So the Word of God spread as God’s blessing came upon the gospel as it was preached. That was not invariable; it did not happen in Athens, although a significant little group of individuals professed faith. The Holy Spirit was poured out generously through Jesus Christ. That is the explanation.
Now let me give you an insider’s view of this great change as we read of it in three letters of the New Testament. How was this amazing work of God experienced within the congregations?
i] The church at Corinth tolerated in its membership at least one notorious sinner. It looked away and did nothing about that defiant bad man. The salt was losing its savour in Corinth; the life was seeping out of the church. Paul wrote to them and they were revived by his words and they displayed that whole ra nge of religious affections which are displayed when God awakens a congregation. Paul describes the initial grief and congregational repentance his words caused them when his letter was read out to the congregation; “your sorrow led you to repentance. For you became sorrowful as God intended and so were not harmed in any way by us. Godly sorrow brings repentance that leads to salvation and leaves no regret, but worldly sorrow brings death. See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done” (2 Cor. 7:9-11).
ii] The church at Thessalonica is reminded by Paul of how the gospel came to that whole congregation; “our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (I Thess. 1:5). What stirring words! You read them and think, “That is how the gospel should be received by a whole congregation.” How many evangelical sermons these days are not like that, but rather like hearing a commentary being=2 0read? The preaching with too many of20us is in word only, but in Thessalonica it was not like that; there was power; there was the Holy Spirit at work and deep conviction as the word was preached. I believe that that could happen any Sunday in this congregation.
iii] The church at Ephesus. Consider what Paul longs for in this church. He tells them that when he prays for them – a revived church, for this is his petition to God: “I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph 3:1 6-21). They had the truth; they had the Spirit;20they had Christ, but Paul longs for them to have more, for spiritual growth and not in the slight ways we think of – more people coming to our evening service, or a new face in the Sunday School – but that they would be strengthened with power through the Spirit in the inner man, and that they would be rooted and established in love, and understand more of the love of Christ that passes knowledge.
Men and women, it is a spiritual awakening of that dimension that I am speaking about and that we are to pray for in our own congregations. That is the work of the Holy Spirit – as we repent of our cold hearts and as we cry to him for help and the same apostolic word with the power of the Spirit is preached to you.
Doesn’t our Lord tell us of one congregation that had left its first love? Doesn’t Christ describe one church as being neither cold nor hot but lukewarm? If the Lord Jesus appeared in our pulpit now and lovingly and sweetly and righteously spoke and told us that we are guilty of these base attitudes would we not respond as the Corinthian congregation – what earnestness, what eagerness to clear ourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern. But surely that is exactly what he is saying to many of us today. Are we touched? Are we examining ourselves? Are we alarmed? Are we changing?
– to be continued
– Geoff Thomas