Jesus in the City
Here we are, 24 weeks in, almost half a year into the life of Cities Church. For most of us, this has been our first time planting a new church. And God has been very gentle with us so far. We haven’t yet run into any of the major difficulties that many plants are confronted with in their first few months.
For most of us, this has been an exciting experience. We’ve met new people, and gone deeper in our own walks with God as we’ve found ourselves more on the frontlines in the mission of the church. It’s been a thrill, we feel wind in our sails, and we’d probably say something like, “I’m so glad we did this, that stepped out in faith, and took a risk. If anything, I wish we’d done this sooner.”
But with all the good, and the many joys, those of us who have risked the most in this new venture know there are many pressures that come with church planting. There’s the pressure to be financially viable, that our people provide enough to meet the financial commitments we’ve needed to make. And there’s the pressure to do what it takes to be the church to each other and experience the Christian life together, whether it’s leading or participating in Community Groups (which are the heart of what we’re about) or life groups (our accountability clusters within Community Group), or preparations for our weekend services in the many forms that takes.
But perhaps the greatest pressure in planting is the pressure to reach new people with the gospel of Jesus. We believe that church planting is the single most effective strategy for bringing new people to Jesus. And we desperately want to be a new church that grows from new people coming to Jesus, not just drawing sheep from other flocks.
To the extent that you’re taking ownership in what we’re doing here at Cities Church, you’re feeling this pressure with us. One way we’ve talked about it this: evangelize or die. Or at least, our mission fails without evangelism. This is one of our chief goals in planting this new church: seeing new people come to Jesus.
For those who feel that pressure with me, there is great comfort for us in Acts 16.
From the beginning of this plant, we’ve emphasized is that Jesus builds his church. Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” In the book of Acts, we have seen how, after his death and resurrection, Jesus ascended to the Father’s right hand and poured out his Spirit on his church, and now builds his church, through his Spirit, by the agency of his people. We get the dignity and joy of being his agents on assignment in the world, but the weight is on his broad shoulders. We get the privilege of playing a part, but this is his mission. Jesus is writing this story; we’re along for the ride.
So as we look at Acts 16 this morning, we get to see how Jesus did this in one particular city called Philippi. And with it, we get a sense of what it looks like when Jesus comes to the city. Acts 16 holds much hope and comfort for us at Cities Church as we watch how Jesus does this by the power of his Spirit through the agency of his people. Let’s see how it happens.
Here are five ways that Jesus builds his church in Philippi — and Minneapolis.
1. Jesus directs his agents (vv. 6–13)
Listen for the action of Jesus here in leading Paul to Philippi:
[Paul and Silas] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. 7 And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. 8 So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. 9 And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.
Jesus’s ambassadors, his agents, his missionaries, Paul and Silas, aren’t directing their own steps. This mission isn’t theirs. They don’t sit down to strategize on their own and say, “You know what, we’ve never traveled beyond Asia. Let’s go into Europe and proclaim Jesus there.” Rather, Jesus directs their steps through providences, his Spirit, and even a vision.
Somehow Paul and Silas sense they are being “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” Then they attempt to go north into Bithynia, and it says, “the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them.” Jesus is directing them by his Spirit. So they go west to Troas, a port city on the Aegean Sea, and there Paul gets the vision, to sail across the sea, from Asia to what we now know as Europe, to bring the gospel to a region called Macedonia, and to a new part of the world.
And yet there does seem to be some strategy involved here. To reach Macedonia, Paul and Silas head for the city, and look to begin among people who already know the Hebrew Scriptures. Verses 11–13:
So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, 12 and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. 13 And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together.
So the directing of Jesus and the strategy of his agents come together. Jesus directs them to Macedonia, and they make for the leading city, and for the place of prayer, to establish a beachhead and begin their work.
For us, consider how Jesus has directed you to the Twin Cities, whether it was by birth or for school or for a job or however. He has a purpose for your being in this leading city.
2. Jesus opens hearts. (v. 14)
Then, in verse 14, it is Jesus, “the Lord,” who opens Lydia’s heart.
One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t do it without his missionaries speaking. But Jesus, “the Lord,” does the decisive work. He opens her heart to capture her attention with the message Paul preaches about the Jewish Messiah having come.
And so with us in this city, what a great comfort that Jesus does the decisive work. He opens hearts to the message about him. We speak. We do our best to accurately portray who he is and what he’s done, and he does the decisive work.
3. Jesus triumphs over dark powers. (v. 18)
This is verse 18. Paul says to the slave girl with a spirit of divination: “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.”
Paul doesn’t dare do such a thing in his own name, but in the name of Jesus. Jesus is the source. Jesus is the one acting. He is the one “commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).
So not only does Jesus direct his ambassadors and open unbelieving hearts, but he even expels demonic powers. And if he can command demonic powers like this, he can triumph over any other hostile powers we face in the mission of the gospel.
There are some very dark places, and dark souls, in this city. And it’s not always clear where the darkness of sin becomes the darkness of the demonic. But as followers of Jesus, we need not worry about the line, because Jesus triumphs over all other powers. We can be fearless to take on anything, even the demonic, on gospel mission — because “greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4).
4. Jesus wields the world to arrest attention. (v. 26)
Jesus can brings about circumstances beyond our ability to plan and make happen for the sake of arresting attention. Verse 26:
And suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken. And immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were unfastened.
After Paul and Silas are beaten and put in prison, since the owners of the slave girl raise a stink since they’ve lost their moneymaker, Jesus sends an earthquake — an earthquake! What was the fallout in surrounding regions? Not only does he open hearts, but he opens physical doors. Not only does he unfasten spiritual bonds, but physical as well.
As we think about our mission in these Twin Cities, we should take great encouragement from this. Whether it’s a thunderstorm or earthquake or tornado, or beautiful sunny day, Jesus wields nature for the progress of his gospel. We may have neighbors and co-workers who seem utterly disinterested in the gospel, just preoccupied with everyday life. Take heart. Keep loving them. Keep serving them. Keep speaking truth. Who knows when Jesus might decide to arrest their attention, and send them to us, saying, “What must I do to be saved?”
Who knows when he may bring something totally out of the blue that makes for the breakthrough in some hard relationship. When unusual things happen, look for how he might be at work.
5. Jesus frees his agents to forego personal freedoms to bring greater freedom to others.
And this fifth and final one is just as amazing as the other four — perhaps even more so. And there are at least three instances of it in this chapter.
First is Timothy’s circumcision in verse 3: “Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” Did Timothy need to be circumcised to be a Christian? Absolutely not. Paul stakes his very life on that in Galatians. If that’s the issue, circumcision to be saved, then he digs in, as he did with Titus (Galatians 2:3–5), and as we saw last week at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. But this is not about salvation for Timothy. This is about gospel strategy. Will Timothy’s uncircumcision present a distraction to certain Jews who need the message of the gospel? It seems that it will. And so Timothy foregoes his freedom not to be circumcised for the sake of winning others. He puts himself under a law he is free from to free other from that law — very much like Christ.
Second is Paul and Silas taking the beating when the threat was only to them (vv. 22–23), but revealing their Roman citizenship when it became about others (vv. 35–40), and establishing future protections for Christians in Philippi. Or to turn it around, they could have revealed their Romans citizenship earlier and saved themselves a horrible beating (they had wounds that needed washing, v. 33), but they decided to forego that freedom to embrace persecution for the sake of Jesus and display in person for the Philippians, in some faint sense, what Jesus had gone through for them to be saved.
Third, and perhaps most significantly, is Paul and Silas forego their freedom to escape, when Jesus has opened the doors and unfastened their bonds. In doing so, they are sacrificing themselves for the sake of the jailer. If they had escaped, he would have been killed — or killed himself. So in staying, they save his life, and now they have his attention. “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
It’s amazing how their foregoing their own freedom leads to ultimate freedom for the jailer. This arrest his attention. He believes. Now he washes their wounds, which he previously left unattended. Now he rejoices along with his whole household (v. 34) that he has believed in God.
Jesus’s agents foregoing their rights is a powerful way in which they can display for the watching world the loving self-sacrifice of Christ — whether food or drink or comfort or convenience or privacy of personal space. Foregoing our rights to win someone else is a way to show the gospel, and give a picture to accompany our message.
Jesus Saves Diverse People
Let’s end with one final thing that stands out for Cities Church in this chapter. So far, this has all been about the diverse ways Jesus works. There are many different means he can employ to bring the gospel to the city. But now, let’s close with the marked differences in the kinds of people he saves: a woman, a slave girl, and a Gentile. Or the wealthy, the oppressed, and the middleclass. Or the religious, the hostile, and the indifferent.
Lydia is a wealthy woman, a seller of purple, which was expensive. She is “worshiper of God,” meaning she was religious and seeking the God of the Jews.
Then there is the slave girl. She is oppressed both spiritually (demonized) and socially (a slave). She was antagonistic to Paul and sought to interrupt his work in the city.
Finally, we have the jailer, a Roman man, so he is a Gentile man. He is a blue-collar worker of the day, pragmatic, perhaps retired soldier. We can assume he is uninterested in Paul’s message, until Paul shows him mercy, and surrenders his own freedom to win him.
An interesting thing about this chapter telling us about a Gentile, a slave, and a woman is that there was a Jewish morning prayer, that originated about 300 years before Christ, that went like this:
Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a Gentile. Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a slave. Blessed are you O God, King of the Universe, who has not made me a woman.
Not only is the gospel for the Jews, the religious, but it’s also for the Gentiles, for the irreligious, and the secular. It’s not just for men, but also women. Not only is this message for the free and privileged, but for the slaves and oppressed.
Paul, the Jewish scholar, who once prayed this prayer, has learned this deeply — and the church begins in Philippi, we might say, with three very unlikely people.
And as Paul had written in Galatians 3:27–28: “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
And this is the work of the Jewish carpenter, who by virtue of his perfect life and forgoing of his rights in lavish self-sacrifice, and his resurrection from the grave, and ascension to God’s right hand, and pouring out of his Spirit — this Jesus is the one who has come to the Twin Cities in the churches that are faithful to his voice. This mission is his, not ours. He is the one who kindly works through his agents to save diverse people in many diverse ways, and gives us the joy of being along for the journey.
Jesus builds his church in the city, and uses a diversity of ways to make diverse people into one body in him.