One definition of grace is: God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
One thing that is very obvious, when we read the Bible, is that very often people do what they are not capable of. Very often, God uses very ordinary people – people from humble beginnings or people who felt inadequate. We could list dozens of examples. It seems that God’s prefers to work through very ordinary people. God did what the person himself/herself could not have done.
Think of Moses – born to oppressed Jewish slaves in Egypt; a murderer who had to flee the country. And think of all his excuses when God called him: Who am I to do this? What if they don’t believe me? What if they don’t listen to me? What if they deny that You have spoken to me? I am not a good speaker. And then, when he had run out of excuses, he just said, “Please send someone else.” You know, in that story, Moses never actually said that he would do what God was asking him to do. It simply ends with God getting angry and telling Moses, “You will do it.” Moses was neither able nor willing.
And yet, God used Him in what was perhaps the biggest miracle the world has ever seen other than the resurrection – the parting of the Red Sea and the deliverance of the whole nation of Israel out of Egypt. Think of all the other miracles performed in Egypt or while traveling through the desert.
Moses didn’t have a lot of natural ability or qualifications but what spiritual gifts would you say God gave him? Maybe leadership, miracles, intercession… Grace: God did what Moses couldn’t.
Think of David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons and a shepherd – so insignificant that, when the prophet Samuel arrived to anoint the next king, no one thought to even invite David to the occasion. The rest of the family was there! Not David! And yet he became the greatest king Israel ever saw.
Did God give the shepherd boy supernatural (beyond the natural) abilities? Maybe faith, leadership (especially military success), wisdom, humility…
Think of the disciples. There was a bunch of losers if ever there was one – slow to understand, slow to believe, self-centred, always saying the wrong things, uneducated tradesmen. And yet, they did incredible things and became the foundation on which the church was built.
Think of the disciples when there was a crowd of 5000 hungry men. Jesus told them to feed the crowd. They had absolutely no idea what to do. They failed but Jesus still used them. The bread and fish multiplied in their hands. How exciting! Did they expect that? No way! God did what they couldn’t.
Think of the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Did they go into that day thinking, “Right! Here’s the plan. We’ll take advantage of the crowd in Jerusalem right now. How about we get their attention by all speaking in different languages that we have never learnt and then Peter will preach this amazing sermon; they will be convicted; we will call them to repent and be baptised. Without a doubt, thousands will repent and we will start a church that will grow and spread to every nation”? Did they have that sort of confidence in their own ability? They had no standing, no ability but thousands were converted and the church was born and did spread throughout the world. Grace: God did what they couldn’t.
Most of us are fairly ordinary people. Could God do things through us that we cannot do ourselves? Maybe that is a hard question because we see these things in the Bible but not in our experience. We hear about Christianity exploding in the third world and amazing things happen. But not in New Zealand. Do we have any expectation of God working in power in our place?
In the Bible, spiritual gifts are called “grace gifts”, “charismata”. Through the grace gifts, God enables people to do what they could not do by themselves. As we have seen, over the last few weeks, God gives some spiritual gift, or gifts, to each Christian – to every member of the body (Rom 12:5-6; 1 Cor 12:7-11, 13). God enables every Christian with some sort of ability that is not natural for that person. Some are very dramatic gifts, like healing or prophecy, or miracles. Some are not, like maybe hospitality or wisdom or helping. Nevertheless, when a spiritual gift is used, there is the recognition that God is at work.
What did Jesus say about spiritual gifts? Nothing! Well, that’s not quite true! He didn’t label them “spiritual gifts” but He modelled the use of a wide range of spiritual gifts and He expected people to imitate Him. He gave the disciples authority to cast out demons and heal the sick. He used them to distribute the bread and fish to the crowd of 5000. When He washed the disciples’ feet, was Jesus exercising the spiritual gift of serving, that is, serving in a God-empowered, life-changing way? Yes? And then He told the disciples to do exactly the same thing.
In Matthew 19, Jesus seems to say that some people are gifted by God to be celibate.
But there is much more obvious teaching from Jesus.
John 14:12 Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.
That is a mind-boggling verse, but let’s not let our boggled minds prevent us from listening to what Jesus said.
“Very truly I tell you…” Jesus is absolutely emphasising this. Listen up! This is important!
“All who have faith in me”. This is true of every Christian. The only requirement is faith.
“will do the works that I have been doing”. According to Jesus, every person who has faith will do the same sorts of things He did. That might boggle our minds if it isn’t our regular experience but it does seem clear, doesn’t it, that Jesus’ expectation was that His followers would do the same things He had done. And you know what? His followers did do the same things.
“and even greater things than these”. Oh my goodness! If doing what Jesus did is mind-boggling, doing even greater things is… I don’t know what it is! Can we even take it seriously? The general understanding, I think, is that Jesus is talking about the church as a whole, spread throughout the world. More would be done than He was able to do, limited to one location and a short time. If that is the case, again the expectation is that the church will be doing the sorts of things that Jesus did.
“Because I am going to the Father”. That’s odd! You will do these things because I am going to the Father. That could mean that Jesus’ ministry was being passed to the church. “I won’t be here so the mantle is passed to you.”
Or it could mean that Jesus’ going to the Father would occasion the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. A lot of John 14, 15 and 16 (i.e. the context of John 14:12) is about the Holy Spirit.
John 16:7 But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate [or, the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you.
This is the key to the whole thing. Can we do what Jesus did? Or what Moses, David, or the Apostles did? No. Can the Holy Spirit? Can the Holy Spirit still do these same thing? Is God still capable of touching people’s lives in powerful ways? Is God still capable of healing? Is God still capable of giving someone just the right words for the occasion – words that heal or words that encourage or words that convict?
Jesus also said,
Acts 1:8 You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Christians, you will receive Holy Spirit power enabling you to be part of God’s mission to the world.
Let’s finish with an example. READ Acts 6:1-8. [Go to next slide i.e. vv.1-4]
Who on earth was Stephen? He pops up out of nowhere. All we know is that he was a disciple. When there was a dispute about the Greek widows missing out in the distribution of food, the Twelve had to find a solution. Should they distribute food? No! That was not what God had called them to or gifted them for. Their ministry was different. This is what the body is about – different parts with different functions. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.” They could do it. It might even have been easier that teaching the scriptures but it was not what God had called them to, and it would be wrong for them to do it.
So, what qualifications did they look for in those who would distribute this food? Did they need to have a driver’s licence? Did they need to be wealthy or educated? Did they need a diploma? Were they high-profile in the church? No. They needed to be disciples; they needed to be followers of Jesus. They needed to be men. I am not at all sure why that was because lots of women exercise various ministries in the scriptures. But for some reason, God wanted men for this role. More importantly, the church was to look for men “full of the Spirit and wisdom”.
This was a welfare, or pastoral care, role. All it entailed was distributing food to needy widows. Surely anybody can do that. I guess, on one level, anybody could do that but the Apostles said, “No, this is not just a job; this is a ministry. To minister in the name of Jesus, people need to be filled with the Spirit and, for this role, they need wisdom. And so, seven godly men were chosen.
The result was rather surprising! Look at v.7. So, the word of God spread; the number of disciples increased rapidly and many priests were converted. How does that result from this food distribution plan? Maybe the word of God spread because the Apostles were freed to focus on that. But maybe it also spread rapidly because these meals-on-wheels men were spreading it. They were talking as they went from house to house. That is the value of the body working well. That is the value of having Spirit-empowered people, suitably gifted, engaged in the ministries that God has called them to.
Clearly, Stephen did far more than just deliver food. He was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit but v.8 also described him as being “full of God’s grace and power” and performing great wonders and signs.
As far as we can tell, they were just ordinary people who had faith in Jesus and were filled with the Spirit. Nothing in this passage tell us that Stephen was powerful or influential. Was he capable of great signs and wonders? No, he was full of God’s grace and power. He was full of God doing what He could not do.
In all of these instances, the ability came from God. When Moses said, “I can’t”, God said, “But I can. Are you willing?” Moses wasn’t willing. God proved His power through the various signs that He showed Moses, but still Moses wasn’t willing to be God’s servant – until the very end. He was very slow to yield to God but look at how God used him, when he did. God works through very ordinary people who are willing to trust Him and willing to be used by Him.
I think this raises two questions for us. Do we believe that God is able? This is a question of faith. Do we believe that God is able? It is not a question of our ability. God isn’t asking if we are able. He knows we are not able. Our ability is not the point. Grace is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. The first question is: Do we believe that God is able?
But God does ask us the second question: Are we willing? Are we willing to let God work through us? If God said, “I want to give you the spiritual gift of leadership” could you say, “Lord, I am available. Use me. I have no idea about leadership but I hear you saying You will enable me. OK, use me.” Or, if He wants to give you the gift of healing, are you able to say, “I cannot heal but you can. OK, I am willing for you to do that”? What are your answers to those two questions?