Sunday 28 October 2012

For the sake of the gospel (Galatians 2:1-10)

Second-class Christian

Is there such a thing as a second-class Christian? Have you ever been made to feel second-class in your own church?

That is the issue in today’s passage. Previously in Galatians Chapter 1, Paul was defending charges against himself and against the gospel. Outsiders had come into the church accusing him of being a second-rate pastor peddling a second-hand gospel. Paul was not Jerusalem-approved, they said. His sermons were copied off the Internet, they implied.

But here in Galatians Chapter 2, we see the knock-on effect of those claims. If their pastor was second-rate and if their gospel was second-hand, what they were really saying was their church was second-class.

Of course, the visitors had not arrived empty-handed. Having come from a first-class church in Jerusalem, they brought with them a first-class solution - the law of Moses. If the Galatians wanted to be real Christians, according to these visitors, all they needed to do was add a little something to their faith; just a few rules, all of which are found in the bible. Do this, they said, and their church would be a first-class church.

It is pretty obvious from Paul’s words here in Galatians 2 that he is upset with the situation. You get a sense of how frustrated he is, not just with these outsiders, but also with his own church for listening to these outsiders. And yet we will see today that what he does in response to the outsiders is truly wise. Paul doesn’t burn bridges. He doesn’t write a blog condemning the leaders in Jerusalem. What he does is identify the real issue at stake, which is the gospel. He makes the issue what it really is about - not himself, not their culture, not even their church. What is at stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We will see three things from today’s passage - three reasons why Paul steps into this situation of conflict. It’s not for himself. Rather, he does this:

1. For the sake of the Christians in his church
2. For the sake of the Christians in other churches, especially their leaders.
3. For the sake of the gospel itself

1. For the sake of the Christians in his church

This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain in you.
Galatians 2:4-5

Paul refers to these outsiders in four different ways (looking just at verse 4). As (1) false brothers, (2) as infiltrators (meaning, they snuck in through the back door), (3) as spies and (4) as enslavers.

So on the one hand, they were sneaky. They turned up one night at Rock Fellowship, joined in our bible study discussion and said, “Amen,” at the end of every prayer. Paul calls them “false brothers,” meaning at first glance they looked and sounded just like any one of us.

On the other hand, these visitors had a destructive agenda. Their intention was to enslave Christians to the law. From their perspective, the second-generation Christians in Galatia had too much freedom. From their perspective, these Christians needed to be taught some rules, you know, just to make sure they weren’t getting out of line.

Bible scholars often refer to these outsiders from Jerusalem as Judaizers (a word taken from Galatians 2:14). Judaizers are members of a movement that tried to force Christians to adopt Jewish cultural practices. They tried to force Christians to become Jews. The issue had partly to do with race, culture, tradition and moral uprightness. The Judaizers claimed that to be a Christian inwardly you also had to be a Jew outwardly. After all, Jesus was a Jew. His chosen apostles were all Jews (including Paul himself). Not only that, the Old Testament law contained rules on how to live like a Jew. Shouldn’t we take the Old Testament seriously as Christians?

Now I doubt that many of us in the Chinese Church will be pressured anytime soon to live like a Jew. You would have to give up eating Char Siu Paus. There would be no more badminton sessions with Uncle and Auntie Ho after church on Sundays. And all the men will have to go for a very sensitive and painful operation called circumcision. Ouch!

But imagine that one day a visitor from the Mandarin congregation joined in our English service and said to you, “This is a Chinese Church. Why are you singing English songs and reading English bibles?” How would you respond?

Some of us might point out that many here are BBC’s (British-born Chinese). We might gently remind them this isn’t China! But if we said those things, we would be acting just like the Judaizers. We would be putting our culture above Christ.

The truth is it’s easy to think of instances when we have been victimised; when we have been made to feel second-class; when others have pressured us to conform. Yet when that happens, our instinct is to turn the tables; to make our accusers feel small; to make our cause, our traditions and our culture out to be more important than theirs.

For Paul, the main issue was not culture at all – Greek or Jewish, or for the matter, Asian versus British – but the gospel. Look at what he says in verse 5. “We did not give in to them for a moment so that the truth of the gospel might remain in you.” What is Paul saying? I am fighting this fight for you. I am standing up to these Judaizers for the sake of your faith and the assurance of your salvation in Jesus Christ.

The damage that the Judaizers were inflicting on the Gentile church was not such that Gentiles were beginning to think their non-Jewish culture was bad. No, the result was such that Gentiles believers were starting to think that their gospel was bad. They were starting to think that it wasn’t enough to trust in Jesus alone for their acceptance before God; that they needed to add something extra to the gospel.

What Paul was saying to them in verse 5 is, “You guys are the real thing. You have the full gospel.” But in order to make that point, Paul had to do one thing: He had to fight for the gospel.

To Jerusalem

And Chapter 2 begins with Paul bringing the fight all the way to Jerusalem. Look with me to verse 1.

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel I that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.
Galatians 2:1-3

Paul pursued this matter all the way to Jerusalem. Now, Jerusalem was the capital of Israel. It was the location of the temple of God. It was the historic city of King David’s throne. But Jerusalem was also ground zero for the gospel. It was there in Jerusalem that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ took place which sparked off the mission of the gospel to the nations.

Paul wanted to trace the issue back to its roots. For us it would be as extreme as driving up to COCM Headquarters, knocking on the front door and saying to the leaders, “We need to sit down and talk about this issue because it’s serious!”

The last time Paul had been to Jerusalem was eleven years ago (Galatians 1:18, whereby the fourteen years mentioned in Galatians 2:1 is measured from the time of Paul’s conversion). This time, Paul says, he didn’t go alone but brought with him two significant individuals from his church – Barnabas and Titus.

Bringing Barnabas made sense. Barnabas was the guy who introduced Paul to the apostles in the first place (we see this in Acts 9:27). His name means “Son of Encouragement” (Acts 4:36) which implies that this was the kind of guy whom everyone could get along with. Barnabas is the guy who comes into a disagreement and all the parties go, “Yup, I’ll listen to what he has to say.”

Titus, however, was an interesting addition. Unlike Barnabas, Titus was Greek which meant that Paul was bringing a non-Jew into the capital city of Jerusalem. It was a controversial move, much like inviting a vegetarian over for dinner at Rock Fellowship (“Chicken, chicken and more chicken.”)

Why did Paul do this? If all Paul wanted to do was to argue his case, he could have gone alone. Bringing Barnabas made sense but why Titus? No one knew him. He was a Greek! No one had anything in common with him.

But, you see, that is precisely why Paul brought Titus along. The people in Jerusalem needed to see Titus, who was a genuine believer in Christ. As a Greek, Titus was representing all the non-Jewish converts back in Galatia and Paul wanted the apostles to look at Titus, face-to-face, eyeball-to-eyeball, and call him, “Brother.”

Hence, verse 2, “I… set before the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.” “Here’s a Gentile,” Paul would have said, “who has received the same gospel, the same Jesus, the same salvation that we received. He is our brother.”

But there is another reason Paul tells us that he brought Titus to Jerusalem. Verse 3, says, “Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.” Now why make a big deal about something Titus didn’t do? It is Paul’s way of saying that Titus stood his ground under great pressure. Verse 4, “We did not give into them even for a moment.” If the church in Galatia was being pressured to take on the Law of Moses from a few visiting Jews in their midst, then imagine the pressure that Titus felt walking the streets of Jerusalem.

The Jews in Jerusalem would have looked at Paul hanging out with his non-Jewish friend and said, “What’s he doing with that outsider?” Or, “I wonder if Paul has broken our sacred law by bringing this outsider into the temple.” The easiest thing to deal with such gossip was simply to circumcise Titus (well, perhaps not so easy for Titus), but Paul tells us that Titus wasn’t compelled to do so. Why didn’t Titus give in to the pressure to conform? Wouldn’t it have made it easier for Paul to talk with the Jerusalem leaders, without all this speculation hanging over their heads?

Titus was 100% confident in the gospel. He knew that in Jesus Christ he was 100% acceptable before God. Paul reflect on this incident in order to say to his friends in Galatia, “What about the pressures that you are struggling with? If Titus was confident of his standing in the gospel while walking in the streets of Jerusalem, why are you doubting your freedom in the gospel in your own church?”

Friends, do you have this freedom that comes from trusting in Jesus? The religious outsiders came into the Galatian church, took one look at the Christians there and went, “These guys have too much freedom. They are just going to abuse it. They don’t deserve to be so joyful. There must be some hidden sin in their lives.” As a Christian, if someone says that to you, you should respond, “Of course, I am a sinner! I don’t deserve this freedom! But Jesus Christ has freed me from all my sin – he has taken all that weight, all that shame, all that pride off my shoulders. He bore my sin on his shoulders when he died on the cross.”

If you are a Christian, there are always going to be people around you who will be scandalised by your confidence; who are going to be offended by your freedom in the in gospel. But instead of caving in to that pressure to prove yourself, what should you do? You should point to Jesus, not try to prove that you deserve of this freedom, but that you received it by grace through Jesus’ death on the cross.

Paul wanted his church to have this freedom – this rock solid assurance – that comes from the gospel. “We did not give in to them for a moment,” he says in verse 5, “so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you.”

2. For the sake of the Christians in other churches, especially their leaders

So, the first reason Paul was fighting was for his own church, his own brothers and sisters. But secondly, he was also concerned for other Christians, specifically, the leaders in Jerusalem. They, too, needed to recognise that their identity was rooted not in their culture or good works, but solely on the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ revealed in the message of the gospel.

As for those who seemed to be important – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance – those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles.
Galatians 2:6-8

Where he says, “God does not judge by external appearance,” it literally translates as “God does not receive man’s face.” What is Paul saying? He didn’t Pei Min to the apostles just because they were apostles. If anything, the way in which Paul refers to Peter, James and John – dare I say it? - borders almost on the disrespectful. Almost!

Verse 2: But I did this privately with those who seemed to be leaders.
Verse 6: As for those who seemed to be important – whatever they were makes no difference to me…
Verse 9: James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars…

I don’t think that Paul means to cheapen or demean the apostles’ status as pillars and leaders within the Christian church, but what he is doing, for the sake of his readers, is setting their position as leaders rightly within the context of the gospel. Their position as leaders is one of stewardship. These men have been entrusted with the gospel; and it is the gospel which gives them their authority; it is the gospel which defines for them their responsibilities as leaders within the Christian community.

This is important because when Paul went to Jerusalem, it wasn’t to compare who had the bigger church, who had the best preaching, who had the best leadership style or who had the most influential culture to win people over to Christ. Paul didn’t make the trip to Jerusalem to talk strategy.

Instead, Paul had one clear agenda. He repeats it again and again, every single time he refers to his meeting with the apostles. Did you notice that? He had but one item on his agenda: The gospel. “I… set before them the gospel,” verse 2; “those men added nothing to my message,” verse 6; “they saw I had been entrusted with… the gospel,” verse 7.

We have already seen that Paul went all the way to Jerusalem, bringing Barnabas and Titus with him, to represent his church back in Galatia. But here we see another reason why we went to Jerusalem: Paul was concerned for them. Notice how he expresses this concern back in verse 2, “for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.” Some people might read that to mean Paul was unsure whether he had got the gospel right. The Judaizers had turned up in his church one day saying, “That’s not how we do it in Jerusalem,” and this must have got Paul thinking, “Did I miss something? Do I need to have my sermons checked out by Peter and John and James to ensure that I haven’t left out some key doctrine about the law?”

That is, some people read this and think that Paul was doubting himself as an apostle; he was doubting his work as a pastor. I disagree. In fact, I think it is the other way around. Paul was worried that the leaders in Jerusalem might have got the gospel recipe wrong.  That’s why he made the trip there. He was concerned that artificial preservatives were being added to gospel message and that these preservatives were coming from Jerusalem itself; that the false gospel of Jesus plus the works of the law was being preached from the pulpits of the Jerusalem church

What made him fearful – that made Paul think he was running this race in vain - was the prospect of a split church: Jew and Gentile churches going their separate ways because of this misunderstanding in the gospel. Because of these artificial preservatives being added to the gospel.

The one and only agenda

Despite his concerns, Paul approached the matter with some degree of care. In verse 2, he makes it a point to tell us that he arranged a private meeting with the apostles. He didn’t start a campaign on Twitter. There weren’t rallies outside Peter’s house with protesters chanting, “Don’t give face, Mo Pei Min!” What Paul had to say, he said behind closed doors. He confronted the apostles but he also wanted to win them over. Barnabas was there, Titus was there. Everyone at the table was heng tai. “We are going to talk frankly, openly, lovingly. We are going to talk about the gospel.”

During this meeting, Paul tells us that he “set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles.” That cannot mean that he gave his sermon outline to Peter to approve because in verse 6, Paul states quite strongly, “those men added nothing to my message.”

So what did Paul do in that meeting? To put it very simply, he preached the gospel. Sounds like a very unlikely thing to do at a Christian meeting, doesn’t it? In a gathering of church leaders, of pastors and preachers, you might expect to discuss all manner of things – the declining numbers in church attendance, poverty, persecution, financial matters, the Christmas event coming up at the end of the year - but Paul did something quite extraordinary and unexpected. He preached the gospel to these Christians leaders.

But it shouldn’t be unexpected. Christians need the gospel. And I suggest to you: Christian leaders need the gospel even more.

Get this: Here was a situation in which Paul was concerned that most well-known leaders of the Christian world had got the message of salvation in Christ alone by faith alone through grace alone – wrong! I mean, how dare he! Who does he think he is?

I don’t know who you consider as your heroes in the faith. Personally, I admire pastors like Don Carson, John Piper and Tim Keller who have taught me much through their public ministry of preaching the bible faithfully and clearly through the years. To me, what Paul did in presenting his gospel to the apostles in Jerusalem would be something like my going up to someone I admire as a model –take Don Carson, for example – and saying to him, “Don, I’m concerned about what you have been preaching lately. Here is my text from last Sunday’s sermon. I want you to read it carefully and if you have any problems with it, I suggest to you that it’s not because there’s something lacking in my preaching of the gospel; it’s because there’s something fundamentally wrong with your understanding of the gospel!” Who am I say such an outrageous thing? He’s the Don! In Chinese we would say: He has eaten more salt that I have eaten rice!

And yet… and yet, we should never elevate anyone’s authority over the gospel, no matter who they are. The fact that Paul arranged this meeting privately with the apostles tells me that he was concerned on their behalf. It took a revelation from God, the beginning of verse 2 tells us, to get him to make this important step.

Stop and think about this for moment: What was it that was so serious about this issue? I mean, what’s the big deal? So a few overzealous guys are trying to get Christians to take the law more seriously, what’s so bad about that? All this was happening at a time when Christians were being killed for their faith. There was serious famine that was about to envelope the whole Roman world (Acts 11:28). Weren’t there bigger issues for Paul to be concerned with – not least sin? Why focus so much attention on a few overly keen religious wierdos who are teaching stuff that’s in the bible anyways?

For Paul, this was the number one issue. It was so serious that if unresolved it meant everything he did was for nothing. You see, Paul did not dare to assume the gospel.

It’s not that there aren’t big issues to deal with as Christians. Acts 11 tells us  that Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was part of a response team to bring aid and relief to the believers in Jerusalem who were suffering, which is why in verse 10, when the apostles asked that they continue to remember the poor, he says, “That’s the very thing I’m eager to do.” And it’s not that issues with sin and morality aren’t important to Paul; he gives a pretty comprehensive outline of sinfulness – fifteen in all – in chapter 5, calling us as Christians to crucify our sinful passions with its passions and desires.

But the one thing Paul wants to make absolutely clear before he approaches any of those subjects is the gospel – the message of God’s free grace through the sacrifice of his Son on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. He does not dare, for one moment, to presume that just because the people he is speaking with share his concern for the poor, or that they share his passion for lost, that they share his understanding of the gospel.

Just because the person sitting across the table has a nametag that says “Pastor”; just because you’ve gone on a mission trip together; just because you are serving together on a church committee – does not mean that you should assume the gospel. I wonder if that isn’t the reason why the gospel is so absent in our meetings as leaders? The higher up you go in terms of responsibility, in terms of ministry, the more Pai Seh we are to ask the people around us, “So, what does it mean for Jesus Christ to die on the cross for your sins.”

Friends, it’s not prayer. It’s not ministry. It’s not evangelism. It’s the gospel. When was the last time the gospel was the number one agenda in your meetings; the only agenda in your meetings? Are we assuming the gospel? That’s not love. It’s not respect. It’s fear and shame of the gospel.

If we don’t have the gospel, then ministry is meaningless. You are serving in Children’s church, you are serving in Rock, you are song-leading on Sundays – but without the gospel, how does your ministry bring glory to Jesus? Without the gospel, aren’t you making ministry about yourself?

If we don’t have the gospel, evangelism is a waste of time. People come because of the food. They come because of their friends. They come to have a good time. But for all intents and purposes, a church without the gospel is a community centre – and probably not a very good one at that.

If we don’t have the gospel, we don’t really love one another. You are praying for that sick friend, you are counselling that brother about his problem, you are helping that couple through a crisis – but you don’t dare talk about what it means trust in Jesus. You just give good advice; you’ve not once given the good news. Why? Because you are afraid they will be offended. Because you think it won’t help. You don’t love your friends, not enough.

Paul cared enough for his own church to make a stand for the gospel. But Paul also cared enough for his friends to tell them the gospel. He didn’t assume it. He preached it even to these pastors, even to these leaders, even to these Christians brothers, because he loved them.

3. For the sake of the gospel itself

James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognised the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Galatians 2:9-10

When we use the word “fellowship,” as Christians, what we often say is, “Come to my fellowship, we hang out every week to do bible study and eat a lot of food!” Fellowship sounds fun. Actually to our non-Christian friends, it must sound weird, almost like a cult group. It’s not a meeting, it’s not a club, it’s not a society – it’s a fellowship!

When Paul says that James, Peter and John gave him and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship,” it doesn’t mean that they had hot pot together and sang Christians songs afterwards. What it means is partnership. That night, the apostles agreed to form a partnership in the gospel. They were saying to Paul and Barnabas, “We are going to work together on this.”

What is so strange about this partnership is that the moment it was formed, they went their separate ways! Paul went to the Gentiles; Peter and the rest stayed with the Jews. What is this saying? The basis of Christian fellowship is not how nice the food is. It’s not even the fact that we meet under the same roof. The one and only basis of fellowship is the gospel. Isn’t that what it is saying?

This is to the extent, that Paul would add in verse 10, “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor.” Even something that is as important as meeting the needs of the poor – as essential as caring for the poor (remembering that the context here from Acts 11 is that Paul was bringing relief aid to the poor Christians in Jerusalem who were being persecuted), even that, is secondary to the gospel.

At the end of the day, what was achieved in that meeting? Why did Paul go all the way to Jerusalem? If all Paul wanted to do was deal with the Judaizers he could have stayed home and dealt with them there and then. What was the point of meeting up with the apostles?

The point was the gospel. It is saying that the gospel is bigger than my church and your church. The gospel is bigger than my problems and your problems. The reason we do what we do is the gospel.

Making the point to get the gospel right with our ministry partners here in Cambridge is more important that holding events together, inviting speakers to come preach on Sundays (especially, I hope, not as a form of Pei Min), or referring counselling cases to one another. It means looking at each other, eyeball-to-eyeball and saying, “Have we got this straight? Are we on message with the gospel? If so, you might be doing this in Hong Kong, we might be here in Cambridge – but we are partners. I’ve got your back. I know you’ve got mine.”

That’s fellowship. The Greek word koinonia means “sharing something we have in common.” More than food, more than our Chinese-ness, more than our love for the same kind of movies – the one thing we have in common as Christians is the grace we have received from Jesus Christ. It’s the gospel. Paul says, “They recognised the grace given to me.” He wasn’t just referring to his salvation. It was the privilege of preaching the message of Jesus Christ.

Is that our partnership here in the Chinese Church? Are we seeing eye-to-eye on the gospel such that whether you turn up in the Mandarin section or the English, whether you turn up for Joshua or Rock, whether you are teaching Sunday School or playing music – you will not only know the gospel, you will actually hear the gospel proclaimed boldly, clearly, unashamedly.

The only solution

I began by asking the question: Have you ever felt second-class? As a Christian in your own church? As a Chinese person living here in the UK? It’s a horrible feeling. At the heart of it, the question is: Have you ever been rejected not simply because of what you did but purely because of who you are?

It’s easy to point the finger at others, but for the moment, I want to look at what we are doing here in the Chinese Church. Even more specifically what we do here in the English Ministry. Are there things that we do here that would make some of us say, “I don’t feel welcome here. These guys think they are better than me.”

How do we deal with that? One way would be to remove the offence. Take out anything that is smacks of pride or boastfulness – whether it’s something in the way that we dress, or the way that we talk, or the songs that we sing – and at least incorporate everyone into our meetings. That’s worth doing. It’s challenging because it means having to change things constantly, picking up on what is helpful, what isn’t, making things clear and accessible. Still, we need to keep doing this – to keep removing obstacles to the gospel.

Another way would be to keep reminding one another of our worth and value. To be able to look at another human being and recognise that this person was made in the image of God. I want to know this person. I want God to show me what part of himself he has put into this brother and sister.

Also we should pay special attention to the newcomer. “You are welcome here. I know you’re only here because your friend dragged you to church. You can’t wait to dash out of the door the moment the service ends. But I need you to know, that you are welcome, even your problems with what we are doing here as Christians are welcome, and please feel free to tell us what you think they are.”

But at the end of the day, you can only do so much to minimise the external influences that threaten undermine our self-worth and identity in Christ. You can kick out the Judaizers. You can meet with the leaders to come up with a plan. You can elect leaders like Barnabas to keep the peace. But what you can’t do through any measure of programmes, personalities and people is deal with the reality of sin and death.

What do you say to someone who is racked with guilt and unworthiness over their sin? What if a person who is suffering from cancer turns to you and asks, “Is God punishing me?” How do you counsel someone who has been repeatedly told all his life that he is good for nothing?

Friends, the only real solution is the gospel. The gospel is good news for bad people. The gospel exposes the real cause for our unworthiness – our sin before God, both personal and collective – and shows us what it means find true freedom from sin, pride and expectation. It means Jesus had to die. You suffering didn’t just vanish into nothingness. It went somewhere. Jesus took it on your behalf when he was nailed to the cross. Jesus took your rejection and unworthiness upon himself when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”

And the gospel says, he gives you his righteousness and loveliness. He gives it to you. You didn’t earn it. He gives it to you.

That’s grace. That’s the gospel. And in Jesus Christ, that’s what we have received through his death on the cross on our behalf – full forgiveness, full restoration, and fullness of joy.

Monday 22 October 2012

The Spirit-filled church (Acts 2)

An unmistakable theme running through the book of Acts has to be the movement of the Holy Spirit.

If you go through the book, Luke the writer gives tremendous emphasis on the Holy Spirit as a key agent in the narrative; as a key character in the storyline. With the exception of a few places throughout the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit features prominently and is mentioned explicitly in each and every chapter - through the display of miracles, the speaking of tongues, in the direct speech of the apostles - but the way the book of Acts begins is with Jesus Christ telling his disciples to wait for the Holy Spirit.

The very beginning of the book reminds us that Acts is part-two in the two-part series, both written by the same author, Luke, who refers back to his previous book - the gospel of Luke - in verse 1 as, “all that Jesus began to do and teach.” That’s a very curious way of summing up the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ: All that Jesus began to do and teach.

As if to say, “Theophilus, what you read in my previous book - That’s just the beginning.” The book of Acts is a continuation of everything Jesus began to do and teach. In fact, you could say that the book of Acts is about what Jesus continues to do today.

And the way that Acts begins in Chapter 1 is with Jesus “giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:2), commanding them with the words of verse 4, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised... For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”

The passage we are going to look at today is the fulfilment of that promise. It is described in several different ways - the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5), the empowering of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8), the filling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4) - but the one question we need to ask ourselves as we go through the book of Acts is: What is descriptive and what is prescriptive in the book of Acts? It is important to differentiate between the descriptive - what Luke is telling us happened then - and the prescriptive - what Luke is telling us ought to happen today as part of our daily Christian experience.

Now you might agree or disagree with what I put into the descriptive and prescriptive categories, but I wanted to begin by saying that there is a difference between the two, and more importantly, that the way we decide which is descriptive and which is prescriptive is by looking at what the bible says. Over and against our own experiences and traditions, what I want us to do is come to the bible and see how Luke describes and prescribes the events the book of Acts.

With that in mind, we will approach Acts Chapter 2 under three headings:

1. The Spirit-filled Witness (verses 1 to 15)
2. The Spirit-filled Message (verses 16 to 36)
3. The Spirit-filled Community (verses 37 to 47)

1. The Spirit-filled Witness

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
Acts 2:1-4

We begin with the when and the where. Verse 1 tells us “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place.”

Pentecost is a harvest celebration in the Jewish Calendar, which is when the grain harvest is brought in. We find it in Old Testament passages like Exodus 34 and Deuteronomy 16 referred to as the Feast of Weeks. The reason why it is called Pentecost (a Greek word meaning “fifty”) is because this festival is held fifty days from Passover. The symbolism of this is all the more pronounced when you consider that verse 1 could just as accurately be translated, “In the fulfilment of the day of Pentecost.”

Meaning, there is fulfilment that comes from Pentecost - from this festival symbolic of the gathering in of the harvest from the fields - that points us back to Passover; back to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Something that happened fifty days earlier at the cross now bears spiritual fruit and brings in a spiritual harvest.

That’s the significance of the when but notice as well the significance of the where. The believers “were all together in one place,” and that place was Jerusalem where Jesus told them to remain back in Chapter 1, verse 5. As many as one hundred and twenty believers gathered in this one place, unsure about what was going to happen exactly yet obedient to Jesus’ command and promise. Chapter 1, verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem; and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of all the earth.” Something about Jerusalem made it ground zero for Jesus’ mission plan. The gospel was to go out into all the world - that was the plan - but first, something had to happen in Jerusalem. We’ll come back to this point later but for now, just realise that it’s no accident that this is all happening in this particular place at this particular time in history.

From the when and the where, verse 2 tells us what happened next. “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven.” What they heard sounded like a hurricane but wasn’t. Similarly, what they saw seemed like fire but wasn’t fire. Verse 3, “They saw what seemed like tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.” The experience was overwhelming yet at the same time deeply personal. The Spirit of God, symbolised by wind and fire, filled the entire room where they were but also came to rest on each individual believer.

“All of them,” verse 4 reads, “were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” We will get to the tongues phenomenon in a moment, but don’t miss the impact of this statement. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit, not just the apostles. Each and every one of the one hundred and twenty believers who had gathered in that place that day received what Jesus had promised them with no exception.

Having said that, when we get to verse 5, we see that this phenomenon was not for the believers’ benefit alone.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them speaking in his own native language?
Acts 2:5-8

What follows is a pretty lengthy description about where this crowd were from - Parthians, Medes and Elamites (to the east of Jerusalem, modern day Iran); residents of Mesopotamia (the western region, now Iraq), Judea (the region surrounding Jerusalem itself), Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia (to the north-west, where Paul eventually brings the gospel later in Acts) and Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene (to the south).

On the one hand, these were God-fearing Jews (verse 5) living in Jerusalem (verse 14). On the other, the people in these crowd had come from far-flung countries, what verse 5 describes as “every nation under heaven.” These were Diasporic Jews who had been spread across the different regions due to events in history (such as the exile, recorded in Old Testament books of the bible such as Daniel). The Greek word diaspora is where we get the word dispersed, meaning, “spread out”. These Jews whose ancestors had originally lived in the Promised Land had been spread out across the nations, but now had moved back to Jerusalem, perhaps to attend the Festival of Weeks or more likely, had moved back for good and called the city their home.

Similarly, many of us from Singapore and Malaysia are diaspora Chinese: our parents or grandparents migrated from China, from villages like Guangzhou or Fujian and settled in South East Asia, which is why a couple of generations later you end up with “bananas” like me (yellow on the outside, white on the inside) who can’t even speak a word of proper Chinese, except for phrases picked up from Chow Sing Chi movies (like Tah Kip and Pek Yau).

These diaspora Jews hear the believers speaking in tongues, they gather around the 120 believers, but notice what they ask in verse 7, “How is it that each of us hears them in his own native language?” Literally, the word is dialect - “How is it that each of us hears them in his own dialect where we were born?” They are amazed that these Galileans are able to communicate so fluently in the language they grew up with - their mother tongues. Furthermore, what they hear is described for us in verse 11, “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues (or dialects)!”

Now we need to understand their amazement at two levels. Firstly, remember that the crowd did not witness the wind and the fire in the giving of the Spirit, rather they are drawn by what they heard. Tongues, in this instance, simply means languages - real understandable languages and dialects spoken by these Jews who had come from all over the Roman Empire. They were amazed because these fifteen or so different languages were now being spoken by these “Galileans” (which was a polite way of calling them “Ah-bengs”).

On another level, what these tongue-speaking Galileans were declaring was the wonders of God. This is a side point but a notable one: There is something amazingly attractive about God’s word being communicated in a way that is understandable and familiar to us that it simply draws us into that word. These diaspora Jews did not grow up in Jerusalem and therefore did not speak Hebrew or Aramaic (much like British-born Chinese who struggle to order bubble tea in Cantonese at HK Fusion, “One pau pau cha please, extra pau pau!”). There must have been something pretty amazing and refreshing about hearing God’s word in such a way that you understood every word, that you didn’t need someone else to explain to you. To hear something as wonderful and as important as the greatness of God and to just get it - That is an awesome experience.

The fact that Luke describes the crowd as “God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven,” ought to cast our minds back to Genesis 11 to the account of Babel. There, God strikes the people of Babel with a judgement that confuses their language and scatters them “over the face of the whole world” (Genesis 11:9). What is happening here in Acts 2 is a reversal of that judgement - God’s people were being gathered and God’s word was being fully understood. Here, it is important to see that the way in which God reversed the effects of Babel was not so much by taking away the languages but by using the languages. Notice how the phrase, “each one,” is repeatedly used to describe the reaction of the crowd - verse 6: “each one heard,” verse 8, “each of us hears.” The result was a personal encounter with the word of God - “the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

When we get to verse 12, it is no longer each one, but every single one. “And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” (ESV) Some were skeptical. “Some, however, made fun of them and said, ‘They have had too much wine.’” (Acts 2:13) All of them were affected by the event, and by “all,” it’s actually talking about the crowd. That is, the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was not simply for the benefit of the apostles and Christians gathering in Jerusalem that day. God was using them as his witnesses to the crowd. The Spirit was empowering them to carry out his mission to the nations.

Otherwise, there would have been no need for the tongues. And otherwise, there would have been no need for Peter to explain the tongues.

Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These men are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning!”
Acts 2:14-15

Peter understands that it isn’t enough to do apologetics. Some in the crowd are going, “These guys are out of their minds. It’s just the alcohol talking.” And immediately, Peter says, “Come on, get serious! The pubs aren’t even open yet.” Essentially, what he is saying is, “That’s a silly idea, and you know it.”

Now if Peter’s motivation was solely to protect his friends, he would have stopped right there. Apologetics is a defence of Christianity. It’s answering questions - often times, objections - to Christianity using reason, logic and factual data. Peter does apologetics by appealing to the crowd’s common sense, “Look at your watches, the pubs aren’t even open yet.” And if his motivation was purely to give an answer that would silence his critics and protect his friends, the story would have ended at verse 15.

But you see, Peter’s motivation for getting up and speaking to the crowd is not apologetics but evangelism. Apologetics is useful - it is even essential in an age of skepticism - but the agenda in apologetics is always set by the few. “Some... made fun of them.” Peter wanted to address the real question that was on every single one of their minds, “What does this mean?” and the way he did that was through evangelism. It was with the gospel.

Evangelism presents God’s agenda and not ours. The Spirit-filled Witness always accompanies the Spirit-filled message: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

2. The Spirit-filled Message

Peter begins by explaining the tongues-speaking as an indication of the end times. The pouring out the Spirit of God is an indication that the final day of God’s judgement has arrived.

No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
“In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Acts 2:16-21

It’s not the most attractive way to begin a sermon. Peter didn’t tell a joke or open with an illustration from last night’s episode of Downton Abbey. He said to the crowd, “You want to know what this means? It’s judgement. It means that we are now living in the end times.”

Quoting the prophet Joel, he describes how God promises to pour out his Spirit on all people, enabling them to prophesy, see visions and dream dreams. In a word, the Spirit reveals God’s will to his people. The prophets in the Old Testament were a select few to receive this gift of the Spirit. Their job was to speak on behalf of God, revealing his will to the kings and leaders.

In contrast to that, Joel says in the last days, the Spirit would no longer be limited to a select few but poured out on all: men and women, young and old. And the purpose of this pouring out of the Spirit is direct revelation. That’s prophecy. Prophecy means knowing and speaking God’s word without the need for a middleman. God reveals it directly to you. God speaks it directly through you.

Here we see it in speaking of various tongues by the believers at Pentecost. They were declaring the wonders of God directly to nations, without the need for interpreters.

Yet notice as well, that we see the fulfilment this in Peter himself. He stands up and says quite confidently, “This is what God’s word has to say to you.” What is he doing? Peter is prophesying. By that, it doesn’t mean that unintelligible gibberish start coming out of his mouth. Quite the opposite. He reveals God’s will by clearly explaining God’s word. “This is what it means. This is what God says.” That’s prophetic speech.

So the first half of Joel’s prophecy has to do with the Spirit, but the second half talks about judgement. Verse 19: “Blood and fire and billows of smoke,” and verse 20, “The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood.” As scary as these descriptions may be, what was shocking was not the reality of judgement but its immediacy. These were God-fearing Jews. They knew that God was holy. They knew the bible spoke of a day of God’s judgement. What they did not know was that God’s judgement was not far off; it had already begun.

And Peter’s point is this: Judgement began with the cross. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is God’s way of putting the world on notice, “This is the last call.”

Friends, are you the kind of person who puts things off? Judgement, God, Jesus, Salvation - it’s just another thing you’ll deal with... tomorrow. Peter is saying to us: Judgement has come, Salvation is now, because Jesus Christ is Lord.

Look at verse 22:

Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.

Keeping in mind that Peter is speaking to residents of Jerusalem and his fellow Jews, he describes Jesus to them as someone, “you know.” In the last chapter of Luke, Cleopas says to Jesus, “Are you the only one in Jerusalem who doesn’t know these things?” Jesus asks him, “What things?” And Cleopas goes on to describe how Jesus was well-known as a prophet, he did miracles, he spoke from God with an authority that no one ever did, he was someone everyone knew as sent from God. But the tragic thing, according to Cleopas, was that Jesus got killed. He was treated like a criminal, hung on a cross and left to die. The point is: such news was so sensational, no one in Jerusalem could not have known about it.

Peter says to the crowd, “You guys know this.” But more than that, “You guys are responsible for this,” verse 23, “You with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” He doesn’t say, “Those guys - the Romans, the chief priests, the guys at the top... No, you... You did this.”

Yet at the same time, verse 23 begins with God handing Jesus over to them, according to his “set purpose and foreknowledge”. Now what’s going on? Peter is explaining what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. The cross was not God’s plan gone wrong. The cross was God’s plan all along.

Especially for these Jews who were God-fearing, who knew God’s promises to Abraham and to David about a kingdom that would one day be established in God’s name and ruled under God’s king, they would have been thinking: How on earth can Jesus be this king? The Messiah is supposed to defeat his enemies, not be killed by them. The Messiah is supposed to be empowered by God, protected by God - not humiliated and stripped naked like he was and killed on the cross, suffering a death so horrible it probably meant that he was cursed by God.

And one thing that Peter had to get straight with his fellow Jews was that Jesus had to die. The way in which we know that Jesus truly was the Christ was precisely through his death and humiliation on the cross.

Notice that what Peter does here in explaining who Jesus is and what he did on the cross - is not to absolve them of their guilt, “You, with the help of wicked men put him to death,” - but to show from scripture how God used even their sin to bring about his salvation.

Look at verse 24:

But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:
“I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will live in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the grave,
nor will you let your Holy One see decay.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.”
Acts 2:24-28

A moment ago, we were considering Jesus’ death, and here Peter tries to explain God raising Jesus from death as significant of much more than just having a second chance at life. No, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is actually a kind of vindication. It’s a kind of proof.

When God raised Jesus from the dead, Peter says in verse 23, he freed him from the agony of death. Death is pictured as a kind of prison. It’s pain - the agony of death. The bible describes death as not simply the end of life - You live, and live, and live, then one day.... finally, you die. No, death in the bible is a separation. And verse 23 tells us it was impossible for death to keep a hold on Jesus. This prison couldn’t contain him.

If you understand death that way - as a separation, a breakdown, a prison - then what the resurrection does is help us understand what life really is. It is a restoration. Here, Peter uses the words of King David from Psalm 16 to talk about the resurrection in terms of joy, hope, gladness. Verse 26, “Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope.” Verse 28, “You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with the joy of your presence.” David defines life as knowing God; being in the presence of God; rejoicing in the promises of God.

What did God do when he raised Jesus from the dead? He restored him to his true status and position as Christ - as God’s King ruling over God’s kingdom.

Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on the throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay.
Acts 2:29-31

From the testimony of Scripture in Psalm 16, Peter moves on their own testimony as witnesses of the cross in verse 32, “God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses to the fact.” I think he is referring to the empty tomb and their personal encounter with Jesus over the last forty days (Acts 1:3).

But then Peter does something very interesting. He turns to the crowds own witness of events. Verse 33, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” He ties it back to Pentecost. Now this is very important. What is Peter doing? He is explaining the tongues and the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, yes. But more importantly, he is preaching the gospel by pointing his hearers back to Jesus.

For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
“The Lord said to my Lord:
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’”

Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.
Acts 2:34-36

Why does Peter keep saying, “This Jesus.” Did you notice that? Verse 23, “This man.” Verse 32, “God has raised this Jesus.” Verse 36, ‘God has made this Jesus...” Why not just say, “Jesus”?

Because Peter is saying, “This is the guy you need to take notice of.” Not me. Not your own guilt. Not even in a sense the Holy Spirit. The focus of the gospel is this Jesus whom God has made both Lord and Christ.

He is saying to the crowd who heard the tongues, who asked the question, “What does this mean?”, and responds to them by saying, “It means that Jesus really is God’s chosen King. It means that he is chosen to judge the world - that’s what Lord means, hence the Day of the Lord. But it also means, he is God’s means for salvation - everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

I put it to you that what we have here in Peter’s sermon is Spirit-filled preaching. It’s prophecy. Preaching that is prophetic, that is anointed by the Holy Spirit of God, is preaching the points us clearly to Jesus Christ as Lord. Isn’t that what Peter is doing? He keeps bringing us back to Jesus.

It’s not the tongues, as miraculous as it was, and as essential as it was in this moment of history. It was the explanation of the gospel, as revealed in scripture, pointing to Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross, proclaiming him as Lord and Christ. Inasmuch as your pastor preaches the gospel on Sunday mornings, inasmuch as your bible study leader preaches Christ in your weekly groups, inasmuch as you yourselves point to Jesus in your evangelism, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, poured out on men and women, enabling them to prophesy - enabling them to reveal Jesus as who he truly is: Christ, Lord, Saviour, Judge, King!

And when men and women respond to such authentic, prophetic, Spirit-filled preaching - when they respond to the good news of Jesus Christ - what happens next is they are gathered in by God into a Spirit-filled community.

3. The Spirit-filled Community

When the crowd heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptised, 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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Acts 2:37-41

So far, what we have seen is the descriptive. Acts has given us a description of what happened, what was said, what was done. When we come to verse 39, we find a statement that is unmistakably prescriptive. “The promise if for you and your children and for all who are far off - for all whom the Lord our God will call.” What is the prescription? To turn and trust in Jesus Christ.

That’s what Peter means by repentance. “Repent and be baptised.” It means turning. Repentance isn’t feeling sorry for your sins, it’s not an emotional response. It means turning away from your sins and trusting in Jesus Christ for your salvation, “for the forgiveness of your sins.” As a sign of that repentance, Christians therefore get baptised - a word that simply means dunked (into water). They go into the water to symbolise their death to sin and rebellion against God, and they are raised out of the water to symbolise their new life in Jesus Christ.

So what we have here is Peter’s prescription - what it means to respond to the gospel, what it means to trust in Jesus, what it means to be saved as a Christian. It means turning to him as Lord.

Yet at the same time, notice that there are several implications to this prescription. The first one that is hard to miss is the fact that Peter says, “You will receive the Holy Spirit.” It’s a given. If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit. He doesn’t say that you will speak in tongues. He doesn’t say that you will relive the events of Pentecost, there is none of that here. All it says is that the three thousand new Christians were baptised as a sign of their repentance. In fact, the only way in which you can respond to the gospel is through the work and witness of the Holy Spirit. You see, this means that the Holy Spirit was not just poured out on the 120 believers, it was poured out on all the 3000 new converts as well. If you are a Christian, it’s because God has given you of his Spirit, enabling you to respond to him in repentance and faith.

However, this then raises the question: Why then was there a need for Pentecost? Why just the 120 believers in the upper room (or wherever it was) who received the gift of tongues?

As you go through the book of Acts, what we find is a trajectory - a movement - of the Holy Spirit, in each case, evidenced and punctuated by the speaking of tongues. There are four in total. The first occurrence is here in Acts 2 in Jerusalem. The second is Acts 8 where the Samaritans receive the Holy Spirit at the laying on of hands. The third is Acts 10, where Peter is preaching to a group of God-fearing Gentiles. And the last is Acts 19, in Ephesus when Paul lays hands on a group of believers who had only known of John’s baptism. These four instances of the Holy Spirit enabling the believers to speak in tongues are significant because they are the fulfilment of Jesus’ own words at the beginning of the book of Acts, when he tells his disciples in Acts 1:8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

In each case, the giving of the Holy Spirit evidenced by the supernatural ability to speak in tongues is a confirmation of God’s plan in bringing in outsiders into the kingdom of God. And significantly, it begins here in Acts 2 with Jerusalem. Jesus tells his friends to remain in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4). They are to be his witnesses beginning with Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). In other words, Jerusalem is ground zero. Why? Because of the cross. The way in which the outsiders are brought into the kingdom of God is through the message of the cross. It’s not by becoming Jewish - if anything, the gospel goes out to the surrounding cultures. It’s not by learning Hebrew and memorising the Torah in Hebrew - the phenomenon of the speaking in various tongues and dialects is enough evidence against that. It is only by repentance and faith in the message of the cross: that Jesus Christ is Lord. What we see here is that the Holy Spirit always moves in tandem with the gospel. It is the Holy Spirit which enables the gospel to be truly heard and the Holy Spirit which enables us to respond to the gospel.

That’s the first implication: the Holy Spirit comes as promise to all who respond to the gospel. But the second unmissable implication is the church. Verse 41, “Those who were baptised... were added to their number that day.”

Being a Spirit-filled Christian means being part of a Spirit-filled community. It means being a part of the church.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Acts 2:42-47

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that unless you are in a gospel-proclaiming church, you’re not a real Christian. Neither am I saying that unless you are baptised, you are not a genuine Christian. You become a Christian by turning to and trusting in Jesus Christ alone. Yet here we find both baptism and church membership tightly linked to that act of conversion. The three thousand believers were all baptised, they were all counted amongst the believers.

The Spirit-filled gospel gives birth to a spirit-filled community. The church is a gathering of God’s people around God’s word. Therefore, if you are a Christian but you are not baptised or you are not a regular member in a church, the question to ask is not, “Where can I find this loving, generous, Spirit-filled community to be a part of?” The real question to ask is: Is the gospel being preached? If so, the next question for you is: Are you being obedient to the call of the gospel?

Especially amongst students who come to faith in Jesus Christ here in Cambridge, there is a tendency to put of baptism and to put off committing yourselves to a local church. One common excuse is, “I want to wait till I’m back in Singapore. Then I’ll find the real church I’m going to invest my life in. That’s the church I’m going to be baptised in and invite all my family and non-Christian friends to attend.”

Friends, that is a foolish excuse. (I know, because it was the excuse I used as a student!) The church are you “attending” now on the weekends, inasmuch as it is faithfully proclaiming the gospel, that is your church. The only question is: Are you being faithful to the gospel yourself in being a part of that community and investing your life now in that church?

If Jesus Christ is your Lord, if he died on the cross for your sins, if he has filled you with his Holy Spirit, then listen to his word of instruction and obey his will. Be baptised. Love your church. Commit your life to following him now.

To recap Acts Chapter 2, we have seen three things. Firstly, we see a Spirit-filled Witness - the Holy Spirit enabling the 120 believers to witness to the crowd through the speaking of tongues. Secondly, we see a Spirit-filled Message - the gospel being proclaimed by Peter, prophesying through the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, we see a Spirit-filled Community: One that is devoted to the teaching of the apostles and to one another in love and fellowship.

But really, what I hope we see in these pages is Jesus. The 120 believers were waiting for the Holy Spirit, yes, but they were waiting in obedience to Jesus’ words. You might even say, they were waiting for Jesus himself to give them his Spirit. Secondly, Peter preaches powerfully through the empowering and emboldenment of the Spirit, but though he begins with the explanation of the tongues, he ends with the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Finally, we see the church, a community that has responded to Jesus in repentance and faith, and live out their lives in obedience to Jesus as members of his body and witnesses of his gospel.

Obedience to Jesus. Boldness for Jesus. Love for one another in Jesus. That’s how you see the evidence of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Sunday 14 October 2012

Losing my religion (Galatians 1:11-24)

1. The centre of Christianity

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.
Galatians 1:11

I got back from a trip to Rome last night. And yes, I did see the sights; I had the pizza and the gelato. Yes, I visited the Colosseum and the Vatican and had a fantastic time walking about the city.

A few friends have assumed that the reason why I visited Rome is because it is the centre of Christianity. Vatican City is residence to the Pope, who is head of the Roman Catholic Church with one billion members worldwide. About four million people visit the Vatican every year. Some make it a sort of pilgrimage; to gaze upon the relics and perhaps even to catch a glimpse of the Pope. Many go as tourists to snap photos of the artwork and architecture (and get neckaches in the process), such as Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Today I want us to look at the real centre of Christianity. It’s not a place but it’s here in the pages of your bibles. The centre of Christianity is something called the gospel.

Everything else flows out of this centre - worship, ministry, even the church. Now stop and think about that for a while. The gospel is the centre which defines our worship - the songs we just sung; our ministry - what it means to serve God; and especially the church - what it means to come together on a Sunday like this.

The reason why Paul wrote this letter was not because the Christians in Galatia hadn’t heard the gospel before (notice verse 11, “the gospel I preached,” meaning Paul had already preached the gospel to them) but because these Christians no longer saw the gospel as the centre.

Meaning, the question for us here today is, “What is our centre here as the Chinese Church?” If someone were to visit us for the first time - that might be some of you here today - looking around us today, hearing the songs we’ve just sung, noticing the way in which we talk to one another, what would an outsider say is the centre of the Chinese Church?

Is it the building? Is it the fact that we’re Chinese; that we always have Chinese food at our gatherings? Is it prayer and worship? None of these are bad things, of course, they are all good things (even the food). But we are asking: What is the most important thing?

The answer Paul gives us is: the gospel.

Look at what he says in verse 11. “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.” That verse is going to frustrate some of you today, because here is Paul saying to us, “What I want you know,” “What I really need to you to understand - about this gospel, about this centre of our Christian faith is....” and he tells us, “What it is not.” Not what it is, but what it’s not.

Paul, why don’t you just tell us the gospel! Well, he does. Quite simply, he says at the end of verse 12, it’s all about Jesus. But before he gets there, Paul clarifies a very important point. Verse 12, “I did not receive it from any man nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

In order to clarify what the gospel is we always have to clarify what the gospel isn’t. In our passage today, Paul gives us two things we often mistake for the gospel but two things which actually have nothing to do with the gospel.

The first is religion and the second is affirmation. Religion is about what we do; affirmation is about who we know. Or in Cantonese, religion is Pai San; affirmation is Pei Min.

As we go through these two points, I wonder if it is worth asking ourselves, “Is this what we think is and what we have mistaken for the gospel?”

2. The gospel is not religion

The first thing to look at is religion. Look with me to verse 13.

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
Galatians 1:13-14

Often times at baptisms, Christians stand up and give their testimonies. Some of you have done that here at the Chinese Church. Usually what you give as part of your testimony is a before and after story. Before: I used to live life my own way. Before: I attended church but I didn’t know Jesus. Before: I was this naughty kid in Sunday School who made life difficult for Miss Iris and Mrs Yvonne.

Then, After: I heard about Jesus, his death on the cross. After: I turned to Jesus and trust in him for forgiveness and new life. After: Now I teach Sunday School and know what it feels like to be despised and bullied by the kids!

I want you to look at Paul’s before and after story. Paul begins by confessing how bad he was - by persecuting the church, by trying to destroy the church (verse 13). But then he tells us how good he was. Verse 14, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age... I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
The thing to notice is, Paul is still talking about the before. Both his badness and his goodness are part of who he was before he became a Christian. In fact, the reason why he was so bad was because he was trying to be so good.

You see, if you met Paul before he was a Christian, you might have been tempted to ask him to help teach Sunday School. Why? Paul was the top student in Theology, “advancing beyond many Jews my own age,” meaning he had a PhD in Old Testament. Meaning: You could ask him to preach on any book of the bible, on any topic in scripture and he could give you the Greek and Hebrew meaning behind every text.

More than that, it says in verse 14 that Paul was “extremely zealous for the traditions of his fathers,” meaning this guy was consistent: What he said he put into practice. Paul was the kind of guy you could trust with a big project like Mid-Autumn Festival because he would make sure that everything ran on time; he would make sure there was enough food for every guest. Why? Tradition was important for Paul. Anything he did, he did it the right way; he did it the traditional way. (“We must have Mid-Autumn Celebrations because... we’ve always had Mid-Autumn Celebrations!” he would say.)

And we sometimes forget that this was Paul before he became a Christian. The Paul who tried to destroy the church was the same Paul who tried to honour God by going to the temple, reading his bible and living a holy life (That’s what it meant for Paul to be a Pharisee, which literally meant “separate” or “set apart”). What’s going on? Paul is showing us why some of us don’t take sin seriously. Because we look at our goodness and think it cancels out the bad.

“Oh, I know I shouldn’t go on holiday alone with my girlfriend, but we’ll make sure we do bible study.” “Oh, I know I shouldn’t have skipped church but I’m preparing for Rock this week.” We cancel out our badness with our goodness.

It’s like the Mafia hitman who says, “Oh I know I shouldn’t kill people, but I’m nice to my mother.” We do something we know is bad, then we justify it by doing something else that is good.

What’s that? Friends, that’s the bible’s definition for religion. You see, some of us thought religion is about going to the temple and offering joss-sticks. In part, it is. What is it that you’re doing when you offer up the joss-sticks? You are doing something for God. Similarly, when you fast, pray, give money, obey your parents - Religion teaches that you are earning God’s blessing by doing something that is good, by doing something that will earn his favour.

The common thread running through all religions is what we need to do in order to get to God but the gospel tell us what God has done for us. That’s why Paul began in verse 11 by saying, “I want you to know brothers, that the gospel is not from man or about man.” What’s he saying? The gospel is not what you have to do but what God has done for you.

For Paul, what God did for him was reveal Jesus Christ. Look at verse 15.

But when God who set me apart from birth and called my by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man.
Galatians 1:15-16

What did Paul do to become a Christian? Answer: Nothing! God had already “set him apart” to be a Christian before he was born. God called Paul by his grace - and grace means not in view of all the goodness that was in Paul, but inspite of all the badness that was in Paul - God graciously called him to be a Christian.

Most importantly, what God did for Paul was reveal Jesus to him and here is where the gospel comes in, because Paul says in verse 16, “so that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”

In Acts 26, Paul tells the story of how this happened. Reading from verse 12 (page 790):

On one of my journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. About noon, O King, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”

Then I asked, “Who are you Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the Lord replied. “Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you.”
Acts 26:12-16

The word that Paul uses to describe this encounter is “revelation.” God “was pleased to reveal his Son in me” (verse 16). The thing that many of us want to know is: Should I expect this experience for myself? Later on today, while I’m driving home, will there be a sudden bright light forcing me off the road, with a voice from heaven saying, “John, John, why haven’t you come for Rock Fellowship for so long?”

Look again at verse 16. God revealed Jesus to Paul for a reason: so that he might preach him - or literally, gospel him - among the Gentiles. The revelation wasn’t just the encounter with Jesus (I’m not saying that can’t happen), but more so through the gospel that was given to Paul to preach. In the gospel, God reveals his Son.

That’s what God is doing even now. That’s a pretty bold thing for me to say - you might even think, that’s a pretty boastful thing for me to say! And if this were my words, and my thoughts alone, it would be!

But Paul says right from the beginning, “the gospel I preached is not something that man made up.” Inasmuch as I am faithful to God’s word and stand under its authority - not over it - God promises to reveal Jesus to us in the preaching of the gospel, even through my words right now. This is why it is so important to make the gospel the centre of everything we do (practically speaking it means keeping our bibles open) because we want Jesus to be at the centre, don’t we?

But Paul also warns us, what often gets in the way of revelation is religion. When we are just going through the motions of standing up and sitting down during the songs; just organising one church event after another. Some of us can’t tell the difference between and revelation and religion.

In fact, I wonder if it is because some of us prefer it that way. You see, revelation means direct access. No cover-up. Revelation means when you come to church, what you’ll hear about is Jesus. Our prayer meetings, it’s all about Jesus. Our fellowship time, it’s always about Jesus.

The reason why we might prefer religion is because then we get to make church all about ourselves - whether it’s our problems, our achievements, our ministry, our church. Paul is saying to us: That’s not the gospel. The gospel tells us what God has done not what we have to do. The gospel gives all glory to God, not to man.

That’s our first point. The gospel is not religion, but the revelation of Jesus Christ.

3. The gospel is not affirmation

The second thing we see is that the gospel is not affirmation - meaning, it’s not about approval. It’s not about being in the right club.

Look with me to verse 18:

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles - only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing to you is no lie.
Galatians 1:18-20

The background to Galatians (in case you weren’t here last week) is that Paul is being attacked for being a second-class pastor, that he wasn’t an apostle is the genuine sense. After all, Paul was not one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, he used to hunt down and kill Christians.

But most of all, Paul’s apostleship was being criticised as being second-class and second-rate, because his gospel was seen as being too simplified.

False teachers had come into the church saying it wasn’t enough trusting in Jesus alone. You needed to follow the whole bible: meaning, you had to be Jewish, you had to be circumcised, you had to do this and that and obey a whole list of regulations and rules.

Paul’s answer is that the whole bible points to Jesus. Every part of the bible points to what he has done for us, not what we need to do for him. That’s the gospel.

But another charge that the false teachers made against Paul was that he was simply trying to act big by copying the real apostles. This is where this last bit in today’s passage comes in. They were, in effect, saying, “Hmm, Paul’s last sermon sounds a bit like an MP3 I downloaded last week from Peter’s website (You know, I think Paul didn’t actually receive the gospel from Jesus, rather, he just copied it from one of the other ‘real’ apostles. Apostles like Peter, John and James.”

Which is why you get this strange account from verse 18 onwards, where Paul says, “Hey, I only met the guy three years after I started preaching.” In fact, what happened was, he spent two weeks with Peter, he saw none of the other Twelve apostles except for James. And then Paul adds in verse 20, “I swear before God, I’m not bluffing you.” After that, Paul disappeared for an eleven-year mission trip before ever stepping foot back into Jerusalem.

Now why does he say this? Because Paul wants us to be 100% sure that the gospel is self-authenticating. It does not depend on how fancy your church is or how famous your pastor is. The gospel that he preached was 100% the true gospel of Jesus Christ, even without the stamp of approval from the official Jerusalem church. Why? Because it had God’s approval. Verse 11 again, “the gospel is not something man made up... it was received by revelation from Jesus Christ.”

A side-point to note is that Paul’s preaching probably sounded remarkably similar to Peter’s even though the two had never met until much later. When you preach the gospel, you are preaching Jesus. You are calling people to repent from sin. You are calling people to trust in Jesus alone. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s in English, Cantonese or Mandarin, or whether it’s in England or Hong Kong, if you are preaching the gospel, you will hear about sin, repentance, faith, trust, salvation all pointing to Jesus Christ crucified on the cross.

Conversely, what Paul is warning us against is confusing the gospel of God with the approval of man. Assuming that just because the guy standing up front is a big-named pastor, or because he graduated from Cambridge or is dressed in black robes like Batman that what comes out of his mouth is necessarily the gospel.

Look at verse 18, where Paul says he went to Jerusalem in order to get “acquainted” with Peter; the word there means “to interview.” Paul was checking Peter out, not the other way around. You see, Paul was confident that the gospel he had was the real gospel simply because it was about Jesus, simply because he had received it from Jesus. But he didn’t assume that just because Peter was Jesus’ disciple, he too, was preaching the gospel. Paul went to Jerusalem, not to Pei Min, not to get Peter’s autograph, but actually to investigate the content of his gospel.

If anything, Acts 9 tells us that Paul spent most of his time in Jerusalem doing the same thing he did everywhere else: preaching the gospel. What happened was he ended up debating with some Grecian Jews who then tried to kill him which was why he had to head back to Tarsus. (Acts 9:28-30)

Look with me to verse 22:

I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report, “the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.
Galatians 1:22-24

Paul was a nobody in Jerusalem. No one knew him. Everyone was afraid of him. And yet despite all of this, the gospel was preached and God was praised.

Some of us think that we need to be a somebody before God can use us for his kingdom. It has even come to the point that some Christians will only go into ministry if it means they will be get to preach to big crowds, write books, pastor megachurches - all to the glory of Jesus, of course.

Paul was a nobody telling everybody about the real somebody: Jesus Christ. And because of that God was praised. Is that enough for you? That no one hears about you, no one praises you for the work that you did, but just refers to you as “that weird guy or girl whom God is using”... if at all?

Paul had the gospel and that was reason enough to open his mouth and tell people about Jesus. He didn’t need accolades or affirmations. He had Jesus and that was enough.

4. Is Jesus enough?

And it really just comes down to that: Is Jesus enough for us?

The Chinese Church has always been a small church, and especially so, here in the English Ministry. Might God grow our church this year? Maybe. Will we suddenly purchase a new building and start new ministries around the city? Maybe.

But do you remember what the master says to the servant in Jesus’ parable of the talents? “You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” (Matthew 25:21) The question for us as a small church is: Are we faithful with the few things?

More importantly, are with faithful with the one thing God has given us: the gospel. Despite our small size, I think God has been gracious with us bringing us back to the gospel again and again, and in this sense, we lack no good thing. He has given us Jesus, the one thing we need, the one thing we most certainly have.

True, some other churches have more vibrant music, better preaching, more staff, more ministry opportunities, bigger buildings. And I praise God for these churches and I pray for the leaders in these churches by name.

And yet, just because you are in a smaller church like the Chinese Church, it doesn’t mean you lack any good thing. By that, I’m not even talking about the advantages of having smaller groups and better accountability (actually, I really admire how some of the big churches do a great job at keeping their members connected to one another).

No, I want you to stay and invest your lives here in the Chinese Church because of the gospel. That should be the question you’re asking of any church - big or small - Is that church proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ? I say this for your consideration as members but also for our commitment here as leaders in the Chinese Church. Will we commit to preaching Jesus Christ in anything and everything we do? To ensure that our number one priority in every event, bible study, gathering is that people hear about Jesus?

Will we place our confidence in the revelation of God and not in the religion of man, fearing God above our tendencies to fear our fellow man?

The gospel is the centre of who we are and everything we do as followers of Jesus Christ. It declares that he alone is Lord and he alone deserves all glory, honour and praise.

And what we need to do with his gospel is to proclaim it boldly and clearly; to give our lives to it in faith and repentance. And to keep the gospel central in our focus as God’s people gathering around God’s word.

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the man who takes refuge in him.
Fear the Lord, you his saints,
for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.
Psalm 34:8-10