Today’s guest post is from Dane Ortlund. Dane lives in Wheaton, Illinois, where he serves at Crossway Books, as the Senior Editor in the Bible Division. He blogs at Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology, and has contributed to the Gospel Coalition Blog. He authored A New Inner Relish: Christian Motivation in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards. Dane and his wife Stacey have two boys, Zachary and Nathan. Dane has an obvious passion for the glory of God, the purity of the gospel, and the theological integrity of pastoral leadership. His article deals with a topic that is crucial to churches, pastors, and ministries today.
Four Perennial Dangers to the Church
‘Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction’ (1 Cor 10:11). So wrote Paul of his Bible, our Old Testament; but we can easily apply a similar principle to our whole Bible.
One way we can be instructed by the example of God’s people in Scripture is the way the early church weathered several diverse threats early on in the book of Acts. In the wake of the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2, one challenge after another presents itself to the young church. In Acts 3 it is inflation. In Acts 4, persecution. In Acts 5, corruption. And in Acts 6, distraction.
By ‘inflation’ I don’t mean financial but personal—pride. Upon healing a lame man at the gate to the temple, Peter and John are assaulted by an astounded throng of wondering onlookers who gawk at Peter and John as if they are super-celebrities. ‘Men of Israel,’ says Peter, ‘why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk?’ (3:12). How easy it would have been to soak in the moment of adulation. By God’s grace Peter and John directed attention to the one truly responsible for the miracle (3:13–16).
In Acts 4 Peter and John are arrested and questioned by hostile unbelievers from among the religious authorities. The apostles remain steadfast, however, refusing to obey men rather than God (4:19).
In chapter 5 the church is threatened not by an outside danger but a threat from among their own ranks. Ananias and then his wife Sapphira sell a piece of real estate under pretense of giving all the proceeds to the church, but deceptively keep for themselves part of the profit. The apostles do not tolerate this but pronounce a judgment on each of them in turn, protecting the fledgling church from such two-faced deception.
Finally, in Acts 6 the church faces one more early challenge. Once more the problem is internal. In the distribution of food the Greek-speaking Jewish believers complain that their widows were getting the short end of the stick as compared with the Hebrew widows. The twelve gathered the disciples and found a way to ameliorate the problem while also retaining their own specific venue of ministry—they selected deacons. In this way the apostles were able to keep their focus on the ministry of the word and prayer.
Inflation, persecution, corruption, distraction. In each case the apostles were tested and responded with courage and wisdom, shepherding the early church well and keeping it moving forward.
The ultimate significance of these various tests which ‘happened to them as an example,’ however, is not mere emulation of the early apostles and their consistent spiritual successes. To be sure, there is much to learn by their example. Yet only under God did the early church survive these early tests. The story of the early church is the story of the grace of God.
One way to see this is by recognizing that not only was the church empowered to pass these tests by the Spirit but also that Jesus himself passed these very tests. Jesus was tempted to be inflated with pride (Matt 4:8–9). He was persecuted (John 15:20). He experienced corruption of those who were his inner circle (John 13:21). And Jesus was tempted to distraction (Luke 8:20–21; John 6:15).
And he really passed the tests. He passed the tests so that the failures of the church are forgiven and the ultimate success of the church is secured.
The account of the early church is certainly ‘an example’ for us and fodder ‘for our instruction.’ Most deeply, however, it is an account of the unstoppable grace of God, through the Spirit and founded on the Son’s finished work, working through weak people.
*These comments are in part based on John Stott’s Acts volume of the Bible Speaks Today commentary series (InterVarsity). I happily acknowledge my debt to Stott’s wonderful commentary.
Be sure to check out Dane’s blog, Strawberry-Rhubarb Theology, for a consistent flow of gospel-saturated posts.