Before Christmas I was writing a story about the wonder of Christmas. I discovered that the word “amazed” occurs 45 times in the New Testament. I was amazed! Frequently, people were left with their mouths hanging open and their eyes wide, saying “Wow!” They saw things – very wonderful things – that they had not expected. They were gob-smacked. They were astonished, a word that is used another 20 times, so that is 65 times. On many other occasions people were amazed but no specific word was used to tell us that. There was a lot of amazement going on.
Sometimes we see magicians on TV who do tricks for people on the streets and leave them looking at each other in wonder and saying, “What? How on earth did he/she do that?” There is a magician in Acts 8 whom the people of Samaria followed because he amazed them with his magic – so much so that they called him “The Great Power of God”. He had powers that took their breath away. But then Philip came preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Now the amazing magician was amazed by the great signs and miracles he saw, and he followed Philip everywhere.
In the gospels, of course, it is Jesus who amazes. His miracles stunned people – the healing of the man lowered through the roof, and the demoniac, the raising of the dead girl, the calming of the storm. Each time, we are told that the crowds were amazed and said things like, “We have never seen anything like this before. Who is this man; even the wind and waves obey Him? Could this be the Son of David?”
When Jesus taught, people were amazed at His wisdom and at His authority. “We have never heard anyone teach like this before.” When the leaders tried to trap Him with trick questions, they, and the crowds, were astounded by His wisdom. It was so unexpected. “Where did He get this wisdom? Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s son?”
John 7:15 The Jews there (in the Temple) were amazed and asked, “How did this man get such learning without having been taught?
Jesus hadn’t been trained by a rabbi; or trained to be a rabbi. Where had His learning come from?
His miracles, His words but also His character amazed people. Mary and Joseph were amazed when they saw their son in the Temple – in His Father’s house – discussing with the teachers (Lk 2:48). Luke says, “Everyone who heard Him was amazed at His understanding and His answers.” (2:47) Later, the disciples were astonished that Jesus was heading to Jerusalem despite His predictions that He would be delivered over to the leaders and killed (Mk 10:32). Pilate was amazed that Jesus did not answer the accusations made against Him (Mt 27:14). What sort of man is this? So, miracles. Words. Character.
In Acts – the story of the church – there are fewer references to amazement but they are still there and the same sorts of things amaze. Miracles: people were amazed on the Day of Pentecost when the disciples spoke languages from all over the world. We read about the reaction to the healing of the lame man at the Temple. The believers were astonished when they answered the knocking at the door and found Peter standing there, when they thought he was locked in prison. Philip’s signs and wonders astonished Simon the Sorcerer. The people on Malta were amazed that Paul simply shook a snake off his hand and did not swell up and die – so amazed that they concluded he was a god. Actually, there is no word in that story like “amazed” or “astounded” or “astonished” or “blown away”, so, even in passages where it is not stated, there was still a lot of amazement going on.
Words: The Cyprian proconsul was amazed at the teaching about the Lord (Acts 13:12). There are examples of amazement because of a person’s character, or change of character. There’s one we will come to in a moment but another example is the amazement of the people of Damascus that Paul, who had persecuted the church, was now preaching that Jesus was the Son of God (Ac 9:21). Etc, Etc, Etc.
Discovering all this amazement raised a question for me: Should we be equally amazing? Should people be blown away by the church? The church is the body of Christ – the presence of Christ in the world. Should the presence of Christ still amaze people? If amazement was such a regular feature of the life of Christ and the life of the church, should it continue to be that way today?
Then a second question occurred to me: Is the church amazing? Well, there is so much variety in the church, isn’t there? There might be lots of amazing churches but I suspect most people in our communities do not find the church amazing. On the contrary, they view the church as being boring, irrelevant and a relic from a bygone age that will eventually just fizzle out. Few people are spreading gossip about the amazing, incredible, fantastic things happening amongst the local Christians.
A third question occurs to me: Why is the church (in general) today such an insipid shadow of what we see in the Bible? And a fourth question: Can we do anything about it? Can the church be amazing again?
It seems to me that what the Bible shows is that it is the presence of God that makes people’s jaws drop. It is when people see something beyond what they see anywhere else in society. It is the supernatural, not the natural. I suggested the biblical examples fall primarily into three categories: miracles, words (of incredible wisdom or incredible authority), and transformed character. All of that is supernatural. Miracles, by definition, are the work of God. That sort of wisdom and authority is beyond anything human. When the people were amazed by Jesus teaching it was because He taught not like the teachers of the Law (Mt 7:28-29). When the people questioned where Jesus (not trained by a rabbi) got such learning, Jesus replied, “My teaching is not my own. It comes from the One who sent me” (Jn 7:16). Some people are clever with words than others but words that come from God have extraordinary power.
The fact that the crowds often were amazed and praised God, indicates that they knew they had just experienced God. Sometimes they even concluded that the human involved was a god.
The third category was “transformed character”. It was the sort of radical change (Saul the persecutor to Paul the evangelist) or the unbelievable character qualities (Jesus’ willingness to walk the path of obedience to His death in Jerusalem or his silence before Pilate) that amazed. We could label those three categories “the power of God”, “the word of God” and “the people of God”.
Too often our churches are simply human and our communities are unimpressed. They don’t even notice the church, or care. We cannot rival the entertainment the world provides. People will not be blown away by our services or our buildings or our fairs or potluck lunches. The world can do better in all of those areas. Even in the areas of caring for the disadvantaged or for the environment, the world often does much better than the church. What is there about the church that leaves people speechless with wonder?
The Acts 3 account of the healing of the man at the Temple talks four times about people being amazed.
Acts 3:9-10 When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognised him as the same man who used to sit begging at the temple gate called Beautiful, and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.
Acts 3:11 While the man held onto Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade.
Acts 3:12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “People of Israel, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we made this man walk?
The forth one is part of this story but comes in the next chapter. Peter and John were arrested and taken before the Sanhedrin. “By what power or what name did you do this?”
Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said that the man had been healed by the name of Jesus, whom these leaders had crucified. Peter accused them of having crucified the Messiah. Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.
Acts 4:13 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realised they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus.
In this one incident we have a miracle; we have the Holy Spirit inspired words of Peter, and we have a reference to their transformed character. What can we learn from this? How can we be amazing?
- The church is meant to be amazing
Peter questioned why the crowd was surprised. Wouldn’t you be amazed if a man lame from birth had been healed? But Peter says, “No, this is normal. Jesus has been healing people for the last three years. Why wouldn’t his church just carry on doing the same things? Don’t be amazed if the church of Jesus Christ is amazing. Being amazing is normal. Why are you surprised?”
- Ordinary Christians can be amazing
Peter and John were nothing special. In fact, if we have read the gospels, we have seen how ordinary they were. They say to this crowd, “Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we made this man walk? We didn’t do it. Jesus did.” The power is not in the people but in Jesus so even ordinary people can be amazing.
And yet, in other ways, they were anything but normal, of course. What made them different?
- They imitated Jesus
They simply did what Jesus had done. Jesus had healed people so they healed people. The Christian who imitates Jesus will be very different from the run-of-the-mill church member. But imitating is exactly what we are commanded to do. Followers follow. Disciples become like their teacher. Who knows what might happen if Christians imitated Jesus. Peter and John did. How about we imitate Jesus?
- They were filled with the Holy Spirit
We might be inclined to say that being like Jesus is impossible, and it is except for one thing: the Holy Spirit makes it possible. This incident happened soon after Pentecost. Peter and John were filled with the Spirit. They would not have said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” prior to their having received power when the Holy Spirit had come on them. The church needs to be filled with the Holy Spirit if it is to be more than a human organisation.
- They had faith
They believed that God would act. They took a huge risk. They risked looking like fools. They risked their lives, but there is a not a hint of fear here. They believed God was going to heal and they trusted Him to keep them safe. God has given every Christian at least one spiritual gift – a supernatural gift – but how many have the faith to use their gifts? And yet, it is those gifts that are likely to amaze.
- They had been with Jesus
The leaders were astonished that these uneducated men spoke with such courage and authority. The thing they noted was that they had been with Jesus. What had made them who they were? Being with Jesus.
I suspect that, to survive, the church needs to be more than ordinary. It needs to be amazing. The church needs to be where people are stunned because they encounter God Himself. What do you think?
What if the people of a church asked “How can we be amazing?” Maybe they would conclude:
- We can be amazing. The church is meant to be amazing
- Ordinary Christians can be amazing. You and I can be amazing – because God is amazing.
- We can be amazing, if we imitate Jesus
- We can be amazing, if we are filled with the Holy Spirit
- We can be amazing if we have faith and we exercise it
- We will be amazing if we have spent time with Jesus. That is where it started for Peter and John.