Last month, we talked about what church is and how it affects every aspect of our lives. And today, we are staring a new series called Big Church. It’s called Big Church, not because all churches should be a big church but because Church is a BIG Idea. It’s a movement. During this series we’re going to study the book of Acts which typically most us pastors only preach on this first part once a year when we celebrate the birth of the church on Pentecost Sunday, but today we’re going to start the series with this part because this is really the start of this whole movement called the Church. Throughout the coming weeks we are going to take a look at things the early church did, but not just what they did but how they did it.
Now like I said last week, I not saying we need to do everything in the same way the early church did, that’s really not possible since we are in a different culture today. However, there are many things we can certainly learn from those folks like how they had the faith they did, how they prayed, who they saw as their audience, and the big opportunities they took.
I personally love the Church, especially our part of the Church. I don’t know what comes to mind or what you feel when you hear the word church, but chances are it is a far cry from what the first Church people thought or experienced. Because in the first century, from the very beginning the Church has been a movement launched around one event in history. It didn’t begin as an institution. It didn’t begin with liturgy or tradition. There weren’t any bibles or bands or buildings, pews, or hymnals.
The church was simply a gathering of people who came together around one belief: that Jesus is the Risen Christ, the Son of the living God. And it was that simple event that Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead, and it was the testimony by eyewitnesses to that event that launched the Church. That was all they had. And that was enough. The Church was a movement. And it got big starting on DAY ONE.
So as we begin this series today, I want to give you a little background about the whole idea of Church. My goal today, as I teach you maybe some new things you didn’t know before, is for us to begin to rethink church, and maybe redefine in our hearts what the church is all about.
Because at the end of the day, the church launched as a movement – and the church is actually still moving.
Now, here is something fascinating you may not have known. In the New Testament, the little Greek word that’s translated to church is…. Ekklesia. Let’s just say it together because it’s fun to say. Ekklesia. Now you know Greek. Ekklesia literally means—and you can look it up, you can Google it— a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place, a gathering or an assembly. When Jesus launched the Church, as we’re going to see in a few minutes from Matthew, He launched it as a gathering around one simple idea with a simple mission and with a very simple focus. It was a gathering or a congregation.
But then something terrible happened in history. As time went on, there was a transition from the movement to a location, from a gathering around an idea to a hierarchy, from a movement around a simple message and a simple event in history to something entirely different.
If you know any church history, or any medieval history, you may know that the church went through a terrible, embarrassing time where everything was wrong about the local church. And that horrible period of history was launched in some way, shape and form by a misunderstanding of the term “church.” Because the little Greek word that couldn’t be any clearer, ekklesia, was transitioned into an entirely different word.
It was transitioned into a German word that I can’t pronounce it in German, so I’m not even try. But you can see that the English kind of derivative of this word is kirche. It’s from this German word, which came actually from the Goths around 300 AD, that we got our English word for church. And it literally meant in 300 AD, “the lord’s house.” It was a German term for any gathering, in a holy, ritual place. It didn’t have to be Christian. It just meant a gathering place for people of a certain faith.
So quickly after the time of Christ, within just 300 years, the idea of a gathering, a movement, an assembly, a congregation transitioned to this idea for where we get the English word church. So throughout your English New Testaments, the little Greek word ekklesia, which means gathering and movement is translated to church, but you can see there is no relationship at all between the idea of a congregation and a movement and the lord’s house.
In fact, this was a throwback to the Old Testament idea of a temple. Because in Israel, the people of God gathered in the temple and God lived in the temple. This horrible linguistic transition resulted in some terrible, terrible theology. Before long, the Church was located in a building, and whoever controlled the building, controlled the Church. Whoever controlled the building, controlled the Scripture. Whoever controlled the building and controlled the Scripture, controlled the people. In some parts of Europe, whoever controlled the building and controlled the Scripture and controlled the people, even controlled the government.
Over time, what began as a movement of distributing truth throughout the world became a very inward focused, ritual, in some cases pagan, destructive, and unethical movement that had absolutely no reflection at all of what happened in the first century when the very first church was launched. What came as a result of this change from a movement to the idea of a location, still affects us today as some people still think of church as they did in 300 AD.
But then something awesome happened in the sixteenth century. In the early 1500s, a guy showed up in England. He was a scholar and his name was William Tyndale. In fact, we’ve got a picture of him right here. Smile William. They just wouldn’t smile. But if you know his story, you’ll understand why William wouldn’t smile.
William Tyndale was an English scholar, and he decided that it was time for the average person to have access to the Bible, because in that day and age, in the sixteenth century, people had to go to church and listen to a priest read from a translation of the Scripture that the average person couldn’t even understand. No one had access. And if you controlled the Bible, you controlled the truth, you controlled the church, and you controlled the people. And William Tyndale decided enough of enough. He believed the people, the English people specifically, needed to have access to the truth of God’s Word, and he began to translate the original Hebrew and Greek text into English. He was the first person to do this, and the church leaders were not happy about this. He became an outlaw. He had to leave England and flee to Germany, where he continued to do his translation work.
Thanks to Gutenberg, who lived a hundred years before William Tyndale, he began to print his copies of the New Testament, and smuggled them into England. Suddenly the average person had a copy—not a handwritten copy of Scripture, which was so extremely expensive that no one could afford one. Suddenly the English people could hold the entire New Testament, in some cases the entire Bible, in their hands in a language that they could understand.
He was eventually betrayed by a friend, brought back to England, tried for being a heretic and they hung him, burned his body and discarded him as an enemy of the church. But it was too late, because now the Word was out. English speaking people already had copies of Scripture in their hands, and the institutional church, the church that thought in terms of location and control of people, began to lose its power.
During his trial, William Tyndale made this statement he’s famous for. He said, “If God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.” He basically said, if it’s left up to me, I will make sure that everybody holds in their hands the Holy Scriptures.
Saying this to the religious leaders of his day, he was accusing them of manipulating the Scriptures and manipulating the people and the church in order to control the people. And one of the things that drove the church leaders absolutely crazy is that as William Tyndale was translating the Scriptures, when he got to the little Greek word ekklesia, he didn’t translate it “church,” the German version of a word that basically meant “the lord’s house.” In his copy of the New Testament, when got to the word ekklesia, he put the word “congregation,” because that’s what the word actually means.
It was his attempt to return the gathering of God’s people back to what it was meant to be and what it started off as in the first century—a growing, mission-centered movement of people with a very simple message for everyone in the whole world around one single event in history: the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
He was right. That’s the way Jesus set it up. Because in the book of Matthew, Jesus gathers his disciples together and he asks them a question that you really shouldn’t ask your friends because you may get information you’re not fond of. But He gathered his group together and he asked them, “Hey, what’s the word on the street about me; who do people say that I am? When people talk about me, what do they say?” And his disciples said, “Well, some people think you’re a reincarnated John the Baptist. And um, some people think you’re a reincarnated version of some Old Testament prophet.” But Peter said this, “I’ll tell you who people think you are. I’ll tell you who I think you are. You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And then Jesus said this, check this out:
Matthew 16:17 NIV
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this [this statement that you made that I’m the Messiah, the son of the living God] was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my [and there’s our word—I will build my ekklesia…not church building, not gathering place, I will build my ekklesia. I will build my gathering, my congregation, my assembly, my movement.] church, and the gates of death, [or in your translation it may say hell, but a better idea is death] will not overcome it.
Which meant no matter how many people die and no matter who dies, this would continue forever and ever and ever, because the Church was birthed as a movement of people around a simple message and around a simple idea. It was not about a building. It was not about any of the things that it would quickly become in the few hundred years; it would become and continue to be a movement.
Not too long after this conversation, Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead. He then spent about forty days with His followers. At the end of the forty days, He gathered them on a hillside and He gave them His final instructions. In Matthew, we call it the Great Commission, but in the book of Acts the version of Jesus’ final instructions add something. He again predicts the beginning of the Church. He gathers them on a hillside and here’s what he tells them:
Acts 1:6 NIV
6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
See they weren’t thinking in terms of a growing gathering that we would call the Church. They were thinking that Jesus was going to establish a kingdom.
Acts 1:7-8 NIV
7 He said to them: ”It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you;
We don’t know what they thought, but surely they thought, power? Power is a good thing. We’re going to get some kind of a special power and what are we supposed to do with this special power? He says this:
Acts 1:8 NIV
8 and you will be [as a result of this new power] my witnesses…
A little Greek word that means basically the same thing when we think about a witness in court, somebody who will testify to something, somebody who will accurately represent an event. He said:
8 you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, [which was where they were] in all of Judea, [which was the broader area] and Samaria, [which was an area they didn’t even like to go into] and to the ends of the earth.”
Now again, we don’t know what they thought, but if we can just try to imagine, you’re standing with a man who Rome crucified, the religious leaders hated, and He says, “Hey, here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to take the message of me, my teaching, the fact that you are eyewitnesses of the resurrection all over Jerusalem.”
And they’re looking at each other going, okay Jerusalem. We can do Jerusalem. And Judea. Okay. Samaria. Okay, even though we don’t like to go there. But the rest of the world. No doubt they looked at each other and thought, “The rest of the world? Jesus—timeout— do you know how big the world is?” To which Jesus could have said, “You don’t even have a clue. All you know is the Roman world, but this message, this movement, this gathering, this momentum that we’re creating is going to touch every single part of the world.”
Which is exactly what happened. This is one of the most significant prophecies in the entire Bible. And then Jesus departed, and this little group went back into the city of Jerusalem and they began to pray together. And about two weeks later, something amazing happened.
Two weeks later was the Jewish celebration of Pentecost, a little bit like Passover. We find out later in the book of Acts that there were Jewish people and converts to Judaism from over a dozen different regions of the world, basically all of the known world, had gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate this Jewish holiday.
The Scripture tells us that while Jesus’ followers were meeting—that would have been the Apostles, and Mary, Jesus’ brothers, a few other men and women—and their praying together, suddenly on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit showed up in their midst in a powerful way just as Jesus had predicted. And suddenly the apostles were able to speak the language of all these different people who had gathered in Jerusalem. Over 12 different languages.
They went out into the city and they began to talk to these people from all over the world in their very own languages. And the people from all over the world that had come to celebrate this feast looked at these Galileans and they said, “How is it you can speak my language? You’re a Galilean.” Then they recognized another Galilean was speaking to somebody else from a different region of the world in their language.
And all of a sudden there’s all this energy and excitement and conversation of, how is it that these Galileans are able to speak our languages? And what is this strange and mysterious thing they are talking about—that the Messiah has come, that He was crucified, that He was raised from the dead. And suddenly there’s a huge stir in Jerusalem. The significance of it all though, was not that they could just speak their languages, but that it was just as Jesus had predicted.
And as things ramped up and people began to gather and talk and wonder—some people thought they were drunk, and others are going, “They aren’t drunk, he’s actually speaking my language. He’s not just babbling.”
And Peter decided it was time for the very first sermon in the Church, because this was the day the Church was born. Jesus predicted it; Jesus described it; it was going to be a gathering —it was going to be an ekklesia. And now they are all gathered together and Peter stands up on some steps or somewhere where people can see him, and he begins to preach the very first sermon on the very first day.
This was opening day of the church, and he draws back to an Old Testament context that many of these Jews could understand, to say this thing that’s happening amongst you was predicted in the Old Testament. And you shouldn’t be surprised. God predicted that one day the message that had been given to the Jews would be expanded and would be a message for the entire world. Then he launched into this part of the sermon. Here’s how it went:
Acts 2:22-23 NIV
22 “People of Israel listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
Now, Peter is recalling some very, very recent history here. This moment is only about two months after the crucifixion, so when he says Jesus of Nazareth, many people in that audience said, “Oh yeah, I saw him drag his cross down the middle of the city. Oh yeah, I was on the outskirts of the crowd during one of his sermons. Oh yeah, he healed a friend of mine; I know who you’re talking about.” This isn’t distant history; this was two months ago.
Acts 2:24 NIV
24 “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
So basically, he’s preaching the gospel of the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
Acts 2:32-33 NIV
32 “God has raised this Jesus to life, [and here’s our word] and we are all witnesses of the fact. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”
These first century believers were not simply teaching what Jesus taught. Christianity has never been about embracing a teaching; Christianity, from the very beginning, has always been about embracing an event in history. And these people are witnesses of that event. And now, the people hearing the message are witnesses of the Holy Spirit.
Acts 2:36 NIV
“Therefore, let all of Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, [and now it’s getting kind of personal] whom you crucified,
He’s pointing his finger at the Jews in Jerusalem. “God has made this Jesus whom you crucified.” Some of you were there, some of you accused him, and some of you walked away and didn’t defend him.
Acts 2:36 NIV
God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. [And a hush fell over the crowd in Jerusalem. Then finally somebody cried out.] 37When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and they said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Brothers we remember, yeah we saw, but now it’s too late. What shall we do? Peter replied….
Acts 2:38-39 NIV
38Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. [Here’s the promise.] And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
39The promise [this gift of the Holy Spirit] is for you and your children [And this is so cool—if you haven’t been paying attention, you have got to tune back in. Look at this part.] and for all who are far off…
Do you know who the “all who are far off” is? It’s you, and it’s me, and it’s our children, it’s our grandchildren, it was our parents who embraced Christianity. This was Peter’s way of saying this isn’t just a Jerusalem thing, this isn’t just an us here and now thing. This thing that has begun in our midst, the momentum, the idea, all the supernatural power that we’re experiencing today—this is something that’s going to reach beyond our lifetime. Because remember Jesus said, “And the gates of hell (or the gates of death) will not stop it.”
This generation may die, but the momentum will continue to be there. This generation may die, but the church will continue to thrive. This is an event that’s going to touch people who are far off, people who haven’t even been born yet, in places that we don’t even know about yet.
Acts 2:39 NIV
39 —for all whom the Lord our God will call.”
And then they had their first altar call. There was so much energy and so much passion and so much conviction, and there had been so many miracles as people had been speaking these languages, and here’s how the crowd responded:
Acts 2:41 NIV
41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
In the very city where Jesus was crucified and rose from the dead, over three thousand people said, we believe, and three thousand people joined the church on day one and were baptized. Do you know how long it would take to baptize three thousand people?
For days and days and days, the apostles were in the Jordan River, and probably every body of water they could find, baptizing people for repentance of their sins. Can you imagine the stir?
This wasn’t a huge city in those days—ancient cities were not huge. But you see, from the very beginning the Church has been BIG. From the very beginning, BIG things have happened. There is BIG momentum. It’s a BIG message. It’s a BIG event.
The point is, opening day for the local church was BIG and it was dynamic and it was powerful, and thousands of people embraced this message. Thousands of people said we believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He was crucified by Rome, He rose from the dead, and we believe Peter that you and your friends are eyewitnesses of this. We repent of our sins and we want to be baptized and included in this brand new gathering, this brand new congregation that will eventually become known as the local Church.
And just like Jesus predicted, two thousand years later, here we are. Do you know what connects Protestants and Catholics and people from every culture around the world in the name of Jesus? Do you know what the common denominator is? It’s not the way we worship. It’s not the way we think in terms of liturgy or our customs or traditions.
It’s that we believe that Jesus is the Son of the living God, that He rose from the dead, and that His death paid for the sins of the entire world. It was not about a location because there was no location. And don’t miss this: The church wasn’t for church people, because there weren’t any! And it wasn’t about a tradition or a style or a way of doing anything, because there was none of that. But there was an energy, there was a dynamic, there was a momentum, there was movement, and the world would never, ever be the same.
Here’s what’s so cool: Since opening day, since day one there has always been a remnant. There has always been a group of people that understands that this is a movement that must keep moving. This is a message that must touch down in every single region of the world, in every single culture of the world, and every single language of the world. And since day one, there have been missionaries, and Bible translators, and evangelists, Bible smugglers, preachers, and there have been people who have served, and people who take care of the poor in Jesus’ name. And for every generation there has always been a remnant that said, it’s not a location, it’s not a hierarchy.
There have always been people like William Tyndale who said, I’m willing to give my life in order to put the Scripture, the story of Jesus, into the hands of the common people so they can read it and say, “Wow, look what God has done. I want to be a part of that.” There has always been a group of people who have understood from the New Testament that you’re the temple of God; that when the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was then available to every single human being who would embrace the message of Jesus—and therefore God dwells in you. There has always been a group of people that know when we gather in Jesus’ name, we are a part of this thing that we call the Church, that has the momentum from that very first day in Jerusalem.
There have always been people who have gotten that. And you know what I love about our church? It’s that you get this. You see this is why when someone is baptized you cheer, because you get that. This is why when you meet in groups, you understand that you are the Church. And when you to serve the poor, you understand you are moving as the Church.
There has always been and there always will be a remnant of people who understand that it is not location, it is not style, it is not approach. It’s about gathering around this one simple idea that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and that this is a message for the entire world.
So I don’t know what comes to your mind or what you feel when you hear the word church, but I hope as a result of today, it may be a little bit different. I hope as a result of today that you never, ever, ever allow yourself to slide back into thinking that it’s a place, that it’s a location. But instead that for the rest of our lives we will understand that the church is a movement with extraordinary momentum.
Now, next week we’re going to pick up right here where this story left off. We got through about Acts, chapter 2. So here’s what I would love for you to do. Because most of you have an English Bible, thanks to William Tyndale, I would love for you to go home at some point during the week and pull out that English Bible and read again these first two chapters. Study them and get to know the story.
Because you need to understand, if you have any connection to Church at all, this is your story. These are the people who made it possible for us to do what we do – be the ekklesia, the gathering, the movement of the local church around one simple idea, around one simple event that changed and will continue to change the world.