The challenge at the end of Acts

Paul lived there two whole years in his own rented quarters and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with complete boldness and without restriction.
Acts 28:30-31

Paul lived the gospel with no restrictions.

He only had a rented house and didn’t own his own shelter. He was on house arrest and was limited in his ability to move about or communicate freely. He had limited potential to earn finances. But none of that deterred him. The picture painted in this last passage of Acts tells us quite the opposite. This is a sobering reminder that many of the barriers we’ve placed before the gospel are self-placed.

Holy Spirit, baptism and tongues

Now we know that the Holy Spirit is necessary for salvation (Romans 8:11) but when do we get the Holy Spirit? Is it when we accept Christ or after? What about the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Some believe this baptism to be the point where the Holy Spirit fills up a person. Some think this is a different event from salvation, others believe it to be the same event and yet others believe it to be non-essential for salvation but important for empowering life in Christ. This baptism is mentioned in a few places in the bible, mostly without being explained (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5; Acts 11:16). What we do know is that this baptism is promised by Christ Himself.

Many in the charismatic / pentecostal circle believe this event to be the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:4) and that the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is evidenced by speaking in tongues (since they all spoke in tongues then). Speaking in tongues was indeed used as evidence of salvation (Acts 10:45-47). However, if speaking in tongues were the only evidence of the Holy Spirit’s in-filling, Paul would have no right to say that tongues is a part of the suite of gifts, each being as important as the other (1 Corinthians 12:8-11, 30) because tongues would be of prime importance! How else would you know you are saved?

But we do know that the Holy Spirit does many things (John 14:26, 16:8; Acts 13:2; Romans 8:26-27; Ephesians 5:18-24). There are not just the gifts of the Spirit, but the fruit of the Spirit and other works of the Spirit, everything ranging from from teaching, convicting, speaking boldly, encouraging to transforming lives. But focusing on the variety of gifts, we get to the heart of Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians.

There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
1 Corinthians 12:6-7, 11, 13

Three things stand out when I look at 1 Corinthians 12:

  • The Spirit that we have is one and the same Spirit (“same God”, “one and the same Spirit”,  “one body”, “one Spirit”) 
  • Everyone has this Spirit (“in everyone”, “to each one”, “we were all baptised”, “we were all made to drink”; see also Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17)
  • This one Spirit gives different gifts to each and everyone (“in all of them and in everyone”)

What we do know then that tongues comes as a part of the suite of gifts that come with the Spirit, and God determines just who receives what (1 Corinthians 12:11). Everyone who believes receives the Holy Spirit. Your gifts do not determine how much Holy Spirit is being poured out! The Spirit comes in one size, because it is all the same Spirit. If our gifts (or tongues) determine how much Holy Spirit we get, then Paul’s words would have no meaning.

One might ask then how we understand Ezekiel 47:1-12. Doesn’t it say that ankle deep, knee deep and waist deep and swim deep? Isn’t that different levels of immersion in the Spirit? Indeed, but if this was a picture of the Holy Spirit, wouldn’t the same water. swim deep inhibit us from entering the Temple (Ezekiel 47:5, “a river that no one could cross”)? Should not the full depth bring us closer to Christ rather than hinder us? It would make more sense to see the water as the Gospel, the message of Christ, being poured out – first ankle deep (Jerusalem), then knee deep (Judeah), then waist deep (Samaria) and swim deep (the ends of the earth). The levels then represents the penetration of the gospel throughout the world that no man can stop or escape over (Acts 1:8). This gospel gives life to what is dead, brings provision, fruitfulness and healing (Ezekiel 47:8-12).

Christian life

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.
Colossians 1:27-29 (NIV)

Some people say the Christian life is easy – no striving, no tiresome labour, just bask in God’s great love. The picture that Paul paints of his own life and ministry differs greatly from this picture of a luxurous easy Christian life. Granted Paul is an apostle, he isn’t just any run-of-the-mill Christian. In today’s context, you might see him as a church planter, missionary or senior pastor. One who puts His whole life forward to the call of Christ as a servant of the gospel. But wait, aren’t we all? Paul talks about “you” and “your” in verses 21-27 and then says that “He is the one we proclaim” verse 28. He gives the effect that “we” isn’t just Timothy and himself, but the readers as well! We are all commissioned to be disciple-makers and reconciliators (Matthew 28:16-20). We all lay down our lives to be used solely, purposefully and entirely for His glory and purpose as believers. We are not so different from Paul afterall.

Our goal, as is his, is to present ourselves and others “fully mature in Christ“. It is interesting that Paul doesn’t measure success in ministry as large conversion numbers or big church buildings or attendance. But what does it mean to be spiritually mature? It seems that everyone has different definitions of what being a mature christian means. Have a read of this article:

Ephesians 4:13 tells us that maturity is “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” Simply put, everything that Christ is, you are. It is much more complex than asking “What Would Jesus Do?” It is being at every moment what Jesus is. Think what Jesus thinks, love what Jesus loves, hate what Jesus hates, do what Jesus does. Everyone knows that this doesn’t necesssarily happen the minute someone accepts Christ, instead it is a process of working through our faith in our walk with God. When Paul says “fully mature in Christ“, he really does mean “in Christ“. Spiritual maturity is how deep we are “in Christ” or how reconciled we are in Christ (Colossians 1:22; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21). The closest practical term to describe this is Christ-likeness.

To such an end, Paul labours. The words used in this passage to describe the nature of his labour are not easy words. NIV translates the meaning of the words as “strenuously contend with all the energy“, the ESV translates the words as “toil, struggling with all his energy“. The NKJV uses the words “labour” and “striving“, words that any modern preacher of grace would seldom (or never) say to their congregation. These words seem to have been given a negative connotation these days. But Paul uses them with confidence to describe the work required to bring people to maturity in Christ.

It would be a shame if the word had ended there, but it does not. Our labour is but a drop in the ocean compared to what Christ is doing in us, through us. All that Paul does is because of “the energy Christ so powerfully works in” him. Paul is only the channel, the real work happens elsewhere. Sure it isn’t easy for Paul or us, but the work is partnered and empowered. Becoming mature and bringing people to maturity in Christ is not something that we can do, but work that God does continuously in us and others (Philippians 1:6). We are not promised an easy ride in Christian life, but we are promised that persevering will produce maturity. James 1:2-4 says “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

What we need to do in life is to learn to be tenacious in our Christian faith. Be tenacious with discipling ourselves and others. Be tenacious with humbling ourselves before difficult leadership. Be tenacious with growing the fruit of the spirit. Be tenacious when life throws lemons at you. My youth pastor, Doc John once said “the key to a successful Christian life is… (pause for dramatic effect) perseverence”, and how true he is. Stay in the boat, get up when you fall and keep going.

We aren’t earning brownie points in heaven or earning our salvation by labouring, we are responding in the best way we know how to God’s gift – “the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” It isn’t easy, but Christ has already made it worth the labour.

Christ in us, the hope of glory

“In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus”
Ancent epitaph

It reads “How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing”.

Nothing life to nothing death. No hope, no future. That is the outlook described in Ephesians 2:12, “remember that at that time you were separate from Christ… without hope and without God in the world.”

But we are not “like the rest, who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13), we have Christ in us, “the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Even death is filled with hope because He has risen (1 Corinthians 15:16-21)!

A meaningless life isn’t one that is filled with tiring strenuous labour, but one that is lacking hope in Christ.

Fuel for the flame

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.
Philippians 1:12-14

Paul’s experience of being in chains has been brewing in my head for some time. Here are some observations:

“Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel.”
Paul starts off without a hint of complaining or whining, even though he is in chains. His concern is solely for the advancement of the gospel (Philippians 1:18). In that respect, he has succeeded. Paul being in prison did not slow down the spread of the gospel. It did not even come to a halt. In fact, the gospel was advanced because he was in prison. Him being in prison is the reason for the advancement. It seems that his readers (affectionately called brothers and sisters) would have thought otherwise.

“As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ.”
Being in prison did not impede him from spreading the message. With his chains, he found a preaching avenue where his listeners would have no choice but to listen. He gleefully accepted the job of being the prison chaplain. Although he was physically constrained, his influence soared far beyond his physical movements. Where he couldn’t go, his story could. So he became the message. The tables seemed to have turned, it looks like the gospel was getting free publicity while the guards were in chains to Paul.

“And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.”
His chains did not just have an effect to unbelievers, it had a secondary effect on believers as well. The first thing to note here is that they became confident in the Lord. Paul effectively proved that chains do not hinder the message of the gospel and instead pushes the gospel out. He has proved what they have known all along – that God is God even in prison; the gospel is the gospel even in prison. Christians hearing of his experience now know without a doubt that the God who commands the gospel to be preached (Matthew 28:16-20) advances the gospel even while we are in chains. Indeed being in chains is not a hinderance, it is an opportunity! With that confidence, we have no more fear in speaking the Word. If chains spread the gospel, what more can freedom do!

I think I need a new perspective about evangalism. I need to put aside my petty worries about being restrained or persecuted and look at the God who uses every and any opportunity to save the lost to Himself. In a land where prayer is taken out of schools and Christian chaplains struggle to present the gospel, I want my story to go where my voice cannot be heard. I want my story to be synonymous with His message.