The Gospel’s Great Enemy (Acts 6:8-15)

A sermon on Acts 6:8-15

 

 

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:8-15 ESV)

(OK a couple of notes I said Richard Hawkins instead of Dawkins, I was probably on my way to saying Christopher Ditchens.  Also, the paraphrase from Matt Chandler of Village Church in Dallas was referring to the past not his current congregation.)

William Gurnall on “Spiritual Pride”

I’m working my way through William Gurnall’s,  “The Christian in Complete Armour“.  While I’m not a new to Puritan writings, I haven’t read extensively either, so I continue to be surprised at how unlike the stereotype puritans the real men actually were.  The self-righteous, quick to condemn killjoys of popular thought simply hasn’t emerged from the pages of Richard Baxter, John Owen, Thomas Watson, or William Gurnall.  In fact quite the opposite.
Take for example the following passage on spiritual pride from The Christian in Complete Armour:

O how uncheerfully, yea, joylessly do many precious souls pass their days!  If you inquire what is the cause, you shall find [that] all their joy runs out at the crannies of their imperfect duties and weak graces.  They cannot pray as they would, and walk as they desire, with evenness and constancy;  they see how short they fall of the holy rule in the Word, and the pattern which others more eminent in grace do set before them; and this, though it does not make them throw the promises away, and quite renounce all hope in Christ, yet it begets many sad fears and suspicions, yea, makes them sit at the feast of Christ hath provided, and not know whether they may eat or not.  In a word, as it robs them of their joy, so [it robs] Christ of that glory which he should receive from their rejoicing in him.

In other words, it is sinful spiritual pride to base your joy on your own performance.  Here is a masterful surgeon of the soul at work.  It might appear very humble and devout to mourn failings in your piety, and Gurnall acknowledges that we should “mourn for those defects thou findest in thy grace and duties”, but to do so without also rejoicing in the Christ who redeemed you in spite of your failures is to look to your own righteousness instead of his.  To focus on our failures in this way is to believe that our personal holiness, rather than Christ, is the source of our joy.

O, if thou couldst pray without wandering, walk without limping, believe without wavering, then thou couldst rejoice and walk cheerfully.  It seems, soul, thou stayest to bring the ground of thy comfort with thee, and not to receive it purely from Christ.

If our chief end is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever”, we fail to do so by seeking our joy in ourselves, even our desired righteous and holy selves, instead of Christ.  We rob Christ of glory when our hope is in our perfection instead of his.
In thinking about the spirituality characteristic of many churches I have realized many are based on a cycle of guilt and redoubled effort.  Too often I hear comments from people that reveal that their spiritual feelings are based on messages or experiences that stir emotions of guilt, most often expressed as “stepping on toes”.  Too often I’ve been in worship services where I feel like my will had been absolutely battered and bruised.  And all too often the solution is not “rest in Christ”, “trust in His work”, “look at the cross”, but “try harder”, “recommit”, “decide today”.  The so called gospel I hear from many pulpits is: Jesus loves you, you’ve failed, return to the Law with stronger effort.
Brother, Sister – If you feel inadequate as a disciple, that you could be a more committed and devoted follower of Christ, you’re right  – we all could.  Repent, and as Gurnall says, “Christian, even while the tears are in thy eyes for they imperfect graces … thou should rejoice, yea, triumph over all these thy defects by faith in Christ, in whom thou art complete…”

Calvin on the source of Truth

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts.  If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we with to dishonor the Spirit of God.

John Calvin, Institutes 2.2.15

Easter Wings

George Herbert (3 April 1593 – 1 March 1633) wrote the classic manual on pastoral ministry, The Country Parson.  He is more famous as a poet.  “Easter Wings”, is a celebration of the resurrection, formatted and printed vertically to appear as two pairs of wings.

GeorgeHerbertEasterWingsPatternPoem1633

Lord, who createdst man in wealth and store,
Though foolishly he lost the same,
Decaying more and more,
Till he became
Most poore:
With thee
Oh let me rise
As larks, harmoniously,
And sing this day thy victories:
Then shall the fall further the flight in me.

My tender age in sorrow did beginne:
And still with sicknesses and shame
Thou didst so punish sinne,
That I became
Most thinne.
With thee
Let me combine
And feel this day thy victorie:
For, if I imp my wing on thine
Affliction shall advance the flight in me

Life is short.

All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field...The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  (Isaiah 40:6-8 ESV)

All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field…The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6, 8 ESV)

I recently heard about Ashley Madison, a twenty-one million member strong website that charges husbands and wives who want to break their marriage vows to meet others who also want to commit adultery. The site apparently gets a lot of publicity for not being allowed to pay for publicity. What especially caught my attention was the companies slogan, “Life is short. Have an affair.”

We have a premise about the brevity of human life followed by the conclusion.

Premise 1: Life is short

Conclusion: Therefore it is reasonable to pay someone to help me break my vow of faithfulness, deeply hurt someone I claim to love, and risk breaking up my family for the chance of a few moments of pleasure using someone who is also untrustworthy.

If you are familiar with logical syllogisms you’ll notice something is missing. We are expected to fill in the the second premise.

Ashley Madison, and their twenty-one million members, assumes that between “Life is short.” and “Have an affair.” there is another thesis along the lines of “There is no accountability afterwards.”

Everything changes if you disagree with the unstated second premise. If you believe that there is a God who made this world and everything in it and therefore rightly has established a moral law to which each soul will be held accountable, reflecting on the brevity of life will lead to a different conclusion. When I think of how short life is I don’t think how I need to betray those I love the most or how I need to make seeking pleasure and entertainment my overruling priority. I think how much I need to pour what’s left of my years into serving those I love and I regret how much time I have wasted seeking trivia that promised pleasure. I regret my sins.

Hebrews 9:27 says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.”  Which means if life is short, then I am facing judgement soon. The last thing I would want to do is rack up as many offenses as possible before meeting the judge.

Life is short, but meditating on the brevity of life should lead to wisdom and deeper trust in God, not to folly and sin.

 “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you? So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” (Psalm 90:10-12 ESV)

 

What’s Your Excuse?

There’s a story that a man was once asked by his neighbor to borrow his ax. The man responded that he couldn’t loan him the ax because he was about to have soup for supper. The stunned neighbor thought for a moment and asked what eating soup for supper could possibly have to do with borrowing his ax.  The reply was, “When you don’t want to do something, one excuse is as good as another.”  How true.

Baseball

Most of us are quite skilled at coming up with excuses, I can’t count the times I’ve not started watching what I eat because I wanted a fresh start Monday morning.  Any deviation in the weather can be an excuse to not exercise.  We can come up with all sorts of excuses to not do things we know will draw us closer to God, the ordinary means of God’s grace: scripture reading, attending public worship, and prayer.  In A Heart Like His, Mike and Amy Nappa give a list of excuses we use for not going to worship, but “church” was replaced with “ballgame”.  For example:

  1. Whenever I go to a game, they ask for money.
  2. The other fans don’t care about me.
  3. The seats are too hard.
  4. The referee makes calls I don’t agree with.
  5. Some of the games go into overtime and make me late for dinner.
  6. The band plays songs I don’t know.
  7. I can be just as good a fan at the lake.
  8. I won’t take my kids to a game either. They must choose for themselves which teams to follow.

Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? The truth is that if something is important enough to us we make time and we make an effort. If it isn’t we make excuses.

Unexpected Sabbath Blessing

RelaxOver the past year or so I have become more convicted about my lax observance of the Sabbath.  Our family has tried to be more intentional about not running errands or eating out on the Lord’s Day.  We have had a few Sundays when an unexpected guest or empty fridge sent us out, but otherwise have enjoyed a day of rest and worship.  Rather than seeing it as another rule to follow, we’re trying to receive it as a gift, remembering that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

One of the ways we are trying to set the day apart is forbidding electronic screens until the evening.  No iPads, computers, televisions allowed.  Amazingly, rather than face a revolt from the kids, we have discovered they enjoy it.  The mood is different throughout the house and the children, as well my wife and I, love it.

Not having their eyes glued to a screen has made my children have to find other ways to spend their time and after having their request for the iPad “just this Sunday” denied they have resorted to playing together.  This has meant my naps are interrupted by the sound of children laughing and my reading disturbed by the sound of joyful play in the back yard.  Of all the blessings of the Lord’s Day, one unexpected consequence has been the delight of watching my children enjoy each other.  I imagine our heavenly Father delights in His children simply connecting and enjoying each other’s presence as well.

(photo: Andrés Nieto Porras)