Sunday, 17 January 2010

Mega Church?

We have friends who run a church of 20 or so members on a tough housing estate. They must at times feel threatened by the idea of Megachurch (churches of 2000-3000). Yet there are many such churches in the States, and a few in Britain too. One thing I have heard said is that if about three thousand people turned to the Lord at Pentecost (Acts 2:41), why shouldn’t the same happen today? Well why not, indeed! But we do need to remember that the context was very different. Jesus had just risen from the dead, ascended, and sent the Holy Spirit for the first time (in the new age, at least). Those listening to Peter preach were Jews and God-fearers:

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews [Greek: Jews, devout men] from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: "Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome; 11 both Jews and converts to Judaism; Cretans and Arabs-- we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!" Acts 2:5-11 (NIV)

God-fearers weren’t just people who fear God, but rather Gentiles (from Greek: ho ethnos – the people or nation) who had turned to Judaism, but because of their ethnic background were unable to convert fully to become ‘Jews’. They followed the Jewish religion as much as possible, but there was no point in being circumcised, since that was a mark of being a Jew, rather than a way of becoming one (contra. Baptism, which is a sign of having become a believer in Jesus). Since Jews were now spread all over the civilised world* – and even to some regions not conquered by the Romans (such as Parthia, part of what is now known as Central Asia). Despite the fact that most of them would have known Greek, the lingua franca and language of education, they heard the disciples speaking to them in their various mother-tongues. This will warm the heart of any Wycliffe members out there who believe strongly that God speaks to us in the language of our hearts. I remember asking a Dutch friend why she didn’t fill in her doctrinal statements in English, since that was the language she was using to study Theology. She replied, ‘You don’t understand, I believe in God in Dutch!’ ‘Told!’, as my son would say. The fact that the Holy Spirit was leading the disciples (a bunch of Aramaic-speaking fishermen from Gallilee) to tell the wonders of God in their own mother tongues proved to them that God cared for them, and so they turned and became believers in Jesus the Messiah. But they were already open to the things of God before Pentecost.

The point of Acts 2, therefore, is not that God likes Megachurches (though I’m sure He does), but that the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing in now moving amongst those from all over the world. This was to fulfil the prophecy in Isaiah 2:3 ‘Many peoples will come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” Israel was always supposed to be a ‘light to the nations’ (51:4; 61:3). What we have here, is a lesson in centrifugal (or is it centripetal?) mission, not megachurch.

* ‘The preaching of the gospel was preceded and prepared for by the dispersion of the Jews, and a world-wide propagandism of Judaism. In the 5th century BC the Jews had a temple of their own at Syene. Alexander the Great settled 8,000 Jews in the Thebais, and Jews formed a third of the population of Alexandria. Large numbers were brought from Palestine by Ptolemy I (320 BC), and they gradually spread from Egypt along the whole Mediterranean coast of Africa. After the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes (170 BC) they scattered themselves in every direction, and, in the words of the Sibylline Oracles (circa 160 BC), "crowded with their numbers every ocean and country." There was hardly a seaport or a commercial center in Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, or the Islands of the AEgean, in which Jewish communities were not to be found. Josephus (Ant., XIV, vii, 2) quotes Strabo as saying: "It is hard to find a place in the habitable earth that hath not admitted this tribe of men, and is not possessed by them."’ ISBE

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