Acts 11 tells us that when Barnabas arrived in Antioch and saw ‘what the grace of God had done’, he encouraged them to abide in (remain in) that grace. He was so convinced of the importance of them being deeply rooted in what Christ had done, that he left Antioch to go searching for Saul in Tarsus. On finding him, they both returned and taught the new believers “for an entire year”. It is significant that the result of this is not recorded in scripture in terms of what they did, but rather who they were. Acts 11:26 simply records, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”
How did Barnabas know to do this? Because in Jerusalem he had personally witnessed the remarkable fruit of believers remaining in, abiding in, what the grace of God had done there too. I have been struck by the profound importance of that little word “in”. Listen again to the account from Acts 2:42 of what the early church were doing during a season of great growth.
“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles … And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
All this, came from continuing steadfastly in. In light of this, consider the following question. How much of our modern church life is more founded on continuing steadfastly to, rather than continuing steadfastly in?
If the diet we are feeding our congregations on (the messages they are being reared under) consistently speaks to them more of what could be, one day, rather than what is today, then inevitably their hope will slip from what Christ has done for them, onto what they could do for Him. Now certainly one way to grow a church is to communicate a great vision that excites and motivates the congregation and attracts people who desire to be part of something ‘big’. All of us desire to see something big happen in our cities and in our nation. That is commendable, but is ‘desire’ the foundation of the growth we see in the Church in Acts? I want to suggest to you a different foundation in believers’ lives, one that better withstands a storm: thanksgiving!
The pattern of church life we see in Acts isn’t that they were continuing steadfastly to a goal, so much as continuing steadfastly in a reality. Jesus didn’t say, ‘Dream big and you will bear much fruit’; He said, ‘Abide in me and you will bear much fruit’. Thanksgiving is always more life-giving than desire. Yes, it’s exciting to dream, but to abide in Christ is to abide in a dream fulfilled, for “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a dream fulfilled is a tree of life.”  The Church is founded and grows from what God has done for man: Christ and Him crucified, the tree of life. Desire is never as life-giving as thanksgiving, which is why you can only keep people together for so long by always pointing them to something big in their future, because hope deferred makes the heart sick. Only a dream fulfilled is a tree of life. It is not the hope of some thing big in our future, but the reality of some one big in our present, that sets the Church apart. Neither the threats nor the promises of this world should move us, for the Church of Jesus Christ is not hoping for a victory. We are a people coming from a victory! We don’t bring advice, we bring news!
Hope deferred makes the heart sick. In some parts of the Western Christian world, local churches have been fed for so long on a diet of what could be, rather than what is, that their sickened hearts are now full of resentment, anger and fear. Being spiritually blind to their life in Christ, they find themselves grasping for earthly power and being known for their complaints and lack of grace towards their ‘opponents’. It is hard to know which is more astonishing: how far they have fallen from the language of thanksgiving, the mark of all those filled with the Spirit, or the fact that they can’t see how far they have fallen!
Acts 2:11 says that on the day of Pentecost the gathered nations each heard the church declare in their own language “the wonderful works of God”. The gospel of God’s grace is not the proclamation of wonderful works that God might do, if we … It is the proclamation of the wonderful works He has done. The effectual communication of faith is not found in the speaking of what could be. Philemon v. 6 declares that “the communication of our faith is made effectual by the acknowledgement of every good thing (already) in us, in Christ Jesus.” We see the effectual communication of faith in the early church, not because they continued steadfastly to something, but because they continued steadfastly in something; the grace given, the life given to them by His Spirit; the IN Christ life.
The ‘big’ thing, in fact the biggest thing, in our cities or nations, is not what the church will do; it is who the church is! To the church in Corinth grasping for worldly power, the apostle Paul had a question; “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” How can we complain that the world isn’t listening when we aren’t seeing?! It is only when we start to live as those seeing by the Spirit that the world turns to listen.
The storm of the last 15 months has served to test and reveal the foundations of lives and ministries. Those whose lives are founded on thanksgiving for what Christ has done, His eternal plan, have fared better than those who had built too much of their lives on their temporal plans. Paul and Silas in that jail in Philippi weren’t singing and giving thanks in order that God would move on their behalf. Even if that building had not been shaken, they would have continued that night in thanksgiving, for they weren’t giving thanks for what could be, but for what was! They weren’t continuing steadfastly to some preferred better life. They were continuing steadfastly IN the grace, the life, they had been given, a life described by Paul as “hidden with Christ IN God.”
The real proof of the enormity of what we already have in Christ, His overcoming life, becomes most evident to us and to the world, not in the day when all appears to earthly eyes to be going well, but rather in the day when nothing appears to be going well and yet we still find within us a spring of thanksgiving and joy, keeping us in His perfect peace. This is why it is seasons of trial that often better allow us to test and approve the foundations of our lives. It is the season of shaking that allows us to see again what He never wanted us to take our eyes from: the unshakable work of His grace, His life in us. This is not an inward-looking life, but an upward-looking life. For to see your life already hidden with Christ in God, is to set your eyes on things above, not on the earth below.
I believe the Holy Spirit wants the Church to begin to see our lives so clearly from a heavenly perspective that we are filled with a great awe, a great awareness of the reality of God’s presence in us, what the Bible calls ‘the fear of God’. It is only when the church awakens to the presence of God in their midst, that the world is stirred. Look once more to what Acts 2:43 (NASB) describes happening, when the church continued steadfastly in the grace already given. “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles.” Notice the order: awe came first. Why? Because the world cannot be in awe, before the Church is!
In this season, the church has been stripped of much of her earthly trappings. What better time than in a storm, to see the difference between temporal and eternal foundations and to see that the communication of our faith will not be made effective by a bigger building or more resources, but by how much we continue steadfastly in awe of the wonderful work God has done in us. It’s great to have plans, but the source of our joy, our strength, our growth, must not be found in what we are continuing steadfastly to, but rather what we are continuing steadfastly in: the heavenly life in Christ we have been given, by the grace of God. If all that the last 15 months brings about is a change in our doing, but not in our believing (our seeing in the Spirit), then from eternity’s perspective nothing really changed. Just because we move the chairs back again, doesn’t mean we are any less socially distanced from expressing the fullness of Christ in His body than we were before.
How can we complain that the world isn’t listening when we aren’t seeing? The world cannot be in awe before the Church is. This is why the great apostolic prayer for the church is that which prays for our eyes to open, that we may see the riches of His glorious inheritance already in us! If our hearts are sick of waiting for a glorious future, let the Holy Spirit open our eyes to a dream fulfilled: our life hidden with Christ in God. Let the awe of that so consume us that out of our hearts springs a sound that brings down every man-made wall in our lives and causes the world to listen: the sound of thanksgiving!
 Acts 11:23
 Acts 11:26
 Acts 2:42,43,47
 John 15:5
 Proverbs 13:12
 Acts 13:38
 Ephesians 1:3
 Acts 10:34-44
 Acts 3:4-11,Acts 16:25
 Colossians 3:3
 James 1:2-4
 Colossians 3:1,2
 Ephesians 1:18
 Colossians 3:3
 Acts 16:25
4 thoughts on “The world cannot be in awe before the church is”
Really insightful, helpful and encouraging thoughts, thanks Phelim! Amen to all of this!
Enjoyed this Phelim. The language of thankfulness so reinforces these wonderful truths of what we already have in Christ.
The language of thankfulness reinforces these wonderful truths of what we already have in Christ. Thanks Phelim
Another wonderful piece, Phelim … Why struggle after what could be, when what is is so much better?! Please keep saying it till churches start to see it!