Selected highlights from this sermon.
Throughout the world there are areas where churches once flourished, but now they’ve been replaced with mosques or have been completely destroyed.
Using Paul’s time in Corinth as an example, Pastor Lutzer explains how we can create a healthy foundation for our church—starting with the pure, unadulterated Gospel of Jesus Christ.
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This morning I want you to use your imagination. What I am going to say I hope will stimulate a great deal of interest and a great deal of talk and a great deal of prayer, but it’s time for your imagination to work. I want you to visualize this beautiful sanctuary here at The Moody Church with every single seat taken out. I want you to visualize that it’s been turned into a restaurant. All along the way here where the aisles are there are tables with nice white tablecloths and in the evening patrons come from all over the city of Chicago to a great place to eat. The chamber behind me where the choir practices has been turned into a modern kitchen. In fact, you can even eat in places in the balcony-in a special place with your favorite date.
Or let’s imagine that all of the seats have been removed and what you have is a bookstore–something like Barnes & Noble. You can go in among the stands and on the other side of the colonnades there, there are special books, and in the balcony, that’s where all the technical books are. And you can go to the balcony there and you can study, and you can buy books.
Why do I begin with that illustration? Let me give you one other more ominously. Let us suppose that all of the seats are removed and rugs are on the floor entirely, because this is the biggest mosque in the city of Chicago. Muslims come here to pray. As a matter of fact, when you walk outside the church you discover that there are four minarets. The number of minarets indicates the importance of the building and since this happens to be Chicago’s most famous mosque, people come from all over the world to look and to pray in what once was a church.
I tell you that story because a week ago today Rebecca and I were in Athens and we were catching a cab from our hotel to the airport. In the back of the cab there was this magazine which I pulled out. It was both in English and Greek and I noticed an article in it that caught my eye. The headline was, “Oh God - Old European Churches Turn into Contemporary Temples of Indulgence,” and it was a story of seven or eight cathedrals in Europe (for example some in the Netherlands, some in Glasgow, Scotland, and elsewhere throughout Europe) that had become such things as cafes; they had been turned into bookstores, and even one has been turned into a hotel, and it showed pictures of the church and the new temple of indulgence that it has become.
Now before we were in Athens we toured the Seven Churches of Asia Minor. They are in the land of Turkey today, and when you go into the land of Turkey you discover that there is no church to speak of. Oh there may be pockets of believers here and there, but we visited all Seven Churches and we wanted to miss Thyatira, but it was a church that was very important also so we actually hit all seven, but let me take you today to the church in Philadelphia.
Philadelphia was one of the churches of Asia Minor to whom Jesus wrote a letter and he said, “Behold, I have set before you an open door that no man can shut, and if I shut it, nobody can open it, and if I open it, nobody can close it.” Philadelphia! Of course, we were not expecting in Philadelphia to find the same congregation that was there two thousand years ago, but we discovered that there are really no churches in Philadelphia. In fact, Rebecca took a picture of me standing in the ruins of a fifth century church, which is really all that’s left of the ancient city, and across the street is a mosque, and you can see the minarets, and that became symbolic really of our entire tour because, as you know, Islam crushes the Church wherever it goes. And so the Seven Churches of Asia Minor remind us that churches can be turned into mosques.
When we were in Istanbul we were in Hagia Sophia. Now it was my second time to be there. When I became the pastor of Moody Church I prayed and said, “Lord, someday I want to be in Hagia Sophia.” It is the largest church, I suppose, in Christendom. You could take a couple of Moody Churches and put them into that church. It was dedicated to Christ in 537. It’s fifteen hundred years old, but when Islam conquered Istanbul, as it is called today, in 1453, it became a mosque for five hundred years, and now in more recent times, since 1923, it is a museum so all of us can go in it. But all of the major churches of Istanbul were turned into mosques after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
You know there are many lessons that I learned as a result of being on this tour. In fact, I’ve come up with seven or eight of them, but what I’d like to do today is to share perhaps only one or two lessons, and one of the most poignant is simply this–that we do not know the future of any individual congregation. We don’t know what Moody Church is going to be like in fifty or a hundred years.
You do know, don’t you (it’s in the news), that today in the Chicago area (this weekend) there is the first Islamic Supremacist group? The headline reads “Holds Its First U.S. Conference” and the title of the conference is “The Fall of Capitalism and the Rise of Islam.” The lesson of Turkey that we learned is simply this, that we do not know and we cannot presume the continuation of any given congregation. In the past, churches have been extinguished and it’s possible it could happen to us as well. Just because Moody Church has been in existence for nearly 150 years does not mean that we shall exist as a Bible preaching church for the next 150 years. I pray that under our watch it will always be what it was called to be, namely a house where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached. I would like to think that everyone who is listening to me would be willing to die for the faith if that were to ever happen, but at the same time we cannot be presumptuous, and we must stop to think and ask ourselves this question. What is it that preserves a church, and why do churches die? It’s a huge question, and I’m not going to be able to answer it today. In fact, I’m not sure that I have a final answer at all, but I am going to probe the Scriptures for this reason. As you take your Bibles and turn to Acts 18, we are introduced to the way in which the Church began in Corinth, and I’d like to submit to you that if we can understand the beginning of a church, and if we can understand those doctrines that make a church great, maybe we can also understand what it is that causes a church to continue despite hardship and despite persecution.
When the Apostle Paul came to the city of Corinth he was coming to a city, which at that time already was really greater than Athens in terms of being a commercial center. The ancient city of Corinth today basically is ruins. Archeologists have uncovered a good deal of it, but not yet all of it, believe it or not, and of course, there’s a modern city of Corinth as well, but when we were there we visited the ancient city with its ruins. Among its many ruins there is a temple to the god Apollo, and that temple is also a reminder to us of a second lesson that we learned when we were on this tour, and that is, that the Church of Jesus Christ is always tempted to compromise with its culture. Apollo was a god that was given many different responsibilities in both Greek and Roman traditions. Apollo was the god sometimes of light and darkness, the god of revelation at the Oracle of Delphi, and so the Christian Church always found itself in the midst of this paganism. In the midst of paganism is where the Church began in Corinth, and let’s look at how it began, and maybe we can get a little bit of insight into how a Church can continue despite its unknown future.
The Apostle Paul came to Corinth and it’s where he met Aquila and Priscilla. They were a couple who were into tent making, as the Apostle Paul was into tent making, and he became friends with them and actually stayed in their home, the Bible says in the opening verses of Acts 18. And you’ll notice it says in verse 4, “Paul reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.” He reasoned with them. The word means that there is dialogue going on. When the people came there to the synagogue they didn’t simply hear a sermon. They heard dialogue. I need to emphasize that we here at The Moody Church have a means by which we would like to train you to do dialogue in the Gospel because it’s the only way in which you can really do it today, and I’ll talk more about that in just a moment.
“When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.” Let’s stop there. One of the great truths that made the Church great and made it strong and kept it on track was a message that transforms. The Apostle Paul came there and he had one thing in mind, and that was to help the people to understand who Jesus Christ was, that Jesus was Christ-Jesus was Messiah. And many of the Jews believed.
One day at a Bible study I met a woman who told me her story. She was Jewish. She grew up not liking Jesus at all and she began to study the Bible and she began to read the New Testament, and suddenly she was confronted and she was filled with fear, she said. And she used to pray and say, “Oh, God, turn out to be anybody but Jesus.” Well, you probably know the rest of the story. As she continued to study, her worst fear was realized. God turned out to be Jesus and she accepted Him as her Messiah, and that’s the message that the Apostle Paul preached. Interestingly, he gave us a window into what was going on in his heart when he came to the city of Corinth and when he wrote them his first letter.
In chapter two of the letter to the church in Corinth the Apostle Paul says, “When I came to you I didn’t come with excellency of speech.” In those days there were people who admired oratory. Paul said he didn’t come with excellency of speech, proclaiming to you the Gospel of God. He said, “I was with you in fear and in weakness and in much trembling,” because he saw the pagan gods of Apollo and he saw the immorality of the city. It was a very immoral city and as a matter of fact, to say that you were Corinthianizing meant that you were into immorality with a thousand prostitutes coming down from the Corinthian Acropolis every night. It was a city that was filled with debauchery, and Paul says, “I went there in fear and trembling.” He didn’t try to clean the place up morally. There may be a place for that, but that wasn’t the heart of his message. The heart of his message was that Jesus Christ died for sinners. He said, “I knew nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
Now, this is a long story because I could go on for a while on almost every point I make here in the message today, but I must summarize. The Christian Church throughout history has oftentimes compromised the one message that can found a church, and the message that can hold it together, and that is Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
Now today we find that there are many churches that demean the Gospel, and there are so many different ways to do it. For example, there are those who reduce the Gospel. By that I mean that there are people who preach the Gospel every Sunday, but every Sunday it’s the same thing–John 3:16 which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Now, that’s the heart of the message, but it’s not as if that’s the entire message of the cross. To think that that is the only part of the message would be like going out in the night sky and surveying the stars and then saying that now you understand astronomy. No, you don’t. You understand the big picture, but now you need to understand the constellations, and you have to study the stars in detail, and you have to learn distances. And you see, that’s why here at Moody Church we are a Gospel-centered church, but you don’t hear simply John 3:16 every Sunday. We relate the Gospel to all of life, and that’s why we have equipping classes, by the way.
When you read in the bulletin that you can take a course in doctrine, that you can take a course in apologetics or Christ in culture, or how to share your faith, or the history of doctrine, that isn’t there simply because we think that you don’t have enough to do, and we want to keep you off the streets. That is there because we want you to be equipped to understand the full aura of God’s Gospel so that you can reason and you can present your faith intelligibly and understand that the Gospel has many different spokes, even though the hub is Jesus Christ and Him crucified. When you begin to unpack that, you begin to realize that you are in a lifelong endeavor to try to understand what Jesus did and its implications. But it’s the heart of everything.
Then there are other churches that neglect the cross because they substitute other things. They talk about health and wealth and all kinds of other things. This is a true story. In the south a Muslim family came to faith in Jesus Christ. They wanted to go to a church to be encouraged, to be inspired, and to learn how to live out their faith, and the pastor (and I say this with a broken heart) was speaking on nutrition. Now nutrition is important. In fact, it’s very important, but I hope that the walls of Moody Church collapse if the day comes that the pastor stands up and preaches on nutrition on a Sunday morning. Are you with me, or am I all alone up here? (applause)
There are so many different ways to minimize the Gospel. You can sacramentalize the Gospel. That’s what happened, by the way, in Turkey (the Seven Churches). Another long story! Grace was sacramentalized and now, after the time of Constantine, when you have basilicas being built, there was a distinction between the laity and the supposed pastor or priest, and this distinction led to an impersonal relationship with God where all that you needed to do was to participate in the mass and somehow you were included in God’s program, even if you didn’t know Christ personally, and even if you had never understood the basis of your assurance.
So there are many different ways to minimize the Gospel, but I want to quote the words of P. J. Forsythe. Speaking of the cross of Jesus Christ he says, “If you move faith from that center you have driven the nail into the coffin of the Church. The Church then is doomed to death and it is only a matter of time when it shall expire. The Church can only live and breathe at the cross.” And if we want to exist as a church, we must have conversion and the cross as the heart of our message. It must always be there. It founded the Church and it can keep the Church.
The second is we need a God who saves. I could have changed this and said we need a God who is sovereign. You’ll notice that the Apostle Paul has a revelation from God when he’s there in Corinth. Actually he receives six visions and this is one of them. Verse 9 says, “And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.’” Is that okay with you?
God is saying, “I don’t have merely people in this city who will be mine. They are already mine. They just haven’t believed the Gospel yet.” We find this throughout the book of Acts and we find it in the New Testament. Acts 13:48 says, “And as many as were appointed unto eternal life believed.” Now we have a great deal of problems with that and we need to balance that with the fact that Paul reasoned with them and tried to persuade the Jews that Jesus was the Christ, and to persuade the Greeks that He was the Savior of the world. So we balance it out, but the fact is that throughout the New Testament you always find that when the Gospel is preached, God works, and if God isn’t working, nothing eternal is going to be accomplished. What God does is He opens the minds and the hearts of people so that they see their sin, so they see their need, so they see that Jesus is the answer to their need and gives them the ability to believe, so salvation is entirely of God. And that’s why God could say, “I have many people in this city. They haven’t believed yet but they are mine.”
Let me give you an illustration. When we were on the cruise we stopped in Philippi. I had never been to Philippi before and I was so nicely surprised. You go through the Agora and it was sort of the center of town, and we know that the Apostle Paul was there. In fact, you can actually see the dungeon where possibly he and Silas were imprisoned. But also you go by the river because it says in Acts 16 that when Paul came there, there was no synagogue, and people went to the river to pray, and that’s where there was a woman who was a seller of purple, and her name was Lydia, and it says that she was a woman whose heart the Lord opened. Isn’t that beautiful? And she believed the Gospel and she was baptized there, and we went to the river approximately where she was baptized, and we had a communion service there. What a wonderful experience! But that’s really the Gospel. It is those whom the Lord opens.
I’m preaching now to many people right here in the sanctuary of The Moody Church and then, of course, on the Internet because we stream live and have people all over the world who have tuned in. Eventually this message is going to be on the radio and tens of thousands of people will hear it, but what I want to say is this: We must understand that there are some people who will hear the Gospel and it will just blow past them. There are other people who are going to pause to listen and to say, “You know there just might be something there that I need,” and they may not yet belong to God right now, but they will belong to God because God says, “I already have them as my people,” and God will overcome their blindness. He’ll show them the beauty of the Gospel, and they’ll come to saving faith, and that’s why I have faith in the Gospel. It is because when the Gospel is preached, God works.
Now another long story is that when the Church loses that, what you find is manipulation oftentimes. What you find is decisionism where you try to get people to simply pray a prayer and think that the prayer itself is going to do it. Even if God hasn’t worked in their heart if we can just get them to pray, and that can be an error and that can lead to a kind of shallowness in our understanding of the Gospel. So the Apostle Paul here has a vision and the Lord encourages him and says, “Hang in, Paul, because I have many people in this city.”
There’s a third truth that we need to come to grips with, and it’s maybe the biggie in terms of our future. Third, what you have is opposition that purifies.
Now, I’m going to read the text here. You’ll notice it says in verse 12, “But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal.” The Greek word is bema. Now when you go to Corinth today you can actually see the bema. I asked the guide if there was any evidence of a synagogue where the Apostle Paul preached and where he reasoned, and he said there was no evidence of the synagogue. There’s a house that was next to the synagogue, but we don’t know where that is. Maybe archeologists will still uncover it because a great deal of Corinth still has not yet been excavated, but you can go to the bema, and it even has a sign on it that says Bema–Judgment Seat. This is the place where all of the affairs of the city were adjudicated and so Paul is brought there, and they accuse him and say, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.”
Now Christians have faced opposition to their faith. First of all, opposition from culture, peer pressure, culture that does not want to hear about Christ or the Gospel. Secondly, the Church has faced a great deal of opposition also from legal laws, laws that are made to hinder the proclamation of the Christian Gospel. That’s another long story. Certainly that is true in many of the countries of the world, and this past week a hate crimes bill was slipped into an appropriations bill in Washington, and I understand that it passed. I didn’t have an opportunity to read the wording so I will not comment on it except to say that in other countries it has certainly stifled freedom of speech such as in Canada. I said to a Canadian pastor one day, “Are you still able to preach Romans 1 in churches in Canada?” and he said, “Well, it depends who is in the audience, and it depends on who you are preaching it to or who comes to hear it,” and I could tell you stories about that, but again, we must hurry on.
Now, in this instance the Apostle Paul got by because when this happened, you’ll notice that Gallio really defended Paul. It says, “Gallio said to the Jews, ‘If it were a matter of wrongdoing or a vicious crime, then I’d enter into this, but because it isn’t (it’s questions about words and doctrine and law), see to it yourselves,’ and he drove them from the tribunal. And then they took Sosthenes, who was also one of the rulers of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal, but Gallio didn’t pay any attention to this.” So basically the Apostle Paul got off. He was able to be there. He stayed many days longer. There was no imprisonment and no serious opposition, but we in America need to think through this business of opposition because we’re not used to it. We’ve always had government policies that kind of favored Christianity, or at least supported it or at least didn’t work against it, and now we can’t count on that as we used to in the past, and that’s been a long time in coming, not just in recent years or months. But I think Bonhoeffer was right, who himself died at the age of 39 in Flossenburg where he was hung. Bonhoeffer said that the Church will never be strong unless it sees suffering as a gift, and he based that on Philippians 1:29 where it says, “Unto you it is given on behalf of Christ to believe on him….” We love that. Oh I love to believe on Jesus. It’s given to me to believe on Jesus. But the rest of the verse says, “and to suffer for his name.” Bonheoffer said both parts of that verse apply to the Church.
And so we need to see suffering (and to welcome it) as an opportunity to prove God’s faithfulness in the midst of a country that needs to hear the Gospel so desperately. Whatever you may encounter at work, whatever you may go through because you are an honest person, “Rejoice,” Jesus said, and this is where we need a whole mindset that changes our minds because most of the time we complain or we are fearful of what’s going to happen. Jesus kept saying, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad,” because that’s the way they persecuted the prophets that were before you. That is a part of our calling, and it may be a part of our calling as a church collectively. It may be a part of our calling as individuals also to not only believe in Jesus but to suffer for His name. Suffering purifies the Church.
Twenty years ago I was in China. It makes me old to say that that was twenty years ago, but I remember being with Bishop Ding who was the head of the Three Self Movement in China. The Three Self Movement is the official church in China that’s recognized by the government, and the group that I was with was with him for several days, and I’ll never forget what he said. He said, “If you go through the length and breadth of China you will find Christians who believe like you do,” and then (please get this) he said, “Persecution wiped out theological liberalism in China,” and I thought, “Thank you very much.”
What person who denies the virgin birth, what person who denies that Jesus Christ gave Himself as a sacrifice for sinners, or the person who denies that He is the only way to the Father, what person is going to want to die on behalf of Jesus if he believes that? Nobody, but it’s the true Church that endured in China. Persecution purifies. It purifies our faith. It purifies our theology. We finally begin to understand what it is that we really do believe, and Jesus said, “It’s your gift that comes along with the Gospel, so rejoice.”
Now, let us keep in mind that the Church has always struggled with its relationship to the world. We were there with the Seven Churches with Mark Bailey, the President of Dallas Seminary who took about half of the Seven Churches and I took the other. I guess you can’t divide seven in half very well, but it can probably be done, but it was my responsibility and privilege to speak at the church at Sardis. The Bible says that when Jesus dictated the letter to Sardis He said, “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead.” Wow! What an indictment to the Church. “You have a name that you are alive, but you are dead,” and why the church was dead is another separate story but right next to the pagan temple is a church. I mean right next to it. I mean three feet from it is a pagan temple, and I said to the folks that were there, “There are two ways that we can interpret this. One way is to say that the church said, ‘If there is a pagan temple there, that’s where we want to be. We want to be where there’s the most paganism because the pagans are the ones who need to hear the Gospel. They put a temple there; we put a church there for the glory of God and the Gospel.’” That’s one way to interpret it. The other way to interpret it is that the Church felt comfortable next to the pagan temple because it had so compromised its witness. There’s been a struggle between the relationship of the world and the Church for two thousand years and we still are a part of it and will be a part of it till the Lord returns.
Now I want to end this message by talking again about Corinth. I told you that there are really three truths that we need to hang on to. First of all, the message of the Gospel, secondly the sovereignty of God, and thirdly, that persecution is God’s gift to the Church. But actually if you begin to you ask the question, “What makes a church great?” in a practical way, it is the membership. It’s the converts, and so I want to tell you about one of Paul’s converts in Corinth.
In 1929 archeologists uncovered an inscription, and the inscription reads, “Erastus, Commissioner of Public Works, laid this pavement at his own expense.” I love it. He wanted to say, “I built this but I paid for it.” Who in the world was Erastus anyway? Erastus evidently came to saving faith in Jesus Christ through Paul’s ministry in Corinth. He is mentioned three times in the New Testament. Turn to Acts 19:22 where it says, “And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus (there he is), he himself (that is Paul) stayed in Asia for a while.” Erastus accompanied Paul. Who was Erastus? Well, according to this inscription he was a commissioner, but let’s look at Romans 16. The Apostle Paul is writing the book of Romans while he is at Corinth, and you’ll notice in Romans 16:23 he is giving greetings, and he says, “Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.” Well here he is the city treasurer; commissioner, city treasurer, Paul’s companion, and he’s mentioned also in the book of Timothy where he is still alive in Corinth, the Apostle Paul said.
Now here’s the thing. That gives us a window into what makes the Church great also. You know what makes the Church great? It is business people who come alongside leaders such as the Apostle Paul and others, and who say to themselves, “God has given me this business.” Here’s a man- Erastus-who is commissioner and treasurer of Corinth. He travels with Paul. I can imagine (and we do have here at The Moody Church) business people who go on our short-term missionary ventures who are willing to say, “God has given me this vocation, and I’m going to use this vocation for the glory of God. I’m going to learn and I’m going to serve. If God has blessed me financially I am going to make sure that the church benefits from that blessing.” But what we need is doctors and lawyers and teachers and nurses and business people in every kind of vocation like Erastus, having a ministry of integrity.
Now the Church is tempted to compromise and I’m going to be mentioning this because the next sermon is on Ephesus, and I’ll emphasize that next time, but Erastus evidently had a wonderful testimony, and God bless him, unlike many politicians, he says, “I paid for this myself,” when he made that sidewalk, that pavement as it’s called in the inscription.
The history of Moody Church is not the history of its pastors. God is actually writing the history of Moody Church in an entirely different way than the way in which we see it. The history of Moody Church is you. That’s the history of Moody Church–your name inscribed not on pavement but in the Lamb’s Book of Life, your name on His forehead because you stepped to the plate, because you said, “I will use my vocation in whatever it is with integrity, and I’m going to learn and I’m going to accompany, and I’m going to be an Erastus for the glory of God.”
I need to say that it’s not necessary for me to have archeologists to find this inscription in order to believe the Scriptures. There’s plenty of reason why we should believe the Bible, but every once in a while isn’t it nice (in fact, it happens more than once in a while) when an inscription is found that absolutely confirms the Scripture? In fact, I could tell you of another one in this chapter. You know where it says Priscilla and Aquila came from Rome because there was persecution under Claudius? There are inscriptions that prove that. The Bible is a real book that deals with real people. It’s not just Paul and Silas. It’s, God bless him, Erastus, who builds the pavement and pays for it with his own money. God bless him, and God bless you and God bless Moody Church. May it continue with the Gospel till Jesus returns. All right? Let’s do that. (applause)
We’re going to pray and then we’ll sing together and be reminded of the rock upon which the Church is built.
Father, I am sobered by this message. I pray today, Father, that Moody Church will be a light in this city. We pray today earnestly. May it never be used for any other purpose! We pray today, Father, that the Gospel, no matter what happens in our culture, will be proclaimed here. We pray that its members may be like Erastus who used his vocation and his position in the city to help. We can’t do without people who are willing and committed and use their vocations for Your glory. Make us a powerful church, we pray, a continuing church. In Jesus’ name we ask, Amen.
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