One of my favorite landmarks on the drive from Vernon to Abilene, TX was in the small west Texas town of Haskell. On the south edge of town was an old brick church building, long ago abandoned from its religious use – now occupied by an antique shop. There’s a sign out front that reads, “Old Church Antiques and Junk.”
It is a danger every church faces – that every church must be on guard against – to become a relic – filled with souvenirs of the past - remembering what used to be – but lifeless and useless, because it has nothing to offer the future.
As Luke brings us to the close of the book of Acts, there is no “and they all lived happily ever after.” God has delivered Paul from a Jewish conspiracy to murder him in Jerusalem, from two years of imprisonment in Caesarea. He is delivered from a terrible storm at sea, a shipwreck, a poisonous viper, and all along God reminds him, “Do not be afraid, I am with you.”
From the island of Malta, Paul and his companions, Luke and Aristarchus, under the guard of their Roman centurion Julius arrive in the seaport of Puteoli. There is a church there, and Paul’s coming is such an event of joy and celebration, they ask that he stay a week with them. And the news of Paul’s arrival has spread before them, and Luke tells us, “And so we came to Rome” – not the arrival, but the trip. Vss. 15-16 “The brothers there had heard that we were coming, and they traveled as far as the Forum of Appius and the Three Taverns to meet us. At the sight of these men Paul thanked God and was encouraged“ – there’s the arrival and the beginning of the trip to Rome.
Can you picture it? Christians from Rome and the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns have flocked to Puteoli to greet Paul and the group walks together 150 miles of the famed Appian Way to the city of Rome – singing, talking, praising God – this is a week-long celebration. In fact, Luke does use the very same Greek word that is used for a welcoming party sent out to meet a conquering general or king back from a victorious battle. Their love and affection for Paul drenched the parched, weary spirit of the exhausted traveler. We can just imagine the excited conversation among Christ’s people as they walked together the final miles to Rome. How much these Roman Christians needed the apostle. But how much more he needed them.
Can you imagine the profound effect all this must have had on old Julius, and later, as the Roman soldiers kept a personal guard on Paul during his imprisonment. Paul wrote to the Philippian church:
Phil. 1:13 “As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.” Phil. 4:22 “All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.”
For Luke, Paul’s arrival in Rome signifies the accomplishment of Jesus’ daunting commission to his disciples there at his ascension from the Mt. of Olives in Acts 1:8 “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” As Paul arrives in Rome, the final frontier has been breached – Rome is the center of the empire. [Picture – Roman forum] From here every man and woman in the known world will eventually hear the gospel of Jesus Christ as it begins to multiply exponentially. You can hear that refrain echoed when Paul writes to the Colossians, “This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant” (1:23).
In the closing paragraphs of this book, we are confronted with two very different pictures of what religion can become in God’s people.
• One is cautious and constricted; the other is challenging and contagious.
• One is limiting and legalistic; the other is loving and alive.
• One is exclusive and judgmental, the other is inclusive and filled with joy.
Paul begins his ministry in Rome in such characteristic fashion. Because he is under guard and cannot go to them, Paul calls for the leaders of the Jews – he begins with his own brothers in the flesh.
It would seem that the Jews in Rome had not yet been informed of Paul’s reputation, as the Asian Jews had done in Jerusalem. They knew of Christians as simply a sect – a group “that people everywhere are talking against.” But they haven’t personally made any final judgment against. They are willing to listen, but with suspicion and reservations.
Paul’s defense focuses on his innocence –
1. I have done nothing against our people or our customs.
2. When I was examined by the Romans they wanted to release me because of my innocence.
3. I am here in chains because the continued persecution of the Jews forced me to appeal to Caesar.
Apparently, they are curious enough to give Paul another hearing, and this time Paul preaches the gospel – powerfully and passionately – vss. 23-24 “They arranged to meet Paul on a certain day, and came in even larger numbers to the place where he was staying. From morning till evening he explained and declared to them the kingdom of God and tried to convince them about Jesus from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.”
It is here that you need to tune in to the response of the Jews – “some were convinced” – Ah! Here he is finally getting somewhere. But it is merely the prelude to what is really about to happen – “others would not believe.”
“They disagreed.” Luke uses a very picturesque word for their disagreement – “asymphonoi” – like an orchestra badly out of tune. There is no harmony, no unity, no spirit of love and togetherness. They disbelieve, they disagree, and they depart. As you read this you begin to realize that this isn’t an unusual occurrence for them – it is characteristic of their nature – it is their modus operendi.
Paul nails down their problem with the words that Isaiah had spoken six centuries earlier (the same passage Jesus quoted in the Gospels of Matthew and John) – “Go to this people and say, ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’ For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.” It is a problem of the heart.
Illust – Great landing, wrong airport
It is tragic because they have missed the point and have missed the glory – within inches of eternal life –
• they hear the words, they are no more than fodder for debate.
• they see the truth, but their eyes are glazed from having looked at things too long with lenses that focused only on their way of seeing things.
These most religious people have written God out of their lives.
This kind of religiosity isn’t just deadly to them, it infects everything they touch. It is like gangrene that rots the life out of the body. They not only reject it themselves but work to turn others against it as well.
Luke wants us to see the stark contrast between this group and the vibrancy of the life that Paul (even in chains and in prison) lives. And let’s not miss that what Luke says about Paul, he is saying collectively of this gathering of Christians that becomes a permanent fixture in Paul’s residence.
Notice three things about these final two verses in Acts that can transform the church today:
Practices inclusive fellowship – vs. 30 “he welcomed all who came to see him”
• One quality of the church that is alive and growing is a church that is inclusive – accepting of everyone who comes.
• One the of the challenges that faces us – are we big enough – do we have the spirit of Christ living so powerfully in us – that we can accept people who aren’t just like us?
Focuses on kingdom priorities – vs 31 “boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God”
• The focus of the church was on the kingdom of God and kingdom priorities. They didn’t waste time on issues and debates – there were too many important things to be done – things like bringing a lost world to Christ.
• When we start preaching the kingdom of God, there is an urgency that begins to consume our living. We can no longer live comfortably in this world, being squeezed into its mold – our lives are too big for that. The gospel can no longer be contained within these walls. It compels us to share what God is doing in our lives.
Consumed by the lordship of Jesus Christ – vs. 31 “and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ”
• At the heart of every living church you will find their focus on Jesus Christ – not just window dressing – not just lip service –but in their heart and in the life of the church.
• When a church not only talks about what Christ did, but what he is doing in our lives, dynamic power is released.
• When we talk about Christ theoretically, historically, dispassionately, we miss the hearts and lives of most people. Jesus came to touch and transform the lives of people who are struggling with broken relationships, hidden guilt, unconfessed sin, personal tragedies – many times neatly tucked behind smiling “church faces.”
• When we talk about the reality of our living savior and the demands of discipleship, and the promises of the new creation – people listen and people respond – because it is the very yearning of their hearts.
Those are the issues – that is the focus of the church that is alive.
Several weeks ago, as we began this series of lessons on the book of Acts, I said that we see a church in Acts that is open ended. Luke leaves the book of Acts unfinished – I believe for a reason. You almost expect to turn the page and see where God will take Paul next. Historically, we know that Paul will be released from this first Roman imprisonment. Tradition tells us that he ultimately went on to fulfill his goal of preaching the gospel in Spain. But the book of Acts ends by telling us about the gospel that grows out of the most difficult of circumstances, but refuses to be hindered or stopped by those circumstances. It is not limited by time and culture – the church that is alive and growing in the first century can be the church that meets here in Glenwood in the 21st century.
And our challenge this morning is: Will we grasp the dream Jesus has for his church? Will we be a church that can not be contained by four walls or limited by a stunted vision?
Illust – Church on Fire
We are not everything we can be or should be. But just like Luke’s story in Acts – God is not finished with us yet. The match is struck, the flame is lit, will we catch on fire?
Posted on Sun, April 3, 2011
by John Roberts