Bruises and Bottle-rockets

For the last couples of months, we’ve been looking at little stories called “parables” and asking: What does this story tell us about the kingdom of God? What does this story tell us about living under the rule and reign of heaven? What does it look like when our lives and our worlds start lining up with heaven? The answered have been images. The kingdom is like… a mustard seed. The kingdom is like… a forgiving Father. 

We’ve been looking at little stories, micro stories. Today we’re going to do an epilogue to that series. We’re going to tack on a postscript: “P.S. the kingdom looks like this.” And today we’re going to go to the other extreme… we’re going to look at a big story, a macro story.  The kingdom is like… the book of Acts. Ultimately, we’re going to see that the kingdom is like the King giving us his life.

Today I want to take a 30,000 foot view at the story of the Apostles and earliest Jesus-followers to see what the kingdom looked like through them and among them. What is the kingdom like now that the King has ascended? Because that’s how the book of Acts begins… with Jesus ascending into heaven. Jesus has resurrected from the dead, and then spends 40 days teaching his disciples about the kingdom. After his resurrection, Jesus went to the trouble of parabolically performing a picture for us — of ascending into the sky as a king would ascend stairs to a throne.

“The kingdom” gets mentioned 8 times in the book of Acts. Here are all 8 of those references:.

1v3 19v8  
1v6 20v25
8v12 28v23
14v22 28v31

Two times at the beginning, two times at the end, and four times throughout the narrative — to make sure we’re remembering that “the kingdom” is what the followers of Jesus are all about. 

The resurrection confirmed for the disciples that Jesus was the long-awaited King that they—the Jewish people—had been waiting for. They ask about the kingdom—when is the rule and reign of God over the world—the promises made to Israel—when is that coming? And Jesus says: “Just wait… you’ve seen the kingdom coming through me—and now you’re going to taste a bit more of it… very soon.

And then that’s the story of Acts.

Acts is about the continued unveiling of God’s kingdom. You see more and more of the reign of God coming through the lives of people. In particular, Acts tells the story of how the Jesus family transformed from a tiny Jewish sect into a multi-ethnic international movement. Luke organizes these real historical memories with a geographic literary design. That promise of Jesus that the disciples will be his witnesses in city of Jerusalem and then the surrounding region of Judea/Samaria, and then into the ends of the earth… that becomes the organizing pattern for preserving how the church’s witness went out. 

And so chapters 1-7 center around the activity and growth of the Jesus movement in the CITY of Jerusalem, and then chapters 8-12 see the movement spilling into surrounding REGION of Judea/Samaria because of persecution, and then from chapter 13-28 chronicle the intentional spreading of the Jesus family further and further away from its ground zero. In fact, by the end of the book, you’ve got a guy named Paul living in Rome—1,400 miles away from Jerusalem—spreading the news of Jesus:

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance! (Acts 28v30-31)

From beginning to end, the kingdom is what Acts is all about. So as a finishing up of our series, I want to glance at two threads that run through Acts. These are two themes woven throughout the story of Acts that are really important to Luke as he tells us about the church’s early years… and ultimately what it the kingdom is like. These two threads are bottle rockets and bruises.

First—bottle rockets

The explosive flashes of the miraculous! The spectacular! The sensational! The fireworks! The razzle! The dazzle! The sizzle! Drop in almost anywhere in the first 20 chapters, and you’ll likely run into the miraculous—a healing, a prison rescue, an exorcism. Frequently in Acts, the kingdom looks like God miraculously at work to banish sickness, heal injustice, to combat darkness. 

The story of the early church told in Acts includes powerful moments of incredible miracles. The stuff happening through the early church was SO extraordinary that we have two stories of people wanting to BUY or USE Jesus as a kind of magic power… a Samarian sorcerer named Simon (8v18-19) and some Ephesian exorcists called the Sons of Sceva (19v13-15). There’s powerful stuff happening.

And there’s no moment anywhere where Peter or Paul says something like: “God will only be doing these sorts of things in our generation…” So the book of Acts as a whole invites us to ask God for his life-giving power to invade situations in front of us. It’s OK to ask for fireworks. In fact, we should be asking God to move… in ways small and large. 

One particular firework display in Acts is worth mentioning… the gift of tongues. All three movements of Acts—city then region then ends of the earth—people are miraculously able to speak and hear in other languages. This gift—this grace of God—shows up three times in the book of Acts. And the three appearances of tongues correspond to the geographic expansions of the Christian movement.

Chapter 2 is this incredibly well-known moment at the feast of Pentecost in the heart of Jerusalem where fire falls from heaven and Jewish people from all over the world (v5, 9-11) suddenly hear the story of Jesus in their own languages. 

Then, in chapter 10, we have this moment in a Roman centurion’s house—a guy named Cornelius—whose house is in Caesarea… a city on the coast in Samaria. And it’s this moment when—suddenly—non-Jewish people are experiencing something remarkably similar to Pentecost… the Spirit has invaded non-Jews and THEY’RE speaking in tongues. Peter—who was there at Pentecost—sees it and says: “Goodness. God doesn’t show favoritism (v34). The Jesus movement doesn’t belong to any particular race.” 

And then chapter 19 is a moment in Ephesus present day Turkey—over 500 miles away from Judea as the crow flies—moving out toward the ends of the earth. It’s this moment where Paul finds some people who were desperately interested in following the God of Israel—we’re told that they had been baptized in John the baptist’s baptism (v3-4). They had become disciples of Israel’s God right as Israel’s God was becoming an Israelite. They had been plunged into repentance and into turning away from death. But no one, as yet, had told them about Jesus or his Holy Spirit… about where’s John’s baptism had been pointing. And so they’re baptized into the name of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit—as well as God’s grace in tongues—comes on these Ephesian disciples. 

Those are the three moments when tongues appear in the book of Acts. These are the only three moments when tongues appear… and they correspond to the news of Jesus moving further and further out, the embrace of God gathering in more and more people. They correspond to the way Luke tells the church’s story.

The Holy Spirit brings “tongues” as a miraculous sign that racial and cultural barriers no longer separate people in Jesus. In the book of Acts, the Holy Spirit is suddenly reversing the division of the Tower of Babel—where languages were confused. Where people were once confused and divided, the life of Jesus now clarifies and unites. 

It’s also clear from 1 Corinthians, individual Christians can experience regular rhythms of speaking or praying in an unknown language. (We even have stories and experiences of this in our own congregation!) …but that’s another discussion for another day.

My point today is that it’s important for us to recognize the way that Luke records what God was doing in the early church. With the gift of tongues in Acts—of people speaking and understanding other languages—God was giving an outward sign of what the gospel always does: uniting people in self-giving love.

The news of Jesus gets announced in Jerusalem to the Jewish people and they find themselves miraculously united by God’s Spirit. They were sharing their money, taking care of each other, living in peace. The news of Jesus gets announced in Judea and Samaria to non-Jewish people, and they find themselves miraculously included in this unity as well. Racial divisions were healing, cultural barriers were breaking, class distinctions were vanishing. And then news of Jesus gets announced 500 miles away to anyone interested at the ends of the earth, and they get swept up by the Spirit in the work of God as well. 

Early in church history—as the news of Jesus spread—God did fireworks. His Spirit didn’t just give a prayer language—grace was actually working as universal translator to show what the gospel ALWAYS does. That seems to be how tongues functions on a careful reading of Acts. 

But tongues is not the biggest miracle in the book of Acts.

As many of us know, the apostle Paul becomes a central figure. He has a dramatic encounter with Jesus in Acts 9 and then this experience gets retold two more times as Paul is put on trial in the last quarter of the book (ch22, 26). But in none of those accounts—or anywhere else in Acts—do we have ANY mention of Paul speaking in tongues. He mentions it in one of his letters, seemingly as a quiet prayer language… but Paul isn’t getting caught up in tongues as a firework display in Acts. That seems significant.

In fact, lest we get caught up in any of the fireworks, as Luke makes a point about the miracles happening: he calls them “unusual.” 

God was doing unusual miracles through Paul. (Acts 19v11)

It’s a brief comment, but it’s important so that we don’t misread Acts or misunderstand the kingdom. The book of Acts includes the memories of a dozen churches in various countries spread across 30 years. But what was happening with Paul was unusual. It’s easy to start thinking about the book of Acts as “the Book of Christian Superpowers” or “the Book of radical church growth” or “the book of miracles we should be seeing today.” Miracles and growth and wonders are what we long for. But in Luke’s estimation, those kinds of miraculous bottle rockets are NOT the deepest clues about where the Spirit is at work.

Which brings us to our second thread… bruises.

Bottle rockets are fun to watch, but when the flash fades… what’s left? Bruises help us see something deeper than firework displays. The deepest miracle of Acts isn’t the outward spectacle. It’s not the dreams, the exorcisms, the healings or jailbreaks. It’s not speaking in tongues or praying in tongues. Those things are wonderful, but they’re not the deepest miracle in Acts. The heartbeat of Acts is NOT fireworks; the heartbeat of Acts is witness.

Bottle rockets are part of it… I mean, Jesus did miraculous signs. But bruises remind us that the Spirit is working to get into our skin. The aim is that the disciples will become full-bodied witnesses to King Jesus.

Remember what Jesus promised them as the book began: 

…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses (mou martures) in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1v8)

The book of Acts is a story of “witnesses”… of martyrs. That’s the word in Greek. So many early Christians were so faithful to their witness that the word “witness” became synonymous with people who die: 

“You will be my martyrs, my witnesses. You will be the ones who receive my Spirit and who have my life recreated in you.”

That’s the point of all the fireworks… it’s not that Christians can sometimes channel spiritual superpowers. The point is Jesus is living through his disciples. The most miraculous miracle in Acts is the Spirit birthing the Son’s life within people. The life of God the Son—willing to suffer for the sake of love—that life is now being birthed in others. In us, if we’re let it. 

In a 30,000 foot view, we don’t have time to go into detail… but maybe we can get with the quickest of glances at what the story keeps saying. The disciples had been captured by a King who had been willing to suffer for the sake of love. They keep telling this story throughout Acts:

(1:3) …after his suffering…
(3:18) …the Messiah would suffer…
(17:37) …the Messiah HAD to suffer AND SO
(26:23) he WOULD suffer and then rise from the dead

That’s the life of Jesus. Trusting the Father with his life. Loving even when it means suffering. Obeying even when it means death. 

Now, a sampling from the lives of the disciples throughout Acts:

(5:41) …the apostles celebrate after being beaten…
(9:16) …go tell the future Apostle Paul how much he must suffer for my name…
(14:21-22) …entering into the kingdom means going through many hardships…
(20:22-24) …with the Spirit guiding him, the path looks like prison… hardship faces him…

The longer we watch the disciples through the book of Acts, the more we realize that the hands launching fireworks are bruised from chains. God is unleashing the most breathtaking kind of life into the world through the disciples, but the disciples are enduring an incredible amount of pain in the process.

In one of his letters, Paul talks about this in a really memorable way:

So death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Corinthians 4v12)

The Spirit empowering the disciples does NOT mean that they themselves are impervious to the brokenness of the world. No. The apostles are not bullet-proof; they’re bruised. Hardships and sufferings are NOT a sign that we’re doing something wrong. If Acts is any clue, it’s often exactly the opposite. 

They’ve been invaded by the Spirit of the God willing to suffer for the sake of love. They’re becoming little Jesuses. They’re becoming martures—witnesses. And that’s a miracle of the Spirit.

Martyrs are a miracle.

Sometimes “being a witness” means resurrection exploding through them. And sometimes “witness” means bearing bruises of crucifixion. But Jesus is living through them… and that. is. a. miracle. 

The primary goal of the Spirit in your life is to empower you to become a martyr. For you to take up a cross and follow Jesus on the path of self-giving love. That’s the biggest wonder you could experience. That’s the deepest win anyone in this room could receive. To be set free of ourselves, and become alive to God and living for others.And over a lifetime, you’re likely to see some fireworks. They still happen. But the Spirit doesn’t want us obsessing over the unusual… the Spirit wants to transform us into a brand new usual.

The primary goal of the Spirit is to sculpt us into the shape of Jesus. The Spirit wants to give us a life defined by: love and sacrifice, trust and faithfulness, holiness and healing, crucifixion and resurrection. By bruises and bottle-rockets. Beneath it all, that’s what Acts is remembering. Regular people can become witnesses to the love of God. God’s goal is to show the world the love of heaven willing to endure hell… and to do it through us.

The Spirit is not sent to spare us every cross; the Spirit is sent to shape us into the cross. We want to be spared every cross, don’t we? We love getting our hands on anything that we can use to avoid suffering or hardship. And we approach the Spirit like that a lot of times. We want God to spare us every kind of cross—sickness and struggle, heartache and hardship, ambiguity and doubt. We want to use the Spirit to avoid every cross.

But the Spirit is not some kind of technology that we use to control the world around us using the interface of faith. The Spirit is not some thing we can channel or harness or command by just saying the right thing or somehow believing hard enough. We don’t use the Spirit to manage the world around us. We don’t use the Spirit to win at whatever area we want in life. Christianity isn’t Star Wars and the Spirit is not the Force. (That’s the whole point of those stories about Simon the Sorcerer and the Sons of Sceva!) The Spirit is the living, intimate, personal presence of God… closer to us than we are to ourselves.

We’re asking the Spirit: “Can I get a win here?” while the Spirit is asking us: “Can I get a witness?”

Our lives change when we start praying less for wins and more for witness. Because that what the Spirit is supremely interested in: in you becoming the kind of person who looks like the Son. And that means us being shaped into the cross: Trusting the Father with your life. Loving even when it means suffering. Obeying even when it means death. 

The kingdom is like the King giving us his life… and the Spirit brings this kingdom. Sometimes we receive the King’s life with explosions of future resurrection in the present: the cancer is suddenly gone, the situation miraculously resolves, the relationship is restored. Fire falls from heaven and everything makes sense. And other times we receive the King’s life through the bruises of a cross. And we’re transformed a bit more into Jesus through being faithful in hardship and suffering. 

Whatever the Spirit is giving us, his goal is that we would become martyrs. That we would become the kinds of people who look and sound and sacrifice and live and love and die like Jesus. Because that’s the kind of life that even death can’t stop.