January 15, 2017
By John Ulrich, Lead Pastor
Today we are staring a series from the book of Acts called “Launch” where we look at what happens when God moves powerfully through his church. I think we are really going to enjoy this study of Acts!
One of the things that the church – any church – has to have if God is going to move powerfully in it, and if it’s going to succeed in its mission – is guidance. If we are going to have success, we have to know – where we are supposed to go.
This was brought home to me as we travelled back to Kansas over the holidays. We rented an SUV for the 20-plus hour drive back to Wichita. The SUV was awesome! It had an extra row of seats and seat warmers. It had 4 wheel drive – everything we could want!
But it also had a guidance system that we weren’t used to. There came a point in the trip where the GPS’s leadership – and our followership – just didn’t work well together. This was about 20 hours into our drive back home. We had done a good 12 hours that day. We were in North Carolina, when the GPS bypassed the obvious route home and told us to keep going. At that point our individual personalities immediately came out. Kelley, who’s default setting is to question all machines, was like “John – that’s 40W – it goes back to Raleigh – we should be on that road!” Whereas I am more of a blind follower of machines. I was like “No Kelley – the machine knows best – it has magic – we must obey the machine!”
So I kept going the way it said to go – and then I exited where it told me to exit – and all of a sudden the pictures on the GPS didn’t line up with the road that was in front of me.
There were exits and turns that were not on the GPS – there were lanes missing from the GPS – and it wasn’t giving me instructions quick enough to make the turns. We ended up lost and going in circles – after 20 hours in the car together – and all we wanted – was to get home!
That was the low point in the trip. The GPS was shouting at me. Kelley was shouting at the GPS. The kids were trying to find alternate routes on their phones, and I’m pretty sure the friend they had brought along on the trip was in fetal position in the back seat. We ended up circling back and pretty much going the way Kelley wanted to go in the first place. As I thought about this sermon, that event reminded me of the importance of guidance. We have to have guidance if we’re going to get where we need to go!
Well let me ask a question: How does God guide us?
We’re here at the beginning of a new year. It’s a new location. As a church – or even as individual Christians – how is it that God gives us our marching orders? How do we know where to go and what to do? I know some of you would like to know, because you are facing confusing circumstances and you want to know why certain things are happening to you, and what the plan is. We would like to know as a church – what God’s plan is.
So how does he guide us? Today as we start our study of the book of Acts, I want us to look at a passage that relates to that. Today we are going to look at that question of how God guides us – of what God gives us to guide his church – and we’re going to do two things:
- We’re going to look at one thing God doesn’t give to guide us.
- We’ll look at three things he does give us.
Here’s my prayer today: Some of us that are here today have big questions. As a church and as individuals, we have questions about where God might be taking us in our lives. We would like to know what the plan is. Today I want us, not so much to find all the answers – but to see the means that God does and doesn’t give us – to enable us to go where he wants us to go. I want us to see that, so that we can pursue God’s will wholeheartedly and we won’t be rattled when we don’t find things that God never promised to provide. I long for that for us as a people. And I want us to learn about that today.
Let’s read Acts 1:1-11. Luke is going to start this amazing book by recounting Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he ascended to heaven. He tells us:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:1-11
Today we are going to talk about God’s guidance – what he does and doesn’t give us to guide us – and the first thing the passage tells us about, is what he doesn’t give us – and it’s this:
God Doesn’t Give Us the Plan
This is a really big disappointment to people like me, because so much of the time in my life and in the church I want to know what the plan is! I want to know what God is doing. Where is this all going? What is the timeline? What are the different stages of this journey? I want – like – an itinerary.
One of the things that Elisabeth and I do every Christmas is go to the Nutcracker. We do this every year. When she turned 18, we decided that we were going to New York city for the big NYC Ballet nutcracker. We planned this big trip, and Kelley put together this incredible itinerary for us. It was in a colored binder. It was like: Here’s when your flight will arrive – here’s the best way to get to the hotel – here’s the restaurant that you will want to experience on your first night – on your second day, you should tour the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 12-4 – here’s the subway you take to the ballet. It was incredible!
Can I just ask – don’t you wish God gave you one of those for your life? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he gave you a binder that said “Here’s the plan. Here’s what you’re going to do. Here’s who you’re going to marry – here’s what it’s all about?” Don’t you wish we could have that?
Well, unfortunately, we can’t. God doesn’t give us the plan. And the passage tells us this. Let’s just walk through it, and I’ll show you why I say that. Luke starts in verse 1 and says:
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. – Acts 1:1-2
The former book that Luke is talking about here is the gospel of Luke. Theophilus is the name of the guy that Luke wrote these books for. He might have been a donor that funded Luke to write them. He says he wrote about what Jesus “began” to do and teach in Luke, because Jesus is still doing and teaching through his body, the church. Now look at verse 3:
After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (this time that is coming, when Jesus is going to reign on earth, and we’re going to reign with him – and everything is going to be set right) On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 1:3-5
To this point, Luke is just reminding us of the ending of the gospel of Luke. Jesus died – was resurrected – appeared to his disciples – and for over 40 days he taught them about the Kingdom of God. He told them to go and wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ mention of the Holy Spirit brings up a question for the disciples:
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” – Acts 1:6
That may seem like an odd response to the Holy Spirit to us. We’re kind of like “what does the Holy Spirit have to do with the restoration of Israel?” It would have made perfect sense to the Disciples. Remember Jesus has just spent the last 40 days teaching them about the Kingdom of God – this time when Israel really is going to be restored, and when Jesus is going to rule the nations from the throne of David. The disciples knew that in Old Testament books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Joel the coming of the Holy Spirit was associated with the Kingdom of God.
There’s a passage in Isaiah 32 that specifically says that Israel will be desolate “Until the Spirit is poured upon it from on high – then the desert will become a fertile field – and justice and righteousness will dwell in Israel forever.”
When they hear “Holy Spirit,” they automatically think: Restoration of Israel. They ask Jesus a very important question: “What’s the schedule? What’s the plan? Are you at this time going to come in power and restore the kingdom to Israel and execute judgment? What’s the plan?”
Jesus’ response is very instructive. Look at what he says:
He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. – Acts 1:7
So they are asking about the kingdom of God. Notice exactly what Jesus says: He doesn’t just say “You don’t know when that is going to happen.” He doesn’t even say “You can’t know when that’s going to happen.” Rather, he says “It’s not for you to know – you’re not supposed to know – it’s not your right to know.” 3rd grade translation: It’s none of your beeswax! It’s not for you to know when the Kingdom is going to come.
But we want to know. We have a lot of Christians who over the centuries thought they knew when the kingdom was coming and predicted the Lord’s return. I saw one website that listed 242 predictions of Christ’s return over the years. I’ve seen my friends really get wound up over dates that people set. Last year we had predictions that Jesus would return because of the blood moon.
I understand the zeal for Christ’s return. That’s good. I believe that Jesus is coming from the sky – just like the angels tell the disciples here – and I believe that he’s going to bring the Kingdom. But I just want to say to these people – have you read this passage? We don’t know – we can’t know – and it’s not our business to know – when Jesus is going to return and restore the Kingdom. So we can’t know that part of the plan.
Notice here that Jesus goes beyond even that. He doesn’t just say it’s not for us to know the time of the Kingdom coming. Look at what he says: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority”
Notice he uses two words for time. In the Greek, they are “kairos” and “cronos” They mean both specific times – precise moments or specific dates – and general times – kinds of time: seasons – or periods – or epochs. One translation puts it “it’s not for you to know times or seasons.” Notice also that it’s plural “times” or “seasons.” This isn’t just about the one date of Jesus’ return. He is stating a general principle about reality.
The principle is this: We don’t get the plan! Not just with regard to Jesus’ return, but with regard to our church and our lives. There is a plan! This isn’t just random. The Father has set dates for you and for our church. He has set seasons for you and for our church. There’s a plan, but it’s not for us to know what that plan is.
That’s frustrating! So much of the time, isn’t that the one thing we want to know? Isn’t that the one thing we pray for? “Just tell me what the plan is, Lord.” What are the dates? What are the seasons? When is this time in my life going to be over? How is a new season going to start? What is the plan? We want to know that.
I want to know that for our church. We want to grow! So I want to know: How is it going to happen? What are things going to be like at launch? Where are we really going to connect with the community? What am I worried about now that really isn’t going to matter? Which things are a bigger deal than they seem to be right now? What are the times and seasons? What is the plan?
We want to know. And we want to know for ourselves as well. But Jesus says here in no uncertain terms – that we’re not going to get that. For whatever reason, Jesus doesn’t tell us why. That is not one of the things that God gives to guide us.
God doesn’t give us the plan. OK – so if he doesn’t give us the plan – what does he give us? Well, he gives us three things; let me show them to you from the passage. God does give us three things, and the first one is this:
1. His Power
Look at what Jesus says in verse 8 right after he tells them they won’t get the plan:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8
He says here that they will receive power. They will receive enablement, authority, strength to do what God called them to do. The Greek word is “dunamis.” I’ve heard preachers point out that this word dunamis is the root word for dynamite. So we can have these images of explosive, miraculous power. It does include that. There are times when the Holy Spirit enables the Apostles to do amazing things, like speak languages they don’t know – or heal the sick – or even raise the dead. But we would miss out on a lot if we restricted the word just to those ideas, because it’s a lot broader than that. It refers to strength – to authority – to enablement.
The verbal form of the word: dunamis just means “I am able.” Able at times to work miracles, but really much more than that. What Jesus is telling his apostles is that through the presence of his Spirit, God is going to give them everything they need to do their job: everything they need.
In Acts, that enablement included all kinds of things:
- At times, what they needed was the ability to get people’s attention – maybe through a miracle. So the Holy Spirit enabled them to do that.
- At times, it was boldness they needed – the boldness to proclaim Jesus when there would be disapproval. The disciples are given boldness in spades!
- At times, it was clarity in what they say about Jesus. In the gospels, the Disciples are very confused about the gospel and about who Jesus is. But in Acts, the Holy Spirit gives them this laser-focus on the gospel in their preaching.
- At times, they needed answers when they were questioned by authorities.
- At times, they needed to know where to go next or where not to go. The Holy Spirit specifically guides them.
- And most of the time, what they really needed was for God to open hearts to the message of the gospel. He does that again and again in Acts.
My point is that God was going to give them power – everything they needed to accomplish what God had called them to do. And Church, if we are attentive – if we will depend on the Holy Spirit, he’s going to give us everything that we need to do what he’s called us to do. Everything.
The Holy Spirit that is about to come on the Apostles at Pentecost is the same Holy Spirit that lives in us. He’s the Holy Spirit that is present at our prayer meetings. He’s the Holy Spirit that gave us our last place to gather. He’s the Holy Spirit that has provided for us. He’s the Holy Spirit that has spoken through so many of you, when you tell us why you believe in Jesus. That’s the Holy Spirit that lives in us. He’s the one that is guiding and equipping our church.
He will do amazing things. We will see his power, if we are submitted to him – if we are seeking God the way these early disciples were seeking God – if we are on our knees as a people, and asking God for his mercy and his help, we will see the power of the Holy Spirit, and he will give us all the power that we need to do what he’s called us to do.
So God gives us his power. But that power has to be understood in light of the second thing that he gives us – and that is:
2. His Purpose
Jesus gives the disciples God’s purpose. Look at what he says again:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8
“You will be my witnesses.” Notice that this is the same purpose that Jesus gave the disciples in Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and John – all four gospels. Each one has a Great Commission. Their purpose was to be his witnesses – to testify to his resurrection – to share the gospel story of creation, fall, redemption, and response with everyone – from Jerusalem – the city where they were at – to the surrounding area of Judea and Samaria – to the ends – the uttermost parts – of the earth. That was their job. That was God’s purpose for them.
Now here’s why it’s super-important that they know that: Because it is the purpose that defines the power. The purpose that God gives us is what defines the power that he provides. The job is what determines the enablement. God isn’t going to tell us to do one thing, while he equips us to do another. The task will always line up with the tools. The purpose defines the power.
Think about it with me. The disciples have missed the boat here. They are asking “Are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” That means that they are thinking that their job is going to be to rule. We will talk more about it next week, but they will sit on 12 thrones, judging the 12 tribes of Israel, so they are thinking they are going to rule. Well, that is a completely different job than being a witness. It requires a completely different set of tools. If you are going to rule, you need to know how to govern justly. You need the authority to execute your plans. You need the power to punish the disobedient. That’s the kind of power you need to rule.
Whereas we said God was going to give the Disciples the power to get people’s attention, and the boldness to speak when people disapprove, and clarity in witnessing. That’s a completely different thing. If the disciples are going to understand the power that God has provided, they have to understand the purpose that he’s called them to.
Let me give you an illustration. Josh Garcia is a handyman. He fixes stuff around houses. Chris Helminiak is a diesel mechanic. That’s their jobs. Can you imagine how frustrating it would be if they tried to do each other’s jobs with their tools? Josh, trying to overhaul a transmission with a paintbrush and some masking tape. Chris, trying to paint a wall with a crescent wrench? “This is the dumbest wall ever. Is there something wrong with this paint? What a stupid job!” It would be ineffective – and frustrating – and it wouldn’t make sense. The task and the tools have to line up.
Now here’s how that connects to our lives and our church. We have the same basic task as the Apostles. We have the same purpose. That’s why this task is repeated in Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts. That’s why the task is to the uttermost parts of the earth. The disciples never fulfilled that during their lifetime. Their task is still our task. This is God’s most basic task for this church, and it’s his most basic purpose for this leg of your journey with him. We’ll rule later, but right now our main purpose is to be his witnesses.
It’s so easy for us to be confused about that and to think our main purpose is something that God never truly empowered us to do.
- There are Christians who think that their main purpose is to prosper.
- There are Christians who think their main purpose is to take back America for Jesus.
- There are Christians who think their main purpose is to correct the injustice in the world.
Those are legitimate concerns. Those may be side-callings that we have a passion, but those are not the main thing that God has empowered us to do.
If you live your Chrisitan life thinking that your main job is to be comfortable – or to be in political power – or to correct all injustice – you’re going to be one very unhappy Christian. That’s a recipe for frustration It’s like painting the wall with a crescent wrench, because God doesn’t give us the tools for those things. The main thing that he has enabled us to do is bear witness to him. That’s our main purpose.
There are places in the world where the church is suffering greatly, and it’s fulfilling its mission beautifully. God is giving them extraordinary power – all the power they need. It is only the power to fulfill his purpose – not the power to be comfortable as much as we might want that. That’s not what’s promised to us here.
It’s so easy for us to forget. As we’ve prepared for this move, I’ve been worried about a lot of things:
- The chairs aren’t as comfortable.
- It’s a long walk to the bathroom.
- Is the space so big it’s going to swallow us?
I’m worried, because I want you guys to be comfortable. I want this to be enjoyable.
I realized this week that in the end that may have very little to do with God’s purposes for us. Because God’s first purpose is that we be witnesses for him. If comfort is what we’re all about, we might look around and go “God you’re not really providing very well.” But if being witnesses is what we’re all about, God’s providing big-time. This is probably the most strategic move he could make, because this puts us right in the middle of a community of people that need Jesus just like we do. If we will accept our job, God will empower us to be witnesses.
If I could just encourage some of you, maybe that frustrating job – maybe the difficult relationship – maybe that unjust circumstance that you find yourself in – isn’t God’s failure to provide for you. Maybe He’s put you there, because it’s the place where he most needs a witness. If he has done that – he will provide, not necessarily the power to make it comfortable – but he will provide the power to be his witness.
God gives us his power. He gives us his purpose. Now there’s one last thing I want to say – and I won’t linger here because this is really just an introduction to what we’re going to find again and again in Acts – but thirdly God gives us:
3. His Presence
The passage tells us that the power God gives us – that enables us to fulfill his purpose – comes from one place, and that is his presence in the form of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says “You will receive power after the Holy Spirit has come on you – and that is what will enable you to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and to the ends of the earth”
The power comes through the presence of the Spirit.
- It is the Spirit that draws people to God.
- It is the Spirit that turns cowards like the disciples into bold men.
- It is the Spirit that gives answers when we don’t have answers.
- It is the Spirit that opens people’s hearts up to the gospel.
- And it is the Spirit that guides us.
He’s like a GPS that really works! He doesn’t give us the whole plan – doesn’t show us the big picture – no matter how much we want it! Sometimes it seems like He’s telling us the turns just in the nick of time. Sometimes He’s hard to hear. If we will trust – and quiet ourselves – and listen for his voice – he will show us which way to go. He will.
Sometimes it won’t seem to make sense at the beginning. Rarely will it be the easiest way. But if – as a church and as individuals – we will submit to him and trust him – he will take us where we need to go. We’re going to see that as we study this Amazing book of Acts.
What does God give his people to guide them? He doesn’t give us the plan – that’s not for us to know. But he does give us his power – his purpose – and his presence. That’s what will enable us to go where we need to be.