In Acts 1:1 we find these words: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach”. Luke is of course referring to the gospel which bears his name, really the first of a two-part historical biography.
He means by this that in his second volume, he will continue the story of what Jesus taught and did. But even the cursory reader will note that by verses 9-11 we find Jesus leaving earth and departing to heaven. So how is the book of Acts (all 28 chapters) the story of all that Jesus did and taught?
The implication is clear as well as jarring: we, his followers, are the continuation of that story. The early disciples (the church in embryonic form) were the continuation of the life, message and acts of Jesus. What Jesus began the church continues.
We are the ongoing story of what Jesus taught and what he did. Of course much of what Jesus did was totally unique and not something we repeat or replicate. His death on the cross for our sins for example was a once off affair which only he as the Son of God could do.
But in many other ways we are to be a continuation of the life and ministry of Jesus. We are to represent him and his teachings to the rest of the world. We are his mouthpiece, his hands and feet if you will, in this world. We are his witnesses, his ambassadors, and his representatives.
Now to even think about that for a moment should send shivers up the spine of every single follower of Christ. What an amazing and heavy burden and responsibility! When people look at us, they are supposed to see Jesus! That is an incredible thought, and it is an incredible responsibility.
That the God of the universe could so condescend that he actually chooses to use us fallen, finite and sinful beings to represent him and carry on his work is an absolutely mind-boggling thought. Yet for some reason that is how God has chosen to get his job done in this world.
Jesus is of course the author and finisher of our faith, and he is the one who makes it all happen. Nonetheless he chooses to use us to carry on his work, and to be witnesses to himself. What an obligation and sacred trust. What a momentous calling.
So the church is largely how he manifests himself and reveals himself to the world today. And it of course does not take an angry atheist to inform us that in many ways the church of Jesus Christ has failed miserably to accurately and rightly represent him.
Far too often we have brought shame and reproach upon his name. We have misrepresented him, maligned him, and misused him. Whether financial or sexual scandals, or abuse of power, or ego and pride, or abuse of God’s people, or distortion of his teachings or misrepresentations of his character, we have failed him again and again.
It should not take the many critics of the church to point out these faults. In 1 Peter 4:17 we are clearly told that “it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household”. It is up to us, God’s people, to get our own house in order. We should not wait till the world uncovers our sins, abuses and scandals.
Thus this website devotes plenty of time to pointing out the many glaring problems and sins of the church. The aim of Jesus Christ is to present to himself a faultless bride, without spot or wrinkle (Ephesians. 5:25-27). We obviously have a very long way to go, so it is incumbent upon all of us to hold one another accountable as we seek to become that pure and holy bride.
Yet for all its many faults and flaws, the church has been an overwhelming force for good in the world. Just imagine what the world would be like if Jesus had not been born and the church had not been created. We would have no Western civilisation as we know it.
We would have had no William Wilberforces or Mother Teresas or Martin Luther Kings. We would be in a very different place indeed if the church did not exist. With all of its many shortcomings and sins, no other outfit on earth has done so much good for so many. But I have chronicled and documented this elsewhere, so I encourage you to check out these links:
As I stated in the second article, “The Judeo-Christian worldview was essential for the rise of the West. Without it the world would be a radically different place today. Most of the features that we now enjoy about the West – such as freedom, democracy, limited government, education and the universities, the rule of law, the rise of progress and science, human rights and separation of church and state – would largely be absent or greatly diminished if it were not for the rise of Christianity.”
So the church has made an enormous contribution both on the macro and micro levels. We believers thus need to proclaim both realities: that the church has been a tremendous blessing, and done many great and inspiring things; yet, the church has been plagued by problems, compromise, scandal, sin and arrogance.
In the same vein, let me conclude by referring to a recent piece on this by Michael L. Brown. He wrote about the pros and cons of the American church. Specifically, he offered 8 rights and 12 wrongs of evangelical Christianity in the US. Let me quote part of that here. First some of the bad stuff:
3) We preach a carnal prosperity message. This is not the Protestant work ethic of old; it is the message of, “Jesus died on the cross to make me financially rich.”
4) We export our false teaching around the world. The latest teaching coming from professing evangelicals is that you can practice homosexuality and follow Jesus at the same time, and from our shores, this message is going to the nations.
5) We have created a worldly, cultural Christianity. Rather than preaching a Jesus who radically changes us, we preach a Jesus who radically empowers us. That’s why we have “Christian” lingerie models and “Christian” rappers who frequent strip clubs.
6) We have perfected the gospel enterprise. We have learned how to make everything “Christian” and then market it. Someone once said, “What began as a movement in Jerusalem became a philosophy in Greece, a monument in Rome, a culture in Europe, and an enterprise in America.”
And now some of the good stuff:
1) We are at the forefront of feeding the poor and providing disaster relief worldwide. From the earthquake in Haiti to the tsunami in Japan, and from orphanages in Latin America to feeding programs in Africa, organizations like World Vision and Samaritan’s Purse are there, making a difference.
2) We are a generous people when it comes to funding gospel work in America and abroad. While we can sometimes be self-indulgent as we build our latest mega-edifice, we are a giving people overall.
3) We have produced an abundance of Christian resources. If you’re looking for the latest translation of the Bible or a book on any aspect of Christian living, and if you’d like to download it to your phone, look no further.
4) We have a positive, can-do mentality. This is part of the American psyche, but it comports well with the biblical message of “All things are possible with God.”
You can read all the points Michael makes, but there is no question that in general the global church has been a real force for good in the world, despite its many mistakes, mix-ups and mangled opportunities. The world as we know it today simply would not exist were it not for the church of Jesus Christ.
And just think of how much better the world would be had the church been so much better. So let us carry on, seeking to be the best we can as individual followers of Christ, and as the church as a whole. Whether it admits it or not, the world really does need us.