Empowered for a Purpose: “At the Center of the Storm” (Acts 1)

poweredIn August 1992, I was living in Broward County in South Florida, as Hurricane Andrew hit the eastern shore of our state. In its wake, the storm left a total of sixty-five dead, and drummed the state with a “category five” storm, packing one hundred seventy-five mile an hour winds. The storm surge alone caused half a billion dollars in damage from Kendall to Key Largo. More than 1.4 million people lost electricity for a time and 63,000 homes were destroyed, leaving at least 175,000 Floridians homeless. The storm destroyed or damaged some 82,000 businesses, 31 public schools, 9500 traffic signals and 59 hospital and health facilities.

As the storm approached, we were treated on television to the methods of “saving our homes”, which included such bold measures as lining inner rooms of our house with mattresses and putting masking tape across our windows. In retrospect, I am thinking they should have simply told us to “Run like mad!” There is simply no way that the preparations they gave us could withstand 175-mile-an-hour winds in our neighborhoods and expect the tape on their windows to make any difference as such a storm blew through! In fact, traveling to areas that were hard hit the day after, one couldn’t even discern where neighborhoods and streets once were, even if they had taped windows. The place was thrashed by such insurmountable power it now seems pointless to have prepared to stand up against its arrival.

One of the worst feelings I can think of is the feeling of powerlessness in the face of some coming trouble. It is that “beat-down” feeling of being subject to forces that are so strong, no amount of effort seems to make any difference. It is depressing to watch things turn from bad to worse when you feel you have no way to avoid the onslaught. I believe many who follow Jesus in these latter days are being pushed down by exactly that perception – the days are too evil and the power of God’s people and message are too small. I have good news for you, the truth is far from that view, and perhaps we all need to look into the Word for a reminder of the truth!

Key Principle: God empowered regular, broken, fallible people to reach their generation, piercing the darkness with the light of the truth from the Creator.


Nearly two thousand years ago, the church of Jesus Christ was unknown in any neighborhood. Jesus was a name associated with a hated and marginal people group – the Jews. Within a few generations, what began as a small band of Jewish fishermen and their friends grew into a formidable and effective movement of people. It isn’t what many people think. It wasn’t because they were different people than we are today…The power wasn’t because of them. It wasn’t from within them. It wasn’t in light of their abilities, their history, or their connections to the power center of their day. Small people, broken people, insignificant people (from the world’s point of view), were empowered by God to change their world with the message of truth – and they still are being empowered. In the beginning they were not organized; they did not have an expansion plan. They did not all speak the same language, nor did they eat the same food. They were a diverse lot chosen by the Spirit of God and told to live out the power of transformation done by God in them. They didn’t need to worry about how their lives fit the overall plan of God beyond living in obedience to Jesus in their homes, their neighborhoods and their relationships. They were told to follow God’s Word, obey the voice of God’s Spirit, and trust that God had a plan that was bigger than they could understand and more powerful than they could imagine. They were on a quest that rippled through two thousand years of western history with the Gospel.

This lesson begins a series on their story – the tale of God’s move among men that began with a simple account of His gathering, instructing and then empowering of them.

Convinced Beginnings

What is clear from the beginning of the letter is this: these men and women were completely convinced they saw the Risen Christ, and they felt they tested Him so thoroughly there was no way they were duped or sold some myth. Luke began his account of their lives together this way:

Acts 1:1 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up [to heaven], after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. 3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over [a period of] forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.

The earliest followers said they walked with the Risen Jesus. They spoke to Him. They knew it was Him. Yet, if you look closely at the words in Acts 1:2, you will notice they had something more than evidence and a convinced heart – they had a promise of God’s Spirit. Jesus offered proof, but He also offered the promise of power. Though the occasion of the coming of that power didn’t yet take place in the narrative (that is a story for Acts 2), the promise of that coming power was clear from the beginning of the story

The story of the church began with those who met Christ. Don’t forget that! You are not part of the church of Jesus Christ because your parents were, nor because you generally agree with the moral statements of a church. Your part in the body begins with your commitment to Jesus Christ – everything else is secondary. You cannot give away a Jesus you do not know.

Notice also that their knowledge of Jesus and their firm belief that He was raised from the dead wasn’t all they needed to reach a lost world. Their natural strengths weren’t very impressive.

I think of the historian who recorded Benjamin Franklin in remarks to the Continental Convention, June 28, 1787. He said: “I have lived, Sir, a long time [81 years-old], and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God Governs in the affairs of men.” [as quoted in America’s God and Country, William J. Federer editor, Fame Publishing, Inc., Coppell, Texas. p.249]

It is worth recalling over and over again that God didn’t tell His people to do anything without the power God provided for them to accomplish it! Yes, He wanted the first century disciples to have sufficient evidence to follow Him – but that wasn’t enough. It never is! We don’t simply “win an argument” with evidence that brings people to Christ, because the issue isn’t simply cognitive. Salvation and transformation are both works of God’s Spirit within. That isn’t an excuse to get lazy on understanding the evidence at all – it is an admission that there is more to the story than simply showing the empty tomb and claiming Christ is risen.

If you scan the opening chapter of the Book of Acts, you will quickly note it contains not one, but three stories:

First, it was a story of Jesus’ redirection of the disciples toward the promise that they should anticipate being empowered by the Father to become apostles of the truth (1:1-8). They were the right people, with the wrong sense of timing and wrong emphasis of ministry.

• Second, it was the account of Jesus’ final instructions to them at His recorded “Ascension” to Heaven (1:9-11). Here the disciples were the right people with the wrong perspective – looking up instead of looking out.

• Third, the bulk of the passage was a simple record about selecting Judas’ replacement in the leadership line up (1:12-26). Finally, the disciples were the right people in the wrong number to accomplish the task Jesus gave them.

These three accounts, then, offer us the opening lesson of God’s movement in the right team – but before the empowering work took place. It is essential to remember that all three of these stories took place BEFORE the empowering of the Spirit. They had their best recollections of the Master from years of traveling with Him. They listened to His departing instructions and believed His evidences to them, and they understood the need for dedicated leadership – but they were not ready to change the world – because they didn’t have the empowering of God to do so. In some ways, the three stories of chapter one remind us of the absolute need for the Spirit in chapter two. The right team without the right guide will get to the wrong place.

Right People: Wrong Timing

There is more to bringing a message that transforms than simply being right about the story to which we testify. Go back to the men and women at the beginning. Listen to their story:

Dr. Luke recorded: Acts 1:4 “Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” [He said], “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

Jesus told them they needed to remain together and in the place He specified before they would get what they needed most. God’s choice was, from the very beginning, to empower people who stood together with the others. It is easy to view God’s empowering as an individual thing – since our ministry is accomplished with great personal effort. At the same time, you will find after studying the whole of the New Testament, the truth that God meant from the beginning for the work to be accomplished through a unified body of believers – diverse but cohesive. The simple fact of the story of the Gospel’s spread was this: the whole team needed each other. Individual work was always seen as a part of the whole. The work was borne along by yielded, humble team workers – not superstars that felt they needed to be highlighted as “apart from the others”. The message didn’t move until the team was assembled. The timing wasn’t right until they were clear on “team”. Luke continued…

Right People: Wrong Page

Acts 1:6 So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

I think it is significant that although they wanted to obey the Master, apart from God’s empowering they were on the “wrong page” about what was to become the center of the story. Even as a team, they simply weren’t on the right page at all. They weren’t ready for what God called them to do.

They were, in fact, a small group of frightened Jews huddled in Jerusalem, about to face the physical loss of their Master and trying to figure out what would happen next. Their story, as the Book of Acts reveals it, moved from that handful to hundreds, then thousands, and eventually to an articulate advocate of Jesus who made the public proclamation of the Gospel to the power base at the center of the Roman world. But… don’t jump to the end. The process of HOW God used them was also important. It is for that reason it was recorded.

Note the verses. They obeyed and stayed together. They began as convinced and obedient followers. Things were going very well (as is often the case with followers of Jesus) until they opened their mouths. They asked about TIMING, the queried about RESTORATION… but mostly they wanted to know about coming POWER. The term “Kingdom” was power–packed! That was at the core of the question. “Is Israel about to rise out of the ashes of Gentile domination?” they asked.

The earliest followers were plagued with the same problem every successive generation of believers has been – they thought they needed to understand the plan. Jesus made plain that wasn’t the problem. God never called us to understand His whole plan – only to follow His leading. They didn’t need understanding – they needed to lend to His empowering their trust and obedience. They needed His Spirit within. Their witness would be wholly ineffective without the leading, transforming, wooing and directing power of the God at work in and through them. He promised it would come shortly, and they were told to use it to reach the world. When the church feels it needs to understand what God is doing, it wanders. When she bows her knee and seeks the guidance of the Spirit with whole-hearted intent to obey, God unfolds the next step before her.

Right People: Wrong Gaze

A short time later, the earliest followers stood on the hill east of Jerusalem, gathered around their risen Savior. The time had come. Luke wrote:

Acts 1:9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. 11 They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”

The problem now wasn’t one of speech, but one of gaze.

Looking up to look back:

The church was standing on a hill looking at the PAST. They saw Jesus taken up, but they weren’t ready to MOVE ON in obedience to what God called their generation to do. They wanted what USED to be. They wanted Jesus back. Truthfully, I don’t have any struggle understanding why they felt the way they did. It was BETTER with the Savior coming to visit. It felt like old times. They could reminisce about Peter’s dumb answers around the campfire and laugh together. They could spend more time asking questions about their prophecy charts and huddle together without having to walk among the infidels. Who wouldn’t rather spend time with brothers than walking the streets filled with pig-eating pagans?

The earliest believers looked BACK. They looked to what HAD BEEN. Though that can be comforting, it does little to move a vision forward. To do that, we must look ahead.

Looking up to avoid looking around:

Jesus ascended to Heaven and the first followers stood there looking up. They looked up because He was gone, but also for another reason – most of the time Heaven is easier to look at than earth. The angel made it clear – Jesus had been taken to Heaven, and from Heaven Jesus would one day return. Why stand looking at the sky, then? Because, frankly, the earth can look like an awful mess. Working with people can be very hard, in part because people are unpredictable on a sin-ravaged planet.

There has always been a temptation for churches to block a view of the mission field with a lovely picture of the “church world” – the place where our values are already appreciated and our Savior is already loved. There has always been a temptation to stay in the warmth of worship and not “break the huddle” to face the world. The earliest believers looked UP. They looked at the comforting views of Heaven and not the uncomfortable reality of reaching out to the mess that was the Roman world. We can understand what they were doing, because there are many times we would like to do the same thing.

Stop for a second and remember what Jesus was doing. He got them together, because they needed to be a team before they could be God’s team. Then He redirected their attention from understanding the plan to following a Person – Him. He left, and an angel got them focused on what they were told to do – get prepared for the ministry as the Spirit was about to come and empower them to accomplish the work Jesus had just outlined.

Right People: Wrong Number

Next, Luke made clear how the disciples addressed the final preparation for the coming of the Spirit – they “refilled” the vacant leadership position of the late Judas Iscariot. He wrote:

Acts 1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered [the city], they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James [the son] of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas [the] [son] of James. 14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with [the] women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. 15 At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, 16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 “For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 19 And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO ONE DWELL IN IT’; and, ‘LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE HIS OFFICE.’ 21 “Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—22 beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us– one of these [must] become a witness with us of His resurrection.” 23 So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen 25 to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

Before the empowering of the Spirit, there was the final organization of the leadership to prepare. We have seen it over and over – everything rises or falls on leadership. Poorly organized and poorly prepared leaders normaly mean poorly executed plans.

• Sometimes the issue of preparation is ethical. When morally bankrupt leaders feed their own popularity by endorsing whatever base instinct and perversion men are currently fixated on, they fail to challenge people with true moral courage – the kind that forces men to think of their actions in terms of consequences to succeeding generations.

• Sometimes the issue of preparation is tactical. When leaders don’t understand their role on the team, or don’t know how to effectively operate in their position – the work will falter in spite of their best intentions.

What is essential is this: the right men and women must be placed in the right positions with the right understanding of their role. How did the earliest followers accomplish this task?

The Scriptures offer key tests we must pose as we look for leaders who are truly following God and can lead us in that pursuit.

First, they chose team players. Look closely at the text:

Acts 1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem …. 13 … they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James [the son] of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas [the] [son] of James.

The description is of those who were comfortable with those who were currently in leadership of the movement. The disciples were named to make it crystal clear the new leader understood he was joining the already established group. Adding leaders with differing approaches to some of the problems can be a strength – but there is a caution here. Never add someone who displays contempt for those who hold the position today. David wasn’t ready to be made KING of his people until he displayed supreme respect for the office while Saul held it. Contempt before placement in leadership is a portent of trouble when the leader gains the office.

Second, they sought someone who had the goal of continued unity:

Acts 1:14 These all with one mind…

Stop reading mid-sentence…note the attitude of the leaders in the room. They were TOGETHER in the way they thought. They were UNITED. Unity is not uniformity. We don’t all have to like the same flavors, prefer the same music and wear the same uniforms. We can express much individuality without undermining unity. The idea of unity is rooted in the ability to see beyond your preferences and care about how the others in the room feel. It is about appreciation for another’s perspective, and care for another’s emotional well-being. Selfish people aren’t unifiers. Perhaps the secret to their unity can be found as we keep reading…

Third, they were openly dependent on God for their next move:

Acts 1:14b: “…were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with [the] women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.”

Even with the most qualified group possible, they didn’t make the next move as a committee. They were a team. Committees talk about things. Teams are committed to carrying out the work. They geared up to do what was next, not by passive waiting, but by active seeking of God’s direction. They didn’t PRAY, they DEVOTED THEMSELVES to seeking God’s face, listening for God’s voice. They knew they didn’t know what to do – and they placed total confidence in the Lord’s directions. They didn’t pray to bring God the news, but to wrap themselves in Him. He already knew where He wanted things to go.

Max Lucado told of a church in Scotland back in the 1940s that was struggling to keep the doors open. A couple of its members were two older ladies who were invalids and couldn’t get out for worship any longer. But these ladies refused to allow their infirmities to get in the way of serving their God. They became convinced that their community needed Jesus desperately and they were going to do something about it. They were going to pray. They determined to make their house a house of prayer. Around the clock they prayed for God do something powerful. Then one day, one of the ladies became convinced that God wanted a revivalist by the name of Campbell to come and hold meetings at their church. They talked to their preacher and he contacted Campbell…but Campbell was unavailable. He was booked up. The women refused to give up in their prayers however…and it wasn’t long before–oddly enough–some of Campbell’s other revivals became cancelled and he decided to accept the invitation of that small church. He arrived and held 5 weeks of meetings. The Revival was so well received that hundreds showed up each night. And lives were so changed that many of the local taverns had to close up because they lacked patrons. One might think it was because of the powerful preaching of a renowned revivalist. But in reality it was because of the faithfulness of two invalid older ladies who dedicated themselves to prayer. (From Sermon Central message by Jeff Strite, “God’s Idea of Church”, 5/2/2011).

Fourth, they took their cues from the Word of God:

Acts 1:15 … Peter stood up in the … gathering … and said, 16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus.

Peter reasoned from the Scripture that the betrayal of Jesus was not a blind spot in the text – but a foretold reality. He related what happened from the Word of God, and showed a confidence in that Word. As the church struggles to move forward in our day, it is most often mired by those who both claim the heritage of the faith and yet have moved from the founding text of the faith. Our faith is in a Person, but the knowledge of that faith is found firmly expressed in His unchanging Word. Peter knew the early struggles of the body needed to find their solutions in the Word – just as we know our generation of believers will find their solutions in the same place.

Fifth, they chose one from among those who had already been thoroughly versed in the work of Jesus Christ:

Acts 1:21 “…Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—22 beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us– one of these [must] become a witness with us of His resurrection.”

Paul later warned Timothy not to appoint someone to leadership in the zeal of their newness to the work – but to allow them to season and grow. A novice in Jesus is like a novice swordsman. They are often energetic, but just as often dangerous.

Finally, they recognized they didn’t know the most critical thing about their choice – the heart of men:

Acts 1:23 So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen … 26 And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.

It seems silly to end the story with something they felt weak about – their inability to read what was inside a man. At the same time, that may be the perfect place to set up the empowering passage that directly follows the opening chapter of the Book of Acts. It reminds us that we don’t have what it takes on our own.

We DO know that it is easy for us to be on the wrong page – thinking we need to understand God’s plan for our life and ministry rather than clinging to His hand and walking daily under His direction.

We DO know it is easy for us to be Heaven-ward in our gaze and miss the lost and hurting world around us. We can be caught up in a vision of worship at the expense of a call to walk, work and witness.

We DO know that we can be easily tempted to place people in leadership based on their abilities, not on their intimacy with Jesus and their firm track record of commitment to Him.

We DO know that we can try to committee our way to the future and think we know what we do not know – but that is not how the story of the early work was told. It was explained in a careful way…

God empowered regular, broken, fallible people to reach their generation, piercing the darkness with the light of the truth from the Creator.

It probably won’t look dramatic – it will look like a quiet revolution of love:

After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, no person in all of East Germany was more despised than the former Communist dictator Erich Honecher. He had been stripped of all his offices. Even the Communist Party rejected him. Kicked out of his villa, the new government refused him and his wife new housing. The Honechers were homeless and destitute. Enter pastor Uwe Holmer, director of a Christian help center north of Berlin. Made aware of the Honechers’ straits, Pastor Holmer felt it would be wrong to give them a room meant for even needier people. So the pastor and his family decided to take the former dictator into their own home! Erich Honecher’s wife, Margot, had ruled the East German educational system for twenty-six years. Eight of Pastor Holmer’s ten children had been turned down for higher education due to Mrs. Honecher’s policies, which discriminated against Christians. Now the Holmers were caring for their personal enemy—the most hated man in Germany. This was so unnatural, so unconventional, so Christlike. By the grace of God, the Holmers loved their enemies, did them good, blessed them, and prayed for them. They turned the other cheek. They gave their enemies their coat (their own home). They did to the Honechers what they would have wished the Honechers would do to them. (Reported by George Cowan to Campus Crusade at the U.S. Division Meeting Devotions, Thursday, March 22, 1990.)

In the next lesson, we will see God take all the parts of the work that were carefully assembled and ready – and plug them into the power source of the in-dwelling Spirit of God!