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Glorifying God

Acts 21:19-26

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 “After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. [20] And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, ‘You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; [21] and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. [22] What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. [23] Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; [24] take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. [25] But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.’ [26] Then Paul took the men, and the next day, purifying himself along with them, went into the temple giving notice of the completion of the days of purification, until the sacrifice was offered for each one of them.”  (NASB)

 I don’t know if it is because I was tired while I was preparing this sermon, or what, but I had to read this passage of scripture a half dozen times to understand what was happening in this text.  The first few times I read it, I saw a startling contrast between the salvation of the gentiles in verse 19 and the salvation of the Jews in verse 20.  Initially, I thought that immediately after Paul shared his news of the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles that the apostles were trying to one up him with their news about the conversion of the Jews.  Perhaps this was one of those times were personal experience was tainting my reading of the scripture, because the opposite was happening.

 I have noticed a tendency among believers to want to compare the results of their ministries with others.  A few years ago I was talking with a lady while we waiting for our class to begin at a writer’s conference at Glorieta, New Mexico.  I’m not real good at small talk, especially with strangers, but it was obvious to me that she wanted to talk, so I did the best I could.  We disposed with the mandatory, “What do you write” and “Have you had anything published?” questions rather quickly, and began to talk about spiritual things.  I asked her “What church do you attend?”  She said, “I don’t know if you’ve heard of it or not, it isn’t as big as Willow Creek—I attend Saddleback.”  In those days, Saddleback might have been smaller than Willow, I don’t know, but I was amazed at why she would need to make the comparison.  Just in case you haven’t heard of those churches, Willow Creek is located near Chicago, IL and Saddleback is in Orange County, CA and both of them are huge churches that have a tremendous influence on other churches around the world.  Which one is larger or more influential shouldn’t ever be at issue.  For some reason, it was in this lady’s mind.  But I don’t think she is the only one—we all do it.  We all make these comparisons.

 When the emerging church conversation was taking form, many of the leaders were saying that size wouldn’t be the issue; things like authenticity and spirituality were what were really important.  In my book Future Church:  Ministry in a Post-Seeker Age, I featured churches that ran 45 to 3000 and I stand by that decision, because a church can have an effective ministry regardless of its size.  But as the conversation has matured, I’ve noticed that size has become an issue again.  To many people, bigger will always be better.

 And to some degree, numbers were important in the New Testament too.  While I don’t detect a spirit of “one ups manship” in these verses, the disciples were quantifying the response to the gospel.  Paul related “one by one the things which God had done” and the apostles talked about “the thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed.”   Quantifying the blessings of God isn’t a problem.  After all, we have an entire book of the bible named Numbers, and several times in that book, God told the leaders to take a census—to number the people. But then again, there was a time when David took a census that upset God. 

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