You and I know that church life is not without its challenges, even—perhaps especially—in times of expansion and blessing. In his excellent commentary on the book of Acts, John Stott notes that Luke highlights three challenges facing the early church as gospel momentum began to grow: opposition from outside, sin from within, and the danger of division.
These challenges are still remarkably contemporary. Which one do you think is most applicable to you and your church? Where are we most vulnerable to our enemy’s attack as we seek to plant healthy, gospel-centered churches, and how can we stand firm?
Opposition from Outside
In Acts 4 and 5, Luke recounts the growing external opposition as Peter and John, and later all the apostles, are hauled before the Sanhedrin for faithfully preaching the good news of Jesus. From here on out, the temperature rises and they face sustained pressure from outside.
As believers, we ought not be surprised at the opposition we encounter (1 Pet. 4:12), whether from the state, other religious groups, or communities and individuals. Facing opposition is one of the ways in which we follow in Jesus’s footsteps. As you scan the pages of church history and cast your eyes around the globe even today, not facing opposition is what’s unusual! Believers need soft hearts but thick skins. When we feel the pressure of opposition, Christ holds us fast as we fix our eyes on him. Click To Tweet
The relative peace that much of the West has enjoyed is abnormal. Believers need soft hearts but thick skins. As the culture slowly but surely secularizes, we need to be able to take flak from those around us. When we feel the pressure of opposition, Christ holds us fast as we fix our eyes on him.
Sin from Within
The end of Acts 4 gives us a beautiful glimpse of the life of the early church as believers willingly shared their possessions with those in need, selling what they had and going without for the sake of the wider body. And yet, it’s from this culture of generosity that the shocking story of Ananias and Saphira emerges.
This married couple blended in. They looked like everyone else—they also generously sold some land. Yet it becomes clear that their motives were impure. They held some money back for themselves, lying to the Apostles, the Holy Spirit, and everyone else (Acts 5:1–11). Even in a time of spiritual blessing and bounty, Satan was at work seeking to take captive, deceive, and divide. God removed this root of deception quickly before it took hold and spread.
Sin is not a game. We must not tire of fighting it, and we must not become apathetic or blind to our propensity to it. We must courageously call sin out and deal with it. By God’s grace, we can turn in repentance and walk in newness of life because of our Savior’s sufficient sacrifice.Sin is not a game. We must not tire of fighting it, and we must not become apathetic or blind to our propensity to it. Click To Tweet
Danger of Division
The third challenge these believers encountered in Acts 6 feels far less dangerous at first. Indeed, it seems to be merely an administrative glitch, yet it’s just as threatening. In this diverse church family, three threads converge in the one simple issue of needing to make sure the entire community of widows are cared for.
First, there’s the importance of showing compassionate concern for those in need; these widows might have no other source of income or food. Second, there’s the danger that division between different ethnic groups within the church will undo the unity achieved by the cross. And third, there’s the need for the apostles to be enabled to prioritize teaching, and for the church family to multiply more godly leaders to serve within the growing body.
Just as the early church raised up deacons to deal with these challenges, so we ought to seek to release others into service and leadership. And when we see our temptation to division and lack of care for others, we can look to Christ, in whom we are eternally united, and stand firm.
Standing Firm for God’s Glory
It’s striking that after this third challenge Luke concludes, “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). With these three obstacles removed, the Lord blesses his church with more growth, even to the extent of priests—some of the hardest nuts to crack—coming to faith!
So, where are we vulnerable today? I undertook a small survey on social media recently to ask this question. About 55 percent of the hundred or so people who answered considered sin from within to be our main challenge and 38 percent voted for the danger of division. Far more than opposition from outside, people thought sin and opposition within the church body was our biggest challenge. Which of these three challenges most resonate with you and your church at this time? Which of these three most resonates with Acts 29? Knowing where we’re vulnerable is essential to standing firm as church planters and leaders of Christ’s body. Click To Tweet
As John Owen famously said, “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” Knowing where we’re vulnerable is essential to standing firm as church planters and leaders of Christ’s body. By God’s grace and for his glory, let’s look honestly at our sin. Let’s joyfully gaze upon Christ’s sufficient work and stand firm in him. And let’s rejoice to see God’s Word increasing and disciples multiplying all over the world.