The Church’s Power (Acts 2:1-17)
I want to ask you a question that every church eventually has to answer. The question is this: where do we get our power?
Nobody really debates that we would like power. The reason isn't because we like power for its own sake. No, the reason is because we have a job to do, and without power we're not likely to get it done. You don't get power by being a church or even by holding a position within a church. I sure wish that the position of pastor automatically came with power. So how does a church like Richview get enough power to actually make a difference?
Where does a worship team get enough power to lead a congregation to engage its heart in selfless worship of God? Where does a pastor get the power to speak God's Word so that people deal with God speaking in his Word and not just with human words? How do elders and deacons get the power to know what to do and when to do it? How do youth leaders get the power to make a difference in the lives of kids? When a small group gets together, where do they get the power do be more than just 6 or 7 people talking in a living room? Where do we get the power to actually make a difference in people's lives and do what God has called us to do?
I hope you see this is a very real question. Jesus said that we would be clothed with power. Most of us would have to admit that churches don't always seem all that powerful. I want to look at three questions this morning. Why does the church need power? How has God supplied the power that we need? And what does this mean for us today?
Why do we need power?
The first question is, why do we need power? To answer that, I want to give you two reasons why we need power: a biblical reason and a practical reason.
Here's the biblical reason why we need power. Right before Jesus died, he said this to his disciples:
Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:12-14)
Jesus said, "All who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing." This is enough to make me realize how much I need power. Jesus said that everybody who has faith will do the works that he did. That's fine, until I start thinking about the works that Jesus did. He preached, performed miracles, and even brought people back from the dead, and then he said that if we have faith we will do the same works.
But Jesus doesn't stop there. He says, "They will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." Jesus says that everyone who has faith in him will do greater things than Jesus did. I'll never forget the first time that I heard someone preach on this. I couldn't believe that Jesus said this. It almost sounds sacrilegious.
The church needs power because it is an extension of Jesus' life and ministry. Jesus said we're not only supposed to carry on what he did, we're going to do even greater things. Talk about needing power.
Then, soon before Jesus left this earth, Jesus said,
This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:46-49)
Here's what Jesus said. We are witnesses to the resurrection life of Jesus Christ, and this is something that is going to transform the world. Jesus says that we will do greater works than even he did, and what we do will be enough to transform communities and witness to the resurrection life of Christ to people of every nation in this world.
When you see what Jesus has called us to do, you can't help but be overwhelmed with our need for power. If we do a fraction of what Christ has called the church to do, then we need power like we've never imagined. We're desperate for God's power, or we don't stand a chance. That's the biblical reason for why we need power.
But there's also a practical reason. In my library, I have a book called Towards the Conversion of England. It was originally published in 1945, right at the end of the Second World War. The book identifies trends like the drift from religion, the decline in church-going, and the collapse of moral standards. The book outlines a plan that confronts "the task of the conversion of England with a deep sense of expectancy of what God can accomplish." They wanted nothing less than "the conversion of England to the Christian faith." It's a humbling thing to read, because now, sixty years later, you realize that England has gone the other way.
It's not only England. I have binders in my office about the evangelization of Canada in the 1990s. I don't know what happened but I think we could say that overall the church didn't make a lot of progress in Canada in the 1990s. We probably all have been part of big plans that were going to lead to significant things happening that really didn't pan out.
I don't want to bore you with the stats, but there's very little evidence that churches in North America are experiencing the kind of power that Jesus talked about.
Oswald Chambers said something that haunts me. "Beware of worshipping Jesus as the Son of God, and professing your faith in Him as the Savior of the world, while you blaspheme Him by the complete evidence in your daily life that He is powerless to do anything in and through you." You could apply this to churches. Beware of worshipping Jesus as the Son of God, and professing your faith in him as the Savior of the world, while we blaspheme him by the complete evidence in our church's life that he is powerless to do anything in and through us. When we lack power, it's a serious thing.
So we need power. There's no question. A lack of power is a serious issue. So let me ask a second question.
Where will we get our power?
So we need power. Where will we get it from? Let me narrow it down to probably the two most common answers before looking at an answer that we commonly overlook.
A lot of people think that we need the right leader to bring the right power so that the church can do what it needs to get done. A church's search committee outlined the pastor they were looking for: a person of vision, compassionate and sensitive to needs, able to handle a church of a certain size, a motivator, a gifted teacher whose message would cross age, race, and maturity boundaries. In other words, Superman! We think if we get the right pastor that we'll have the power that we need.
This is almost right. Leadership is important, and it's hard to underestimate the importance of having the right person. But it's also dangerous. For one thing, there aren't enough great leaders to go around. Even if there were enough, a Harvard professor has said, "Organizations that are run by heroes hit barriers." Even more so when it's a church that needs more than heroic power to get the job done. As important as good leadership is, it's not enough.
Others think we need the right strategy for the church to move ahead. Again, it's hard to criticize strategic thinking. Churches ought to have an idea of what they're doing and why they're doing it and what they hope will come out of their efforts. But there's a problem. Overall, churches have improved in their ability to set strategies and measurable goals just as their impact has diminished over the past thirty years in North America. You could argue we'd be doing worse except for the strategies, but the strategies clearly aren't enough. There's not enough power in having the right leader or the right strategy. We need something more.
This morning's Scripture is where the church can get real power. It's not a power that relies on the right leader or the right strategy. It's a power that can even work when both of these are lacking.
What we're about to read took place on the one of the major Jewish festivals – the Day of Pentecost – around 30 AD in Jerusalem. It's a Festival in which people gathered to thank God for blessing them with a harvest.
But something completely unexpected happened at this particular Pentecost. Read with me what happened. It's found in Acts 2:1-3:
When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.
What happened? It seems bizarre. They heard a sound like a hurricane, saw what looked like tongues of fire, and heard a message in their own native language or dialect.
Some of us here are understandably suspect about anything like this happening. You'll notice, though, that nobody was debating that something happened. Everyone who was there realized that something had happened. The debate wasn't about whether or not something happened; it was about what it all meant. Verse 12 says, "Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, 'What does this mean?'" It's a question that's still important to answer.
There are a lot of theories about the meaning of this event. Some think it's a reversal of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, when God scattered the nations by creating languages. Some people think it's a parallel to when God descended in fire on Mount Sinai and created a nation for himself out of some escaped slaves.
There may be something to these interpretations, but we don't have to guess what the meaning is. Peter, one of the disciples of Jesus, gets up and tells us the meaning. In verse 16 he says:
No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:
In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. (Acts 2:16-17)
The meaning, Peter says, has something to do with this prophecy from Joel. About five or six hundred years earlier, the nation of Judah was experiencing a drought and plagues of locusts. In those days everybody believed that God or gods controlled the harvest. So locusts and draughts weren't just spiritual problems; they were agricultural problems. Along comes the prophet Joel who says to the nation under God's judgment:
I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten— the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm — my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. (Joel 2:25-26)
Joel prophesied (predicted) that God will end the drought and get rid of the locusts and they would one day celebrate God's provision of grain at Pentecost.
But surprisingly, Joel promised more than that. Joel prophesied that God would do something even more, something completely unexpected. He said:
And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days….
And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:28-29, 32)
One day, Joel says, God will not only restore the harvest, he will also empower every one of his people with his Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter stood up and said, "That day has arrived."
Do you want to know the meaning of what happened? One word: power. Power has come to all of God's people. Our power comes from the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist predicted that Jesus would "baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire" (Luke 3:16). That's exactly what happened on at Pentecost. At Pentecost, the church received power from on high so that it could do the job God has called it to do.
What happened at Pentecost only happened once, but in a sense all of us have had our own Pentecost, because from that point on the Spirit came upon every follower of Christ at the point of conversion. For the rest of the book of Acts, people received the gift of the Holy Spirit as they believed and were baptized. We have the Spirit. We have the same power, the power of the Holy Spirit. We have everything we need.
Listen: God has given the church all the power it needs, and that power is the Holy Spirit. The power that the church needs doesn't ultimately come from leadership or strategies – even great ones – but from the Holy Spirit himself. This is where the church gets the power that it needs to get the mission done.
There's no other explanation for what happened. There's no other way to explain how a church could start from about 120 people meeting secretly in a room in Jerusalem with no great leaders (just discredited ones), to three thousand people in just a day, to about 25,000 Christians by 100 AD to some twenty million Christians a couple of hundred years later. Somebody's asked, "How did they grow from being a small movement to the most significant religious force in the Roman Empire in two centuries?" You have to explain that. You have to explain the fact that in China they kicked out all the missionaries and pastors and tried to eradicate the church, but against all odds the church wasn't decimated. It exploded. Instead it grew to about 60 million and now over 80 million people. Somebody's said:
If anything, in the Chinese phenomenon, we are witnessing the most significant transformational Christian movement in the history of the church. And remember, not unlike the early church these people had very few Bibles (at times they shared only one page to a house church and then swapped that page with another house group.) They had no professional clergy, no official leadership structures, no central organization, no mass meetings, and yet they grew like mad. How is this possible? How did they do it?
I don't know how you explain this unless you believe that the Holy Spirit is still at work, and that we can be clothed in power to do what God has called us to do. The church needs power, and God has richly provided us with all the power we need. He's given us the Holy Spirit.
Why do we need power? Because we'll never be able to do what Christ commanded us to on our own power. How has God supplied our need for power? By giving us the Holy Spirit. Finally:
What does this mean for us today?
Pentecost reminds us that more than anything, we need God and his power. We know that most churches are in a state of plateau or decline, and many growing churches are growing by transfer and not by conversion. Churches in other parts of the world are exploding, but the North American church is facing its challenges. We need power.
We face a temptation, and the temptation is to try and act as if we can save the church. We think that we can do this if we get the right techniques or leaders or get things just right. We face an overwhelming temptation to meet our church's need and the divine mandate by human strength and programs. There's nothing wrong with these, but they will never provide the power that we need. They'll never meet our need for power. More than ever, we need the Spirit.
In 1989, a church started in New York City, which is one of the hardest places to start a church. But as they started, something happened. Their pastor writes:
During those first three years there was the same feeling of inevitability that comes in times of awakening. The gospel seemed brand new. Sleepy and nominal Christians awoke with a start. People got converted every week. The air was charged with electricity. Every decision that the leaders made turned out to be wise. Everyone performed above and beyond their gifts and abilities.
That's the Spirit at work. You can't control that, but there's no way that we could make all of that happen by ourselves. More than anything, we need the Spirit.
The 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon said:
One of the most effectual ways for a church to revive herself is to preach much about the Holy Spirit; after all He is the very breath of the church. And when a church, a minister or a Christian finds that it is winter time in his soul they must turn to the Holy Spirit and cry, "Quicken thou me in the Way."
Where the Spirit's ministry is studied, it will also be sought after, and where it is sought after, spiritual vitality will result…The Christian scene today in the Western world highlights the importance of attending to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The lack of divine energy and exuberance in most congregations, even some of the most notionally orthodox, is painful to see. The current quest for church renewal…demands that we get clearer in our minds about the divine Renewer….It is as if God is constantly flashing before us on huge billboards the message REMEMBER THE HOLY SPIRIT!…We study and discuss God, Christ, body life, mission, Christian social involvement, and many other things; we pay lip service to the Holy Spirit throughout (everyone does these days), but we are not yet taking him seriously in any of it. In this we need to change.
Pentecost reminds us that, more than anything, we need to pray that the Spirit would renew, revive, and empower us. Don't ever think that we have the power in ourselves. We need the Spirit to move. I want you to pray with me to this end.
Father, how we long for the Spirit's power. We pray that he would blow the cobwebs off of our soul, revive those of us who have fallen asleep, make the gospel new to us again. Renew us we pray.
Thank you that even though we don't have the power to do what you've left us to do, you've given us your Spirit. We ask now that your Spirit would move among us. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.