WHAT SHAKES A MAN WHO HAS SEEN IT ALL?
The Apostle Paul was a world traveler by the standards of his day. In an era when people traveled on foot and most never moved more than 20 miles from their homes, Paul was comfortable traveling throughout the Roman Empire, which spread across most of the known world. He was a sophisticated road warrior!
But when he entered Athens, Greece, Paul encountered something that he hadn’t really seen before, and it shook him: An entire city that had become crammed full of temples to false gods! He had been to places that had a single temple devoted to the worship of a false god, of course, but this city was over the top. Wall-to-wall idols and pagan temples!
In Acts 17:16 the Bible records Paul’s reaction to what he saw—he was “greatly distressed!”
I had a similar experience last week in Malaysia. While on a visit to observe the great work being done by our missionary staff there, we spent a couple of hours wandering the city. Walking down one street, we passed through crowds of people who were engaged in ancestor worship in front of great smoking bronze cauldrons. Walking on, we encountered the upturned painted roofs of Buddhist temples, their courtyards crammed with followers of the Buddha. Right next door was literally a row of Hindu temples, one after another, each dedicated to a variety of grotesque and gold-plated idols. Passing through the smoke of the rising incense, we continued walking; and right next to them was a white and gold Muslim mosque with a large, gold-lettered sign out front that declared, “Surely the only true faith in Allah’s sight is Islam.”
And just down the street, matching the Muslim mosque in size and color, was the Anglican church. But in stark contrast to anything we had seen up to that point, its courtyard and grounds were entirely empty of people.
As we made our way back to the waiting vehicle, I walked silently, considering what I had seen.
Like Paul, I was greatly distressed, but for different reasons.
Paul was greatly distressed to see this great city of lost people, walking in darkness and dedicating themselves to demonic religions. And I was too. But Paul was entering a city which had never heard the good news of Jesus Christ, and he was about to do something about that. By contrast, I was entering a city where Christianity had been preached and even established, but largely disregarded.
WHAT CAUSES THE GOOD NEWS OF THE GOSPEL TO NOT SEEM LIKE GOOD NEWS TO ITS HEARERS?
Why were the crowds in Malaysia thronging the various temples and grounds dedicated to false gods, false idols, and false teachings, but completely ignoring the one property that represented Jesus Christ?
Our host provided the answer: the people of this populous country were not really seeking a faith to believe in as much as relief from their problems and hope for their present situations. This was why they often combined the various pagan religions in their city, burning incense before a variety of unrelated idols, just in case one of them they hadn’t yet tried could solve their problems. That got me thinking.
ARE IDOL-WORSHIPPERS IN ASIA REALLY SO DIFFERENT THAN SECULAR PEOPLE IN AMERICA?
I have been a pastor for 35 years, and I have NEVER had someone come to the church and say to me, “I woke up this morning and realized that I really needed to seek out my Creator and begin worshipping the One who gave me life!” That would be very noble, and I am not saying that no one ever does that, but I have never experienced it. You would be surprised how often (as I travel throughout the Missionary Church) people mention to me the miracles that God did in their lives which began their walk with Christ.
As Paul said, “…There is no one who understands. No one who seeks God.”
Instead, my experience over these decades of ministry is that…
LOST PEOPLE DON’T ACTUALLY COME TO CHURCH TO FIND GOD. IF THEY COME TO CHURCH AT ALL, IT IS TO FIND RELIEF!
They seek relief from a bad marriage, or the terror of a teenager wandering into danger, or the tension of a bad medical diagnosis, or any number of other distressing things. And in the process of finding relief, they often experience the delightful, unexpected joy of meeting God.
As I travel throughout the Missionary Church, I often ask people what brought them to one of our churches. You would be surprised how often those people tell me stories about some demonstration of God’s power—a miracle of answered prayer or healing that God did in their lives—which caused them to turn to Christ and join the church.
SO WHAT HAPPENS IF PREACHING THE GOSPEL IS NOT ACCOMPANIED BY DEMONSTRATIONS OF THE SPIRIT’S POWER?
Short answer? Look to Paul in Athens, and you will see! Paul trudged out of Athens after delivering the Gospel without any demonstrations of the Spirit’s power. He did, of course, bring them the Gospel… a radically different spiritual message than they had ever heard (which is why in Acts 17:20 they say, “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we would like to know what they mean.”). But he left without a single miracle being recorded in that city… no healings, no visions, no demons cast out of anyone, or anything else.
So, in the end, Paul left Athens without successfully establishing a church.
And that is why he changed his strategy. When he got to the next town (Corinth), he declared that his message would not be with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that their faith would not rest on men’s wisdom but on God’s power (I Corinthians 2:4). It goes without saying that Corinth, unlike Athens, became one of the pre-eminent churches in the New Testament era.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOUR CHURCH PREACHES THE GOSPEL FAITHFULLY, BUT NEVER SEES ANY DEMONSTRATIONS OF GOD’S POWER IN MIRACULOUS WAYS?
The same thing that I saw on that street in Malaysia. I don’t know how active that Anglican church was, but to the average lost person in that city it was just one of the religions being offered to the people; and quite frankly, it was not the one that the lost people were interested in pursuing!
If your church here in America has nothing to offer to desperate people except a set of principles prescribing how to live (such as “Seven steps to a better marriage” or “Three keys to better parenting”), the majority of the lost people in your community will never know or care what you have for them.
If church ministry is going to work, whether here in America or in Malaysia…
THE CHURCH OF JESUS MUST DO MINISTRY IN THE WAY OF JESUS!
Jesus delivered a radical message (“The Kingdom of God has come into your neighborhood! Turn away from your sinful ways and enter into a new life with God!”); and everywhere He delivered it, He confirmed the validity of what He was saying by demonstrations of God’s power on behalf of the sick and poor and needy.
The brilliant ministry of Jesus combined a radical new message with regular demonstrations of the Spirit’s power.
His powerful message was confirmed by His powerful actions, which could only have happened if God was present! That is why the people were all filled with awe and said, “God has come to help His people!” (Luke 7:16).
Are the people in our churches’ communities all filled with awe and saying, “God has come to help His people!”? If not, we may be doing it wrong!
The message that we give must be anchored in unmistakable proof from God that the message has validity. Proof that God is there!
NO CHURCH CAN FULFILL ITS DESTINY UNLESS ITS PEOPLE PRAYERFULLY SEEK GOD FOR MIGHTY ANSWERS TO PRAYER WHICH DEMONSTRATE GOD’S POWER AND COMPASSION FOR LOST PEOPLE.
People are transformed when they literally EXPERIENCE the presence of God. This shocks them into spiritual attention, and they notice for the first time that God is real and offers them a relationship with Him. The message that they have heard a million times suddenly becomes real to them. It is as if they have heard it for the first time. It is as if scales have fallen from their eyes.
OUR CHURCHES CANNOT SUCCEED AT GOD’S WORK WITHOUT GOD’S HELP. THAT IS WHY WE MUST REMAIN DESPERATE IN PRAYER FOR GOD TO DO WHAT WE CANNOT.
And when God shows up, it is the death of spiritual neutrality. You cannot pick and choose among various religions if there is only one God and He wants you to do things only His way.