I’ve been preaching through Acts on Sunday nights and I keep getting more confused as time goes on. You see, I went to seminary and I got me an edumacation and lots o’ book-learning. I’ve been to evangelism conferences and training sessions. And, with all that I have learned about evangelism and cultural engagement, I am left with only one conclusion:
Those poor folks in the church in Jerusalem just didn’t get it.
They did not know the effective evangelism strategies that we have learned today and they didn’t know what we now know about engaging our culture in a positive and tolerant way. We have some tried and true methods and programs that we have learned through the years and they just didn’t get it.
Permit me to mention a few examples.
1) They were so confrontational!
Didn’t they know that you catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar? Everything we do is supposed to be positive and encouraging; uplifting. We are here to make people feel good about themselves and to show love. We have learned that it is never God’s will that we confront people directly with their sin – that will just drive them away.
Sadly, the poor Apostles just didn’t get the memo on this one. As I studied through Acts, I was horrified at the way those men shared the message of Jesus Christ. They actually looked people in the eye and told them they were guilty sinners who needed to repent.
Peter got things started off wrong on the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit was poured out in power. He could have gathered everyone to join in a circle and sing, “Kumbaya,” but no! He was rude.
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:36-38
Did he expect to build people’s self-esteem by accusing them of crucifying Jesus and calling on them to repent?
And he didn’t learn from his mistakes. When he healed the lame beggar, he had the crowd in the palm of his hand. Had he just told them that God loved and accepted them exactly as they were, he could have gotten them all to say, “Jesus is cool.” But no, he had to go and get all mean-spirited again.
But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. Acts 3:14-15
How did he expect to win them over calling them murderers? We know better now, don’t we? We’ve learned to present the gospel of salvation with barely a mention of sin – people just won’t listen to that kind of message.
Then, of course, when the Council called Peter on the carpet for his intemperate and offensive words, he did not apologize and become more tolerant. He doubled down on his offense.
Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved. Acts 4:10-12
Poor Peter. He just didn’t get it. Because of this, the early church was known more for what it was against than for what it was for!
2) When the culture got offended, they didn’t back off.
One of the things we have learned in American Christianity is that if our culture is offended or angry at us, we must be doing something wrong. It’s got to be our fault. If people don’t like what we are doing, we should do something different. After all, insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different result, right?
But Peter and the Apostles just never figured this out. The Council politely asked them to stop preaching about Jesus in Acts 4:18 and the Christians just totally ignored that request. The next time, in Acts 5, the Council had to give the Apostles a little beating to remind them that they were offending people with their message about sin and about Jesus, but still the disciples of Christ would not listen.
It all came to an unfortunate head when Stephen preached a sermon that was way out of line, calling the religious leaders all kinds of offensive names. They finally felt the need to bounce large rocks off his head until he stopped his preaching. It didn’t have to happen, if he had just been more positive, more encouraging and more tolerant of others.
They must have been insane because no matter how often they were asked to stop it, they just kept preaching that salvation was found only through repenting and trusting in Jesus Christ.
3) They REJOICED when they suffered!
We have learned that if we are living right as Christians, God will make everything work out easy for you and you will live a happy, contented life. Isn’t that what Romans 8:28 says? Everything will work out right and you will get everything you want, if you just please God with your life. God’s greatest desire, we have learned, is to make us happy and to help us to fulfill our goals and find contentment, happiness and success in life.
But the Apostles did not understand this truth. In fact, it is possible that there was some form of mental illness rampant in the early church, a group delusion or something. When the Council threatened them and beat them, they did not regroup and figure out a new, non-offensive, more tolerant way to engage their community.
They rejoiced! Yep, that is what I said. Look at Acts 5:41-42.
Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.
They were rejoicing in their suffering as if it were some sort of badge of honor to suffer for Jesus. They didn’t change their ways, even though people were getting offended. They just kept preaching that Jesus was the only hope of salvation for the entire world, even though it had been made clear that their strategy was not being well received among the Jewish leaders.
I just wish I could travel back in time and take some of the boxes of curriculum I’ve got laying around the church with me. How different the Bible story would be if we could just have given some of our modern methods to those poor souls who just didn’t know what we know today.
Of course, it’s so odd. In spite of all their failings, they still had some success.
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:41
And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. Acts 2:47
But many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand. Acts 4:4
And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, Acts 5:14
I don’t know, it must have been a fluke. Think how much better the book of Acts could have been if those fellas had just had some of our knowledge and insight into strategies and methods.
If only they had known what we know now….