A Growth Story

Acts: The Final Chapter  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  35:50
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We've come to the end of Acts and we summarised it from the perspective that it's a Spirit-empowered, boundary-crossing GROWTH story. It encourages us in our faith journey of growth, and as we boldly share the gospel.

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Intro me
The final verse of the final chapter of our series on the book of Acts - a series we called “The Final Chapter” - woohoo - this is a momentous moment!
But just how are we going to conclude 22 months of study? Yep we’ve spent 22 months working our way through the book of Acts - we started back in January 2021. To be fair, we did slot in the letter to the Galatian churches where that fitted chronologically but even with that, we’ve been following the story of the very first churches for a long time now.
So how can we fittingly conclude? with an interactive quiz, of course! Grab your phones - you know you want to - and let’s see how you do! Who doesn’t love a good quiz?
This book of Acts, it’s been a pretty long story, right? I read back through the whole thing in preparation - it’s pretty substantial, pretty epic. But how long, exactly? [poll up] If you’ve been a student, you’ll have some sense for how many words go into essays of different sizes; a hundred words. a thousand words. ten thousand words, even, perhaps.. So how long is acts, do you think?How many words? And Millenials, no googling! 18,450 words
Acts covers a lot of ground - mostly while we’ve been following this Paul on his three epic missionary journeys in the back half of the book. [map] How far do you think he travelled in them approximately? 837 miles from Land’s end at one end of the UK to John ‘o Groats at the other. 24,900 miles around the whole of the earth. How much ground do think Paul covered? [slido] [activate] 7938mi that’s a lot of ground, right?!
Acts covers lots of different topics, too - but looking back, what do you think the dominant topic was? Well, that’s a bit of a subjective question - let’s make this more objective. Data - because I love data! Common words can help us get a sense for key topics. So my next question: what do you think the most common word is in the whole book of Acts - apart from the boring ones like “and” or “the”? [activate]
Here’s the top 8 by frequency - in alphabetical order, not giving anything away - which is the most frequent? God, Jesus, Lord, Man, Men, >Paul<, Peter, People. Paul - with 172 occurrences. If that feels a bit, odd, putting together God with 162, Lord with 103, Jesus with 76, and Spirit with 64 - there much more God in total, you’ll be pleased to know!
Final question: what kind of story is it? How would we characterise it? Not a romance. Not a period drama. Clearly not much of a sci-fi. It’s not a fantasy either - it’s history, but not simply history.
As we close out the book of Acts today, I want to persuade you that it’s fundamentally a growth story. A growth story.
Now you might be thinking what do you mean, a growth story. Well, let me give you an example: I had the privilege of being a part of a growth story earlier in my career before getting into this church thing. I - and my wife Rachael - got to be a part of the really early days of Amazon.
Amazon growth story: we didn’t join right at day one, where Jeff was still boxing up books and posting them himself - but it was still early days for the company. When I joined, Amazon only sold books in the UK. I was a part of launching their music store where, at the time, you could buy this - yes, a shiny spinning disc containing music, youngsters! Used to be all the rage. Amazon’s website ran on just a few computers - four, if I remember right, and they’d just launched their very first app which might seem quite modern - but it was for the Palm Pilot if you are old enough to remember what one of those even is. I saw the stock price go from about $60 when we joined to over $300 (via something like $6 on the worst day which was a bit crazy) over the ten plus years I worked there - and since then it’s mostly been up and to the right. Sales went from thousands to millions to billions. They’ve gone from totally insignificant to a big part of most people’s everyday life - most ways you look at it, that’s a growth story.
Acts isn’t exactly like that, obviously! No stock price or set of huge warehouses to point to. But fundamentally Acts is a growth story.
Acts is a growth story. A Spirit-empowered, Spirit-directed growth story.
Why does that matter? Because we, too, are part of this same growth story. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s a growth story - I want to highlight some things about this growth we’ve followed through the book of Acts before we reflect on what it means for us.
First, it’s Spirit-empowered growth.
If we were to rewind to the beginning of the book we’d find 120 disheartened, confused disciples cowering in a room. They’ve seen and heard from the resurrected Jesus but now he’s left again. That’s not a growth story! But he left, telling them to wait, wait for a gift promised by God the father, wait until they have received power.
Right away, see this is not a growth story built on clever plans set out by those disciples, not a carefully thought-through strategy, not the result of human ingenuity leading to a better product. The disciples weren’t going anywhere by themselves.
In fact, it feels pretty crazy to me that Jesus puts these disciples centre stage rather than taking the lead himself now he’s risen. That feels like a major risk given how flaky they’ve been, how quick they were to desert him when trouble came, how slow they were to believe him when he rose. But Jesus chooses to write this growth story with his disciples centre stage. How come?
Well, the growth starts with God keeping his promise, with the Holy Spirit poured out on those disciples on the day of Pentecost. And that very day, about three thousand were added to their number - Acts 2:41 - now that’s growth! The disciples are centre-stage: God isn’t going around them, working apart from them. But fundamentally, God himself is the power behind them - within them: transforming and empowering the disciples, establishing the church, driving and directing its spread.
The very first verse in the book underlines this - Luke, our writer, says that in his previous book, the Gospel of Luke, he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach. The implication there is that Jesus is still doing, still teaching. We call this book Acts, short for “Acts of the Apostles”, that is, Jesus’ first followers - but perhaps it’d be better to call it Acts of God. Jesus is still doing and teaching - through the Holy Spirit within his disciples. That means God deserves all the honour, glory, and praise for what happens.
It’s a Spirit-empowered growth story. But it’s not just Spirit-empowered - it’s Spirit-directed.
Growth comes in different flavours, different kinds, different dimensions. Like me: there’s this up/down height sort of growth. Not a lot of progress there in these last few years. Then there’s this in/out sort of growth where I’m finding it much easier to make some progress - at least in one direction! This growth story in Acts is about growth in terms of numbers - absolutely. Luke, our author, has lots of numbers for us through the book. But it’s also about other kinds of growth.
There’s growth across borders - we see the good news about Jesus spreading out, as Acts 1:8 predicts from us, from the city of Jerusalem where everything started to Judea and Samaria, the surrounding regions, and from there, on towards the “ends of the earth”. And the Spirit directs this - if you know the story, think of Paul’s vision of the man from Macedonia leading him in a new direction after the Spirit held him back from other areas.
But more important, more emphasised, than growth across geographic borders is the growth across cultural boundaries - most critically the growth across the Jew/Gentile cultural boundary. If you think about where the emphasis is in Luke’s writings, what gets the most attention, the biggest word-count - particularly if you think about what Luke takes as worth repeating, it’s this boundary-crossing that gets the emphasis.
Peter’s story about the Spirit leading him into the home of a Gentile - a non-Jew - to share the message about Jesus, leading him across what was a “hard” cultural boundary is hugely significant - and we can see that because the whole thing is repeated for us: in chapter 10, Luke narrates it happening, and then in chapter 11, we get to watch Peter re-telling it, explaining his actions to others because they were so controversial - because he was crossing such a huge boundary
That’s like a copy/paste. Only without actually being able to copy and paste. That’s major emphasis. See, back in these days, Luke’s not sat on his laptop in Word, typing away. It’s not just ctrl-C ctrl-V and there’s the story again. Every single word in Acts is hand-written - so duplicating a substantial story with lots of detail, lots of words is costly. And it doesn’t just cost time for Luke to write, and then for every scribe after him to copy as they distribute his work. The raw materials, ink and papyrus, cost money too. The duplication of the story of Peter being led by the Spirit across the Jew-Gentile boundary, telling it twice, makes it super-clear to us that this is hugely important.
And that’s not the only repeated narrative in Acts. There’s also the story of how Paul went from persecutor to preacher - sent particularly to the Gentiles, the non-Jews. That one’s repeated three times - like being triple underlined in red. If you had any question about whether this was significant or not, there’s your answer.
A critical point for us to get about this growth story is the growth across that critical boundary between Jew and Gentile. Why is that such a big deal? As Pat taught us last week, the hope of Israel - the hope of the Jews - is the hope of the whole world. God reaches into this broken world beginning with one specially chosen people, the ancient people of Israel, descendants of Abraham. In the growth story of Acts we see the culmination of what God had planned all along: God’s family grows to include all people. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world.
So it’s a spirit-empowered, Spirit-directed growth story. But it’s not simply a growth story. Not universally a growth story.
We see the good news about Jesus shared again and again. Almost every time some respond, some accept the invitation into hope and life through Jesus’ death and resurrection. A growth story. But almost every time, some reject it too. This message of hope is not universally welcomed. This is no 149-0 football walkover (which, as it would happen, is the Guinness world record for a match).
There’s no movie-like conclusion where in the closing scene, the unstoppable hero simply walks through everything thrown at him without even slowing down or pausing for breath. Acts doesn’t narrate the message of Jesus simply turning over the whole world as it spreads unopposed until, by the end of the book, it’s all done.
There are dramatic advances - three thousand become disciples on the day of Pentecost after Peter’s speech. A “great number” of Jews and Greeks respond and believe in Iconium, early in Paul’s missionary journeys. But that’s not the only story. That’s not every story - or even nearly every story. In Athens despite a great speech only a few respond and it seems no church can be planted. More recently, we’ve seen Paul spend two years languishing in jail with no reported advance at all.
It’s a Spirit-empowered, Spirit-directed growth story - and yet growth is uneven; there is rejection too. And not just rejection - there’s active hostility, dangerous opposition. Think about how many times the Jews of the day set themselves against the message of Jesus: beating and imprisoning the apostles in Jerusalem. Stoning Stephen to death. Expelling Paul from one city; pursuing him to the next to turn people against him; stirring up a mob to stone him, plotting against him; trying to physically tear him limb from limb.
And it’s not just religiously-driven opposition: there’s opposition when business is threatened; when civil power is threatened. There’s internal opposition: division and factions within the church. Storms, shipwrecks and snakebites make it seem like even nature is in opposition.
But it’s still a growth story: growth through opposition, growth which sometimes comes in a sudden rush, but often comes little by little.
So where does it end? From a numbers point-of-view, have you ever wondered how many Christians there are total by the end of Acts? I’m a numbers person in case you hadn’t guessed - and I’ve definitely wondered. We’re given some specific figures along the way but more often just general indications like “many” - so there’s no exact or easy answer.
The Jerusalem church we’re told numbered in the thousands - outside of that, most churches were probably small, meeting in homes, in rooms and courtyards. If we think about how many churches are mentioned, how many cities - if we imagine how large each might have been, we can take a stab. One article I read suggested 10,000 Christians. 10,000 in the whole world thirty years after Jesus. More than the 120 we started with but on a global scale that’s not a lot.
Another author, historian Rodney Stark, estimate is lower still: only 7,500 by the end of the century - after thirty more years. 7500 was something like 0.02% of the Roman empire. Only one Christian in every five thousand people. Almost none. A drop in numbers would make sense given the siege and subsequent levelling of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70AD, where many of the world’s Christians lived at the time.
Frankly, it’s amazing there’s anything here at all two millenia later. But I guess that’s my big point for us today as we close the book on Acts: although there is a measure of conclusion with the gospel reaching Rome, it still reads like an unfinished story which just sort of stops rather than properly ends. And I think that’s deliberate: because it’s not the end of the story.
Winston Churchill, UK’s prime minister during the second world war, saw the tide of the war turning. He has this famous quote “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” That, I think, is perhaps the best way for us to understand the final chapter of Acts: it is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
It’s the end of the beginning of a Spirit-empowered, Spirit-directed story of growth across boundaries, growth through opposition. And that growth story is still rolling - it’s a growth story we have a part in, too. When we stopped half way through the book of Acts to reflect on the story-so-far, we titled our reflection “God Still Acts,” thinking about how the story we read from this seemingly distant past of a God who acts is the story we are still living in today. God still acts, transforming lives, meeting seekers, uniting diversity, building a new family, we said.
As we reach the conclusion of this same story, the big message is ultimately the same: this story - this Spirit-empowered, Spirit-led story of growth across boundaries, growth through opposition - this is the story we are still living out -still writing- today.
If we’ve trained you at all well, the question you’re asking right now inside your minds is the classic “so what?” Cool, it’s the same story. That’s interesting. So what? I have four stills for you. But not that kind of still.
Still Spirit-empowered
think back to Jesus’ assurance for his disciples right back at the beginning of the book regarding the Spirit - we’ve thought about this already today: Acts 1:8
Acts 1:8 NIV
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
In the evenings we’ve been studying our way through one of Paul’s letters to his protege, Timothy. As Paul nears the end of his life, what he writes to encourage Timothy is true for us, too - and an encouragement for us, too: 2 Tim 1:7
2 Timothy 1:7 NIV
For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.
it’s not just those first followers of Jesus who were Spirit-empowered. God has given His Spirit to every true believer - and the Spirit empowers every true believer.
This isn’t the sort of power which means we can just “let go and let God” - a power that works independently of us, almost without us so we can take the day off - instead it’s a power that works within us, through us, as we act and speak. Being Spirit-empowered means we have a reason for hope when the work is beyond us. Which is really good news because just in case it’s escaped your attention, the work is plainly beyond us.
Having a reason for hope as we try and share the message of Jesus with those around us is so important. Who here has been in danger of giving up on that mission before you’ve even begun? Let’s be honest, not just in danger of that, who’s actually been there? Me, for sure. Had something to say. Had someone to say it to. Had an opportunity to speak. But zip [mime] I have so little faith that my puny prayers, actions, words could make any difference that I figure I might as well not bother with them in the first place.
Being Spirit-empowered means we have a reason for hope - means we have a power that doesn’t belong to us but has been vested in us. And being Spirit-empowered is a fact, not a feeling. So I say this to every follower of Christ in the room and to myself: the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is living in you. Actually, why don’t we tell one another that if, like me, you struggle sometimes to believe it’s true: “the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead is living in you”
Here, today, right now. Power, mighty, life-changing power, is at hand as the Spirit works within us and through us. We’re going to reflect on the role and significance of the Spirit in Acts together this evening as we take some extended time for communion, worship and prayer. Come join us 5pm for that.
First still: we are still Spirit-empowered.
Still crossing borders and boundaries
The growth story in Acts isn’t just numbers, like we talked about - the Spirit directs the expanding movement as it grows into new places; grows into new cultures; grows across border and boundaries. The hope of Israel is the hope of the world.
Some boundaries might not seem as daunting to us today; others loom just as large as they did back then. Still, the Spirit directs us to cross them - because God is building for Himself one new family, as he adopts each of us as His child: He makes us brother and sister no matter what we were before.
Here at Hope City we’re a global church - it’s an amazing and wonderful thing that I believe God has done. As leaders, we recognised a weakness years back: we were not as diverse a group as we wanted to be; we didn’t reflect the diversity of the city we’re trying to share our hope with. We are thrilled to see how that has changed over these past few years - doubly thrilled because we know it’s not something we did - we believe it’s something God has done - something we should treasure.
We need to be honest that it’s not always easy, though. We come from different cultures, different families - we have different preferences, different ways of doing things. But we are brothers and sisters, united in Christ by God’s grace. So we need to choose to work for unity, choose to make room for one another, choose to reach out across what used to divide us.
So if you find yourself only talking to people from your own culture, or only people of your own age, or only those who share your interests after church I want to challenge you to recognise that the Spirit has directed us across those boundaries. Today, choose to reach out to the “other” - whoever that may be for you. Talk to someone new - meet your family!
But it’s not just cultural or national boundaries that the Spirit has directed us to cross. The Jew/Gentile division was a profound theological boundary which seemed impassable - they couldn’t eat together; they understood life differently - how could they be one family? Yet the Spirit so clearly directed the church across this boundary - all those repetitions we talked about, remember?
That’s not our issue today but there’s been plenty of other divisions in Christ’s church down through the centuries. Sometimes that division is between truth and error - and the Spirit leads us into all truth, the Bible tells us, not across that line into error. But sometimes the division is only over something secondary, not the fundamentals of the gospel. At Hope City we believe, for the sake of that gospel, for the sake of our mission, that the Bible teaches we are to cross this sort of boundary. Romans 14:10 tells us not to judge or look down on one another when we have different views on “disputable matters” - instead Rom 15:7 teaches us to accept one another just as Christ has accepted us.
Just like crossing cultural boundaries, this is hard work in practice, too. But again, because we are brothers and sisters, united in Christ by God’s grace. We are one family so we choose to work for unity, choose to make room for one another, choose to reach out across what used to divide us.
Second still: we are still crossing borders and boundaries. Finally,
It’s still a growth story
There wasn’t that much of a church by the end of Acts. Whether it was ten thousand or even significantly more, it wasn’t even a blip on Rome’s radar. Totally insignificant to the wider world. Just about everyone was just minding their own business as if nothing had happened. Two millennia on, we’d be fools to see anything less than the Spirit starting a world-changing movement in this book of Acts.
Who was at Hope City on day one? Official day one - Easter 2018? Go on, raise your hand if you were here. Say “me” in the chat if you’re on the livestream! Take a look around - not that many hands. We’ve grown, right? Many of you who came after day one were following Jesus long before you heard of Hope City - I’m so glad that the path of your life has brought you to be a part of our church. That’s a lot of how we’ve grown and we’re glad you’re here - but it’s not the whole story.
While we haven’t seen big numbers of people come to follow Jesus for the first time, we have seen some. I don’t know everyone’s story here, but I do know some of you have stepped into faith, some have found your way back to Jesus, some have managed to keep going where you weren’t sure you could, and some, I believe, are still moving towards faith.
That can sound pretty unimpressive. That can look pretty unimpressive. It’s nothing like three thousand new believers being added to that very first church in one day at Pentecost. But it is something. Don’t despise the day of small things, church - because it’s still a growth story - we are part of it, and this isn’t the end of the story.
That’s how we’re going to close the book of Acts - thankful for it’s encouragement that this is a growth story - even if today it looks pretty small, this is still a growth story. A Spirit-empowered, Spirit-directed growth story. let me pray.
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