W. Carter Johnson is Pastor of The First Baptist Church, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. Born in West Virginia in 1920, he is still a young man in a young Church. He was ordained by the Baptist General Conference in 1948. He is a graduate of Barrington Bible College, holds the A.B. in Theology from Gordon College, and receives his B.D. this year from Gordon Divinity School. He is married and has two children. His experience in four pastorates, and on the college and seminary campuses, has given him a love for people and a desire to be spiritually helpful. Now and then he dreams of more study and then of teaching in the field of practical theology.
And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees, came upon them, being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they laid hands on them, and put them in hold unto the next day.… And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers, and elders, and scribes, and Annas the high prist, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high pricest … asked, By what power, or by what name, have ye done this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them … Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone … set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.
The man talking with me was a study in despondency. His face, the tone of his voice—his entire attitude—betrayed a sense of frustration. Was he a lost soul needing Christ? No, he was a believer. In fact, he was a minister of the Gospel. Yet he felt completely defeated.
This is no isolated case. In spite of the upsurge of vigor in evangelical theological thought, a sense of defeatism exists in many a local church. The spiritual indifference and the materialistic idolatry of our age at times seems insuperable. Thus there comes over the church a sense of frustration and defeat. There comes a wearying in welldoing.
This defeatism may be understandable, but it is not excusable! The Bible knows nothing of the word “defeat” as applied to the Church of Jesus Christ! Hardship—yes; opposition—yes, but never defeat! Jesus described the Church as a conquering power, against which the very gates of hell shall not prevail. And these words were not merely theoretical because the early Church revealed precisely this character. She was imperfect: she was not without her faults and weaknesses, but she was still a mighty force for God in spite of all the opposition of her day.
What has happened to enable this creeping paralysis of defeatism to overcome us? One fact is certain: the Church today can triumph! She can be a power for God! She can reach men and women for Jesus Christ! But she must learn some lessons from the early Church and apply these to her own life.
One portion of the book of the Acts, chapter 4:1–31, gives us some of these lessons. The scene is Jerusalem. In Acts, chapter 3, we have Peter and John healing a lame man and then preaching the Gospel to the crowd which gathers. Now, in chapter 4, comes the opposition. The apostles are taken, placed in prison, and the next day they are brought before the Sanhedrin. Notice that the opposition came especially from the Sadducees. Briefly, they were a Jewish sect who were rationalists in religion. They denied the supernatural. They scoffed at the idea of miracles and ridiculed the thought of a bodily resurrection. Many of them were wealthy and exercised tremendous political influence. This then was the group which arrayed itself against the apostles: a group which was the embodiment of theological unbelief, cultural snobbery, materialistic indifference, and political high-handedness. Formidable opposition indeed! Yet it was not the Sanhedrin which triumphed, but the Church! We repeat, the Church today can triumph, by applying the lessons set forth in this passage.
AN IRRESISTIBLE COMPULSION
The first lesson is this. The church that triumphs must be gripped by an irresistible compulsion. One is immediately struck by the tremendous motivation of these men. They were told pointedly in verse 18, “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.” They replied simply in verse 20, “We cannot but speak.…” There was that within them which made it impossible for them to do otherwise!
Notice that this compulsion stemmed first from an intense conviction. “We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” These men had walked with Jesus. They had heard his words and marveled at his works. Then they had seen their world collapse around them in the darkness of Calvary. They remembered how they had struggled with their sorrow-benumbed minds to understand that Jesus was really dead!
But something had changed all that! There was first the bewilderment as they had stood staring into the empty tomb and realized that Jesus was not there! Then suddenly, as a meadow-mist is dispelled by the rising sun, their doubts were lifted! Jesus himself, alive, stood before them! Jesus, triumphant over death! Jesus saying, “handle me and see”! Incredible!—but gloriously and wonderfully true! Jesus lives!
“And you tell us to be quiet? One may as easily command the sun to stop shining or all the waves of all the oceans to be still! These things are part of our very lives! We know whereof we speak and we must speak! We have a message of forgiveness and of life!”
How different this is from the way in which so many Christians today face the world! “Speak for Christ?” they say. “We can’t speak!” These men said “We cannot but speak!” This is far more than a difference of a word. It indicates a basic difference in the life! Could it be that we have lost the intensity of conviction? Could it be that we are no longer gripped by the great facts and implications of the Gospel as these are revealed unto us in the Scriptures? Most of us would hasten to say that there has been no lessening of our theological convictions. But this is not the whole of the matter! Are our convictions of the kind that issue in compulsion? When we truly believe, we not only lay hold upon the great truths of the Faith, but they lay hold upon us! Christ becomes a living reality in our experience! Therefore we must speak! We must speak because of the joy of our own salvation: we must speak because the salvation of others depends upon it!
But this compulsion stemmed also from a divine command. Jesus had said to them, “Ye shall be witnesses unto me.…” Now Peter says in verse 19, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” Should we obey God? To put the question is to answer it! If God be God, He is our Sovereign Lord! We must obey Him!
In the North Pacific lies the little island of Iwo. Its dry surface of volcanic ash has been likened to a landscape on the moon. For this tiny but vital piece of land we paid the price of some 21,000 casualties in our war with Japan. For the men who took it, it was never a question of a feeling of adequacy or inadequacy, courage or lack of it. They took it in obedience to a command!
How strange that we, as Christians, can so easily cast aside the fact that we are commanded to speak for Jesus Christ! It isn’t merely a question of feeling, but of obedience! The Church that triumphs must be gripped by an irresistible compulsion, so filled with intense conviction and so under the Lordship of Jesus Christ that she must speak for God! And this is not the responsibility of a few, but of every believer!
AN IRREFUTABLE EVIDENCE
But there is another lesson. The church that triumphs must present to the world an irrefutable evidence. Come back to our two apostles. They had preached that this Jesus who had been crucified, had also been raised from the dead—that he is the Living Lord through whom there is forgiveness of sins and eternal life. Weighty words indeed!—but what evidence was there for these supernatural claims? The answer was simple—the healed man. Who made this man whole? Jesus of Nazareth! “By him doth this man stand here before you whole”! Then we read in verse 14, “And beholding the man which was healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it.” Let the Sadducees deny the supernatural! Let them scoff at the idea of miracles! Before them stood the irrefutable evidence!
The Church that triumphs must not merely proclaim the Gospel, but she must present to the world the evidence of the reality of that which she preaches! Now what is this evidence? It is none other than the “healed man”—not a man healed in body, but a man made whole in his basic nature—a man whose life has been transformed by the power of Jesus Christ.
Every Christian is to stand before the world as a “healed man”—the living evidence of the power of God in the life! Yet how often the Church presents an entirely different spectacle to the world! How often the lines of distinction are so effaced that it is practically impossible to distinguish the professing Christian from the one who makes no such profession! When this is the case, it is no wonder that the world turns a deaf ear to our preaching! If the Church is to triumph we must first of all examine ourselves! There must be confession of sin! There must be a return to godly living! Our own lives must be the irrefutable evidence of the truth we proclaim!
David Brainerd, seriously ill with consumption, labored so intensely among the Indians of the Dela ware River that he died of the disease when only 29 years of age. But his success was not merely because of the intensity of his work. It was because of his godly life. Those to whom he preached saw the evidence of the truth he proclaimed! So must it be with us!
But the Church that triumphs must also be in the work of healing men. That prince of expositors, Dr. G. Campbell Morgan, once said that the Church that is not healing men has no argument. It is time for us to stop judging the spirituality and effectiveness of a church by the number of activities listed in the Sunday bulletin. Activity alone is never an indication of true spiritual life or accomplishment! The vital question is, what is the purpose of those activities and what are the results? Are we reaching men for Jesus Christ? Is our labor directed toward the salvation of souls and the transformation of lives? This is the evidence which we must present to the world and for this there is no substitute!
AN INEXHAUSTIBLE POWER
But there is yet a third lesson. The Church that Triumphs Must Rely Upon an Inexhaustible Power. Notice the rather ludicrous spectacle of this meeting in Jerusalem. Here, sitting cross-legged in a great semicircle, in an attitude of ecclesiastical solemnity, are the religious dignitaries. Before them, in the center, stand these two apostles and the unnamed man who had been healed. The contrast is striking. These three have no wealth. They have no social prominence. No political power stands behind them. They are, as verse 13 tells us, “unlearned and ignorant men.” These words are not used here in the sense in which we often use them today. The term “unlearned” means simply that they had no formal rabbinical training. The word translated “ignorant” was often used merely in the sense of a lay-person or common person as distinguished from one of special training or position. The thought is that the apostles were just common people.
How could they stand against such opposition? There is one answer. They relied upon an inexhaustible power, the power of the Risen Christ realized in their lives through the indwelling Spirit of God! The result was triumph! In verse 31 we read, “they spake the Word of God with boldness.” They spoke freely, clearly, fully. There was no stifling of the message, no hesitation. The power of God rested upon them!
But this is merely stating the result. Let us trace backward briefly and notice the factors which contributed to this result. We notice first that this powerful ministry of the Word was wholly the result of the activity of the Holy Spirit. Verse 31 says, “and they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and they spake the word.…” It was God at work and not men only! We must never forget this! These things cannot be done in the energy of the flesh. God’s power will be evidenced only when the Church is filled with the Spirit of God and is under his guidance and control!
Comment On The Sermon
The sermon “The Church That Triumphs” was nominated forCHRISTIANITY TODAY’s Select Sermon Series by Dr. Lloyd M. Perry, Professor of Practical Theology in Gordon Divinity School. His overcomment follows:
This sermon was selected because of its principles of sermon construction, persuasive appeal, practical application, progressive development, positive emphasis, pertinence to present-day living, and its plain presentation of biblical truth.
Unity of thought characterizes the content. One controlling assertion, phrased in the form of a proposition of ability serves to crystallize the content of the entire message: “The Church today can triumph.”
The introduction has its setting in the community. It makes a realistic appraisal of the Church as she stands in the midst of our present-day life. The sermon then proceeds to lead the reader from the immediate community to the cross of Christ. The language of the introduction stimulates interest since it employs life-situation terminology. It is phrased in terms of the modern American idiom.
The body of the message—consisting of the three lessons stated in alliterative form together with their development—is well proportioned, progressive, and easy to follow. These lessons are drawn directly from one passage of Scripture. This fact may well enhance the teaching value of the sermon. These main points of emphasis in the sermon are not only scripturally undergirded but are stated as pertinent truths applicable to the Church of our day.
The major illustrations represent different areas of interest. These include personal experience, war, missions, biography, evangelism, and biblical life. They are concise and stated in vivid language.
Application of the sermonic truths appears throughout the message. This tends to keep the interest. Although the primary emphasis within the sermon is the edification of the saints there is also material which may be used by the Holy Spirit for the salvation of sinners. The application in the conclusion crystallizes and re-emphasizes that which has permeated the sermon. The conclusion stimulates the reader, and encourages him to think upon his ways and to change them. He is prompted to cry out as did listeners to an earlier sermon, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). The recapitulation of the lessons at the close of the message serves to fix the message in mind.
The biblical foundation, spiritual warmth, and directness of style gives the feeling that the sermon does not originate with the preacher, but that he is being used as a channel for a message which has a higher origin.
But come back one step more. Here we come to the factor of prayer. In this same verse we read, “And when they had prayed … they were all filled with the Holy Ghost.…” Here are three great inseparables—the power of God, the filling of the Holy Spirit, and the exercise of prayer. “Ah”, we say, “but we do pray!” True, yet it isn’t the form of prayer but the attitude of the heart in prayer that is all-important! Is Jesus Christ everything to that praying heart?
We sense this in the prayer of these disciples. They had now returned to the company of believers. They had been commanded not to speak in Jesus’ name. Then they prayed, and the essence of their prayer was that God would enable them to be faithful and to be used for his glory! How easy to say, “Lord, bless the financial needs of our church, but I can’t tithe!” “Lord, how many children need the Gospel, but I can’t teach!” “Lord, there are so many homes without any contact with the church, but I can’t visit!” How often there is simply an unwillingness to be used of God as an instrument in the answering of the prayers we speak with our lips! No wonder there is often so little evidence of the power of God!
There is a tremendous challenge to us in the prayers of these men, but there is also wonderful encouragement. These who prayed and these who were so mightily filled with the Holy Spirit were just common men! D. L. Moody, who put his arms around two continents and drew them to Jesus Christ was just a common man, but he was a common man in the hands of God! This is at once the marvel of the grace of God and the glory of the Church—that common men can talk with God, and common men can be filled with his Spirit! And after all, are we not all just common men? But herein is our glory and our power, that even we, completely surrendered unto the Lordship of Jesus Christ, can know the inexhaustible power of the living God in our lives!
The Church, the Body of Christ, can triumph today, but we as individual members of the Church must learn anew these lessons and apply them to our own hearts! In recent days, nations have been forced to make “agonizing reappraisals” of their status in the world. May God give us grace to make an “agonizing reappraisal” of our own lives—to face our failures, to repent of our sin, and to surrender our lives wholly to the Lordship of Jesus Christ! May we be gripped by this irresistible compulsion; may we present before the world this irrefutable evidence; may we rely wholly upon the inexhaustible power of God in our lives! This, and this alone, is the means of triumph!
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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