And when they had prayed, they place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness. —Acts 4:31
Real Christianity is simple. It’s Jesus Community Mission. You can leave out many traditions. You can make many mistakes. But if you have Jesus Community Mission, you’re into real Christianity, and your life will matter forever.
It starts with Jesus, and his good news for bad people. Is it too obvious to say? I don’t think so. We need constant refocus on the Lord. One man put it this way: “Believers may not often realize it, but even as believers we are either centered on man or centered on God. There is no alternative. Either God is the center of our universe and we have become rightly adjusted to him, or we have made ourselves the center and are attempting to make all else orbit around us and for us.”
We are not well-integrated beings. We are divided and scattered, hassled and unfree. We think it’s because we’re busy. The truth is deeper. We’ve established in our hearts something like a board room, with a big table and chairs all around it. A big committee of competing selves sits at the table in that board room deep in our hearts. There is the professional self, the family self, the religious self, the goof-off self, the financial self, and so forth. But this committee never agrees. They argue and shout and vote against each other. We feel the pull of each self staking its claims. Then we invite Jesus onto our committee and give him a vote, thinking that’s Christianity. But that isn’t the real Jesus. That’s committee member-Jesus. And that’s when being a Christian is a chore. It isn’t sincere, from the inside out. It’s a performance we put on, even for ourselves. As long as our committee still has voting power, what else can we expect?
Wouldn’t it be honest and freeing to admit this morning, “I need to get re-centered on Jesus”? Aren’t we tired of being pulled in so many directions with our chaotic selves? Will you give Jesus the mastery of your life? Real Christianity feels like an adventure, because Jesus comes in and fires the committee and takes over. He can quiet you and focus you and satisfy you. Only he can.
Real Christianity begins with Jesus. Then Community. Again, is that too obvious to say? I don’t think so. We have lots of churches, but little community. Walking in the light, being honest with one another about our problems, loving one another in care groups, not treating church as another weekend activity along with the ball game but as the defining center of our weekly schedules – that is rare in the world today. But real Christianity is a community experience, and the Lord is giving it to us here at Immanuel.
What has the Lord done here at the level of community? Let me sum it up this way. Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture. The message of grace creates an environment of grace. When we come into church, we walk out of an environment of law and criticism and fault-finding and judgment, and we walk into an environment of gospel + safety + time, where we can start relaxing and changing. Here’s how Keith Miller describes a healthy church:
The neighborhood bar is possibly the best counterfeit there is to the fellowship Christ wants to give His church. It’s an imitation, dispensing liquor instead of grace, escape rather than reality, but it is an accepting and inclusive fellowship. It is unshockable. It is democratic. You can tell people secrets and they usually don’t tell others or even want to. The bar flourishes not because most people are alcoholics, but because God has put into the human heart the desire to know and be known, to love and be loved, and so many seek a counterfeit at the price of a few beers. With all my heart I believe that Christ wants His church to be a fellowship where people can come in and say, ‘I’m sunk!,’ ‘I’m beat!,’ ‘I’ve had it!’ Alcoholics Anonymous has this quality. Our churches too often miss it.
Every week when we gather, we come in with many wounds. We come out of a world where we’ve been beaten up all week long. We all need a soft place to land, where we can breathe again. That’s community at Immanuel, with gospel + safety + time – lots of gospel, lots of safety, lots of time, for lots of people. Many more people need to be experiencing this.
Jesus Community – and now Mission. When we serve others here at Immanuel, that’s Community. But when we serve people outside Immanuel, that’s Mission. Mission answers the question, What are we going to do with this newness God is giving us? It can’t be for us only. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). Here’s what we’re doing about that: making the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond. That wording is unique to Immanuel, but the concept is not. This is Christianity. Can you imagine any church anywhere looking at the domestication of Jesus and that church saying, “Okay”? God created the universe for the display of his glory in Jesus. Mission is saying Yes to God’s sacred purpose and letting it change us.
But what about that word “non-ignorable”? Let’s press into that word today. The early church made Jesus non-ignorable. How did they do that? Let’s see one of the primary reasons why they made an impact.
Acts 4 tells the story of the early church coming up against the first major pushback they received and how God helped them to push through the pushback. In Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit comes down to empower the early church as a prophetic presence in their world. In chapter 3, Peter heals a lame man at the temple: “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6). And the lame man rose up and walked. Centuries later, when St. Dominic went to Rome to ask the Pope to authorize his new order, the Dominicans, the Pope gave him a tour of the Vatican and its treasures. Thinking of Acts 3, the Pope said, “Peter can no longer say, ‘Silver and gold have I none.’” Dominic replied, “Neither can he say, ‘Rise and walk.’” The early church had no money and no prestige. They were simple nobodies, for the most part. They believed that a man recently executed as a criminal was the answer to all the world’s problems. Rumor even had it that they practiced cannibalism – something about eating someone’s flesh and drinking his blood. Christians stopped going to the gladiator shows, which was as popular as protesting the Super Bowl. Their message was perceived as a novelty, and a stupid novelty at that, and their lifestyle aroused suspicion. But they made Jesus non-ignorable. How? They were bold.
The key word in Acts chapter 4 is “boldness.” We see it in verses 13, 29 and 31. God uses bold people. We saw in Psalm 51 that God uses sinners to advance his cause. So if you’re a sinner, God can use you, as long as your heart is broken and contrite. We saw in 2 Corinthians 12 that God uses wounded people to advance his cause. If your life is not easy, if you are overwhelmed, God can use you, as long as your life isn’t about you any more but for the sake of Christ. Now today, God uses bold people. Not lethargic people, not timid people, not people who are thinking, “Do I have to?” Boldness says, “You mean I get to?” So let’s ask three questions this morning. One, What is boldness? Two, Why does boldness matter? Three, How does God give us boldness?
What is boldness?
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. —Acts 4:13
Boldness is not anger or brashness or being obnoxious. Sometimes when Christians try to serve the Lord, they act in silly ways. But the Bible says, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders” (Colossians 4:5). In other words, Anticipate how people are going to react, and behave as winsomely as you can. But when the only way people will like you is if you allow Jesus to be ignored, you have to be bold. You can be a soft-spoken, gentle person and be bold. There are a gazillion ways to live boldly for Jesus. Evangelism is one way, but not the only way. You might have the means to finance a new church plant all by yourself. That’s bold. The key to living boldly is, you won’t go along meekly with the way things are. You don’t want conflict. You try to avoid it. But you want to see more people loving the real Jesus. So you’re taking a stand for the gospel and you’re willing to be misunderstood by a world that likes Jesus Jr. but fears the real Jesus because they don’t know how good he really is.
This word translated “boldness” here in Acts 4 is a compound word in Greek with two parts: “all” + “saying.” Boldness is an all-saying candor and freedom and openness in the way we speak and live. Boldness refuses to shave the radical edge off. It is confidence in the gospel. One of the followers of Martin Luther said this:
If I profess with the loudest voice every portion of the Word of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing him. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle front besides is mere flight and disgrace, if he flinches at that point.
What is the Lord calling you to do, to make the real Jesus non-ignorable in our city and far beyond? Whatever it is, it’s got to be bold. And because “boldness” is a biblical word, God is the one who defines it. You and I aren’t bold when we think we’re being bold. We’re bold when God looks at the way we live and says, “Now that’s bold!”
How do we see that here in the early Christians? Verse 31: “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God.” When Peter and John were released by the authorities and went into this prayer meeting with their church, they told everyone about the threats. For all they knew, they might be crucified. It had happened before, obviously. But these believers did not pray for safety. They did not pray for the threats to go away. They did not pray judgment on the people making those threats. Verse 29: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness.” What they prayed about was themselves. They prayed that they wouldn’t cave under pressure. That prayer itself was bold. That prayer itself was the beginning of God’s answer to their prayer. The struggle is already over in verse 29, and the mission will advance. No power on earth can stop believers who are praying for the gift of boldness, because God will give it.
Why does boldness matter?
So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. —Acts 4:18
C. S. Lewis said, “Dangers there must be; how else can you keep a story going?” Danger and pressure and hardship are a gift. They are God’s way of rescuing our stories from boredom and opening a new door to more gospel advance than we’ve ever seen before.
Here’s why that matters. The whole Bible is a story of boldness. Abraham was bold to believe the promise of God and leave the comforts of home. Moses was bold to confront Pharaoh. Joshua was bold to lead Israel into the Promised Land. David was bold to face Goliath. The prophets were bold to speak truth against powerful men who didn’t want to hear it. The Son of God was bold to enter this world as a humble man sent to die. The apostles were bold, as we see in Acts 4. It is impossible to make sense of what God has been all along without factoring in boldness as the leading edge of his blessing.
The Bible is the boldest book in the world. Here is a very small sample: “Fear not, for I am with you” (Isaiah 41:10). “He who loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10). “The righteous are as bold as a lion” (Proverbs 28:1). “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). The Bible is a comforting book. But it is more, it must be more, because God wants to change the subject throughout the entire world from every false comfort to the real comforts of the real Jesus, and that isn’t easy.
The audacity of the Bible is God himself lovingly and insistently helping us to break out of our patterns of conformity and fear and live joyfully and honestly, as emotionally authentic people, unashamed about who we are and the One we love. Fear of criticism crushes boldness. I see nothing in the Bible to make us over-worry about ruffling people’s feathers. I see much in the Bible to help us stop worrying about human disapproval. In fact, in Philippians 1:27-30 Paul says that not being frightened by opposition is part of what it means to live in a way “worthy of the gospel.” Boldness is not a super-spiritual option. It’s a gospel-centered life. It is a gift God gives to people he’s going to use for his glory. Let’s not be afraid of being labeled and slandered. The danger we face is not that we might be misjudged by a few biased people. The danger is that we would not be living proof of who Jesus really is.
Every day we face choices that turn us one way or the other – either toward gospel advance or toward avoiding trouble. What guides our choices day by day? Our audacious Savior is ready to baptize us in his boldness.
How does God give us boldness?
When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God. —Acts 4:23-24
How did God give the early church boldness? Through prayer. They asked God for boldness, because they were running low, and he had plenty. They had been bold back in chapter 2, on the Day of Pentecost. But already, only two chapters later, they need God’s help all over again. They’re weak. They’re afraid. One day they’re as bold as lions. The next day the wind has gone out of their sails. So, what do they do? They pray. They don’t give themselves a pep talk. They don’t calculate the political odds. They pray, because they believe God will help them. And he does.
I have been wonderfully rebuked this week by Acts chapter 4. I am rebuked that I rarely pray for boldness. I want to change. Please pray for me, that my prayers will change – how I pray for myself and for you. God has a gift for us, as verse 29 says, “all boldness,” all 31 flavors for all situations. We only need to ask him. Will you join me in praying this way? Will you join me in making this part of our lifestyle here at Immanuel? In our care groups, in the men’s and women’s ministries, in our officers’ meetings, in staff meetings, everywhere – let’s pray for boldness. We have the need. God has the supply. This is perfect.
To me, the fascinating thing about God’s answer is how he shakes the building they’re meeting in. Why did God do that? To show them that their critics are weak, compared with their mighty Friend on high. He has all the power. A. E. Whitman helped us see the real Jesus when he wrote,
If you knew that there was One who knows you better than you know yourself, and loves you better than you love yourself, who can make you all you ought to be, steadier than your squally nature, able to save you from squandering your glorious life, who could make real the things you hope are true, and if that One had done one unmistakable thing to prove, even at the price of his own blood, that you could come to him, and having failed, come again, would you not fall at his feet with the treasure of your years, your powers, service and love? And is there not such a One, and does he not call you?