Straight Licks with Crooked Sticks
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.