9 Extraordinary Characteristics of God’s People
The word “church” has a PR problem. It’s often perceived as boring, hypocritical, self-righteous, stuffy, and judgmental. As the church faces challenges in the 21st century, we return to the 1st century.
In his gospel, Luke records who Jesus is. In his Book of Acts, Luke records who the church is, which also means, who you are. Out of this amazing history of the early church, we ask, “What, or who, is the church?” We lift up 9 extraordinary characteristics that define a Christian. This isn’t mere history. The church is a present reality, God working in and through his people. You are because Jesus is.
The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him. Luke makes it clear that the first generation of Christians were more than fans of Jesus. They were in on the action of God, God acting in them, God living in them. Which also means, of course, in us. – Eugene Peterson
You are . . . Contagious. Ignited. Together. Bold. Suffering. Transformed. Inclusive. Imperfect. Vocal.
You are the church.
Acts 1:1-11 (Ascension and Witnesses); Acts 13:1-12 (first missionary journey); Matthew 28:19-20
Today, information travels virally. An event occurs and within seconds it is posted, tweeted, shared, and transmitted across the world.
The early Christian church was contagious, in the best sense of the term. Acts is a story in motion, the gospel spreading rapidly across impossible boundaries. It’ structure moves geographically (Acts 1:8), from ground zero at Jerusalem to Antioch, Rome, Spain and beyond. The Ascension of Jesus doesn’t mean that he is in a distant heavenly realm, a galaxy far, far away. It means that he has sent his Spirit, that his word and kingdom may extend globally.
Today, the story continues. As Christ’s people, we are a part of a contagious movement of his work in us and through us. Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses.” “Go and make disciples.” Our life is not one of static or stationary living. It is active movement, living for Christ.
Questions: How is the church contagious today? How has Acts 1:8 played out over 2,000 years? What are the greatest roadblocks to the spread of the gospel? What do we do when it seems the gospel isn’t spreading? What’s my role? How am I “contagious”?
“Acts concludes in an open-ended way, and Christ’s mandate in 1:8 is still in the process of realization today.” Gerhard Krodel
“In little more than 10 years, St. Paul established churches in four provinces of the Empire – Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia. Before 47 AD there were no churches in those provinces; in 57 AD Paul could speak as if his work there was done.” – Roland Allen
The disciples become different people when “ignited” by a power beyond them. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” extraordinary things occur. What is called the Acts of the Apostles, might better be titled, Acts of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is always at work, moving, enlightening, empowering these ordinary people for an extraordinary mission.
The church is often viewed as a human institution, an affinity group for religiously-minded people. Acts tells a different story. This is no mere product of human planning; it is directed by divine agency. Pentecost is proof of Holy Spirit’s powerful instigation. Wind and fire, languages, jail breaks, and miracles. The Spirit is always weaving, moving, and directing.
Questions: How do we relate the igniting power of the Holy Spirit to the church’s institutions, programs, and planning? The same Spirit that ignited the apostles is in you. How does this change your outlook on the significance of your life? What do we say when the church seems uninspired? Man-made religion?
“Luke showed that it was not an ecclesiastical program which the apostles carried out on their own initiative, but it was the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus, God himself who carried out his plan through the church.” – Gerhard Krodel
“The Christian community is Spirit-filled and Spirit-led, so much so that its voice is the voice of the Spirit, and the whole evangelistic enterprise, from Jerusalem to Rome, is directed by the Spirit.” – F.F. Bruce
The church is people, a community gathered in and through Jesus Christ. We note the early practices of the church. They lived out a mutual caring and sharing. The held life and possessions in common. They ate together regularly.
We are more familiar with the church’s divisions, the things that keep us apart. Or we live apart from Christian community, thinking that we don’t need the church to be a Christian. The history of the early church acknowledges that unity isn’t always easy, but that being together is necessary. In fact, it’s dangerous to be alone. Together, the church encouraged, loved, and supported one another through great trials and momentous mission.
Questions: How do we deal with divisions in the church? Is it possible to be a Christian and never gather with fellow Christians? What are the greatest threats to unity in the church? How can you be a part of a “together life” within your church? How can you work for mutual care, support, and unity?
The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. – Luther
The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s Word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother man as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Colloquium et mutua consolatio – “The mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren.” No man can be alone against Satan; God instituted the church and the ministry of the Word in order that we might join hands and help one another. If the prayer of one does not help, then that of the other will. – Luther
Crazy. Wild. Courageous. The early church was constantly opposed, and yet the apostles marched forward with remarkable boldness.
We are often more timid than bold. Are we afraid to do God’s work in the world? Are we afraid of bearing the name of Christ? Do we sometimes mistake boldness for arrogance and insensitivity?
The foundation of our boldness is in the risen Lord and the Spirit he has sent to us. We take courage in the Kingship of Jesus Christ. With the early church, we believe that “he is Lord over all” (10:36). With him before us, we fear nothing.
Questions: Would you describe our church as bold? What are the greatest threats to our boldness? How should we face timidity? What’s the difference between boldness and arrogance? Insensitivity?
“Speaking the gospel in our world is not a pastime of peaceful fishing, but rather a battle to land the fish.” – Bryan Green
“The instances in Acts where it is difficult to distinguish whether Lord refers to Jesus or to God demonstrate that, according to Luke, since Easter one can no longer talk about the Lord God without talking about the Lord Jesus, who is Lord of all (10:36; 2:34-36).” – Gerhard Krodel
According to God’s plan, “the Christ must suffer” (2:23). So his followers trace his footsteps. At the time Luke wrote, Christianity was “everywhere spoken against” (28:22). And so followers of Christ were destined to encounter suffering for the sake of their crucified Lord. Christians were labeled “criminal in character.” Their Founder was condemned to death by a Roman governor.
Still, the apostles “rejoice” that “they were worthy to suffer dishonor for the name” (Acts 5:41). A jailbreak. A testimony in the face of oppression. A beating. This seems to be the MO of Jesus followers. Like their tortured and executed Lord, Christians face suffering. But in the suffering, God’s ultimate plan is revealed. This is a “plan of God” that “you will not be able to overthrow” (Acts 5:39).
Questions: Why do Christians suffer? What does it mean? Have I done something wrong? How do I handle suffering? What do we say when Christians (we) seem too comfortable?
“Above all the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that of overcoming self, and for love of Jesus to bear pain and buffetings and reviling and discomfort.” – Francis of Assisi
“Christ is the suffering servant of God who was committed to losing himself entirely in the service of God and his people, irrespective of the cost to him.” – F.F. Bruce
Once you meet Jesus, you can never be the same. Saul was a different man after his encounter on a country road. Even his name changed. Our stories may not be as dramatic as Paul’s, but like him we have been changed by Jesus. No longer enemies, he called us friends. We are transformed and repurposed to “Go” and be “a chosen instrument” to carry Christ’s name.
Most of us have less dramatic stories that Paul. Nonetheless, Christ has transformed us. Whether by a “Damascus road” experience, or by mundane and ordinary circumstances, we have been touched by the Holy Spirit.
Questions: Do you know someone with a dramatic story of conversion? What about those with ordinary or mundane stories? We believe every Christian has been transformed. As baptized children of God, we claim God’s work of sanctification. How does this open our eyes to see God’s work in us?
“When we consider the church and its existence, we can only describe it as God’s great venture among us men, the venture of a divine presence with us. In everything that is taught and believed, loved and suffered, planned and thought in this church, Jesus Christ is venturing himself, daily repeating the washing of the feet of this church which have daily been soiled on its journey.” – Hermann Dietzfelbinger
“Jesus does not recede into the past like any other historical figure, but he remains present to and contemporary with the church. The church does not exist “after him,” but “under him.” – Gerhard Krodel
Peter was shocked. The Holy Spirit came even to Gentiles. God was not partial. This gospel was for all people. There was equality before God – equality of sin, and equality of grace.
Today too, we struggle with the inclusivity of the gospel. It may be easy to preach that Jesus is for all people. But we tend to reserve the right to deny his mercy to certain kinds of people on the margin. The Holy Spirit stretches our boundaries. No one is beyond the scope of God’s plan. His salvation is inclusive and crosses boundaries of race, religion, nationality, language, culture, and class.
Questions: Give examples of the church being exclusive, a club. How do we address exclusivity? What groups or individuals do you find hard to include in the church? How does the church uphold the truth and be inclusive at the same time?
“During the time of the church, the Holy Spirit is given by God not just to select individuals, but democratically to the whole people of God.” – Gerhard Krodel
With all the amazing things happening in Acts, it might be easy to think that the apostles were perfect angels. Lest the church’s early history seem like mythology or a fairy tale, we are reminded of the imperfections of the first Christians. Disputes, politics, disagreements, anger . . . somehow, the Holy Spirit holds together this tattered band of imperfect people.
With humble hearts we search out the hypocrisy and vanity within our own congregation. We are honest about our own imperfections. But instead of jumping on the popular bandwagon of ripping on the church, we are set on simply being the church. We are people – a broken, sinful, hypocritical, lying, thieving people. Yet the Church is God’s people because He has made us a people in Christ. The Church does not claim perfection, but redemption.
Questions: How do we live and work together as Christians? What do we do with hostility in the church? How do we deal with self-righteousness in the church? How might honesty about our imperfections be an asset for our witness to non-Christians? How can I be more honest about my sin, and more bold about God’s grace?
“Christ can fight his battles even with broken swords.” – Friedrich Zundel
We live and speak a message. The gospel is distinctive, even strange, in a culture of “idols” and “unknown gods.” What is the core of the apostle’s message? What was unique and compelling about it? How did they contextualize it to their audience?
We are still speaking the gospel in our time and place. It finds its voice in our own voices. Every Christian must be able to speak of the basic core of their faith.
Questions: Why is it easier to be silent? What are your greatest challenges in speaking of your faith? Paul contextualized his message for Jewish and Gentile audiences. How can we contextualize the gospel today, without watering it down?