New year’s resolutions, despite the fact that many are ditched within the first few weeks of January, still have an attraction that many find irresistible. Part of that attraction no doubt lies in the possibility that we can make a few decisions, which if we stick by, will change our lives at least for the course of the year before us. If you are not sure how to make a new year’s resolution, new year’s resolution generators can be found aplenty on the internet! They sound like a grand invention. What they actually boil down to is a statement that you have to complete – something like: “This year I want to _____________ (fill in the blank).
There is always the temptation for a pastor’s first sermon of a new year to sound just a little like a kind of new year’s resolution, or even a string of them: This year this church will_______ (fill in the blank). And sometimes there isn’t just one blank to fill in! And usually it is something to do with the church growing and attaining more influence. No bad thing.
I don’t know how the church in Galilee, Judea and Samaria developed the lifestyle that they had. It is just a little hard to believe that it was the result of a new year sermon. Never the less, the churches referred to in Acts 9.31 were flourishing. Not just one in a particular place. All of them throughout the region mentioned were in a season of growing in strength and growing numerically.
Two characteristics in particular demand our attention.
Firstly, they were encouraged by the Holy Spirit. A good biblical expositor could write reams on this. A couple of points are worth mentioning.
Being encouraged by the Holy Spirit indicates that all of these churches had got it into their collective minds that God was for them. They were confident of the Spirit’s support in their walk and witness. The outcome was a climate of encouragement.
Conviction about the Spirit’s support and a climate of encouragement are key factors in the growth of any church. And they usually come about as we allow the Spirit to encourage others through us.
A second feature of these churches that demands our attention, is that they lived in the fear of the Lord.
The fear of the Lord does not receive a lot of air time these days. Yet throughout the Old Testament, and here, it is considered a very basic component of our relationship with God.
In fairness, the concept has probably been overlooked because of an imbalanced and sometimes legalistic way in which it has been taught in the past.
It should go without saying that such fear is not the same as being too frightened to draw near to God. That would be to turn New Testament teaching on its head. Better to understand it as a deep reverence and respect for God that results from knowing Him.
Even understood in this way, it is still easy to think of the fear of the Lord as something like an over active conscience that acts as a brake on sin. However, when you turn to the pages of the Old Testament, especially Psalms and Proverbs you find a different picture. Even a quick trawl through a word search in an online concordance will reveal that those who fear the Lord set themselves up for incredible blessing. For a start, it is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1.7) and the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 9.10; Psalm 111.10).
With a climate of encouragement and a deep reverence for God, it’s little wonder the early church grew. Listen to the way The Message brings out the flavour of this verse:
All over the country—Judea, Samaria, Galilee—the church grew. They were permeated with a deep sense of reverence for God. The Holy Spirit was with them, strengthening them. They prospered wonderfully. (Acts 9.31 MSG)
So if you really are making resolutions for the year ahead. Or you are a bit stuck, why not write “encouragement” and “reverence” into what you aspire to in the year before us? And if you don’t do resolutions, why not make a growing climate of encouragement and a deepening reverence for God your prayers for the this year? That really could change your life.
My prayer for you and for the church in the year ahead is that we will prosper wonderfully just like the church of nearly two thousand years ago.