When they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, held in honor by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a while. And he said to them, "Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men. For before these days Theudas arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!" So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ.
Jesus said, "Where your treasure is there will your heart be also" (Luke 12:34). The reason this is true is that we always spend our money on what we value. If you value not freezing, you buy warm clothes in Minnesota. If you value not starving, you buy food. If you value God-centered education, you pay tuition. If you value the life of starving Ethiopians, you give to World Relief. If you value unborn human life, you give to MCCL or the Micah Fund or some pro-life effort. If you value finishing the Great Commission, you give to frontier missionaries.
The connection is certain. Where you put your treasure reveals your pleasure—your values, your commitments, your loves, your heart.
Four Purposes for Our New Building
And so what I want to do this morning is let this text express four purposes for our new building. If some stranger were to ask you as you leave this morning, "Why did you pledge all that money to pay for a new building?" I want you to be able to say, "Because I believe the existence of that building is going to advance four things that I believe in very much." I have put my treasure where my heart is.
I hope you do believe in them with all your heart. Because the more you believe in them, the more freely and the more gladly you will give—and God loves free and glad givers.
So here they are. I give them as statements of faith in what I believe God means to do with that building and what I am committed to with all my heart because I see it in the Word of God.
1. Cultivating People Who Hope in God's Triumph
The new worship building exists to help cultivate the kind of people who bank their hope on the inevitable triumph of God.
The "Hope in God" Church
Ever since we put that big sign up on the west side of the church that says, HOPE IN GOD, people in the neighborhood have said, "O, you're from the HOPE IN GOD church." And we have been glad to say, "Yes. We are from the HOPE IN GOD church."
Almost eleven years ago when I first came to Bethlehem and we had to repaint the signs at the two corners of the church lot on 13th Avenue, I asked Rollin Erickson if we could put three words from Psalm 42:5 on the back of the signs: "Why are you downcast O my soul and why are you disquieted within me? HOPE IN GOD. For I shall again praise him. My help and my God."
My Faith, My Prayer, and My Commitment
One of the prayers that I have returned to for myself and for the church again and again over the past 11 years is Romans 15:13, "Now may the God of hope fill you with joy and peace in believing that by the power of the Holy Spirit you might abound in hope."
Last summer as I was finishing the book The Pleasures of God, one verse that guided a whole chapter and gave me tremendous hope was Psalm 147:11, "The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love." I think that's the best news in the world—that God is the kind of God who is happy with us not when we work for his approval but when we hope in his love.
My faith, my prayer, and my commitment is that everything that happens in the new worship building will cultivate that kind of people—who hope in the inevitable triumph of God.
Gamaliel's Wise Advice
Here in our text the apostles of Jesus have been arrested again for preaching in the name of Jesus. Verse 33 says that the council is enraged and ready to kill them. But Gamaliel stood up and gave some very wise advice. In verse 38–39 he says, "I tell you keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them."
If this Christian movement is of God, it cannot be overthrown. This is what I mean when I refer to the inevitable triumph of God. Our hope as Christians is not the kind of hope you feel for something you are not sure about—like: I hope there will be peace in the Middle East or I hope my cold goes away soon. Christian hope is simply this: God cannot be overthrown.
That's what it means to be God, Isaiah says, "I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'" (Isaiah 46:9–10). God cannot be overthrown. Therefore the cause of God cannot be overthrown, and the people of God cannot be overthrown.
Strengthening Christian Hope
"For I am persuaded," Paul said, "that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:37–39).
It is a hope for the young in their vigor and vision. And it is a hope for the old on the brink of eternity.
It is my faith, my prayer, and my commitment that everything that happens in our new worship building will build and strengthen hope in God, whose cause and whose people cannot be overthrown.
2. Cultivating People Who Promote God's Work
The new worship building exists to help cultivate the kind of people who will not oppose a genuine work of God but seek to promote it and improve it according to truth.
Gamaliel began his speech in verse 35 saying, "Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men." Watch out how you treat the apostles of Jesus. Then at the end of his speech in verse 39b he said, "You might even be found opposing God." If you oppose a work of God, you oppose God.
God Mercifully Uses Imperfect People
Now that's a true principle, and I think the Lord wants me to highlight it today. As much as my personality would like it, and as much as the love of truth yearns for it, it will probably not happen: that is, the finishing of the Great Commission and completion of God's purposes on this planet before his return will probably not happen only through people who think just like I do. It seems as though God is going to use hundreds of different denominations and thousands of different forms and styles of Christianity to finish the Great Commission.
You heard me celebrate last week the phenomenal spread of the Christian movement in Latin America. Well most of that spread has been through the work of churches that are doctrinally Pentecostal and Arminian. Now I think the classic Pentecostal understanding of the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a distinct second experience signified by tongues is wrong. And I think that Arminianism, with its failure to reckon with the sovereignty of God in salvation, is wrong. So how do I celebrate this spread of wrong teaching in Latin America?
Well I don't celebrate the spread of wrong teaching. What I celebrate is that the name of Jesus Christ is being proclaimed and exalted. His deity, his sinless life, his atoning death, his bodily resurrection, his reign in heaven, the reality of the Spirit, salvation by faith, and the triumph of God are being spread with power. And therefore I think God is in it.
In other words, God mercifully uses his erring children. He has no other kind. As J.I. Packer says, God often honors the needle of truth in a haystack of error. All of us see through a glass darkly for now. Perfection is not required of us for God's favor either in life or in doctrine. Wrong teaching hurts the church. Some wrong teaching can destroy the church. But there is no perfect church. And therefore the only Christian movement in the world is an imperfect one. And if we are going to celebrate at all, we are going to celebrate the work of God in imperfect people with imperfect ideas.
Promoting the Work of God Wherever We See It
Therefore the kind of people God wants us to become and to beget in our new worship building is the kind who do not oppose a movement of God even when flawed. Not that we will not criticize error and warn against the harmfulness of false teaching. (Most New Testament letters were written to do that.) But that we will make a difference between that and the wholesale condemnation of a movement. We will promote the work of God wherever we see it in persons and in movements; and we will strive to provide what is lacking and improve what is deficient—and that goes for ourselves as well.
I believe this point is very important as we move toward the end of history and see God working in phenomenal ways through groups and movements that in many ways are very different from us. May our new worship building not become a fortress of narrow provincialism; but a place where every true work of God, even when flawed, is promoted and improved according to the truth of God's Word.
3. Cultivating People Who Rejoice in Persecution
The new worship building exists to help cultivate the kind of people who find joy in the tribute of being dishonored for the name of Jesus.
According to verse 40 the authorities beat the apostles and then let them go. Verse 41 gives the amazing description of what they were feeling as they left this beating: "Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name"—that is, the name of Jesus.
When they were dishonored among men because they were Christians, when they were treated unjustly and made fools of among men because they stood for Jesus, they took this as a tribute. They felt as though they had been counted worthy of a privilege, an honor. And in this tribute they rejoiced.
The Danger of Comfort
In a few weeks we will enter our new worship building. It will be very comfortable. It is air conditioned and bright and acoustically tuned; the pews are padded, the aisles are carpeted, the woodwork is warm, the commons area is spacious; there is an elevator to every level. It will be comfortable and it will be beautiful. And therefore it will be dangerous.
Because if what happens in that space increases our American addiction to comfort and our disinclination to be inconvenienced and dishonored for the name of Jesus, then the building will become a reproach to the name.
My faith and my prayer and my commitment is that this will not happen, but in that very building—just as when the Christians gathered in Solomon's portico of the great temple—God will cultivate a people who find joy in the tribute of being dishonored for the name of Jesus.
Radically Countercultural and Happy People
What can we say but that these early Christians had turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6)? How do you describe people whose values are so countercultural that they rejoice over the privilege of being beaten in public? That's the kind of people this new building exists to produce. People who consider the poor in spirit blessed. People who love their enemies and return good for evil. People who dread the desire to get rich. People who say that to live is Christ and to die is gain. People who know that to be great you must be the servant of all. People who know that lasting wealth is accumulated by selling possessions and giving alms. Strange, radical, out-of-step, upside-down people!
But not only that. Our new building exists to produce people who in all their crazy, countercultural, upside-down values are as happy as they can be. "They left the council rejoicing that they had been counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name." If you can't destroy the joy of Christians, but only increase it by beating them, then Christians are the most indomitably happy people in the world. I am as committed as I ever have been to the glorious, God-honoring truth of Christian Hedonism.
I would like to give the rest of my life to building that kind of crazy, upside-down, countercultural, indomitable, Christ-exalting joy into God's people. To me, that is what the new building stands for.
4. Cultivating People Who Persevere in Proclaiming
The new worship building exists to help cultivate the kind of people who don't give up but keep on commending Jesus in the face of discouragement and danger.
Verse 40 says that after they had beaten them, they commanded them not to speak in the name of Jesus. But verse 42 says, "And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ." They did not cease. They did not give up. They kept on commending Jesus.
My faith and my prayer and my commitment is that we will not breed quitters at Bethlehem, but finishers. People who know life is hard. People who know that even in the finest of buildings it is "through many tribulations that we must enter the kingdom" (Acts 14:22). People who, when they get knocked down, get back up. When their feelings are hurt and they are ignored or criticized, they keep on serving. When their pro-life legislation is defeated one year, they put another bill on the table the next year and the next year and the next year. People who are tenacious and persistent and unrelenting and durable and determined and set their faces like flint to follow Jesus on the Calvary road no matter what.
May God breed such people in this new building—people who do not quit commending Jesus in the face of danger and discouragement.
I conclude and summarize by asking one last question: what does all this have to do with worship? I keep calling our new building a worship building. But what do these four aims of the building have to do with the worship that will go on there?
These four purposes of the building are four kinds of worship. The essence of worship is giving heartfelt expression to the infinite worth of God. And that is what we have been talking about. Banking your hope on God's ultimate triumph expresses the worth of God. Promoting every true work of God expresses the worth of God. Rejoicing in the tribute of being dishonored for the sake of God expresses the worth of God. And never giving up the commending of God expresses the worth of God.
Worship begets worship. And therefore my faith and my prayer and my commitment is that in our new building we will worship in such a way as to beget these kinds of worship. If this is where our heart is as a people, then our treasure will be too. The payments will be made, and we can give ourselves—heart and soul—to the great work before us of sending and harvesting 2000 by 2000 for the glory of God.