Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Numbers matter because each represents a beloved individual and some comments on Acts 4

On my widow sill I have placed a couple of pieces of rock, or rather pieces of old concrete from the water front at Ahuriri in Napier. They may not seem to be the most wonderful decorations however they are there for a reason. They were given to me by Alf Taylor who spoke at my Ordination. Alf is a very perceptive person and I have put them up where I can see them daily to reflect on the fact that the church is precious (well Ok in the case they are very ordinary) stones gathered together into the dwelling place of God... That individuals matter.

I'm enjoying using Ajith Fernando's commentary on the book of Acts in the 'NIV Application Commentary Series. His mission and third world background actually helps open up some areas of Acts that other western commentators do not. It is a good balance of good scholarship and good reflection on practical Church life and church mission. It complements the other two commentaries I am using by Darrell Bock and I Howard Marshall.

this week I am looking at Acts 4 and while it is not a main focus for the series I'm preaching I found Fernando's comments on the fact that Luke mentions the growth of the number of those who responded positively to Christ in verse 4 "But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand."  Fernando comments that this shows that numbers were important for the early church just as they are today. His comments however provide a good balanced way of  thinking about them.

He says that if we simply consider numbers as a sign of success then we are in trouble. "God's interest in numbers is not a measure of success, but because they represent people who have been rescued from damnation and granted salvation. The individuals who made up the five thousand are beloved persons for whom Christ died."

Numbers for numbers sake he goes on to say can led church leaders to unethical and manipulative ways of recruiting and evangelism, that do not actually respect the person as a beloved Individual rather sees them as a notch on the belt or a means to an end. They can water down the gospel, or the requirements of the faith to achieve their goals.

However he is also quick to point out that often people who say its about remaining faithful rather than all about numbers are easily fall into the trap of 'mistaking being true to their tradition rather that to Christ's commission.'  He says that often we do not acknowledge people who work in difficult and pioneering situations, quoting a missionary who worked in one particular area for many years without seeing one conversion. After he died the person who replaced him saw many come to Christ... when he asked them why they hadn't responded before they said that the first missionary had told them that Christians were not afraid to die so they had to wait and see how he died before they could see if his words were true."

Quantity and quality are not mutually exclusive they are in fact the key call of a church, it is reflected in chapter 4 of Acts by the fact that at it ends with one of Luke's wonderful snap shots of the early church at various  times in its life, and we see that the larger church was still reflecting the love of Christ in the way it fellowshipped and were willing to meet peoples needs by selling what they had to meet that need.

The challenge and encouragement is to be faithful to sharing the gospel in word and deed. I finished my message last week with a quote from Darrell Bock
. “To say God loves you without showing it leaves the words empty. To Minister but never point to God leaves the one ministered to without a clue to what has motivated that love.”
 I also appreciate Fernando's candour when he comments about looking back with rose tinted glasses at that early church... "people often talk about getting back to the church like it was in Acts. They tend to focus on a romantic understanding. They think of the church that saw many miracles, conversions amazing unity and spirit filled leadership. They forget that Acts also describes the troubles the church faced from within itself and without." ... after chapter 3 there are only 3 chapters in Acts that do not mention persecution and after the glowing report at the end of Acts 4 we find ourselves confronted with the perplexing story of Ananias and Sapphira and the issue of perceived impartiality between care for widows from the Hellenistic section of the church and city.

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