When we focus on historical studies of the early beginnings of Christianity, we would become discouraged if it were not for the result of what actually happened in the first century in reference to the growth of Christianity. There was tremendous opposition to Jesus and the preaching of the early disciples. Satan used every tool of opposition that he had at his disposal. He used the religious leaders of the time to crucify, stone, slander and imprison the early messengers of the gospel. But the word of God prevailed. There was nothing that Satan could do to stop the work of Jesus to take the gospel into all the world.
In his efforts to oppose the preaching of the early disciples, it is interesting to note what the historian Luke said actually prevailed over all opposition that Satan could offer:
So the word of God increased. And the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly. And a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith (At 6:7).
When Christians today are persistent in teaching the word of God, then the number of disciples will multiply. It is interesting to note that the Holy Spirit, in this historical statement of Luke, focused on the increase of the word of God. When messengers of the word persist in their efforts to plant the seed of the kingdom, the number of disciples will be multiplied. God’s word is so powerful when preached that it will bring to Jesus even those who lead in the onslaught of persecution against the word. If the disciples are vigilant and persistent, even the religious leaders will bow to the power of the word of God.
Teaching the word of God must become our customary behavior. “And Paul, as his custom was, went in to them, and for three Sabbaths reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (At 17:2). It was not that Paul taught the word of God when it was convenient, or when he had the opportunity. Many today are “convenient” teachers, that is, they teach the word of God only when an opportunity comes their way. But Paul, and the early disciples, took the initiative. They looked for gathered people who loved their Bibles. Paul once took the initiative to go to a “prayer meeting” where he “sat down and spoke to the women who had assembled” (At 16:13). The early disciples were aggressive to teach the word, not passive as the opportunity offered itself. They were looking for places to teach the Bible.
We have found that the word of God will not increase in any area where Christians have become passive in their witness to the word. This is surely what happened in the city of Ephesus. The word of God increased significantly in the city in the early beginnings of the disciples’ teaching the word. Religious people even burned their deceptive religious books when they accepted the word of God (See At 19:19). But many years later when Jesus addressed the disciples in Ephesus, He said, “Nevertheless, I have this against you, that you have left your first love” (Rv 2:4). They had maintained a great number of good works among themselves (Rv 2:2). Jesus had no complaint in this area. But they had lost their first love of teaching the word of God to others. They were great on works, but dead on the word. What disciples often do is content themselves in their good works, but there is no preaching of the word to the unbelievers. And works without the word is death.
Highly organized churches are often highly dead. They have often organized themselves into neglecting that which produces fruit. They grow by attracting “converts” through their enthusiastic activity. But there is no emphasis on teaching the word of God. When a church is built on the enthusiastic activity of good works, without emphasis on faithfulness to the word of God, then the church becomes a social club of religionists who are afraid to focus on the word of God lest members be driven away by the commandments of God. If a church is built on those who have responded to the word of God, and then go to work for Jesus, there is never a fear among the leadership that members will be driven away when the word of God is taught. A church built on works is dead, whereas a church that is built on the word of God is alive.
The reason why the disciples increased in Ephesus in the early beginning was stated clearly by Luke in Acts 19:20: “So the word of God grew mightily and prevailed.” It is the word of God that will prevail over lies, error and deception. It is the word of God that causes religionists to burn their religious books that are full of lies. Our good works may offer the opportunity to attract many to our group. But we must never forget that it is the word of God that leads us to prevail. Deceived religionists burn their religious books of lies when they are confronted with the truth of the word of God.
The power is in the word of God, not in our person as disciples of Jesus. We must never forget that …
… the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hb 4:12).
When we teach the word of God, we must never forget that people are “… born again, not by perishable seed, but imperishable, by the word of God that lives and abides” (1 Pt 1:23). When this imperishable seed is planted in the hearts of men and women throughout the world, God will give the increase. “I have planted,” Paul wrote, “Apollos watered, but God gave the increase” (1 Co 3:6). If there is no planting of the word of God, then God cannot give an increase. If Christians do not take the initiative to plant the word from city to city, then there will be no increase.
We must always remember that Satan has gone on before us to every city. He has deceived people into being satisfied with their religiosity in the bondage of deception. Only when teachers of the word of God enter into Ephesus will the word of God be able to prevail. If the disciples of Jesus do not take the initiative to enter into the city with the word of God, then the religious people of the city will continue to read their religious books, and thus continue in the deception of that which is false. God can give no increase while we sit idly by and wait for an opportunity to teach the word of God. If we do not make it the custom of our lives to teach the word of God, God cannot give the increase. Teachers of the word, therefore, must create the opportunities to teach the word.
The power of the gospel is not in ourselves, but in that which comes from God. Paul reminded those in Achaia who trusted in themselves, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to think anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Co 3:5). We might think that our social religious club is adequate to draw people to Christ. We will certainly draw many people through our many works (See Ep 2:2). We will even be known in the community for our good works. But we may be as the church in Sardis: “I know your works,” Jesus said, “that you have a name that you live, but you are dead” (Rv 3:1).
Jesus will recognize our good works (See Rv 2:,2,9,13,19). He would commend some with the words, “I know your works and love and service and faith and your patience. And as for your works, the last are greater than the first” (Rv 2:19). However, in commending the disciples in Thyatira for the increase in their works, He judged, “I have a few things against you because you tolerate …” (Rv 2:20). They were good in works, but lacking in implementing the commandments of God in rebuking the immoral behavior of some among them. They tolerated the immoral among them, though they were known for their good works.
If Jesus’ message of judgment against the seven churches of Asia teaches one clear point it is that the word of God must be implemented in the lives of those who call themselves after Christ. “Lord, Lord” cries to claim allegiance to Christ is not good enough. We must do the will of the Father in heaven (Mt 7:21). We must be doers of the word of God, and not hearers only (Js 1:22). If we do not, then we will eventually hear the words of Jesus when He comes to judge the world, “I never knew you. Depart from Me you who practice lawlessness” (Mt 7:23). Therefore, “… be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (Js 1:22). When we are doers of the word of God, we can have hope that we will eventually hear the following words from Jesus when He comes again: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Mt 25:34).
If we are confident in teaching the word of God, the word will prevail over error. And in the end, we will prevail over the world when our Lord comes.
[Final lecture of series]