Acts 9:20-31 | Jesus is Building and Multiplying the Church
We will be looking at verses 20-31, with most of our time being spent on verse 31.
I just want to remind us of where we are in the book of Acts. Last week, we saw the conversion of Saul from Acts 9:1-19. And we are going to pick up immediately after that historic event and see what the Lord is doing in the world and in the church through his Word. We will pick it up in verse 20.
20 And immediately he [Saul] proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
23 When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
26 And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists. But they were seeking to kill him. 30 And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
Here’s the truth about us: we are not here by accident or without purpose, but we are here because of the work of Jesus.
The book of Acts has been preaching that message to us, and tonight we come to a passage that shows us two things:
- Jesus is building and multiplying the church, and
- The church Jesus builds is founded on gospel-doctrine and shaped into gospel-culture.
What I want to do is simple. I just want us to look at each of these two points, and explain from this passage what the Lord has for us today.
1st Point – Jesus is building and multiplying the church
So first, Jesus is building and multiplying the church.
As we’ve looked at Acts this year we’ve seen that Jesus is working. The gospel is spreading deep down and far out. Jesus is saving people and relocating them into the church.
And when we get to Acts 9:31, we have a break in Luke’s story that provides a clear indication that what Jesus said would happen is happening.
This is a common feature in Acts – it happens 6 times. You could even say Acts is broken up into 6 separate acts. At the end of each act is a summary statement. And these are all basically the same. Let’s look at them together.
6:7 – And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
9:31 – So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.
12:24 – But the word of God increased and multiplied.
16:5 – So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily.
19:20 – So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily.
28:30-31 – He [Paul] lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
So what does this tell us? It tells us that what Jesus set out to do he is accomplishing. Jesus is building and multiplying the church.
He builds his church by raising up pastors and leaders to preach the word (Peter, John, and Paul). This is how the Word of God increases.
He builds his church by saving sinners to labor faithfully in ministry (Barnabas). This is how the churches are strengthened in the faith.
He builds his church by giving wisdom to organize and to build seminaries and to create networks of church planters, and so forth. This is how the Word of God multiplies.
There is no end to his building of the church, which means you have a place, and a purpose!
And we see that he multiplies his church as he saves people – even surprising people like Saul, far from God, who are fighting against God and his people. He saves people every single day! He multiplies the church because he made a promise to Abraham thousands of years ago that his children would outnumber the stars in the sky and the sand on the beaches, and he won’t stop until the work is done!
Jesus is still building and still multiplying the church.
We are an example. We’re starting a new church. Not only that, we’re a plant in the Acts 29 Network. Why Acts 29? If you look, Acts only has 28 chapters. Because Jesus isn’t done working! More acts are still taking the stage in the world. So we are looking at the Great Commission Jesus gave in Matthew 28, to make disciples and teach them, and we’re going, because God has many people in this city that he has not yet saved. And he’s using us to bring the good news through the church!
We are doing this because God put it in our heart to see the church multiply. We have that desire because it is his desire, and he is accomplishing the work.
In fact, we aren’t building anything. Jesus is building everything, and he’s simply asking us to move along with him. Anything we build in our own strength while claiming divine authority is worthless and a hindrance - even an offense - but anything the Lord builds through people open to him is beautiful and life-giving, and we long to see what only God can do. So let’s be a people who, as Revelation 14:4 says, “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” He will lead us as he has led his church throughout history – even as he led Saul and Barnabas and the apostles.
Point #2 – The Kind of Church Jesus is Building
So my second point: The church Jesus builds is founded on gospel-doctrine and shaped into gospel-culture.
I want to explain what we mean by those two terms. We believe Jesus is building a certain kind of church – the kind of church we see in the book of Acts: a church founded on gospel-doctrine and shaped into a gospel-culture.
First, a church founded on gospel-doctrine. We see gospel-doctrine throughout the book of Acts, and we see it in verses 20-30 in what Saul preaches and teaches.
Doctrine is what we believe. Gospel-doctrine is belief in the message of the gospel. What is that? It is the message of man’s sin and separation from God conquered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and the hope of glory when Jesus returns. It’s a grace-filled message. We are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from all our works, for the glory of God alone. That’s gospel-doctrine. It's what happened to Saul – grace for the undeserving.
Saul believed gospel doctrine. We see in verse 20 he proclaims Jesus as the Son of God; in verse 22 that Jesus is the Christ; and verse 28 he preaches boldly in Jesus’s name. That’s a big shift for Saul! Just a few verses before he was trying to stop this message from spreading. Now he’s spreading it himself! How did this happen? He saw Jesus, and was changed. He explains it, after he is renamed Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:6, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Gospel doctrine is belief in that Jesus - the Jesus revealed to us in the Bible. Gospel-doctrine humbles us and reorients us, because it is a revelation to us. Listen to what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15, “I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.” He was what he was, and what he was was what Jesus made him into. In Christ, our past doesn’t define us, Jesus and his gospel define us.
The apostles believed gospel-doctrine. Just look at Peter’s sermons in the book of Acts. Look at John’s gospel, and so forth.
And because Saul and the apostles and the rest of the early church believed the gospel-doctrine, Jesus built a gospel-culture.
So I want to spend the rest of my time on gospel-culture.
Luke describes two things the church should be marked by in verse 31.
- Walking in the fear of the Lord, and
- Walking in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
What he’s describing sounds a lot like what we call gospel-culture. Let me explain.
Here’s a definition of gospel-culture.
Gospel-culture is God-worshiping, Jesus-loving, Holy Spirit-empowered people trusting in Christ alone, loving one another for Jesus's sake.
It’s a culture of peace and openness and joy because we have been redeemed and we have good news to share – so we share it all the time! It’s a place where people are set free from their past to walk in newness of life because Jesus has set them free in his death and resurrection. It’s a place where we don’t pressure one another to change quickly, but help one another walk the hard path of life, looking to Jesus as the only savior. We are needy people with an all-sufficient Christ.
A gospel-culture is a place where Jesus is revered and honored. Luke uses the phrase “walking in the fear of the Lord.”
A gospel culture is a place where real sinners experience real comfort. Luke uses the phrase “walking in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.”
The result of the gospel-doctrine is the reality of gospel-culture. That’s what Jesus is building and multiplying because that’s the future of the world.
When Jesus returns, we will live for eternity in a gospel-culture that will never end. But it starts now! “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This can be a present reality even as it will be our glorious future, not because of our amazing ability or obedience, but because of his wonderful mercy and grace – because of his steadfast love and faithfulness. The early church experienced this, and we can too!
Look up at verses 26-27. The disciples were afraid of Saul. Rightly so. He was the one ravaging the church. How should they react to this changed man?
Barnabas goes to Saul and brings him to the apostles. Barnabas sticks his neck out to bring Saul into the church. Why? Because Barnabas understood from the gospel-doctrine that no one is too far from God’s grace. Jesus died to pay for every kind of sin in the world – even murderers and opponents of the church. The same message that saved him had saved Saul. The gospel-doctrine Barnabas believed led him to take Saul by the hand and bring him into the church. Saul went from enemy to a brother.
That's what gospel-culture does – it reaches out to the broken world with the only true hope and brings sinners into the kingdom where there is safety and joy for eternity in Jesus. People of any class or level of society are equally welcomed into the church.
What if Barnabas had kept his distance? Gospel-doctrine leads us to gospel-culture where sinners of shocking pasts (and who doesn’t have one?) are welcomed and brought in.
A gospel-culture has a big heart for bad people, because God has a big heart for bad people. Gospel-culture welcomes others into the church because the kingdom of God only grows sweeter the more people he saves.
It’s possible for us to believe the right things about the gospel intellectually without letting those beliefs affect how we live relationally. But that is hypocrisy. A gospel-culture, like we are experiencing here, is so open to the Lord that we are not only willing but happy to be surprised by him. It is a place where Jesus is revered and loved and treated as the savior that he is. It’s a place where anyone seeking Jesus can find a home - people like you, and people like me, and people like Saul.
If we here at Refuge Church continue to walk in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, we will find that God is with us and he will use us, and he will bring more and more people into this community because it is a safe place for sinners to find Jesus. It’s a safe place where everyone is treated in such a way that it is evident as the Psalmist says, “the sweetness of the Lord” is upon us (Ps 90:17, JB).
If we will be open to Jesus under his grace we will find that gospel-doctrine creates a gospel-culture that, as John Piper says, is "God-exalting, Christ-admiring, Spirit-filled, Bible-enjoying, grace-preaching, convenience-defying, cross-embracing, risk-taking, selfishness-crucifying, gossip-silencing, prayer-saturated, future-thinking, outward-reaching, and beautifully human congregation where the undeserving can thrive.” And every single bit of this comes to us free through the pierced hands of the risen savior.
Sub Point # 1 – The Fear of the Lord
So what does it mean to walk in the fear of the Lord?
The Greek words used here indicate reverence, respect, and honor given to Christ in the sense of a deep and reverential awareness of accountability to him. Are we aware of our accountability to God? As created beings we are accountable to God. We need to respond to his grace.
Now, if you’re here and don’t believe the gospel doctrine you need to really consider it. God made us and we are accountable to our maker, and I think you’ll be surprised at how good the news actually is. Talk to me or Dustin or the person who you came with about this. Do not wait. The Bible says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Here’s one thing it means for us as a church. What the Lord has entrusted to us in the gospel-doctrine as revealed in the Bible we are accountable before him to share with others, and to protect and nourish within our church. It's his good news, and we share it and spread it among one another freely and often. We can't take this lightly. Through the work of Jesus, we have been given eternal life! The news is too good and freeing for it not to permeate every single aspect of our lives together.
What the Lord is building here among us, as he did among the early church, is a gospel-culture where he is in charge and we gladly submit to his leading. We are not a group of smart people making big strategic moves to make God look good. We are a bunch of needy people following Jesus. We are a collection of sinners that have been redeemed by Jesus and we’re just following him wherever he wants to take us. If you don’t mind joining us in that journey with Jesus, then come along – the more the better! But he’s the king, and he always will be.
Sub Point # 2 – The Comfort of the Holy Spirit
So what about walking in the comfort of the Holy Spirit? What does that mean?
First, let’s understand who the Holy Spirit is. He’s a Person, not an It. He’s the third person of the trinity. He is God. His purpose is to comfort us and to remind us of all that Jesus said and did. When we become a Christian – when we put our trust in Jesus as our only savior and accept the forgiveness of our sins and the glory of our future life – we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, and he reminds us that we are loved. We have been brought near to God through the blood of Christ.
As we look at the book of Acts we see his work among the early church, comforting them in suffering. He gives us himself in the Holy Spirit to assure us of his everlasting love and grace. We are safe in him. Saul is proof. He goes from the comfort of social status to the fear of death in a matter of days. But with that change comes the comfort of the Holy Spirit, so it’s a step forward, not back. There's nowhere God leads us where he won't be with us.
One reason God gives us gospel-culture is because we tend to forget this. This is a community project. God often works through other people to comfort us. You don’t have to live the Christian life on your own. In fact, you can’t! God made us to need other people. And as we open ourselves up to others we find that they help us stay in this sweet zone of the fear of the Lord and comfort of the Holy Spirit. That’s why we emphasize community groups so heavily.
Tying it Together
So we walk in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit when we are open to God. Really, that’s all it takes – openness. So much of the Christian life is openness to God. What if Barnabas had closed himself to Saul? What if Ananias had ignored God’s call to go find Saul? What if Stephen had not preached the gospel in his dying moments? God uses open hearts for the advancement of the gospel in this world.
He can accomplish works without us, no doubt, but he chooses to use us. And the kind of heart he loves to use is a heart wide open to him.
Later in life, the apostle John was given a vision into heaven and sees Jesus in his glory. He tells us about it in in Revelation 1:17, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, ‘Fear not.’” Reverent amazement of Jesus and comfort from him in the message of the gospel. That’s walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.
You know, what the Lord is willing to give us here at Refuge is way bigger and way better than what we can even imagine.
The kind of church Jesus is building is founded on gospel-doctrine and shaped into gospel-culture. And as we fall down at his feet in amazement of who he is, he will reach out his right hand and comfort us through his Spirit. We can experience gospel-doctrine and gospel-culture together because Jesus is alive and active. We can walk in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit if we will be open to the Lord. God fills open hearts with himself.
The world is mean and cruel, but it won’t last forever. Jesus will return soon, and when he does we will experience eternity in terms of gospel-doctrine and gospel-culture. Why would we want to miss out on a foretaste of it now if Jesus is offering it?
So let’s stay humble and open and expect great things from God because he has proven himself worthy. And as we do, we will see him building and multiplying his church throughout our city and our region, founded on gospel-doctrine and shaped into gospel-culture.
May it be said of Refuge Church, “So the church throughout all Franklin and Nashville and Middle Tennessee had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”