Monday 29 April 2013

Skeptics of heaven (Revelation 22)

Christ is coming

Two hundred years ago, the people of Leeds thought the world was coming to an end thanks to prophetic messages delivered to them by a chicken.

This chicken, owned by a lady named Mary Bateman in 1806, started laying eggs with the words, “Christ is coming” written on them. Those who read these words saw them as an apocalyptic sign from God.

The event recorded by Scottish author Charles Mackay in a book entitled, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” described how the eggs caused “a panicked terror“ as “a great number of visitors” descended upon Leeds to witness this strange phenomenon of a chicken delivering messages from God.

As it turned out, the eggs were a hoax. Mary had written the messages on the eggs herself using some sort of acid, then reinserting the eggs into the hen to be re-laid.


A deeper skepticism

Today we are looking at the last chapter of the bible to discover what God says will happen at the end of time. I fully expect that as we approach this chapter, many will come to it with a certain degree of skepticism. “What if it’s another hoax designed to scare us? How can I know it’s real?”

But what I really want to deal with today is a deeper form of skepticism - one that is not unbelief but actually stems from a position of faith and belief in Jesus Christ. One that doesn’t say, “How can I know it is true?” but rather says, “So what if it is true?”

I think it is this deeper form of skepticism that keeps genuine Christians from reading the book of Revelation. We think Revelation is for crackpots - people who have nothing better to do than to calculate the number of the beast or postulate the symbols of the seven seals and then posting them all over the Internet.

It’s not that we don’t believe the book of Revelation but that we don’t believe Revelation is for us today. It’s about heaven. It’s about the future. It’s just not that relevant today. So when we hear a sermon about Revelation, we think it’s going to be another lecture about the end of the world, in which case, Hollywood does a better job of portraying that reality. At least movies like Armageddon aren’t boring. But a talk about heaven? We expect it to go whoosh over our heads.

Why? It’s not that we don’t believe it’s true. We do, but there’s a voice in us that goes, “So what if it’s true?”

Revelation expects that response. It deals with that form of skepticism because Revelation - especially right here at the end in Chapter 22 - speaks directly to the skeptical believer, it speaks to the weary believer, and says, “Heaven is real and it affects you today.” What we are going to see is a preview of heaven, yes, but what Revelation does is address the impact that heaven has on our lives today.

And it does that at three levels - our heads, our hands and our hearts. Revelation speaks to our heads, “How do I know it’s true?” It addresses our hands, “How is my life and how are my actions affected by this truth?” Finally, it deals with our hearts, “Why do I have a hard time desiring this truth?”

There are three levels of skepticism. Our heads - what I know about heaven. Our hands - how I live in the light of heaven. And our hearts - why is it that I’m not excited by the prospect of heaven.

1. Our heads: The assurance of heaven

Look with me to verse 6.

The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirit of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

“Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”
Revelation 22:6-7

Why does the angel say to John, “These words are trustworthy and true.” Well, because in one sense, they are. It is reinforcing that fact that this is God’s word.

But in another sense, it’s because of the fantastic nature of the visions John has seen throughout the book - the visions of the throne room of God, the judgement of the seals, the return of Jesus Christ. These are amazing and overwhelming pictures of what God will do at the end of time.

And the angel is saying to John, “All of this which you have seen is real.”

In particular, the angel is referring to the vision John has just seen of heaven. Look with me to the beginning of the chapter.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:1-2

Notice the emphasis on life - the water of life and the tree of life - and how it is pointing to the source of life: God himself. From God’s throne flows the river of the water of life. Growing on each side of the river is the tree of life.

This is picture language taken directly from Genesis Chapter 2. God plants a garden in Genesis 2 and right in the centre of that garden of Eden is the tree of life.

Fast forward to the end of the bible. Here in heaven we see another garden. We see the tree of life here in this garden, only it has now become a garden city. The tree produces twelve crops of fruit, symbolising how eternal life is now available to the people of God (Remember how Israel was made up of twelve tribes of the sons of Israel).

The angel says to John, referring directly to this vision of heaven, “These words are trustworthy and true.” Why does he say that?

Not simply because these visions are hard to understand, though they are. The throne, the river, the tree of life (How can there only be one tree growing on both sides of the river?) I mean, these are pictures that ought to make us pause: What do they mean?

But there is a deeper struggle here, especially for Christian believers, in understanding what these symbols mean. Because Christian believers don’t simply ask, “Is this true?” but, some of us who do believe in the truth of these words might respond by saying, “Is this too good to be true.”

And the reason we say that; the reason these vision of abundant life sound almost too good to be true is because of the curse in verse 3.

No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of a sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Revelation 22:3-5

Here, right in the middle of the angel’s description of heaven, we find two big negatives: No curse and no more night.

This promise was first introduced back in Chapter 21, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) Heaven is described in terms of the negative. No more death. No more pain. No more curse.

You see, the real struggle for Christian believers is understanding the bible’s promise of life today in the light of their experience of death today. That’s our perspective and our experience today. We know what the curse means. We know what the darkness represents. Because we live in a world under this curse of death.

Don’t you see? Revelation speaks directly to our heads when we say, “I know this. I know God will fix this broken world. I know he will judge all evil through Jesus Christ. But sometimes that reality seems so far away.”

Revelation speaks to believer. “I know the bible promises eternal life. I know I’m forgiven of my sins through the death of Jesus on the cross. But I’m in pain right now.” Or, “My friend’s dying in the hospital right now.”

Revelation doesn’t deny death. It doesn’t deny pain or depression. It addresses it head on. Which is why, if you look back to the tree of life in verse 2, you see that this tree isn’t just there as a source of new life, of joy and triumphalism. No, the tree of life is also there for our healing.

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:2

It’s an odd thing to have in heaven, don’t you think? Leaves that are meant to heal.

You heal a wound. You heal someone who is sick; someone who is in pain. Yet again and again, woven through the bible’s description of heaven we find God healing his people and giving them comfort. It’s there in Chapter 7: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst... he will lead them to springs of living water.” (Revelation 7:16-17).

But I think the most powerful picture of God’s comfort we see in Revelation is there in Chapter 21: “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:3-4) We will weep before our God and he will come to us with comfort and in tenderness. He will wipe away every tear.

It means that heaven isn’t a country club where businessmen turn up in their polo-shirts for a round of gold and a spot of tea. Heaven is a hospital. After all, the Greek word for “healing” in verse 2 (therapeian) is where we get the word “therapy”.

Think about this for a moment. We’re talking about eternal life, everlasting life that is in heaven with God but here, Revelation talks about healing. Why? It is because of the curse of death. It is speaking to us today who live under this curse, and it is saying to us, “One day, this curse will be lifted.” Verse 3: “No longer will there be any curse.”

There is therefore a sense in which heaven makes the most sense to those who know this curse of death, first-hand. Revelation was written for the suffering church. It was written for their comfort and assurance. If you are a Christian and you are in pain or in depression or in doubt, this book is specifically for you, to remind you that God is sovereign over your pain. He promises that a day will come when there will be no more pain and no more death.

More than that, verse 5 tells us a day will come when there will be no more night.

There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.
Revelation 22:5

The night that is described here is talking about the darkness of doubt, the darkness of fear, the darkness of our ignorance about God. We know this because it goes on to say that the true source of light in heaven is God himself. “The Lord God will give them light.”

What is it saying? Don’t you sometimes feel tired in the faith? Don’t you sometimes wish the things you are trusting in you could see with your own eyes? Revelation is saying to us that day will come.

Verse 4: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” Friends, one day, you and I will see God. We will see Jesus. As clear as we see one another’s face here today, we will see the face of our Creator. And Revelation is assuring us: That day will come.

Until then, what do we do today? We hold on. We hold on to the testimony of Jesus Christ.

The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
Revelation 22:6

These things that John says must soon take place encompass all the events of the whole book of Revelation - all of God’s judgement as well as his salvation.

Revelation speaks to heads, assuring us that God’s word is true. That God’s word can be trusted even when that truth seems too good to be true. Especially when that truth seems too good to be true.

“These words are faithful and true,” says the angel.

2. Our hands: Our worship in heaven

The second point is our hands and this has application for our worship. How does heaven shape our worship of God? What will worship look like in heaven?

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things.
Revelation 22:8

Pause and think about this for a moment. Imagine you could see heaven with your own eyes. How would you react? Would it make you bold? Or would it scare you? Look at how John responds.

And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow-servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!”
Revelation 22:8-9

I really admire John for his honesty for writing this. He bows down and worships the angel and he tells us that the angels rebukes him for doing that. John is honest enough to tell us how foolish he was to do this.

The funny thing is, the same thing happens back in Chapter 19, verse 10. “At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it... Worship God!’” Meaning, this is the second time John has been tempted to worship an angel!

What an idiot! How foolish! How could he make the same mistake twice?

Friends, if it happened to John - twice - do you not think that we might be tempted to do the same? Revelation is there to point us to God, to focus on Jesus. Yet one of the great dangers of reading a book like Revelation is to fall down and worship something less than God.

In part, this applies to those of us who tend who quarrel over the book of Revelation (“This sign means this!” “No, you idiot, it means that!”).

But let me suggest to you a greater danger, one that has to do with heaven itself. In talking about heaven, in speaking about eternal life, in describing a joy that is everlasting, we as Christians will be tempted to worship the things of heaven instead of the God of heaven.

That is, we will tempted to bow down and worship idols: to worship something good we have received from God instead of God himself. This is a real danger for us who have received much from God, whether it is blessing, knowledge, friendship, opportunities, gifts. We we will be tempted to worship the things of heaven instead of the God of heaven.

That’s what John did. He did it, mistakenly, of course. But still he did it twice. Don’t you think we would be tempted to do the same? With the gifts God has given us? With the people he has put in our lives? With the knowledge and insight he has revealed in his word? Don’t you think that we, too, like John, might bow down to these good and heavenly things mistaking them for God himself?

Revelation gives us a picture of heaven, yes, but more than that, it draws our attention to the God of heaven. The throne of God and the lamb who is the source of life. We will see his face. His name will be on our foreheads (verse 4), meaning, we will belong to him and we will know God fully.

It’s not about who has the ticket to gain entry into heaven, like a bus pass. No, it is about who really knows the God of heaven.

If you are reading this and you are not a Christian, might I ask you: Do you know this God? That’s the point of heaven, by the way. It’s not simply a place that God will put you in if you’re really, really good, where he might drop by every now and then. Heaven represents God’s abiding presence in our lives.

Because that is what we ought to see in these pages: God himself. Heaven is not so much a place as it is God’s plan to glorify his Son, Jesus. Heaven is the final reality when Jesus returns to rule as the King.

So much so, that the bible can say to Christians: You are now in heaven. In Ephesians Chapter 2, Paul writes, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 2:6) Christians have been raised with Jesus through his death on the cross so that he now reigns over our lives. Jesus is our King. We live in obedience to his rule.

Do you know this King and do you worship this King? That’s our second point which has to do with our hands. That is, are we living our lives today worshipping Jesus, serving Jesus, in obedience to Jesus? Because that is what we will be doing in heaven. No one and nothing else deserves our worship other than Jesus, not even the angels of heaven.

Like a little kid who is given a brand new toy by his parents, who, instead of saying, “Thank you,” to his mum and dad; who, instead of hugging his mum and dad and acknowledging their love for him, runs in the opposite direction so that he can occupy himself with this new toy. The bible says that’s what we do with the blessings we receive from God. That’s idolatry: the worship of heaven instead of the God of heaven.

Which brings us to our last point, which I think, is the most important: our desire for heaven.

3. Our hearts: The longing for heaven

Look with me to verse 17.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes (or desires), let him take the free gift of the water of life.
Revelation 22:17

This, I think, is the hardest thing to do. Most of us talk about going up to heaven or being in heaven. Yet the picture we have in the bible is Heaven coming down to us. The new Jerusalem comes out of heaven from God and descends to earth. We don’t go up to heaven. It comes down to us.

Verse 17, the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Verse 20 says, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” What is it talking about? Our expectation: what are we looking forward to?

If I’m honest, I read this and my first instinct is not, “I can’t wait for heaven.” My heart is saying, “I can’t wait for lunch,” or, “I’m looking forward to that movie.” My heart does not long for heaven.

If anything, heaven might come in the way of want I really want: to advance my career, to enjoy my life, to make lots of money. I don’t mind heaven in the future when I’m old and sick, but now? Now I want to live my life my way for myself.

And that’s where Revelation addresses us: at the level of our desires and it does this by creating new appetites in us. “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever desires, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” The requirements for entry into this new heavenly reality is thirst! It is desire!

We are not meant to read about the river of life and go, “Hmm, how interesting. Maybe I’ll go fishing in heaven.” We are meant to thirst for its water. And what the bible does so powerfully is that it creates this thirst in us as we hear these words. “Let him who hears, say, ‘Come.’” See that connection between hearing and thirsting? The one who hears is the one who thirsts.

Christian believer, that’s why we need this book. Because we don’t thirst. Because we don’t have such desires. Because, if we’re honest, heaven’s just an idea to us, it is not a longing. But something miraculous happens when we read Revelation, or any book in the bible for the matter. God creates that hunger in us for him. God plants in us a new appetite that turns us away from our sin, from our selfishness, and makes us long for him.

If nothing else, these closing verses in Revelation are saying to us, “If you know that you don’t long for heaven, then listen! Listen to these words. Read these promises. And God will create that desire for himself through these words!”

Revelation speaks to our hearts and enables us to say to Jesus, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20)


Our heads, our hands and our hearts.

The reason why we read the book of Revelation and we need to come back again and again to the book of Revelation is because we need that assurance that comes from knowing God’s promises in his word - that God will do all that he says he will do. In the face of our doubt, God says you can trust in his word. In the face of our suffering, God says he will wipe away every tear.

Secondly, it’s speaks to our hands. Whom are we serving? To whom to we give our worship? Revelation warns us of the real danger of worshipping the things of God instead of God himself.

Lastly, Revelation speaks to our hearts. What are you truly longing for in this life and the next? If we are honest, our hearts long for selfish things. Our hearts long for earthly things. Our desires are for the here and the now. If we are honest, our hearts do not long heaven. Even as Christians, we can be skeptical of the promises of heaven, because if we know our hearts, we know we don’t belong in heaven.

But that’s why we have the book of Revelation! It speaks directly to our hearts creating that longing and desire for God. It reminds us that Jesus has secured our place in heaven through his own sacrifice on the cross. He paid for our sin. He intercedes on our behalf. And one day, he will come to rule as our King!

For the Christian, our deepest longing and our heart’s desire is for Jesus, but it is a longing that has been put there by God, by his Spirit, through his abiding word. He creates that longing in those who hear his voice and obey his will.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

Monday 22 April 2013

Sunday 21 April 2013

Great joy (Acts 5:17-42) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 21 April 2013.

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Great joy (Acts 5:17-42)

What is the most amazing thing that has ever happened in your life? Do you have a story you’ve told strangers on the bus or little kids at family reunions - about that time when an unbelievably awesome event happened in your life?

Maybe it was a life-threatening situation? Or the day you met the love of your life?

All of us have that life-changing, life-altering moment we will never forget. What is yours?

But my next question is: Do you ever think about why it happened? Was there a reason it happened to you and not someone else?

Today’s passage is about about an amazing miracle that took place in the apostles’ lives. They would have told their kids and their grandkids about the time an angel broke them out of prison in the middle of the night. But when they did, they would have been sure to tell them why God did that miracle in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, by reading this account in the bible you might learn something about how God is working in your own life. Because more important than the miracle itself is the God behind the miracle, the God to whom the miracle is pointing to.

We will see this under three headings: A great escape, a great defence and a great joy.

A great escape

The first thing we see is a great escape.

Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy.They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people.
Acts 5:17-21

This is not the first time the apostles have gotten into trouble and this is not the first time they have ticked off the high priest and his friends. Back in Chapter 4, Peter and John were thrown in the lock-up for the night after healing the crippled man in the temple.

This time, though, it wasn’t just Peter and John who got into trouble but all of the apostles. In case we missed it, verse 17 tells us that the reason for this was jealousy. Jealousy. Verse 17: “The high priest and all his associates... were filled with jealousy.”

Why were they jealous? Back in verse 15, we learn that the church was getting a lot of attention all around the country. People were coming and bringing their sick relatives and verse 16 ends with these words, “all of them were healed.”

The high priest saw this growth, this attention and he got jealous. Not just angry, but jealous. Of their popularity. Of their attention. Of their success.

Just to show them who is boss, the high priest had the apostles arrested and put in the public jail. Verse 18, could also be translated, “they put them in jail publicly,” that is, they wanted to make a public show of their arrest. The high priest wanted to remind everyone: He was still in charge. Without just cause or prior notice, he could have the leaders of the church locked up in prison. Let me say that this still happens in some parts of the world today and one reason it still happens today - aside from abuse of power, aside from hatred - one reason this still happens today is jealousy. When a movement becomes too successful, people might take one look at that success and get jealous. They might get vindictive and they take it out on the movement’s leaders.

As I say that, I wonder if we, too, ought to take this warning to heart. That when we see someone else doing very well - another church, another bible study group - that we be careful not to let jealousy get the better of us. The high priest and his friends were religious leaders and sometimes even as leaders, we can look at another leader and say, “Why are so many people going to his church and not mine?”

But during the night an angel of the Lord opens the jail doors and he helps the apostles to escape, which is amazing and miraculous and totally unexpected. And yet the truly amazing thing about this miracle is, the story doesn’t end here!

Notice that: It’s the beginning of the story. God sends an angel to break the apostles out of our prison. He helps them to escape but then, what does he tell them to do? Go back to the scene of the crime! Verse 20: “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.”

Go back to the scene of the crime! Why would God tell them to do that? Because, friends, that’s the reason why God let them out of prison in the first place. It wasn’t so that they would run away and be safe from the religious leaders. In fact, in just a few moments, the apostles are re-arrested and are beaten up.

The reason why God did this miracle to free them from jail was to show that the gospel cannot be locked up. He freed them so that they would continue to talk about Jesus and the resurrection from the dead. That’s why he get them out of trouble.

Some of us pray for miracles to get ourselves out of trouble. We say to God, “If you get me out of this mess, if you heal me, if you give me this blessing, I will praise you and give my life to you.” In effect, we put conditions on God. If you do this, then I’ll do that. Even when God has been faithful to his word, and he blesses us, we often forget that promise. He heals us and we keep silent. He blesses us and we try to claim the credit. Has that ever happened to you, I wonder?

Here in Acts we see a miracle (In fact, we see all kinds of miracles; just last week we saw how Peter’s shadow would fall on someone and that guy would be healed. Now that’s a miracle!) But here in the miracle of the great escape, we see the reason behind the miracle. It’s so that people will know about Jesus.

Jesus called the miracles that he did signs. Signs are things that point somewhere. There’s a big arrow that says, “Look over here!” If we miss that sign, we’ve missed the point of the miracle. God is pointing us to Jesus.

That’s what he does here in the Great Escape. He tells the apostles, “Go to the temple. Point to Jesus.”

Some of you guys have told me amazing things that have happened in your life. And you might have heard me respond with these words, “So what do you think God is saying to you about that incident?” He’s pointing you to Jesus, do you see that? In verse 20, the angel says, “tell the people the full message of this new life.” I like how the ESV has the word Life with a capital, “L”. We’re not talking about an incident in every day life or random chance or luck. Following Jesus is Life with a capital “L” and it’s a life that makes sense. It’s a life that comes from God. It’s a life that comes through Jesus’ death for our sins.

If you are a Christian, you need to understand that when God does something amazing in your Life, it’s not just for your benefit. It’s so that you will tell others about the Author of Life. It’s so that you will go, stand in the temple (or your workplace, or your school) and tell people about Jesus. Meaning, the real question for us today is not: “Will I experience such a miracle?” or “Will God get me out of trouble every time I preach the gospel?“ but rather, “Do I actually know the gospel?” and “Will I keep on preaching the gospel?”

Because that’s what the apostles did after their Great Escape. And that’s what the apostles did in their Great Defence, our second point.

A great defence

Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them.

Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”
Acts 5:25-26

Almost immediately, we find the apostles back under arrest, facing the whole Sanhedrin (which was a courtroom of seventy elders and religious leaders) with a very angry and annoyed high priest charging them with disobedience and misconduct. “We gave you strict orders!” “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching!”

The amazing thing is, in response to this charge, we have not one but two levels of defence. One is from Peter but the other is from Gamaliel, a respected member of the Sanhedrin. We get two Great Defences to gospel - one from a Christian and another from a non-Christian perspective.

First, let’s look at Peter. Notice how Peter brings God into the picture in his Great Defence. What is he doing? Peter is saying that they are setting themselves up to God’s actions, not theirs.

Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead - whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Saviour that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, as so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
Acts 5:29-32

Let me just say that if you ever find yourself in a courtroom scenario, standing up and saying, “God made me do it,” rarely goes down well with the judge. In fact, if you look down to the next verse, we see the result in verse 31, “When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.”

What is Peter doing? You’ve heard me use this expression again and again in Acts: He is preaching to the choir. He is telling the gospel to people who think they know the gospel, to people who think they are experts in the gospel, but who, in reality, have ignored the gospel again and again.

Our temptation is to ignore the choir, to ignore the Sunday School teachers, to ignore the leaders and to focus our evangelism on the non-Christians. The truth is, the bible is saying to us that you can have a room full of religious, pious, influential leaders, who have PhD’s in theology and have memorised the bible in Hebrew and Greek but who don’t know the gospel and have never repented of their sins through message of the gospel.

And the bible is telling us: You can tell who they are because these are the people who get angry when you tell them the gospel. Why? Because the gospel reminds them that they are sinners, that’s why. “You are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood,” the high priest says in verse 28.

If you are here today as a non-Christian, I hope you see that the gospel message is not some kind of marketing tool to draw people in from outside the church. If you’ve been with us for any length of time, I hope you see that we apply the gospel right here in the Chinese Church every time we open up the bible. All of us, whether Christian or not, whether you’re a new believer or you’ve been a Christian for decades, all of us need to be confronted with the reality of our sin and our need for a Saviour. Sometimes, it’s those of us who think we don’t need to hear the gospel anymore, who get tired of hearing the same message about Jesus over and over again, who actually need to hear the gospel much more than others.

If you are not a Christian, you need to see that you don’t become a Christian by being good but firstly by confessing how bad you really are. When Peter says, “You killed him by hanging him on a tree,” (verse 30) he wasn’t simply saying that the religious leaders were directly responsible for Jesus’ death sentence, though they were. He was quoting an Old Testament passage in Deuteronomy which read, “Cursed is every man who is hung on a tree,” (hence, the curious description of the cross as a “tree”) and saying that Jesus’ death was a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy of the curse that God lays on our sin. Jesus didn’t die for his own sins, no, he died for ours. And his death on the cross was God’s means of pouring down his judgement - pouring down his curse - on someone else instead of us.

If we trust in Jesus, we are saying that Jesus has taken our curse of death for our sin on our behalf. His resurrection was a confirmation that our sin really has been dealt with, a result of which is verse 30, “that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.” He gives us our repentance. Even our faith and trust in Jesus is something he gives to us. Our repentance is something the resurrection has enabled us to do by the Holy Spirit.

That is Peter’s Great Defence. It’s the gospel. It’s not a defence of Peter’s actions or the apostle’s actions. It is a defence of God’s actions in raising Jesus from the dead as proof of our sin and proof of the effectiveness of his solution to our sin in Jesus Christ.

But next we see a second defence, this time from Gamaliel.

When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honoured by all the people stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while.

Then he addressed them: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”
Acts 5:33-37

Gamaliel brings in two test cases for the council to consider and what he says sounds perfectly reasonable. “Two guys tried to do the same thing in the past. One was Theudas, the other, Judas the Galilean. Both these guys thought they were somebody. They got the people all stirred up. But in the end, both of them got killed and nobody is talking about them anymore.”

So, what’s Gamaliel trying to say? Verse 38, “Therefore in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go!” Now listen carefully to his reason. “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

And we have see that his defence goes down pretty well. Verse 40, “His speech persuaded them.” Of the two defences - Peter’s defence of the gospel and Gamaliel’s defence through reason - it looks like Gamaliel’s was the greater defence. I mean, the Sanhedrin were about to kill the apostles but thanks to the advice of Uncle Gamaliel, cooler heads prevailed.

I’m not so sure, it did. I appreciate how reasonable Gamaliel’s arguments are, don’t get me wrong. I think we need more Gamaliels in our parliaments and governments as a counter-balance to big personalities and hot-heads like the High Priest.

But we need to be careful of using Gamaliel’s reasoning here in the church when dealing with a dispute, for example, or when making a decision about the church’s mission, because we need to remember that Gamaliel is arguing from a perspective of a non-believer. When he talks about the two rebels, Theudas and Judas, who rise up to cause trouble, I don’t think he is drawing a comparison with the apostles. He’s actually comparing these rebels to Jesus. And what Gamaliel is implying is that, in the same way that these two rebel leaders died and their causes died with them, the same would eventually happen with Jesus and his following. That’s why he says, “Leave these men alone.” He’s saying, “Jesus is already dead. It’s just a matter of time before this new movement fizzles out all on its own.”

Of course, Gamaliel adds that last bit about God in the end, doesn’t he? “But if it from God,” he says. That, too, is a very dangerous statement. What’s he saying? He’s saying, if God is behind this, then God will prove it by making their movement successful. You won’t be able to fight it because God will always help them win. Friends, this is a deceptively dangerous way of measuring God’s will because it is, in effect, a veiled form of the prosperity gospel. It’s saying that the way you know that something is of God is if it always prospers, it always grows, it always wins. If it doesn’t, it’s not from God.

No, the way of determining God’s approval or will on something is always through God’s word. Is this something God has said he will do? That’s what Peter did in his defence. He pointed to Jesus as the fulfilment of God’s promises in the bible. He pointed to the truth as an eyewitness of the truth.

And it’s vitally important that when we argue for God’s approval or will in a matter to be decided here in the church, we be able to tell the difference between a gospel defence and a Gamaliel form of defence. Gamaliel’s reasoning is commendable if you don’t actually believe that Jesus is the Messiah. The gospel’s reasoning is based on God’s revelation in the Scriptures concerning Jesus. And if Act’s is saying anything, it’s saying that the gospel form of reasoning won’t necessarily win you votes. It may cause more disagreement. People may want to kill you for using the gospel as a means for defending your cause.

But the gospel is our greatest defence because it’s God’s defence of his own actions, not ours. He has revealed Jesus as the Christ. He has given us repentance and forgiveness of sin. He calls us to proclaim the full message of this new life.

By putting the gospel at the centre of our witness, what we are saying to the world is, God is the ultimate judge over our lives. At the end of the day, it’s his verdict over our lives that really matters. and it is his judgement that we need to be aware of.

A great joy

Finally, what we see in the last couple of verses is great joy.

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ.
Acts 5:41-42

Why is this great joy? Because it is joy that comes from suffering for Jesus.

Look back to verse 40. It does not say there in verse 40, “They let them go and the apostles left the Sanhedrin rejoicing that God had let them out of prison and out of trouble.” It doesn’t.

It says that they were beaten up. And then they were warned about why they were beaten up: for speaking about Jesus. That’s why they rejoiced, in verse 41. And that’s why they continued speaking about Jesus, verse 42, “in the temple courts and from house to house.”

Philippians 1:29 - “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him.”

Acts 14:22 - “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

James 1:2-3 - “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverence.”

1 Peter 2:19-21 - “For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

Romans 8:17 - “Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may share in his glory.”

Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:12, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”

Suffering is part of the Christian life. Following Jesus means taking up your cross. Following Jesus means suffering for Jesus. Jesus said, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12)

It’s not that Christians have a warped sense of suffering, as if we like to suffer. Suffering is awful. If you like pain, there is something psychologically and profoundly wrong with you. But Jesus was absolutely clear about what it meant to follow him. It meant dying to ourselves. It meant dying to our sin. It means suffering.

So much so, that if you are not suffering for Jesus, you may not actually be a Christian. That’s a pretty strong statement, I know. But Romans 8:17 says, “if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may share in his glory.” I think that’s what’s going on here in Acts.

You see, the apostles had lots of reasons to rejoice. They had planted the first ever megachurch. They had power beyond imagination - the ability to heal sickness and disease and cast out evil spirits. Man, even the high priest and the Sanhedrin didn’t know what to do with these guys. They tried locking them up but God let them out!

But it was only as they left the Sanhedrin, after being beaten up, after being threatened with their lives, it is only here for the first time in Acts that we see these twelve followers of Jesus rejoicing. Why? I think they were relieved. I think they left knowing for sure, they were the real thing.

Have you ever wondered that about yourself? “Am I really a Christian?” Now, let me be clear, we trust in Jesus alone. Our faith rests on what he did, not what we could ever do.

And yet, we need to remember, that Jesus did a whole lot of stuff through these twelve men. The Holy Spirit was poured out on them. Thousands were being saved through their ministry. Everything they did turned to success. My question is: How did it not go to their heads? What kept them from being proud and arrogant?

It was this: Jesus’ words to them that they would suffer for his sake. This scenario of appearing before the Sanhedrin and the council to face false accusations by men was all foretold by Jesus back in Matthew Chapter 10. “They will hand you over to the local councils and flog you in their synagogues.” (Matthew 10:17) Wasn’t that what just happened?

And when it did, I think the apostles left with a sigh of relief. I know it’s strange to think that way, but I suspect the reason they rejoiced was because they finally knew that they were the real thing. God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name. Everything that had happened so far - the growth of their ministry, the courage of their witness, the salvation of men and women in the church - was not their doing. It was God’s.

What does this mean for us? Last week, I mentioned that Chapter 5 of Acts is actually about revival. It’s actually a passage about how God brings life back into the church, turns things around and grows his church in such a way that it’s totally unexpected, totally spectacular and totally supernatural. He does this through the gospel and he does this by his Spirit.

And some of us might find ourselves praying for revival in some form or other here in the Chinese Church. “God, please send us a pastor who will make our church flourish in the city.” “God, would you bless Rock Fellowship and our upcoming retreat and bring many, many people to our gatherings.”

But friends, how do you that it’s God who has done this thing? How can you tell if this blessing is really from God? I think it’s this: It’s when God grants you blessing and growth, and you rejoice; and when God grants you suffering and loss, and you still rejoice in him. Blessing makes sense because God is a good and gracious God. But suffering makes sense, too, because this world is not our home. Because we follow a God who suffered on the cross. And because when he allows us to suffer, it teaches us perseverance, humility and faith, and when we then talk about Jesus, and people see us rejoicing in him in the midst of our suffering, they listen. And God gets the glory.

The bible says, Jesus, “for the joy set before him, endured the cross.” (Hebrews 12:2)  Jesus is the only God who makes sense of our suffering. Of course, Jesus makes sense of our joy and blessing, too. But Jesus is the only God who makes sense of all the suffering, pain, even the death you will experience in life. Because he is the only God to have ever suffered for our sins and died in our place. Moreover, he is the only God who enables us to rejoice - yes, to rejoice - in our suffering, if it’s for him.

We’ve seen three things today. A great escape: which was not an escape from prison in order to run away from pain, but a command to preach the gospel and to bear witness to Jesus even at the risk of more pain. A great defence: which was a defence of God’s actions, not ours. God has raised Jesus from the dead and God has given us repentance and forgiveness through his resurrection. Finally, we saw great joy: in the midst of persecution, in the midst of rejection, the apostles rejoiced because they knew in God’s eyes, his acceptance and approval. They were counted worthy to suffer disgrace for the name.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Five lessons from 2012: A review of the English Ministry

1. God is serious about sin
Sin is not a word you commonly find in annual reports. Yet, it is a word that occurs again and again in the bible. Why? Because God is holy and God is serious about sin. Here in the English Ministry, we want to use every Sunday meeting and bible study to remind ourselves the reality of our sin and our need for a Saviour.

Our study from Isaiah (Chapters 1 to 5) served as a warning that God does not overlook the sins of his people. “Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt.” (Isaiah 1:4) God warned Israel, that one day, he would judge their sin in righteousness and anger.

As uncomfortable as we might be with sin as concept or even as a word, the bible reminds us to confess our sins to God regularly, trusting in his forgiveness through Jesus’ death on the cross. To encourage this, our Sunday meetings now incorporate prayers of confession. Even the songs that we sing not only praise God for his love and goodness but also his justice and holiness with regard to our sin.

“Come now, let us reason together, says the LORD. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” (Isaiah 1:18)

2. God loves the church
Loving the church is hard. Be honest now, it is! Thankfully, the bible acknowledges our lack of love and even helps us to deal with the challenges in loving one another as the church.

We spent five months in book of Ephesians learning of God’s plan for the church. The church is a preview of God’s new creation. The church is the body of Christ. The church is bride of Christ. Christ gave himself up as a fragrant offering for the church.

Until we understand God’s love for the church, it is impossible for us to love one another as the church. “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) God loved us even while we were still dead in our sins. He displayed his love for us supremely through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

How did we encourage believers to love one another at the English Ministry? Through the gospel. The gospel is the message of God’s expensive and costly love in Jesus Christ. And the gospel calls us to love another deeply, affectionately, sacrificially as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Have we grown in such love here in the English Ministry? I think we have. Again, such love is a supernatural work of the Spirit. But don’t take my word for it, have a look for yourselves: Tell us if our love for one another here at the English Ministry is visibly real. Jesus said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

3. Our work as our worship
Half of the regulars at the English Ministry are young adults in full-time employment. In February, we asked them to share their insight into working life with their younger brothers and sisters still in school or at university. It was an opportunity to talk about how the Christian faith engages with our everyday lives - the way we interact with our colleagues and bosses, the decisions that we make concerning where to live and what kind of job to take up, the challenges and temptations that come with money, responsibility and time.

Each Sunday, we looked at a passage from the bible which dealt with the different aspects of work. We learned that God is a working God who got his hands dirty in creating the world. We understood the purpose of rest in the finished work of Christ, when he cried out on the cross, “It is finished.” We saw how God rewards us with abundant joy when we are faithful in serving him with our work.

Immediately after each sermon, we had workshops led by the young working adults. The first session was on interview skills and job expectations. This was followed by a workshop on IT and science-related jobs. We even had a very practical session on exam skills to help the students prepare for their finals.

Whether we are working full-time, studying in school or raising kids at home, our work is of great worth in God’s sight. We want to serve Jesus with our hands, our hearts and our minds - and to use our work as a means of worshipping God in every part of our lives.

4. There is only one gospel
If there is one thing above all other things that we want to get right here in the English Ministry, it is the gospel. Every sermon must present the gospel. Everyone who joins us on Sundays or at Rock Fellowship must hear the gospel. We may stumble on other things. We might mess up in many other ways. But one thing we must never, ever, ever get wrong is the gospel.

The gospel is the message of Jesus Christ as Lord through his death and resurrection. We trust 100% in this message to be saved. There is no other gospel because there is no other Saviour.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians warns Christians not to get the gospel mixed up with religion. Religion tells us what we need to do; the gospel tells us what God has done. Religion makes us slaves; the gospel frees us to be sons.

We looked at Galatians both on Sundays and in our bible studies and this had the effect of challenging many of our assumptions about the gospel. For example, we might think that coming to church makes us Christians. Or when we sin, we think the solution is to try harder to please God. The gospel is the good news that we are more sinful than we realise, but more loved than we could ever imagine through Jesus Christ.

5. Nothing compares to knowing Jesus
Last year saw an increase in the number of students and young people attending our Sunday services. While some are new to the Christian faith, many grew up going to church and even attended Sunday School as kids.

For the sake of our younger members, it is vitally important that older believers speak up about our relationship with Jesus in terms that are real and affectionate. Jesus is the full and final revelation of God. We should not speak of God in vague and generic terms. Instead we should pray boldly in Jesus’ name. We should sing his praises and magnify the cross. Kids will notice that and they may even imitate your faith and conduct. We want the younger members of our church to come to know Jesus for themselves and to worship him as their Saviour.

In our Sunday messages, we make it a point to keep coming back to the gospels, so that we meet with Jesus and talk about Jesus on the bible’s terms. In the summer, we looked at a section of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus was being questioned by his enemies. They wanted to test his bible knowledge. They tried to get him into trouble. But each and every time, Jesus answered their questions clearly and confidently, revealing his identity as the Christ, chosen and sent by God.

If we know Jesus, truly and personally, absolutely nothing will be able to shake us - not our doubts and not even the devil schemes. My prayer for us here at the English Ministry is for God to cause us to grow in our love and knowledge of Jesus, “rooted and built up in him, strengthened as we have been taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7)

Sunday 14 April 2013

Great fear (Acts 5:1-16) - MP3 recording

Recording of this week's sermon preached at the Chinese Church on Sunday, 24 March 2013.

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Saturday 13 April 2013

Great fear (Acts 5:1-16)

Great growth

What does revival look like? How would God bring about revival here in the Chinese Church?

A number of us have just got back from New Word Alive, a Christian conference in Wales, where three thousand were gathered in one single location. When three thousand voices sing, “How Great Thou Art,” you begin to understand how John in Revelation 19:6, says, “I heard what sounded like... thunder.” Singing in a church of three thousand people sounds more like thunder than it does singing.

“But that’s Word Alive,” you say. No, actually that is Acts 2:41, “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

Overnight, the church grew from the size of the Chinese Church to the size of Addenbrookes. “Three thousand were added to their number that day.” Again in Acts 4:4, “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.” That’s just counting the number of men.

Friends, let me just say that as I read these numbers, I am tempted to be cynical. I am tempted to say, “But that was then. This is now.” Here in the English congregation with twenty or so gathered on a good Sunday, we aren’t doing so bad, are we?

Yet what we see here in the book of Acts is not simply the growth of the church but the growth of the gospel. As the message of Jesus Christ - his execution on the cross and his resurrection from the dead - as the gospel goes out to the world, so the gospel gathers people into God’s kingdom and the gospel gather God’s people in as the church. Church growth flows from gospel growth.

To cynical people like me, the bible is saying, “Be careful that you are not cynical about the gospel saving men and women from hell.” I need to be reminded that it is God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:6) and perhaps even to pray for such growth, not for our sakes here at the Chinese Church that lots of people might turn up for our events and Sunday services, but that Jesus’ name might be glorified among his people.

What does revival look like? In a word, it is growth. Growth in numbers coming to know Jesus. Growth in love and fellowship with one another, as we see in Acts 4:32, “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No-one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.” Growth in numbers, in love and fellowship.

But as we come to Acts Chapter 5, we see that revival results in growth of a different kind. Growth of persecution. Growth of opposition. That, too, is a mark of gospel growth. That God uses even the opposition of sinful human beings - even the opposition of Satan - to bring about growth in his church.

Friends, if nothing else, what I hope for us to see today is a sovereign God. Right here in the Chinese Church, God is in control even when things seem to be out of control. We worship a sovereign God.

In today’s passage, we see this under three headings. Please turn again in your bibles to Acts Chapter 5. We see (1) a great lie, (2) a great fear, and finally (3) a great growth. Those are our three points.

The great lie

Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet.

Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God.”
Acts 5:1-4

What was going through their minds, as Ananias and his wife Sapphira went to the local realtor and put their land up for sale? As they exchanged the signed documents and received that final cheque; as Ananias said to his wife, “Honey, I am going to church to drop off all this money.” What was going through their minds?

It is no coincidence that a few verses earlier, we read of a man named Barnabas doing the exact same thing.

There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.

Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
Acts 4:34-37

Notice that Barnabas, too, sold a piece of land. He brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet. Yet, while Barnabas is praised as the Son of Encouragement, Ananias is condemned as being filled by Satan.

So what if Ananias kept back part of the money for himself? It was still a lot of money. I dare say, it’s a lot more than any of us put into the offering bag today. Why was Ananias condemned while Barnabas was praised?

It wasn’t because of the money. Notice that in verse 4. “Didn’t it belong to you?” Peter says. Ananias was free to give or not to give. The land was his; the money he got from the land was also his. “Wasn’t the money at your disposal?” He could have spent the money on a new iPad or a nice holiday at Word Alive. Ananias and his wife were free to use the money any way they wished because it was their money.

No, the problem was Ananias and his wife thought they could deceive God with their money. Verse 4, “You have not lied to men but to God.”

Perhaps all they were looking for was some recognition. Some appreciation. The way we might invite a generous benefactor up on stage to present the huge cheque and to pose for photographs.

Joseph got a new name. He got noticed by the apostles and was called Son of Encouragement. The apostles, the leaders of the church, had given this man a nickname. Barnabas, or Barney. “Did you hear about what Barney did? He sold a field. He gave the money to the church!” Everyone was talking about how generous and how loving he was.

So perhaps Ananias was motivated by envy or even guilt. “Everyone is selling their land. What would they think of us if we didn’t do the same?” The offering bag gets passed down the aisle and there is that voice in you goes, “Oops, I‘d better pop something into the bag, just in case anyone’s looking.”

In reality, what Ananias and his wife did was much more sinister than that. Firstly, notice that this was planned. Verse 2, “With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself.” Verse 9, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord?” The plan was to put on a show of generosity. The plan was to deceive the apostles.

But secondly, their plan was motivated by the devil. Verse 3, “Then Peter said, ‘Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit.’”

Jesus calls Satan the Father of lies in John Chapter 8. “When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” Satan lies. The way that Satan tries to destroy the church; the way he tries to attack Christians is by lying to us and by getting us to believe in his lies.

What was the great lie that hooked Ananias and Sapphira? Some of us might be thinking, “They weren’t sincere in their giving.” That was obviously true, but that wasn’t the lie that did them in.

When Peter says to Ananias, “You have lied to the Holy Spirit,” (verse 3) he isn’t referring to some internal struggle in his conscience, as if Satan was tempting him one way and the Spirit was tugging him another. No, it was the act of lying to the apostles that Peter condemned. It was the act of deceiving the church. Peter says, “You have not lied to men but to God.” (verse 4)

Ananias and Sapphira had obviously been deceiving themselves. They had obviously been deceived by the devil. But it wasn’t until they attempted to perpetuate that deception within the church of God that they faced the judgement of God.

We tend to think it was the money. We think they were being greedy or that God was judging them for being fake. No, the great lie of Satan was thinking they could deceive God by deceiving the church.

Friends, lying is that serious because lying strikes at the heart of our relationship with God and our relationship with one another. The most effective way of destroying a church is not persecution. It’s lies because lies destroy the church from the inside out.

Ephesians 4:25 reads, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body.” Truth-speaking is not merely a means to obtaining accurate information. Speaking truth is the basis of any meaningful relationship - of any marriage, of any friendship, of any church. Friends who can’t be honest with one another aren’t friends.

What is the most important relationship in your life right now?
How honest and truthful are you in that relationship?

Even withholding the truth is a way of withholding ourselves. Of keeping our distance from one another. When someone greets you with “How are you today?” and you answer, “Fine, thank you.” How do you respond when you are not fine? Do you have friends whom you know well enough to tell them, “I’m not fine today. Would you pray with me?”

Satan lies. One clear way we can tell when we have been taken in by his lies is when we begin lying to one another. So seriously does God take the sin of lying to the church that Ananias is struck down dead instantaneously. His wife repeats the same lie to the church and she, too, is struck down by God.

Lying is that serious because the danger is just that real, the truth is just that important and the church is just that precious to God.

Each year, the leaders produce a review of each ministry in the Chinese Church. Would you pray that in writing our respective reports we would be truthful, that we would guarded from trying to look like something we’re not, that we would not be tempted to hold back the truth, especially the truth of the gospel.

Let’s get it in our heads that church is the place where people speak the truth of the gospel to one another. Church is not the place to hide the truth, to play fast and loose with the truth, but to be rigorous with the truth and generous with the truth. We should step into our gatherings expecting to hear truth proclaimed clearly, boldly and lovingly to one another, from God’s word and from God’s people.

The great fear

Secondly, we see great fear.

When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then the young men came forward, wrapped the body, and carried him out and buried him.

About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?”

“Yes,” she said, “that is the price.”

Peter said to her, “How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.”

At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.
Acts 5:5-11

There are several questions that might trouble us about this passage. One is, “Was God being too severe in judgement?” Another is, “Will God kill people for the same sin today?”

But perhaps the most troubling question of all is this, “Were Ananias and Sapphira Christians?”

All these questions focus on the individual sin and God’s judgement over the individual’s motives. There is application here for our motives and sin before a holy God, but to focus on the individual would be to miss the context of this judgement, which is the church. Verse 11, “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.”

Twice we are told the direct result of God’s judgement was fear. “Great fear seized all who heard what had happened.” That was the true intention of this visible awesome judgement upon sin. Fear.

1 Peters 4:17 says, “For it is time for judgement to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Judgement now reminds us of the reality of the judgement to come. And Peter tells the Christians this is actually a good thing because it means that we will be spared from the coming final judgement. “What will be the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”

If you are with us today and you are not a Christian, I hope you see that we are talking about judgement within the church as the people of God. We as Christians are conscious of our own sin and failure before God. The bible keeps reminding us of that and that’s a good thing because it reminds us of our need for a Saviour. Each time we gather as a church, we confess our sin and the bible reminds us God has provided a sacrifice for our sins in the death of his Son on the cross.

1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Whether Ananias and Sapphira were Christians or not, entirely misses the point. Personally, I think they were believers which makes God’s judgement upon them all that more fearful. But the point is, theirs was a public sin committed in the church and theirs was a public judgement carried out upon the church.

As fearful as the judgement was that fell on this husband and wife we miss the point if we think the worst thing God can do to us today is strike us dead.

If that’s all that scares you about this account, frankly, you aren’t scared enough. Peter says, “If (judgement) begins with us, what will be the outcome of those who do not obey the gospel of God?” Be more terrified of God’s coming judgement if you do not obey the gospel. Be more fearful of God’s holiness on the last day when he judges people’s hearts through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:16).

That was the great fear that seized the church. It wasn’t fear over what had happened. It was fear of God who was behind what had happened. That same word “fear” can be translated “awe” or “reverence.” God exposed and judged the sin of Ananias and Sapphira to remind the church of his holiness and presence amongst them.

Are we aware of such a God in our midst? When we pray and when we sing his praises, is it evident that we worship a holy and awesome God? What would God need to do to remind us of the reality of our sin and our need for forgiveness through Jesus Christ?

Brothers and sisters, in speaking about godly fear, I would not want to leave out 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love. Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.” In Christ Jesus, we have no fear of the coming judgement because he has taken our judgement on the cross. Yet it is one thing to be in Christ and to be secure in his love. It is quite another to be apart from Christ and to be indifferent to God’s judgement.

If you are here today and you conscious of God’s judgement over your sin, the solution to that is not indifference. It’s not turn a blind eye to sin and assume God will do the same. The one and only solution is God’s solution: his love poured out to us through Jesus Christ on the cross.

The great revival

Finally and quite paradoxically, we see revival. That’s unexpectedly, the great lie and the great fear leads to God bringing about the great revival.

The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No-one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.
Acts 5:12-14

That statement in verse 13 is just unbelievably amazing. No-one else dared join them. People were afraid of them. They had heard of this sin and the judgement for sin. They had heard of this awesome and holy God who judges people for their sin.

Yet, verse 14 continues, “Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord.” Isn’t that amazing?

Only God could have done this. That’s revival, if there ever was one. More and more people staying away. More and more people coming to Jesus.

God is sovereign. He is able to use Satan’s lies, our sinfulness and our fear to bring more and more people to a saving knowledge of Jesus.

Which makes me think: What is it we long for God to do here in the Chinese Church?

We want God to send us people to serve. We ask for God to send more people to our gatherings. We want our church to grow and to spread the message of the gospel to the Chinese. Are these the extent of our prayers? We want God to bless us and keep us from harm and pain and suffering and opposition and trouble?

When was the last time we prayed for God to deal with sin in our church? When was the last time we prayed for God’s protection from Satan’s attacks - not just in the form of persecution and doubt and distress - but protection from his lies?

And most importantly, how often do we pray for those who come to our church to come to know Jesus? Not just to our events, but to come humbly before God, to confess their sins, and to trust in his Son, Jesus.

We trust in a God who does far more abundantly than anything we could ever ask or imagine. By all means we ought to come to him with our concerns for our church, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do that. We ought to bring before him our needs for new leaders, for revival and for renewal.

But at the end of the day, God is far more concerned for his glory than we are, and when he does bring revival, I think many of us will be surprised. Revival rarely comes the way we expect it. Yet when God does bring revival, no one can deny when it happens.

It is tempting for me to skip over the next few verses which deal with supernatural healing. Yet these are important to establish just how undeniable the presence of God was with his people, especially amongst the apostles, and I suspect from these verses, exclusively amongst the apostles.

As a result, people brought those who were ill into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing those who were ill and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.
Acts 5:15-16

You can plan for revival and you should pray for revival. But when revival happens, God always surprises us.

What does revival look like? It looks like a God who is sovereign in bringing men and women to himself. Nothing can stop him - not persecution, not our sin, not even the devil. Jesus says in Matthew Chapter 16:18, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”