During our recent holiday, which included time in Europe, Jenny and I visited our fair share of church buildings. Magnificent monoliths, towering ceilings and incredibly ornate interiors greeted us in every city. Although they were said to be built “for the glory of God,” we had our suspicions that more than just God’s glory was in focus. It was the glory of an emperor, a ruler, a nation or of humanity itself that was also being glorified.
These grand structures seem far removed from the church we find described in book of Acts. Rather than displaying glory and power through breathtaking and awe-inspiring buildings, God’s glory in Acts is evidenced in changes in lives and the formation of new all-embracing communities. Rather than focussing on what the church does for God in promoting his glory in the world, the story of Acts focuses on what God is doing for humanity through his people the church.
Luke’s account of the life of the early church in Acts reinforces that it is Jesus who builds his church, not us. In a world obsessed with success, activism and results, this is a much needed reminder.
In his book The Politics of God and the Politics of Man, Jacques Ellul observes how our modern society seems to believe the only purpose of life is to get things done. Whether it is personally
and corporately, success is defined by setting goals and accomplishing them, or at least trying to accomplish them.
For instance, when we introduce ourselves to others one of the first things we mention is what we do, what we have done, and were we have succeeded. Our worth, and the worth of every organisation is measured by what it has done and the difference it has made in the world.
Ellul goes on to suggest that Christians are no different. While it is true we are called to accomplish things for God, we often slip into measuring our worth as Christian on the basis of whether we are doing something “worthwhile” or not. However, this is not how God would want us to view things.
Beginning with Genesis and picking examples throughout the Bible, Ellul suggests that meaning and worth is not to be found in activism, results, and success.
Genesis 2 describes Eden as a luscious garden providing all the food Adam and Eve needed. But just a few verses later, God commands Adam to work the soil and care for it? The obvious question is what for? If Eden provided the food, why did Adam need to work the soil?
Then when it comes to prayer, Ellul asks, if God knows what we need, and is able to do everything whether we pray or not, then why do we need to ask? It’s the same with the gospel, we are saved entirely by grace and any work we do to gain salvation is inconsequential, so what is the point of living a life a righteousness life? What does it accomplish?
We are confronted with the same questions in the book of Acts. Here we face the question, “What did these early Christians do for God that he could not have done just as well without them?” The answer is nothing!
After studying Jesus’ parable about faithful service in Luke 17:7-10 with its conclusion “We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty,” Ellul argues that the world has got it wrong when it believes aiming for success and accomplishment is the only effective motive for action. A more reliable and effective motive is to act out of love for God, and you do it just because he asked.
Ellul’s conclusion is that “we have nothing to achieve, nothing to win, nothing to provide” and although there are things to do and tasks to accomplish, we are under no illusion that God needs us nor that we have made any essential contribution to his work.
The supreme example of this is of course Jesus. He did not strive for success or accomplishment, in fact in the eyes of his world he died a failure as another false messiah on a Roman cross. The gospels record that throughout his life he was concerned with one thing: faithfulness to the will of Father. It was his faithfulness, not his accomplishments that won for us salvation.
What is true for Jesus is true for his people and this is what we find working out in Acts. The early church was not focussed on accomplishments, activism, results, and success. Its focus was on loving God and loving each other, and allowing Jesus to get about building his church. They are constantly playing catch up as Jesus moves ahead of them time after time. As they do this they experienced the grace and freedom of God. Saving the world wasn’t up to them, that’s God’s job.
As we work our way through Acts during the next few weeks as Hobart Baptist, it is my prayer we will experience more and more of the grace and freedom these early Christians experienced. Grace allowed them to rest and let the Holy Spirit be at work in and through them, and the freedom released them from the tyranny of striving for success.
May you too experience the job of living for God not as work, but as the delight of worship.
Stephen L Baxter