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.
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?