Whenever sin corrodes your relationship with him, confess it and claim cleansing. Then reconnect with the Spirit. Stay in communion with him all through the day—stay “plugged in.”

As you do, remember that God empowers us according to his purpose for us. The Holy Spirit never empowered a Christian in the Book of Acts except to make him or her a more effective witness. If we are not willing to share Christ, we will not have the power of the Spirit. If we are, we will.


Dwight Moody preached to over one hundred million souls in his ministry. He founded what became Moody Bible College, and was widely considered one of the godliest men in America. His prayers have been recorded and published; his passion for the lost was legendary. And yet Moody often said of his own soul, “I am a leaky bucket, and I need to be refilled daily.” If he needed this, so do I. Do you?

Does God still move? Can we see “Book of Acts miracles” today? Can some of us be the next Paul, Barnabas, Peter, Lydia? The answer is up to us, isn’t it?

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).

Unfortunately, we’ve made the gospel into bad news: you’re a sinner, and you’re going to hell. Some preach on hell as though they liked it.

But the simple fact is, “gospel” means “good news.” This is the definition of the word. This is amazingly good news: you can be forgiven for every mistake you’ve ever made. God loves you and has an incredible plan for your life. You can accept his love, receive his forgiveness, and gain eternal life and significance right now!

This is good news, and we always like sharing good news. The staff has heard Leroy Summers tell us that his grandson has moved to Dallas, until we feel like he’s our grandson, too. The boys love it when I come in from church on Sundays, and the Cowboys are winning and they get to tell me. A doctor loves to tell a waiting family that the surgery was a success.

We hate to tell bad news, but we love to tell good news. How do you see the gospel?

Second, they knew that sowing is a process. We think we don’t “succeed” in witnessing unless the person becomes a Christian then and there. Because this seldom happens, we think we’re not good at it. The apostles knew better. They learned from Jesus that sowing and spiritual conversion is a process

If you’re like me, when you witness you feel as though you’re on trial, and the person you’re talking with is the prosecutor. You just hope you’ll not fail. But in fact, Jesus is on trial and the person is the jury. The Holy Spirit is the defense attorney, Satan is the prosecutor, and you’re simply called to the witness stand.

Your job is to tell what you know when the Spirit calls. You may be the first witness on the stand, and never hear the verdict; you may be the last, and hear the jury’s decision. Either way, you and I are simply witnesses. We’re not the one on trial—Jesus is.

Sowing is a process. Don’t think you have to see the verdict rendered, the harvest grown. Just do what you can as God leads you. And relax—he’s in charge, not you. Success is faithfulness. And when we’re faithful to God, we find his joy.

Third, they knew that the crop is eternal. Unlike my garden, which lasted until the fire ants took possession, this crop bears eternal fruit.

It’s wonderful when cancer goes into remission or the surgery is successful, but we will still die one day if the Lord tarries. However, human souls are eternal. They live forever, somewhere. The Bible says they will be in the bliss of heaven or the torment of hell, for all time and beyond time.

This is why taking part in someone’s eternal salvation is more important than curing them of cancer or even the world of cancer; more important than feeding a hungry man or even ending all starvation; more important than winning a war or even abolishing all war. Helping eternal souls go to heaven is the greatest work of all, and thus the most joyful.

In weeks to come you’ll hear a great deal about The Seed Initiative. All I’ll say today is that this is the most comprehensive strategy I’ve ever seen for helping a local church find the joy of sharing. It’s not just another program, but a God-given opportunity for us to discover the greatest joy the human heart can know: the privilege of sowing the seed of God’s love and seeing it bear harvest for all eternity.


For today, I simply ask you to agree with this fact: seed needs a farmer. Have you received the seed of the gospel into the soil of your heart yet? Or have you been concrete, limestone, or grass burrs?

If you’ve received the seed, would you decide today that you want to share it more fully than you ever have before? That you want the joy God can only give those who sow his seed? That you’ll be a farmer with me in this new year?

Roger Simms walked slowly along the highway. He was tired, and the suitcase he carried grew heavier by the minute. He was anxious to get out of his army uniform and see his parents and girlfriend again.

A car came into view, and Roger stuck his thumb in the air. To his surprise, the sleek, black Cadillac pulled over for him. “Thank you!” he said to the stranger inside. “Glad to help,” the man said. And they began to talk The driver’s name was Mr. Hanover, and he owned a business in Chicago.As they drove along, the Holy Spirit began to prompt Roger to witness to Mr. Hanover. But he couldn’t, he told God. He couldn’t talk to this distinguished looking businessman about spiritual things.

Finally the Spirit’s urging became so strong Roger couldn’t ignore it. “Mr. Hanover,” he said, “I would like to talk to you about something very important. I want to talk to you about your soul.” Steel gray eyes pierced Roger’s, but the man made no reply. For the next few minutes Roger poured out his soul as he explained the gospel to the man. Finally he asked him if he would like to receive Christ as his Savior.

To Roger’s astonishment, the man abruptly pulled the car to the side of the road. The businessman bowed his head over the steering wheel and began to weep. Through his tears, he prayed and received the salvation only Jesus can give.

A few minutes later he dropped Roger in front of his home. “Thank you,” he said. “This is the greatest thing that has ever happened to me.” He gave Roger his business card and said, “This is where you can find me if you are ever in Chicago.”

Nothing could contain Roger’s joy, that he had helped this man come to Christ and receive eternal salvation for his soul. This was more important than anything else in the world to him.

In a few months Roger and his girlfriend Beth were married. Two years later a little boy was born to them. Roger began his own business, and it began to prosper.

Then he had to make a trip to Chicago. As he was packing his socks, he found Mr. Hanover’s business card, given to him years earlier. He decided he’d look the man up, just to see how he was getting along.

It was a Tuesday morning when Roger stepped inside the impressive doors of the Hanover Enterprises. A receptionist sat at a desk in the plush room before him. “I am Roger Simms,” he said. “I would like very much to see Mr. Hanover.” A strange look came over the woman’s face. “That is not possible, Mr. Simms. Would you like to talk with Mrs. Hanover?”

Roger was puzzled, but consented. Almost immediately he found himself face to face with a woman, in her mid-fifties, who extended her hand. “You knew my husband?” Roger said, “Yes, he picked me up when I was on my way home from the war.” “Can you tell me just when that was? I mean, what day?” Roger was sure: “It was five years ago in the spring, May seventh.

Mrs. Hanover was visibly nervous. “What did you talk about that day?” Roger hesitated, then said, “Mrs. Hanover, we talked about spiritual things.” She was incredulous, as he went on, “I talked with him about his soul.”

Her lips began to tremble. “And what was his response?” “Mrs. Hanover, he pulled over the side of the road, and gave his life to Christ that day.”

The woman began to weep—sobs from deep within her soul. Roger was confused and upset: “What is going on?” Finally she answered him: “I had prayed for my husband’s salvation for years.” “And where is your husband, Mrs. Hanover?” “He is dead,” she said. “He was in a car crash after he let you out of the car. He never got home.”

But he did, and all of heaven rejoiced. All because Roger sowed his seed. Now, who will be your Mr. Hanover this year?

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.

This fledgling Christian movement has not done that. Jesus called them to start in Jerusalem, but not to stay there. So far they’ve done nothing in Judea, Samaria, not to speak of the “ends of the earth.” They’re doing well where they are, and are apparently quite content to stay there.

Whenever we’re unclear about our mission mandate and purpose, God clarifies things very quickly. I’ve heard it said, “God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must.

And so he must use Stephen’s martyrdom and its result in the early church: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (8.1). Acts 1.8 is fulfilled through Acts 8.1.

Building the church (8.1-28.31)

Now Christianity becomes the first universal faith in human history, transcending local religions and local gods to reach across the globe and across the centuries to you and me today.

We can chart its growth by key statements of the movement’s progress and success. First they expand geographically to Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (8.1-9.31).

Philip evangelizes the hated Samaritans as the first “foreign” missionary, and “When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said” (8.6).

Then Philip reaches the Ethiopian eunuch, the national treasurer of his country (the Alan Greenspan of his day): “both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him” (8.38).

The gospel moves north to Damascus and Syria through Saul’s conversion: “Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God” (9.19-20).

Here’s the result of this expansion: “the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (9.31).

Next they move racially across the most dangerous barrier of all: the Gentile world.

Remember that the Jewish people had been taught that God made Gentiles only so there would be fuel for the fires of hell.

Now Peter preaches the good news to Cornelius, a Gentile and, even worse, an officer in the Roman army which occupied and oppressed Israel. Here’s the result: “Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have” (10.47), an astounding admission for a Jewish man to make.

Next, “men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (11.20-21).

Here’s the result of this expansion: “the word of God continued to increase and spread” (12.24).

And now the gospel moves to the larger world, in three separate missionary journeys, the first in religious history.

Paul and Barnabas sail to the island of Cyprus, and “When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord” (13.12).

Then on to Asia, mainland Turkey today. At the town of Pisidian Antioch, the Gentiles “were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region” (13.48-49).

Next to Iconium, where “Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed” (14.1).

But things were not always easy. At Lystra, “some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city” (14.19-20).

At Derbe, “They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples” (14.21).

In chapter 15, the church back at Jerusalem, still the headquarters of the Christian movement, affirms their ministry to the Gentiles. Here’s the summary statement: “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers” (16.5).

On their second journey (15.41-18.22), God calls Paul further west, to Greece and Europe. In Philippi they win Lydia, then the jailer (ch. 16). In Thessalonica, “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women” (17.4).

At Berea, my favorite church in the New Testament, “the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men” (17.11-12).

Even at Athens, capital of the skeptical philosophies of the day, “A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others” (17.34).

In Corinth, the synagogue ruler and his entire family believed, “and many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptized” (18.8). So, “Paul stayed for a year and a half, teaching them the word of God” (v. 11).

From there to Ephesus, then back to Jerusalem.

During the third journey (18.23-21.17), Paul revisits these churches. Note this result in Ephesus: “all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of God…Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed their evil deeds. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas [a year’s salary for 137 men]. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (19.10, 18-20).

And from here through Greece and back to Jerusalem.

Finally, the gospel moves to Rome, the “uttermost parts of the earth” (21.26-28.31).

Paul witnesses to the crowd (22.1-21), to the Sanhedrin (22.30-23.11), to Governors Felix (ch. 24) and Festus (25.1-21), and to King Agrippa (25.26-26.32).

Finally he is taken to Rome herself, with this result: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus” (28.30-31).


Here’s the point: the plan worked. A tiny movement in far-off Jerusalem has now spread across the known world to Rome herself. My friends, God will do with us what he did with them, if we will make their passion ours.

So, what was their passion? Why did they do it? Why give their lives for this? Why would Peter preach to the very men who crucified Jesus? Knowing full well that they possessed the same authority to crucify him as well?

Why would Philip witness to the despised Samaritans?

Why would Paul, the zealous Pharisee, give his life for the Gentiles? Thrown into prison shackles, beaten and whipped, pummeled unconscious with stones, shipwrecked, finally beheaded—why?

Because of their passion for the lost? For evangelism and missions?

A week ago I would have said that, but then a conversation I had this week changed my mind. This past Monday, a staff minister talked about his passion for his family. He doesn’t have a passion for talking about them, but for them. That’s why he talks about them—because he loves them. That’s true about Jesus as well.

The apostolic Christians’ passion was for Jesus. They loved him so much they couldn’t help loving those he loves. And they wanted others to love him, too.

I used to say that my heart’s desire is to know Christ and make him known. I now believe that statement needs to be changed: to love him and love others to him.

Then we fulfill the two great commandments. Then we make his passion ours. Then we find the “one thing” which makes life meaningful.

How do we develop this passion? We’ll say much more about this in the coming sermons, but for today let’s focus on these simple keys: worship him and serve others.

The more we worship Jesus, personally and with others, the more we love him. And the more we love him, the more we want to worship him.

Mother Teresa, when asked how she found the strength for her work, said, “Spend one hour adoring Jesus, and you’ll have all the energy you need.” She was right.

And we love others through service. A kind word, deed, letter, phone call. Praying for a lost person. Sharing the gospel with them.

And if we don’t feel love, act as if we do. Counselors say it’s better to act ourselves into feelings than to feel our way into actions. If you don’t feel love for a person, spend some time worshiping Jesus and he will warm your heart. If you don’t feel close to Jesus, love someone in his name and you will.

As we develop their passion for Jesus and others, we write Acts 29 today.

Tillie Burgin has long been one of my heroes. She and her family were missionaries in South Korea before the younger son developed a very serious medical condition and they had to return to the States. God called her to be a missionary in Arlington instead. Nearly fifteen years ago she founded Mission Arlington with one Bible study in one apartment community.

Today Mission Arlington reaches over 130 apartment communities and over 3,000 each week. The results in the city have been amazing—drugs and crime are down, and God is at work. The city even named her “woman of the year.”

Tillie works every day from 4 a.m.. until late into the night. She has an energy, a drive which is staggering. Once her son Jim, my dear friend, asked her why she did it. She looked at him for a moment, a tear came to her eye, and she said, “Jim, I just love him so much.”

The Book of Acts Christians would have said, “Amen.”