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Church Growth

Luke 9:1-27

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Sometimes a string of incidents in the Gospel may appear to have no particular thread or theme. Sometimes the thread is a little below the surface. Today’s thread is the growth of the church. We start with evangelism.

And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. And He said to them, "Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics apiece. "Whatever house you enter, stay there until you leave that city. "And as for those who do not receive you, as you go out from that city, shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them." Departing, they began going throughout the villages, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere. Now Herod the tetrarch heard of all that was happening; and he was greatly perplexed, because it was said by some that John had risen from the dead, and by some that Elijah had appeared, and by others that one of the prophets of old had risen again. Herod said, "I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?" And he kept trying to see Him. When the apostles returned, they gave an account to Him of all that they had done. Taking them with Him, He withdrew by Himself to a city called Bethsaida.

(Luke 9:1-10 NASB)

Sent with great power

One of the great themes of Christ is that his followers don’t do things in the world’s way. The world would set out in this by building a college, training people and preparing lots of literature. Seminars would be held; and always there would be the air of a new academic theory being tested. The hearer would clearly understand that this new belief system was appealing to them to be the judge of its fitness.

Christ does no such thing. He sends his disciples out with authority and power:

  • They have authority over things spiritual; even the demons are subject to them. Doesn’t sound like much for those who watch television demons; but remember that the demon is a fallen angel, a being of great spiritual power.
  • They have authority over things temporal – he gives them the authority and power to heal diseases.

Interestingly, he sends them out on a mission which has two somewhat contradictory messages:

  • One mission is to preach the kingdom of God. That implies a wandering style, no great buildings, just the voice from the wilderness.
  • The other mission is to heal; that implies a permanence.

The church, from its very start, is what the modern theorists call “goal conflicted.” One goal is evangelism; preach and move on. The other is the maturing of the saints, which implies a permanence of place and effort. Such an organization, by modern theory, cannot long exist. So much for modern theory.

Sent in poverty

They are sent in power, but also in poverty. Why?

  • First, to avoid suspicion. The itinerant beggar clothed with the priesthood of some god was a familiar sight in ancient times. Christ’s messengers are giving away eternal life; a gift so costly that it cannot be bought. Should they then be like Elijah’s servant?
  • Next, to avoid distraction. The things of this world should be of no great concern to them. They are not burdened with other duties.
  • Finally, to show the world – and the disciples – their utter and complete dependence upon God. And to show that God does not fail them.
The reaction of the world

There seem to be three common reactions to the Gospel, the news of the kingdom:

  • One, of course, is joyful acceptance.
  • Another is rejection. If this happens, the disciple is to shake the dust off his feet. This comes from an ancient tradition. The Jew, knowing the land of Israel to be holy, would shake of the unholy dust of foreign lands upon entering into Israel. It is a way of saying that the kingdom is holy ground, not to be defiled with those who reject it.
  • Ad then there is Herod’s reaction – the official reaction. He knows that he is in charge of the area; this Jesus is subject to him. He also knows this man is not an ordinary subject. Do you crush him quickly? Do you co-opt him? Or just wait and see? Herod never saw him – until Good Friday.

Feeding the Five Thousand

It doesn’t exactly sound like it has anything to do with church growth – but listen.

But the crowds were aware of this and followed Him; and welcoming them, He began speaking to them about the kingdom of God and curing those who had need of healing. Now the day was ending, and the twelve came and said to Him, "Send the crowd away, that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside and find lodging and get something to eat; for here we are in a desolate place." But He said to them, "You give them something to eat!" And they said, "We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless perhaps we go and buy food for all these people." (For there were about five thousand men.) And He said to His disciples, "Have them sit down to eat in groups of about fifty each." They did so, and had them all sit down. Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed them, and broke them, and kept giving them to the disciples to set before the people. And they all ate and were satisfied; and the broken pieces which they had left over were picked up, twelve baskets full.

(Luke 9:11-17 NASB)

This event is rather unusual. As you might imagine, events which appear in all four Gospels are considered very important. The Crucifixion, the Resurrection – these appear in all four. But (for example) the story of the birth of Jesus does not. This event is in all four Gospels; it therefore must be important. In fact, I submit that it is (among other things) an excellent picture of how the church is to grow. We shall look in on it.

The Disciples

One thing the disciples are sure of: they can’t feed these people. They are also sure that it is SEP – Somebody Else’s Problem. We can do nothing, so send these folks away to get something to eat.

Do you not see that they are thinking in precisely the same fashion as the world? They are sure of the answer; they think they know what can and can’t be done. But I submit the question to you: just how good are you at predicting the future? Especially when you think it can’t be done, you are very often wrong. You may be right about the fact that it won’t be done, but it is foolish to neglect the Living God in your calculations.

The real difficulty is this: the disciples do not believe that God will act. They assume he will do nothing. This prevents them from seeing the solution, or from trying it. The same is true today. We often make our plans without God, and then (as an afterthought) ask him to bless them. It just doesn’t work that way. So how does it work?

Numbers big, groups small

Let’s go back to “goal conflicted.” God has a solution to this:

  • In speaking to the world, the evangelist speaks to as many people as possible at one time. The Gospel is too precious to be kept silent.
  • But in teaching the people how to live, the disciple is to work in a smaller group.

This keeps the evangelist humble, knowing that long term results must come from the hundreds of small group leaders. The small group leader, however, gets to hear a consistent and sound message. Of interest to many is this: the small group leader typically does not see a lot of growth in the kingdom. His group tends to stay about the same size; that’s the size he can handle. It’s just that God keeps forming new small groups.


In John’s Gospel, he quotes Jesus as telling the disciples to gather the leftovers “so that nothing will be wasted.” It is a sign that God wants no one forgotten, no one left behind. More to the point, the leftovers are now ready for the next meal.

How is this? Remember that God sends forth his word – and it does not “return unto him void.” It accomplishes its purpose. The same can be seen in the food here – the fact that you have leftovers means that all have been fed. These leftovers are the sign of the completeness of God’s word.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Is this about church growth? You bet.

And it happened that while He was praying alone, the disciples were with Him, and He questioned them, saying, "Who do the people say that I am?" They answered and said, "John the Baptist, and others say Elijah; but others, that one of the prophets of old has risen again." And He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" And Peter answered and said, "The Christ of God." But He warned them and instructed them not to tell this to anyone, saying, "The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day."

(Luke 9:18-22 NASB)

The world’s reaction to Jesus Christ comes in a variety of flavors. Two are given here; the first being that he’s another preacher like John the Baptist – no miracles, but a great preacher. Others saw him in the miraculous, like the prophets of the Old Testament. That’s the world’s view – he’s a great guy who can safely be ignored.

Lots of views, but only one truth. He is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God. Upon this fact the church is built.

Interestingly, Christ tells them to keep silent about it. The time is not yet ready; but soon there comes a time when his name will be proclaimed to all the world. Even as it is today.

The Paradox of Christian Living

Over and again in the New Testament we find the fundamental paradox of the Christian life: take up the Cross.

And He was saying to them all, "If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. "For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. "But I say to you truthfully, there are some of those standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God."

(Luke 9:23-27 NASB)


Note the condition: if you want to follow him – not just admire him from a distance. What are you to do? Deny yourself. The word in the original means to “disown yourself.” You are to give up all rights to yourself, handing them over to God. You will need to learn to say no to physical urges (hunger, sex), mental thoughts (he will tell you the truth), spiritual hunger (which he will fill) and emotional needs (which you will fill in others, and thus yourself).

It sounds like such a negative life. It is not; for you not only deny yourself, you take up your cross. Note that he commands us to do this daily. It’s not just a one time decision.

  • You must decide each day to take up the cross. Yesterday’s decision is gone; you must renew it today.
  • You must carry it each day. You are not permitted to put it down for a week or so; it is your daily burden.
  • You must follow Him each day. Take no thought for the morrow; you have enough things to do today.
Knowing what is profitable

The matter, in the end, is knowing what is truly profitable. The world is temporary; the kingdom eternal. You must choose one or the other as your objective – and stick with it.

The Day of Judgment is coming; when it arrives, your choices will be made plain for all to see. Sadly, few of this generation will be welcomed on that day. Hear what a saint from an older time says on this:

JESUS has always many who love His heavenly kingdom, but few who bear His cross. He has many who desire consolation, but few who care for trial. He finds many to share His table, but few to take part in His fasting. All desire to be happy with Him; few wish to suffer anything for Him. Many follow Him to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the chalice of His passion. Many revere His miracles; few approach the shame of the Cross. Many love Him as long as they encounter no hardship; many praise and bless Him as long as they receive some comfort from Him. But if Jesus hides Himself and leaves them for a while, they fall either into complaints or into deep dejection. Those, on the contrary, who love Him for His own sake and not for any comfort of their own, bless Him in all trial and anguish of heart as well as in the bliss of consolation. Even if He should never give them consolation, yet they would continue to praise Him and wish always to give Him thanks. What power there is in pure love for Jesus -- love that is free from all self-interest and self-love!

Do not those who always seek consolation deserve to be called mercenaries? Do not those who always think of their own profit and gain prove that they love themselves rather than Christ? Where can a man be found who desires to serve God for nothing? Rarely indeed is a man so spiritual as to strip himself of all things. And who shall find a man so truly poor in spirit as to be free from every creature? His value is like that of things brought from the most distant lands.

If a man give all his wealth, it is nothing; if he do great penance, it is little; if he gain all knowledge, he is still far afield; if he have great virtue and much ardent devotion, he still lacks a great deal, and especially, the one thing that is most necessary to him. What is this one thing? That leaving all, he forsake himself, completely renounce himself, and give up all private affections. Then, when he has done all that he knows ought to be done, let him consider it as nothing, let him make little of what may be considered great; let him in all honesty call himself an unprofitable servant. For truth itself has said: "When you shall have done all these things that are commanded you, say: 'we are unprofitable servants.'"

Then he will be truly poor and stripped in spirit, and with the prophet may say: "I am alone and poor." No one, however, is more wealthy than such a man; no one is more powerful, no one freer than he who knows how to leave all things and think of himself as the least of all.

(Thomas à Kempis)

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