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Sermon Series

 

February 28, 2016 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Acts 28:17-31 [NLTse]
17 Three days after Paul’s arrival, he called together the local Jewish leaders. He said to them, “Brothers, I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Roman government, even though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors. 18 The Romans tried me and wanted to release me, because they found no cause for the death sentence. 19 But when the Jewish leaders protested the decision, I felt it necessary to appeal to Caesar, even though I had no desire to press charges against my own people. 20 I asked you to come here today so we could get acquainted and so I could explain to you that I am bound with this chain because I believe that the hope of Israel—the Messiah—has already come.”
21 They replied, “We have had no letters from Judea or reports against you from anyone who has come here. 22 But we want to hear what you believe, for the only thing we know about this movement is that it is denounced everywhere.”
23 So a time was set, and on that day a large number of people came to Paul’s lodging. He explained and testified about the Kingdom of God and tried to persuade them about Jesus from the Scriptures. Using the Law of Moses and the books of the prophets, he spoke to them from morning until evening. 24 Some were persuaded by the things he said, but others did not believe. 25 And after they had argued back and forth among themselves, they left with this final word from Paul: “The Holy Spirit was right when he said to your ancestors through Isaiah the prophet,
26 ‘Go and say to this people: When you hear what I say, you will not understand. When you see what I do, you will not comprehend. 27 For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’
28 So I want you to know that this salvation from God has also been offered to the Gentiles, and they will accept it.”
30 For the next two years, Paul lived in Rome at his own expense. He welcomed all who visited him, 31 boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him.

Sermon
The Kingdom of God is the main theme of Jesus’ life and ministry.
At the beginning of His ministry on Earth, Jesus said, “The time promised by God has come at last! The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15) The majority of the Lord Jesus’ parables described the Kingdom. The sign Pontius Pilate had posted on Jesus’ cross read – in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek – “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” And even after He was raised from the dead, as the Lord was preparing His disciples for His return to Heaven, Luke wrote of Jesus, “During the forty days after His crucifixion, He appeared to the apostles from time to time, and He proved to them in many ways that He was actually alive. And He talked to them about the Kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3)

But the Kingdom is not just a “Jesus” or a “New Testament” reality. Israel saw itself as the Kingdom of God.

When the Lord had brought Israel safely through the Red Sea but had drowned Pharaoh’s chariots in the waters, Moses and his sister, Miriam, sung a victory song that ends, “You will bring Your people in and plant them on Your Own mountain – the place, O LORD, reserved for Your Own dwelling, the sanctuary, O Lord, that Your hands have established. The LORD will reign forever and ever!” Moses and Miriam and the Israelites saw their victory over Egypt as the victory of God’s Kingdom over Pharaoh’s kingdom! “The LORD will reign forever and ever!”
Before Saul and David became the first kings of Israel and Judah, judges ruled over the united tribes of Israel. The prophet Samuel was the last of those judges, and when he was growing old the leaders of the people came to him and asked him to appoint them a king like the nations around them had. Samuel was not happy with their request, but he took it to the LORD. And God told him, “Do everything they say to you, for it is Me they are rejecting, not you. They don’t want Me to be their king any longer.” (1 Samuel 8)

Of course, the kings of Israel and Judah were always supposed to govern in God’s name. And sometimes they did. (King David sang of God’s Kingdom: “The Lord has made the heavens His throne; from there He rules over everything.” [Psalm 103:19]) But most of the time the kings didn’t.

So the prophets began expecting a day when God would again be their king, and yet with Israel having the human king they’d asked for, as well. The prophet Isaiah foretold this most specifically when he said: “A Child is born to us, a Son is given to us. The government will rest on His shoulders. And He will be called: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His government and its peace will never end. He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of His ancestor David for all eternity.” (9:6-7)

Jesus Christ has established the Kingdom of God, and He also makes the Way for human beings to enter into it. “For God loved the world so much that He gave His one and only Son, that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) And the Lord Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) And speaking about being baptized with water and being baptized with the Holy Spirit, Jesus said, “I assure you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and the Spirit.’” (John 3:5)

The Kingdom of God is made up of every created being, both in Heaven and on Earth, that has willingly subjected themselves to the Lord and is in fellowship with Him. So, the Kingdom of God includes created angels and human beings, as well. It is eternal, as God is eternal, and it is spiritual—found within and among all born-again believers. We enter the Kingdom of God when we are born again by our faith and trust in Christ, and we are then part of that Kingdom for eternity.

The gospel of the Kingdom is the good-news message of repentance, redemption, and restoration offered by God to all who will receive Jesus Christ. Those who accept Christ become part of God’s eternal Kingdom (John 1:12). Those who choose to remain in their sin cannot be a part of this Kingdom (1 Corinthians 6:9–10; Galatians 5:19–21). Although God’s grace makes Christ available to anyone who will receive Him, even so, Jesus warned that it would be very difficult to enter His Kingdom, and that few would do so (Matthew 7:14).

The gospel of the Kingdom is the news that there is freedom from our slavery to sin if we will repent of our sins and turn to God, that is, changing our ways in favor of God’s ways (Romans 6:18–19). Our Redeemer has come! But it is difficult to enter God’s Kingdom. Not because God has set impossible standards for us, but because human beings don’t want to repent and change. In John 3:19, Jesus says that humanity tends to love the Darkness more than the Light. Many would rather cling to their old sinful identities than allow Jesus to create them anew (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Those who receive the gospel of the Kingdom become citizens of Heaven and are freed from bondage to this world (Galatians 4:3–9). In 2 Corinthians 5:20 the apostle Paul refers to God’s children as “ambassadors” for our heavenly Father. Just as an earthly ambassador retains his national identity when representing his country in another country, we who are the spiritual ambassadors of God’s Kingdom owe our allegiance to God even as we live in this world. We must follow our heavenly Father’s code of conduct while dwelling on earth. We don’t need to conform to this world’s habits, values, and lifestyle, because this world is not our home (Romans 12:1–2; 1 John 2:15–17).
Jesus said to Pontius Pilate, “My Kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). So, although we must live here until God calls us home, we are not to live for ourselves or according to this world’s value system. Those who have been bought by the blood of Jesus have been given the right to live according to God’s value system and to call upon God’s empowerment as we carry out the assignments given us by our Father the King.

Of course, this empowerment comes from our being filled with and cooperating with God’s Spirit. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” Jesus said (Acts 1:8). And we’ve been reading about God developing His Kingdom as we’ve been reading through the Book of Acts. We’ve seen the Church growing in loving, practical fellowship with one another (Acts 2:42-47), and, we’ve seen the Church growing in empowered witness and ministry to show the love, grace, and reality of Jesus Christ in all they said and did, inviting people to receive salvation and join the Kingdom as they’ve gone along. (Acts 3, 4:1-21)
And so the Lord Jesus charges us to seek God’s Kingdom first, and God’s righteous-lifestyle, promising that, as we do so, that God will then take care of all our needs.
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But, as we close, how do we know if we’re truly seeking God’s Kingdom first? I charge each of us today and this week to look at our lives and ask ourselves. “Where do I primarily spend my self and my stuff? Do I spend my time, money, and energy on goods and activities that will certainly perish with this world? Or do I live for and invest in the service and priorities of God—the results of which live on for eternity?” Christians who have learned to truly put God first can truly rest in the Kingdom’s promised economy: As Jesus promised, “…He will give you everything you need.”



February 21, 2016 A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

Acts 18:24-19:7 [NLTse]

18:24 Meanwhile, a Jew named Apollos, an eloquent speaker who knew the Scriptures well, had arrived in Ephesus from Alexandria in Egypt. 25 He had been taught the way of the Lord, and he taught others about Jesus with an enthusiastic spirit and with accuracy. However, he knew only about John’s baptism. 26 When Priscilla and Aquila heard him preaching boldly in the synagogue, they took him aside and explained the way of God even more accurately.

27 Apollos had been thinking about going to Achaia, and the brothers and sisters in Ephesus encouraged him to go. They wrote to the believers in Achaia, asking them to welcome him. When he arrived there, he proved to be of great benefit to those who, by God’s grace, had believed. 28 He refuted the Jews with powerful arguments in public debate. Using the Scriptures, he explained to them that Jesus was the Messiah.

19:1 While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul traveled through the interior regions until he reached Ephesus, on the coast, where he found several believers. 2 “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” he asked them.

“No,” they replied, “we haven’t even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

3 “Then what baptism did you experience?” he asked.

And they replied, “The baptism of John.”

4 Paul said, “John’s baptism called for repentance from sin. But John himself told the people to believe in the One Who would come later, meaning Jesus.”

5 As soon as they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. 6 Then when Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in other tongues and prophesied. 7 There were about twelve men in all.

Sermon

Apollos is a great example from the Scripture of powerful, inspiring preachers, but who just don’t know the fullness of the good news that is ours in Jesus Christ. I don’t say this against any particular person or to put anyone down. But the truth is, we human beings tend to glorify people more than we should. And yet, the very best of us humans fall short. No matter our gifts and abilities – great or small – we are all sinners. Jesus Christ alone should be our standard for godliness and the fullness of the gospel.

And Jesus has given us a commission to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” And to “teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.”

And of all the commands the Lord Jesus has given us, what was the greatest? [Let the congregation say it.] Yup: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind,” and, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Has anyone else here ever felt overwhelmed by such a commission or by such commandments? Jesus has told us to make disciples everywhere we go. Not just for pastors to make disciples, but for you to make disciples – for each of us, for all of us – to make disciples everywhere we go. And to baptize them (in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit), and to teach these disciples we’ve made to obey all of the Lord Jesus’ commands, which the Lord Himself summarizes by ordering us to love God with everything we are and everything we have, and to love everyone around us, too.

And I don’t know about all of you, but it makes my head spin just thinking about that, and as my head spins I get all locked up and don’t know where to begin… And sometimes, feeling so overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin, it can lead me to just do nothing at all. Because how can human beings accomplish such things? It’s impossible! So then, is the Lord just setting us up to fail? No.

Paul makes clear that the Lord Jesus did not come just to baptize us for repentance, that is, He didn’t come just so that our sins might be forgiven. No. He did baptize us for that, so that we could be forgiven, and washed clean, and so be brought close to the Father once again. But that’s not all He came to do. Paul makes clear that the Lord Jesus also came to baptize us with the Holy Spirit – so that we might be empowered to accomplish His commission and enabled to carry out His commandments.  For the things of God cannot be accomplished by human force or human strength. They are accomplished by His Spirit, says the Lord. (See Zechariah 4:6.)

But many Christians don’t know such things. They’ve never been taught such things. And so they don’t expect such things: They don’t know that they can look to God for such capability, for such empowerment. But we can.

You see, we live in the overlap of the times:  On the one hand we live in this fallen world filled with wickedness, sin, and death; but  on the other hand, the Kingdom of God has come with eternal life, righteousness, and peace. King Jesus has established God’s Kingdom. The End has begun. But it has only begun. We continue awaiting the fulfillment – the completeness – when the Lord Jesus comes again, and when all those who follow Christ will experience the resurrection and get new, everlasting bodies, where all things will be made new, and where righteousness will not only be the law of the land but will be all that anybody knows or desires to do…

But that fulfillment is not here yet. We live in the overlap of the times. And to survive and to thrive in the overlap, we need the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit makes the Father and the Son real on earth, and brings to each and every believer all that Jesus won for us on the cross. The Holy Spirit enables people to enter into the Kingdom of God through the new birth that comes by faith in Christ, and to have God’s life within them as is talked about as the fruit of the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit gives Christians spiritual capabilities and manifestations of the Kingdom of Heaven so that we can show and tell those around us about our King Jesus and about His Kingdom so that all whom the Father is calling will come to Him.

There are three ways the Holy Spirit empowers us to accomplish all that the Lord Jesus calls us to so that we might draw people’s attention to God the Father. One way is that the Holy Spirit takes our natural abilities and “supercharges” them, if you will, so that what before we became Christians we were merely good at, now draws people to God through faith in Jesus Christ. These are listed in Romans 12:6-8, and are often spoken of as the “functional” gifts of the Holy Spirit because they serve as the framework so that the Church can effectively function here in the world.

Another way the Holy Spirit empowers us to carry out the Lord Jesus’ “great commission” is by giving us supernatural capabilities that we did not have before becoming Christians. These are the most spontaneous, dramatic, visible, and spectacular gifts. The ones most often misused and misunderstood. The Apostle Paul lists them in 1 Corinthians 12:8-10, and writes extensively about how to use them appropriately in 1 Corinthians chapters 12 through 14, dedicating all of chapter 13 on the importance of using them in love. They are often spoken of as the “manifestational” gifts of the Holy Spirit because they manifest – they reveal and show people, as we’ve already said, in often dramatic and spectacular ways – the Holy Spirit’s power and the realities of the Kingdom of God.

The last way the Holy Spirit seems to empower followers of Jesus Christ to obey all that He has commanded is by giving His Church leaders who are to equip them to serve the Lord. These “gifts” are persons, who have been called by the Lord, or Whom the Lord has placed in various offices in the Church, in order to train up Christians who will strengthen and grow the Body of Christ, and Christians who will to take the good news of Christ Jesus and His Kingdom to all peoples across and around the world. These are often spoken of as the “vocational” gifts of the Holy Spirit and are listed in Ephesians 4:11-13.

We are not on our own. Nor has our Father in Heaven set Himself up as some far away divinity Whom we must kiss up to and beg in order to get His help! He knows we are weak. He made us that way. We were never intended to go it on our own, apart from Him, apart from His Spirit. We can boldly and confidently fulfill His commission upon us and the commandments He’s called us to by looking to Him, depending upon Him, by surrendering to and cooperating with His Holy Spirit. He has gifted us with His “functional” gifts. He will gift us – when we need them – with His “manifestational” gifts. And, by His grace, He has given you [pointing to myself] this pastor/teacher “vocational” gift to help equip and prepare you more and more for living His life in this overlapping time.

(We’ll talk more about the “functional” gifts of the Holy Spirit when we read Romans together next month. We’ll look at the “manifestational” gifts when we read 1 Corinthians after that. And the “vocational” gifts when we read Ephesians. Let’s keep reading together using the Closer Walk reading plan, which is also printed in our weekly Bulletins and is on the homepage of our website.)



February 14, 2016, A.D., by Pastor Ben Willis

The Acts of the Apostles 11:1-18 [NLTse]

Soon the news reached the apostles and other believers in Judea that the Gentiles had received the Word of God. 2 But when Peter arrived back in Jerusalem, the Jewish believers criticized him. 3 “You entered the home of Gentiles and even ate with them!” they said.

4 Then Peter told them exactly what had happened. 5 “I was in the town of Joppa,” he said, “and while I was praying, I went into a trance and saw a vision. Something like a large sheet was let down by its four corners from the sky. And it came right down to me. 6 When I looked inside the sheet, I saw all sorts of tame and wild animals, reptiles, and birds. 7 And I heard a voice say, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat them.’

8 “‘No, Lord,’ I replied. ‘I have never eaten anything that our Jewish laws have declared impure or unclean.’

9 “But the voice from Heaven spoke again: ‘Do not call something unclean if God has made it clean.’ 10 This happened three times before the sheet and all it contained was pulled back up to Heaven.

11 “Just then three men who had been sent from Caesarea arrived at the house where we were staying. 12 The Holy Spirit told me to go with them and not to worry that they were Gentiles. These six brothers here accompanied me, and we soon entered the home of the man who had sent for us. 13 He told us how an angel had appeared to him in his home and had told him, ‘Send messengers to Joppa, and summon a man named Simon Peter. 14 He will tell you how you and everyone in your household can be saved!’

15 “As I began to speak,” Peter continued, “the Holy Spirit fell on them, just as He fell on us at the beginning. 16 Then I thought of the Lord’s words when He said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 17 And since God gave these Gentiles the same gift He gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to stand in God’s way?”

18 When the others heard this, they stopped objecting and began praising God. They said, “We can see that God has also given the Gentiles the privilege of repenting of their sins and receiving eternal life.”

Sermon

The book of Acts is many things. It’s a history of the early Church. It’s a record of the acts of the apostles. It’s a record of the acts of the Holy Spirit through those apostles. But, as I was reading it this week (along with many of you) with Valentine’s Day in mind, I realized that the book of Acts is also a love story.

Acts is the love story of the Apostle Paul, who begins the book as an enemy – a persecutor of Jesus and His Church, but who ends the book as a lover of Jesus, and imprisoned for all the ways he has lived out His love and His faith in His one beloved.

If you’ve been reading the New Testament with me this year, last week we met Paul when he was still called by his Hebrew name, Saul, where we saw him holding the coats of several of the men stoning one of the Churches first deacons, Stephen, to death. We then see Saul (Paul) leading a great persecution against the Church, hunting down Christians who were then imprisoned for their faith by the Jewish authorities.

After much success in Jerusalem, Saul (Paul) seeks their authority to go to the neighboring city of Damascus to seek out any Christians there, and to bring them back to Jerusalem in chains.

He is given that authority, but on the way Jesus meets him on the road to Damascus, striking Saul (Paul) blind, and committing to Saul (Paul) that He, Jesus, loved him and that He wanted Saul (Paul) to love Him back, and to join His gospel-team spreading the Kingdom of God across the earth.

And as we continue to read, we see that Saul (Paul) did indeed fall in love with Jesus, recognizing Jesus to be the God he has loved and trusted his entire life. And Saul (Paul) commits to the Lord and covenants his life to Him in baptism, and then does join Jesus’ team spreading the Kingdom of God.

From then on, across Acts, we see recorded the love of God for a man and the love of a man for his God as (now just) Paul declares His love for Jesus over and over and over again, makes his beloved known to any and all who will listen, and makes sacrifice after sacrifice for his loved one because so many were deciding again and again to reject God’s Kingdom and to refuse His love that Paul was preaching.

It all got me thinking about what I have learned about love across twenty-five years of marriage to my wife, Amy, and across twenty-two or twenty-three years of living in covenant-relationship with our God and Father through faith and love for Jesus Christ as the Holy Spirit has wooed and nurtured me in such faith and love. (I know that twenty-five years of marriage may seem like a drop in the bucket to many of you. Who’s been married here for at least twenty-five years? Anybody thirty years? Thirty-five? Forty? Do I hear forty-five? Fifty? Anybody here been married for more than fifty years? … And I know that many of you have walked with the Lord for far more than twenty-two or twenty-three years. But let me share with you what I’ve learned.)

Well, the first thing I’ve learned about love from across my studies given flesh in my experiences is that when you truly love someone you want everyone to know that you love them. A second thing about love that is embodied in Jesus, that I see in Paul’s life, and that I have experienced in my own life loving Amy and the Lord has been that you only truly love people when you love them the way they were made to be loved, not when you merely love them the ways that you want to love them. And, lastly, across the Scripture and Acts and across my love-relationships with my God and my wife, I’ve learned that love requires sacrifice because making our love and those we love known to those around us has consequences, and loving our beloveds the ways they want to be loved and were made to be loved isn’t always easy, convenient, or pleasant. But we need to be willing to make those sacrifices and suffer those sacrifices for the sake of love.

So, the first thing about loving another is wanting everyone around you to know your beloved and to know that you love your beloved. And we see this in Paul’s life: The Book of Acts relates that everywhere that Paul went and everything he did eventually led to Paul telling those around him about the Lord Jesus and His good news. Everywhere. Everything. That Paul’s heart was always and everywhere looking for ways to share his Beloved with others.

Wedding rings are a part of doing that for married couples in our day. Wearing a wedding ring, ideally, sends a message to the whole watching world that we are married, we are taken, and because I’m making it so publicly known, please feel free to ask me about my beloved. And, of course, people often put pictures of their family members on their desks or cash registers at work, or carry pictures in their wallets or on their phones. When we’re in love we can’t help but want to let everyone around us in on it. It’s just what true love does!

And yet, I know some people who never speak about their wives or their husbands – no ring, no pictures – almost as though they want to keep their marriages – their loves – a secret; like they want to keep their options open, just in case. But that’s not commitment. That’s not being all-in. That’s not love…

The second thing I mentioned as having learned about love is that true love is about loving people the way they want to be loved and were made to be loved, not just loving them the way we want or have come to enjoy loving them. The Bible is the greatest example of this.

The Lord of Heaven and Earth, our Father, has spoken through all manner of prophets, priests, kings, and apostles to reveal to humanity across the generations what true love looks like and how He wants to be loved. The Lord Jesus says, “If you love Me, obey My commandments.” God doesn’t want to be loved on our terms. He wants to be loved on His. And make no mistake, Almighty God our Father and Savior makes absolutely clear that if we are not loving Him the way He has called and laid out for us to love Him in His Word then we are not loving Him! (No matter how warm and fuzzy we might feel.) And the same is true for those around us.

I am a touchy-feely kind of love-r. I like to show love by hugging and handshaking, holding hands and kissing, and by speaking words of affection and encouragement and affirmation. But my beloved, my wife, Amy, is different. Don’t get me wrong, Amy will give you a hug or shake your hand and say kind words to you, but that’s not her primary love language, it’s not the way she most readily shows love and it’s not the way she wants for me to show her love. To show Amy I love her I need to stop drinking soda, and I need to finish painting the bathroom, and to work out, and to finish some of the other projects we have going around the house. That’s how she likes to be loved.

[Holding up the Bible.] Just as the Lord has let me know how He wants us to love Him, Amy has let me know how she wants me to love her. And if, in my love for her, I want to let her know my love, that is the way I’m going to have to show it to her: Not the ways I want to love her but the ways she wants to be loved.

Lastly, true love requires sacrifice, because letting everyone around you know that you love God or that you love your wife or your family or your friends, will always have consequences: Sometimes good consequences; sometimes bad consequences. And, of course, loving others the ways they want to be loved – whether it’s the Lord, a spouse, our kids or our parents, or various friends or even strangers – can be a challenge when they prove to be different from us and when their needs for love are difficult or inconvenient to us…

And yet we are called by our Almighty Father to love Him, and He calls us to love others as a way of showing off to the world our love for Him.

When I first married Amy I thought that marriage and my love for her and her love for me was all about me and my being happy. Likewise, many Christians believe that when their sins have been forgiven and they enter into relationship with God through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, that everything in their lives is going to change and be wonderful: Their see relationship with God as being all about them and about God making them happy.

Well, call me a slow learner, but after all these years I have come to realize that God’s given me my different relationships and the different opportunities I have to love others – not to merely make me happy. No. God wants to use my marriage and my other relationships and choices to help me love Him better, to help me love my wife, Amy, better, and to help me love others and all those around me better. Whether or not Amy and those others around me are going to grow in loving me better is between them and the Lord. But He wants to use the situations and relationships across my life, not to have me be happy but to have me love better. Because He’s shown me that loving Him and loving others better is what will truly make me and you and everyone in the world – if folks would just love and trust Him – happy.