The Good Word  

 April 1998
Sometimes it helps to look to see where you have been.  In the old west, careful travelers often studied their back-trail.  This wasn't just to see if someone was following them.  They had learned that the trail looked different in reverse.  It wasn't safe to assume that they would recognize landmarks on their return trip if they hadn't studied them by looking back as they went.  Perspective made a difference.

This principle of perspective, of studying the back-trail, can be helpful in the spiritual realm, too.  For example, many of the books of the Bible lead the reader on a carefully inspired trail of understanding and insight.  By retracing such a trail one can gain fresh insight on the spiritual journey itself.

The birth and initial growth of the Christian church is reported and explained in the book of Acts (Acts of the Apostles, or what Jesus' chosen leaders did).  Chapter two describes the first encounter between the fledgling church and the world of its day.  Here, we will focus on the four stages of this encounter.  We will begin with the fourth stage and then proceed to the third, second, and finally, to the first stage.  We will, in effect, study the back-trail of the young church and thereby learn about the back-trail of authentic Christianity.

Glorious End - Stage 4
The chapter ends with the simple statement that "the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." (Acts 2:47)  Beginning with verse 40, Luke (the author of Acts), focuses on the spirit of community enjoyed by the believers.  The socialization and fellowship was great!  In fact, "about three thousand were added to their number [in one] day." (Acts 2:41)

Many Christian leaders would sacrifice valuable body parts to achieve this condition in their local churches.  But we must see that this is the last stage of a four stage trail.  No one and no community will arrive at this stage without taking the trip (stages one, two and three, also).

Gateway to Community - Stage 3
As we continue looking back down the trail, we see that the massive growth of stage four followed massive repentance and baptism.  Repentance is not some super-spiritual act done to improve your standing with God.  Repent means, literally, think again, or rethink.

(Pent means think, as in penitentiary - a place people are sent to think; as in pensive - meaning thoughtful.  Re means again.  Thus repent means think again.)

But thinking new thoughts is not easy, it is painful.  We tend to think the same old thoughts, over and over again.  It is easier to do this than to repent (have new thoughts).  It is easier to stay with the old thoughts than to have your mind renewed (Romans 12:2)  In fact, repentance is so hard to do that no one would do it if it were not a gift from God.  Thank God, it is a gift from God (Acts 5:31).

But as the third stage shows, repentance is painful:

 "They were cut to the heart." (Acts 2:37)

There is really no reason to expect repentance without a cutting to the heart.  It is being cut to the heart that gives the person and the church the pain and clarity of vision that allows them to rethink their situation.  Having new thoughts can lead to the public declaration of baptism: identifying with the preceding stretch of trail (stage two).

The Cutting Tool - Stage 2
It was what Peter said to the crowd that cut them to the heart.  His was the first great gospel sermon (Acts 2:14-36).  His focus was singularly on Jesus of Nazareth:

 "You . . . put him to death by nailing him to the cross.
  But God raised him from the dead." (Acts 2:22-24)

Of course this was no trite and worn saying for Peter.  It was clear and sharp.  By magnifying this message and applying it directly to the hearers, Peter thrust the gospel sword into their hearts.  And they were cut!

When we (and the church) hear the gospel and are cut to the heart, we are enabled to think new thoughts - which in turn lead to a new and vibrant community, the church.

The Cutting Oil - Stage 1
And finally, in studying our back-trail, we come to the beginning:

 "All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 2:4)

It is no surprise that the trail begins with a special infusion of God's Spirit.  After all, before Jesus left the earth he told his followers that they would "receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses . . .  to the ends of the earth." (Acts 1:8)  Whenever the Spirit acts, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus come to center stage.  Then this gospel cuts men to the heart, leading them to rethink their role and position in life.  Sharing the common thoughts of all believers through the ages then leads to community and oneness that all seek.

By examining our back-trail we learn how God leads man:

 1. The Spirit moves
 2. Encounter with Jesus
 3. New thoughts - new life
 4. Thriving community

This trail is our destiny
This issue of The Good Word puts into context the ardent goal and desire of most well meaning Christians: a well ordered life in harmony with their fellows in Christ; and with God.  Unfortunately there is much stir and striving to achieve this end without a proper consideration of the road that leads to this desirable destination.  There is even a great deal of guidance and instruction provided that is presumed to be helpful in achieving this end.  But Peter gave little in the way of guidance and instruction.  Rather he focused on announcing the gospel, and let the Spirit do its work.

If we desire the same effect, we ought to take the same course.

Your friend, Herb Sorensen