The Book of Acts closes on an amazing note. The final two verses find Paul in chains, under house arrest, and guarded by Roman soldiers. Yet, read the joyous note with which Paul’s situation is described: “Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching those things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ, with all confidence, no man forbidding him” (Acts 28:30–31).
The original Greek for forbidding here actually means “hindering.” The New American Standard Version says Paul preached and taught the gospel “with all openness, unhindered.” What an amazing statement, given that Paul was imprisoned. The gospel was “unhindered,” meaning unstopped, unobstructed. The author uses this testimony to close Acts with a powerful declaration: “The gospel cannot be hindered!”
Make no mistake, there were hindrances on all sides to Paul’s message. When he called on the Jewish leaders in Rome to visit him in his chains, they were indignant. They said, “We don’t even know you. Who are you to us?” When Paul finally did preach Christ to them, they ended up squabbling among themselves. At the same time, the Emperor Nero was torturing and killing Christians in the streets of Rome.
Given these mountainous hindrances, how did God plan to impact the godless Roman Empire? What would be His method for building a church in Rome that would influence the world throughout the Empire for ages to come? Could it really be this jailed, Jewish former terrorist, whose speech was said to be contemptible? Was Paul God’s best instrument to evangelize Rome and all its vast territories?
For two years, the apostle was shut up in this nondescript house on a side street. He had no associate evangelist, no Timothy or Barnabas, to work alongside him. He had no microphone to broadcast his messages. He had no consultants or political connections to help him. Paul simply had no planned program or agenda. And even if he had, there was no way to advertise it. He couldn’t go door-to-door evangelizing or hold street meetings.
He declared, in so many words, “Here I am, Lord. Use me as You see fit.”
No, Paul was just there. And yet he was absolutely content with where God had had placed him. He declared, in so many words, “Here I am, Lord. Use me as You see fit. I don’t know Your plan, but I do know You put me here. Your gospel will go forth unhindered.”
Many in the Church today live as if they’ve accepted defeat. Their thoughts are ruled by doubt rather than belief and they live with habitual patterns of sin. They keep their faith to themselves, thinking that if they struggle so badly, how could they possibly help someone else? This is what the Christian life looks like without resurrection power.
Actually, that’s what the disciples’ lives looked like after the crucifixion. So what was the first thing Jesus did after the resurrection? He dealt with His followers’ fear: “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” (John 20:19).
The disciples had literally locked themselves in, afraid of the world outside. They feared mockery, derision, persecution, even the possibility of a death such as the one Jesus experienced. But Christ came straight through those walls to meet them in their fear and His first words to them were, “I give you peace.” Even then they were still afraid, so Jesus had to say it to them twice: “Peace be with you” (see 20:19, 21). Christ didn’t berate or judge them for their fear; instead, He met them at their deepest point of need.
The same thing happened about a week later. Again the disciples had locked themselves away in fear, and once more Jesus entered bringing peace: “Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you’” (20:26).
Sometimes Jesus has to say things to us more than once. Even so, He didn’t judge the disciples for their fear; instead, He showed them all patience. Earlier that week Thomas had expressed disbelief, but now Jesus invited him to examine His scars to remove any doubts. “Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (20:28).
Here in Thomas’s response we see Christ’s remedy for our fears: believe! Jesus proclaims this to His Church, and His Church proclaims it every week to all who enter its doors: “Peace be with you. Don’t be afraid. Believe on Him.”
The Christian church was born through the power of the Holy Spirit. As we read through the book of Acts and the epistles of the New Testament, we see a picture of the early church the way God intended it to be. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).
Here was a community of believers who freely loved the Word of God and were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. No one needed to badger or coerce them to love the Word. Instead, the Spirit within them inspired it. The same Spirit who wrote the Bible created an appetite inside of them for what it said. They shared with one another the deep love the Spirit had put in their hearts. They also became bold witnesses for Christ, filled with wisdom beyond their training. Their hearts were full of the Holy Spirit and they experienced surprises as God did things that no one could anticipate.
Not only had the Holy Spirit been sent to earth, but He acted in and through His people—demonstrating His power to glorify Christ. The early church experienced Him moving in their hearts and in their lives. Because of the hostile environment around them, they were repeatedly driven back to God for a fresh supply of the Holy Spirit, and they were wise enough to yield to His direction. Is the Holy Spirit moving like that in our lives? And in our churches?
I sometimes wonder if the early Christians were around today, would they even recognize what we call Christianity? Our version is blander, almost totally intellectual in nature, and devoid of the Holy Spirit power the early church regularly experienced. How much loss do we suffer because we don’t expect the Spirit to show up as promised? Everything we read about the church in the New Testament centered on the power of the Holy Spirit working in the hearts of the Christian believers. Sadly, for many of us this has not been our experience.
I believe it’s time to return to the kind of faith we see in the New Testament church. They believed God’s Word, they expected the Spirit to do great things, and He came through as promised.
He will do the same for us today.
Jim Cymbala began the Brooklyn Tabernacle with less than twenty members in a small, rundown building in a difficult part of the city. A native of Brooklyn, he is a longtime friend of both David and Gary Wilkerson.
When Jesus was on earth, He testified, “I am consumed with zeal for my Father’s house” (see John 2:17). Now His message to the Christians in Sardis, and to us, is this: “You enjoyed My favor, with a good reputation all around. You were blessed with powerful worship and preaching. But instead of moving forward, you began to think, ‘We have arrived.’ So you relaxed. You were no longer watchful, and indifference began to set in. Now you’ve settled into a spiritual comfort zone. You didn’t go on to fulfill the mission I gave you.”
God’s Word shows us what happens when we neglect His house and give first place to our own interests. It’s all illustrated in the book of Haggai.
When Haggai prophesied, God had just delivered His people out of Babylon and led them back to Jerusalem to rebuild His house. The Lord desired a “lampstand church,” where He could visibly manifest His presence among His people. He wanted the nations to see the transformed lives of the Israelites and a land filled with His blessing and glory. So He commanded Israel, “Focus on My church—that is your first mission. If you will be faithful to take care of My house, I will take care of yours.”
The people started out doing as the Lord instructed them, beginning to rebuild His temple. But after a while, they said, “The time is not come, the time that the Lord’s house should be built” (Haggai 1:2). The interpretation here is, “We don’t have time to do that work. We’re too busy.” The truth is, they got consumed with building their own fine homes and businesses.
What was the Lord’s response? He said through Haggai, “Mine house [lies in] waste, and ye run every man unto his own house” (1:9). The prophet was saying, in essence, “God delivered you and set you on a mission to build His house. But you’re so busy building your own homes, you’re neglecting His. The Lord’s concerns are no longer your focus. You’re all wrapped up in your own interests.”
Are you guilty of the same defilement? Do you have energy to run everywhere to attend to your own concerns—but have no energy for the Lord’s interests? Do you have time to work on your own house, but only a few hours on Sunday morning for the house of God? Do you make time to shop or watch TV, but find little or no time for prayer? More importantly, do you have the capacity to be stirred by these words from the Lord?
The church in Sardis started out in great apostolic power, with God’s blessing and favor. In Revelation 3, Christ tells the pastor at Sardis: “I know you started out with a powerful reputation, but you have allowed the life I gave you to ebb away. Tell this to your congregation: ‘You are dead. Will you have the capacity to hear this word, accept it and be aroused by it?’”
Beloved, if Jesus calls a congregation dead, it is dead! Yet Christ tells us there was also in that church a holy, wide-awake remnant, and says He still has hope for them: “Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments” (Revelation 3:4).
When Jesus speaks of “defiled garments” here, He is describing spiritual death. What caused the defilement of those believers in Sardis? It happened because something had hold of their hearts, a “special interest.” At one time, the center of everyone’s life was God’s interests: charitable works, a missions mindset, the faithful gathering of His Body. Simply put, Christ’s work had been their chief concern. But now, everyone was running after his own interests.
Sardis was a prosperous town, known for gold smelting and the making of fine garments. Evidently, the Christians in Sardis became enamored of the surrounding culture of prosperity, and their focus shifted. They quickly began drifting away from the Lord’s interests toward a materialistic mind-set.
By all outward appearances, nobody could fault these Christians for their pursuits. They were making a living, building up their businesses, and taking care of their families. Yet these things became so all-consuming that they began to neglect the works of God. So Jesus issued a warning to the faithful remnant there: “Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die: for I have not found thy works perfect [finished] before God. Remember therefore how thou hast received and heard, and hold fast, and repent” (Revelation 3:2–3).
What does Jesus mean here when He speaks of things “that are about to die”? He’s saying, “Beware! The excitement you once had for My house—your passion for My Word, your joy of public worship, your love for one another—has been dying. Slumber is falling over your eyes, and you’ve grown lukewarm. Wake up now! If you don’t, you could end up spiritually dead.”