Word & Deed in Spiritual Renewal
We are studying Acts as an inspired analysis of corporate spiritual renewal (DEFINE)—because we need CSR. We have seen how Luke records different elements of CSR, not as separate chapters—but woven together in patterns that recur. This morning, I want to review chapters 2-6 and identify another CSR pattern—the importance of what may be called “word” and “deed” ministries. Here’s the pattern (CHART). “Word” means verbally communicating the message about God’s love through Jesus. “Deed” means showing God’s love through practical acts of service and mercy. Acts 2-6 shows us that during times of CSR, God’s Spirit works powerfully through the church in both word and deed to create wide-spread social favor, which leads to many people embracing Jesus and becoming part of the Christian community. Let’s look at this pattern...
The pattern in Acts
Read 2:42-47. Notice the emphasis on the apostles’ public teaching (2:42). They were publically proclaiming and expounding the gospel (WORD)—both building up the Christians and equipping them to share it with others, and (undoubtedly) speaking it directly to the non-Christians who attended these public teachings. But notice also the two ways that they were showing Jesus’ love (DEED). The signs and wonders of the apostles (2:43) were mainly healing miracles—God’s Spirit working through the apostles to heal non-Christians (as we’ll see soon). And the Christians practiced extraordinary generosity toward one another (2:44,45), something that non-Christians would have noticed and been struck by. Notice the result (2:47)—they were “having favor with all the people, and the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Many people (not all) liked the Christian movement, and many (not all) of them became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah and joined them.
This pattern recurs in chapter 3. Peter healed a lame man who is not a Christian (3:1-8; DEED). As a result, many people became positively curious (3:9-11)—and Peter explained that the Source of this redemptive power is the risen Jesus (3:12-26; WORD). As a result of this demonstration in deed and word that Jesus is real and good, the Jerusalem community responded positively to Peter (4:21), and hundreds of people embraced Jesus as their Messiah (4:4).
This pattern recurs in 4:31-5:14. God’s Spirit enabled the whole Christian community to share the gospel with boldness (4:31), and empowered the apostles to testify that Jesus has been raised from the dead (4:33; WORD). The same Spirit motivated them to extraordinary voluntary generosity (4:32,34,35; DEED) and empowered the apostles to heal(?) many non-Christians(?) (5:12a; DEED). The result was a widespread positive reaction (5:13b) that led to many men and women believing and joining them (5:14).
Finally, look at the passage you studied last week (6:1-7). On the one hand, the Christian community was committed to daily feeding dozens (maybe hundreds) of widows (DEED). The fact that they were feeding both Greek and Hebrew speaking members was an extraordinary display of love that transcended normal cultural prejudices. On the other hand, the apostles delegated the leadership of this ministry to others so that they could stay focused on proclaiming the Word (WORD). As a result, (6:7 “so”), they saw a rapid increase of converts, including a large number of priests. Why priests? The Old Testament said they were responsible for distributing resources to the poor. Possibly, they saw the Christians doing a better job of this than they did—which created priestly favor toward the Christians, out of which many converted.
Why is this a core dynamic of corporate spiritual renewal?
Repeat pattern (CHART). Luke is consciously recording this pattern as a core dynamic of CSR.1 Why is this dynamic so important? Why are both WORD & DEED ministries so crucial to CSR? There are two similar but distinct answers to this question. We’ll look at the first answer now, and the second one later.
The WORDS share the message of God’s love and explain how to receive it; the DEEDS show God’s love and supply practical credibility to the message.
The WORD is a message of mercy and restoration. It is bad news on the front end, because it offends our self-sufficient, self-esteem sensibilities. It tells me that I am not a good person who has made some mistakes, but rather I am guilty before a holy God, and deserving of his judgment—and that I cannot deliver myself from this verdict. It tells me that I am not a basically healthy person who just needs a little spiritual self-help, but rather I am broken beyond self-repair. This is bad news! But the good news is far better than the bad news! It tells me that God’s mercy is greater than my guilt, and that God’s redemptive power is greater than my brokenness. It tells me that through Jesus’ death, God offers me total forgiveness because Jesus took God’s judgment in my place. It tells me that through Jesus’ resurrection, God offers me total restoration—starting in this life and gloriously completed when Jesus returns.
But the WORDS without DEEDS that show God’s mercy and restoration have little compelling credibility (“Why should I believe what you say—there’s no evidence that it’s restoring anything! You Christians are just as mean-spirited and unforgiving as everyone else. Your church doesn’t work to restore our community.”). No matter how important the message, the medium of that message is crucial for its effective communication. Even the most insightful song lyrics won’t enlighten and move people unless they are set to beautiful music. The DEEDS are the medium/music—they make the WORDS attractive (Titus2:10). No matter how accurately the WORDS are communicated, few people will respond to them unless they see DEEDS that display the love of which the WORDS speak. But when the DEEDS adorn the WORDS, a redemptive explosion often occurs!
The explosive spread of Christianity from 100-400 AD
There is a powerful illustration of this dynamic in the post-apostolic period of church history (100-400 AD). Many of you know that during that time, Christianity spread (like a “good infection”) from being a small religious sect that was mocked by most people to a great spiritual movement that transformed the Roman Empire and the trajectory of Western Civilization—all without any military or political clout. What can account for this? The simple answer, of course, is Jesus. But historians note two key distinctives about his followers:
They talked to people about Jesus in widespread and sacrificial ways. It wasn’t just a few eloquent spokespersons (though they had these); it was also that the average Christian shared his faith at home, at work, in his neighborhood, on business trips, etc. And they shared this message even when they mocked, ostracized, and killed. “Martyr” is the Greek word for “witness”—and thousands of Christians became martyrs rather than retract what they said about Jesus. What is this? This is the ministry of the WORD.
They also lived extraordinarily loving lives toward one another and the people who didn’t believe in Jesus. One historian, Alan Kreider, names three major factors for why people converted to Jesus during this period: healings and exorcisms (i.e., miraculous good deeds), the dignity with which Christians treated women and the marginalized, and the astonishing practice of spontaneous goodness—especially to the poor and needy.2
Rodney Stark cites an example of the third factor in his book, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. He tells the story of an epidemic that swept through the Roman Empire in 260 AD. This precipitated a striking contrast between the response of the Christians and their pagan neighbors. Most of the healthy pagans simply left town, abandoning their sick loved ones to save their own lives. But most of the Christians stayed to care for the sick, including and especially their pagan neighbors. Dionysius, a church leader, describes it this way: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love... never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them (became sick and) departed supremely happy... The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.”3 Is it any wonder that Christianity gained many new adherents in the aftermath of this epidemic?
A century later (362 AD), Emperor Julian (the Apostate) rejected his Christian upbringing and tried to return the empire to its pagan roots. He complained bitterly about one of the main reasons why he was unable to prevent the continued growth of the Christian movement: “The religion of the Greeks does not prosper. Why do we not observe how the charity of Christians to strangers has done the most to advance their cause? It is disgraceful that these Christians support our poor in addition to their own, while everyone is able to see that our co-religionists lack aid from us.”4 What is this? This is the ministry of DEEDS, refuting the mockery and adorning the WORD.
There are many other examples of this dynamic (WESLEYAN REVIVAL; CHINA). Conversely, whenever Christians neglect this dynamic, renewal dynamics are stifled, and the church shrinks—first in spiritual influence and ultimately in number. We don’t have time to look at these examples because we need to apply this lesson to our own church...
WORD & DEED in Xenos
By God’s grace, we have been blessed by excellence in WORD ministries (CT’s; classes; high Bible literacy; evangelistic training). This is an extraordinary blessing—both to us and through us to others. One of my greatest joys is seeing how many people in Xenos are grounded in the Bible and able to verbalize the content of their faith in a variety of contexts. It would be a tragedy to atrophy here!
But having said this, it is my personal conviction that we may be hindering the Spirit’s work of renewal by an inadequate emphasis on DEEDS. Jesus may not be having the redemptive impact on this city that he wants to have through us—and one important reason for this may be that we are not communicating his love through DEEDS to the extent that he wants us to. I believe that he has our attention on this, and that we are beginning to respond to him—but we have a long way to go to represent him as well in DEEDS as we have in WORD. I believe we need to be able to answer “Yes” to this question: “Are we the kind of church of which (our community) says: ‘We don’t share a lot of their beliefs, but I shudder to think of this (community) without them. They are such an important part of the community. They give so much! If they left we’d have to raise taxes because others won’t give of themselves like they do.”5
How can we do this? The first step is to form personal convictions about this biblical principle that we have studied today. We need to let God speak to our hearts about it, so that we more clearly see and feel the connection between our DEEDS and Jesus showing our city that he is real and good. On that basis, we can take these steps:
We can be serious about the witness of our DEEDS at work and in our neighborhoods. We should be known for being the most helpful, most caring, etc. in these places where we spend the majority of our waking hours. And we should speak humbly about our faith in Jesus as our DEEDS create opportunities (WHITTINGTON’S).
Many of us have spiritual gifts of service and mercy. God has given us a special heart for these important ministries because there are so many needy and hurting people outside our church. We need to pray that he show us how he wants us to use these gifts, and we need to obey his direction (TONY KHOURY). This will lead to opportunities to share God’s love as people are blessed by how you show his love.
Many of us (including those not gifted in service/mercy) can volunteer in various roles in our city. We can work alongside other members of our community in service organizations, schools, hospitals, libraries, widows, etc.—to help needy people and be a blessing to our city, and to share our faith as the opportunity arises. Our web-site (www.xenos.org/4thstreet) has dozens of opportunities and contact persons to help you serve in this way.
Our home groups can take on periodic service projects in the community. Over the past year, our home group has cleaned a neighborhood market, picked up trash in alleys and IMS, painted a house for a family in need, and babysat for single mothers who taking a parenting class. It has been great fun to serve together, and it has led to opportunities to share why we are serving in this way.
Our church/sphere can develop specific service ministries to address community needs that are not being addressed by others. God has given us the opportunity to help rescue minors lured into prostitution (GRACEHAVEN). He may be giving us an opportunity to play this kind of role with IMS—our next-door neighbor. He may be giving us the opportunity to start a medical clinic here next year. Dozens of people will be needed to serve in these special ministries—and we will receive lots of opportunities to share about the love of Christ which motivates us to serve.
What might happen if we respond to the Lord’s conviction and direction to show his love through DEEDS like these? How might our lives be transformed by using our gifts and serving like this? How might Jesus’ reputation be enhanced in our community as it sees his followers humbly and sacrificially helping to make it a better place? How many people might become open to the message of Jesus and even come to a Bible study like this? How many of these people might discover that Jesus is real and good, and receive his forgiveness and become his followers? What kind of ripple-effect for good might this have in families and neighborhoods all over our community? Let’s find out!
Where do we get the motivation for these deeds?
We’ve been talking about how DEEDS show God’s love and supply practical credibility to the message. But where do you get the motivation to do these DEEDS—over the long haul, to serve people who may not like you, when there is no temporal advantage to doing this?
Not from guilt (“God will be angry with you unless you do this!”), not from peer pressure (“What will my Christian friends think if I don’t?”), not in order to become important (“This will make my church grow—and then I’ll be somebody!”). These motives are inadequate (they don’t supply perseverance) and inappropriate (they are self-centered instead of for others and for Jesus’ glory).
This kind of motivation comes only from the WORD: The WORDS about God’s grace motivate us do good DEEDS freely and with joy. Read Acts4:31-33. As the message of God’s grace becomes our focus and goes deeper into our souls, we begin to want to give God’s love away to others—not earn his acceptance or impress others with our goodness or establish our significance—but because it gives us joy to give freely to others what we have freely received! This is why we focus on and expound in-depth the doctrine of grace (Titus3:3-8)!
1 This was a core dynamic in Jesus’ public ministry (Matt.4:23,24a). And after all, as Luke says in Acts 1:1, this is simply the account of all that Jesus continued to do.
2 Alan Kreider, The Change of Conversion and the Origin of Christendom (Trinity Press, 1999), p. 19f.
3 Dionysius, quoted in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Princeton University Press, 1996), p.82.
4 Julian’s missive to Arsacius, high priest of Galatia.
5 Tim Keller in John Piper & Justin Taylor (general editors), The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007), p.122.