Is the Tone of My Life Honey or Vinegar to the World?
Tasting the sweetness of God's mercies in Jesus will make all the difference.
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The Sixth System Setting
This is the sixth and final system setting in our Church Reboot series as we study Acts 2:42-47 for a guide to what a healthy and growing church looks like, giving us the opportunity to reset ourselves as a church as we restart in a post-COVID-world.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The final line of this text provides commentary on what happened to a church where all six system settings were operating at optimum capacity. A devotion to the apostles’ doctrine fueled a commitment to pursue authentic fellowship in the local church in which they were devoted to dependent prayer with an expectant faith that overflowed in practical love. This was a healthy church.
If we think about this from a farmer’s point of view, we can see why the Lord would add so many new believers to the community. It was healthy soil that would be a conducive environment for the nurture of growing believers.
As far as we know, the church in Jerusalem didn’t have a marketing budget. They didn’t pass out flyers or buy ads on Facebook to promo their services. It doesn’t look like they had any kind of organized evangelism plan at all, except to be the church.
Furthermore, we don’t read that the growth of the church was due to their ability to win intellectual arguments. There is a place for theological and philosophical debate. But what compelled unbelievers to lean in and listen to the message about Jesus wasn’t the rightness of the doctrine but the tone of the believer’s lives. They were a joyful, welcoming, open-handed community. And the Lord saw fit to bless them with increasing conversions.
One of my favorite quotes on what it looks like to be the church is from Marva Dawn in her book, A Royal Waste of Time, where she writes,
“Being Church means following a way of life… as we go about our daily lives—to work, to the grocery store, to school, to the neighbor’s house for tea—we live the gospel. We speak it freely… We incarnate it. We display a joy in following Jesus and his Way that invites our neighbors to consider the truth of his life in us.”
There is nothing inherently wrong about a marketing budget, buying Facebook ads, or evangelism plans. With a desire to reach people with the gospel, we will use whatever means the Lord provides. But the secret sauce of mission as we live as ambassadors of Jesus for the world just might be the display of joy, which is the sixth system setting—contagious joy.
Not Just What We Say but How We Say It
I am using the word “contagious” because the text indicates in verse 46 that there was something compelling about the community’s tone. By tone, we are talking about how the believers were received by those who did not yet believe in Jesus as the crucified and risen Messiah.
My preaching professor in seminary was Bryan Chappell. Of all his lectures, advice, and instruction, there is one statement that stands out as one of the most significant lessons I learned under his tutelage. He said, “When preaching, it is not just what you say but how you say it.”
I think the same goes for ordinary conversation and for how we engage on social media.
Does this mean we avoid saying hard things? No, not at all. Remember, it is not just what you say but how you say it. We are supposed to speak the truth. But in love. I can speak of hell with an arrogant, condescending tone or I can speak of hell with a voice of concern, love, and trepidation, knowing hell is what I deserve apart from the shed blood of Jesus. I can speak of cultural sin as if I am immune or I can confess my own participation in the kinds of sins the church so easily condemns by confessing my need for grace as a fellow sinner.
The difference is not truth but tone.
The apostle Paul was equally as concerned about tone, especially when it comes to speaking to folks outside the church. In Colossians 4:3-6, he writes,
“3And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. 4Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. 5Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. 6Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.”
His concern was not only that he speak accurately, but also graciously. Not as a proud, braggadocious, self-righteous preacher but as a humble, grace-needy sinner who speaks as it were from the foot of the cross. That posture is where we all are called to reside, especially as we engage with the world, because according to Paul, every believer is to engage the world with a tone that is “full of grace.” Or as Peter writes, we are to “give a gentle answer” to those who inquire about the hope we have as disciples of Jesus.
People who are hopeful also tend to manifest joy, don’t they? Those two virtues seem to be tied together and related to faith and peace. Hope, joy, faith, and peace are inextricably connected.
This begs a question.
How many of us have had someone ask us to explain our hope or inquire about our joy or peace? I don’t recall anyone ever asking me that. What does this say about my tone to the world?
It might indicate that my hopeful joy meter is low, which probably is evidence that I’m not consciously abiding in Jesus by faith as my justifier. I’m probably abiding in something else. Like being right about my opinions and winning arguments.
But Jesus says that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, which is produced in the believer as he or she abides in Jesus by faith as Justifier—as the one whose blood was shed to forgive sin and whose record of perfect moral obedience to the law is now credited to the believer’s spiritual account. Put simply, if I am not manifesting a palpable, hopeful joy, it is likely I am not living functionally as a believer. In that case, I am a Christian “in name only.”
To be clear, I can lack joy and still be saved. I’m not saved by my joyfulness. I’m saved by Jesus.
Nevertheless, a lack of joy may reveal that I am not consciously living in view of the cross. With the cross out of view, rather than being led by the Spirit, I am more susceptible to being influenced by the flesh.
In his letter to Christians in the churches he had founded in Galatia (a region that today is southern Turkey), the apostle Paul would ask in Galatians 4:15, “What has happened to all your joy?” Upon receiving the message of Christ crucified to reconcile sinners to God, the Galatian believers had been overjoyed.
But something had happened. They began to bicker, argue, complain, and fight amongst themselves. Their joy had been stolen by a legalistic spirit that removed the cross as the central, defining truth of their lives.
Some of us are a lot like the Galatians. Our joy, like a campfire, has burned down to a few remaining embers. The fire isn’t out completely. But it badly needs to be restocked and restored.
I know this has true in my life more times than I can count and pray that the Spirit will begin to blow on those embers even now, awakening us in this moment to the present value of Jesus’ blood.
We call this revival.
Distinguishing Worldly Happiness and Spiritual Joy
For those of us who are, in the words of Joseph Hart’s 18th-century hymn, “weary, heavy laden, bruised, and broken by the fall,” it may be important for us to distinguish spiritual joy from worldly happiness. Happiness is largely determined by our outward circumstances. I’m happy if the weather is nice, my bank account is padded, my health is stable, my stomach is full, my children are well, and my team wins.
Conversely, joy is not dependent upon outward circumstances. For example, Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is known as the epistle of joy. But he didn’t write Philippians while on vacation at Hilton Head beachfront condo. He penned his joyful exhortation from within the walls of a Roman prison.
In a similar vein, James 1:2-3 records the apostle writing,
“2 Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
The author of Hebrews in the New Testament reminds wavering believers about how they had previously endured hardship and persecution with joyful confidence in the promises of God. He says in Hebrews 10:32-34,
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.
They “joyfully accepted the confiscation of their property.” What? How could they count the loss of possessions joy?
They were being severely persecuted by government authorities for the sake of their association with Jesus. This wasn’t an American version of persecution but real, honest to goodness, Roman-style persecution. Apparently, the persecuted believers took to heart the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, who said,
“11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
They persecuted believers didn’t protest or demand their rights. Their faces were not sour nor were their fists raised in anger. They counted it a privilege to be so identified with Jesus that the government would want to shut them down.
This doesn’t mean we should stand around and let fellow believers around the world be mistreated. We are called to aid the oppressed, whether believers or unbelievers. That is a simple issue of justice.
But can you imagine how ordinary citizens would have been impacted by the spirit of the Christians having their property confiscated? A people counting it joy to suffer for the Savior with gladness? Not suffering as stoics or protesters but as those who were confident in future glory that would far outweigh any trial they may have to face in this life.
After all, the most intense trial had already been sustained by Jesus, and for him, with joy as well. For we read in Hebrews 12:2-3,
“2Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”
The point in all of these texts is that joy is not dependent upon outward circumstances. With eyes of faith fixed on Jesus, we can face the most severe trial with the kind of joy that is woven with strands of hope, peace, and contentment.
Honey vs. Vinegar
Let’s get back to the issue of tone and why the “flavor” of the early Christians was so appealing and compelling for the unbelievers in their community. By flavor, I am referring to the old adage, “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” Rather than catch flies, we are seeking to influence sinners with grace. Not with vinegar but with honey.
As a theological reminder, the church does not exist for itself. We are not to be a holy huddle that gathers to escape from the world. We are a lighthouse of grace that exists to cast light into the darkness—to influence unbelievers with the message of the cross. As ambassadors of King Jesus, we are not called to defeat the world but to win the world.
And the way we win is not with vinegar but with honey.
So, how do you think unbelievers would characterize the tone of the church in our day? Are we a joyful, humble, thankful people? Or do we come across as proud, self-righteous, and angry?
Let’s get more specific. How would people characterize you? If they were to read your Twitter or Facebook feed or mine, how would they feel? What would their visceral reaction be? Would the flavor taste sweet or sour?
We read in verse 47 that the reaction of the unbelievers to the lives of the Christians was “favor.” The general public really liked Christians. And who wouldn’t?
Just as they had freely received from the Lord, they gave to anyone who had need. Their hands were not clinched in defiance but open with gospel generosity. It is no wonder that the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem were struck by the power of kindness among the Christians.
Not only that, but the believers were distinctively joyful. They were not angry but glad. And their gladness became a bridge over which many would be introduced to Jesus.
A Gem on the Emerald Coast
In 1981, a new community was developed on the Florida panhandle between Destin and Panama City. Given the name Seaside, it is a pedestrian-friendly, planned community with traditional wood-framed cottages that became famous as the backdrop to the movie, The Truman Show. For those who visited, it became the prized gem on the Emerald Coast.
All the homes and shops were painted in pastels. Blues, greens, yellows, colors that created an emotional fragrance of tranquility. It felt fresh and… pleasant. The perfect spot to rest a weary soul. The town quickly became a subject of study for architectural schools around the country and became a major draw for vacationers around the world.
The same thing was true of the Christian community in Acts 2. There was a contagious joy that compelled unbelievers to join not only their table fellowship but their faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Their gladness had built a bridge that unbelievers couldn’t resist crossing.
A Rescued People
I desperately long for my life, like theirs, to be characterized by a tone of gladness and joy. But it will do no good to just try harder. Joy is not a fruit of human effort but is a gift of grace that we receive when we abide in Jesus as Justifier. This makes my next step on the journey — our next step together — to be a renewal of confidence in the power of God to save. To justify completely sinners like you and me.
Joy is not the result of effort but is a response to mercy. If I were a castaway on a deserted island, dying of starvation and loneliness, I expect that being rescued by a passing ship would move me to tears, gratitude, and exuberant joy. Rather than wasting away, I’d get to live a new life. It would be as if I were born again.
And after the rescue, do you think I’d complain about anything anymore? It certainly would not be consistent with the mercy I’d received. There would be no comparison to my before and after condition. Everything in my post-rescue life would be grace for which I would hope to give thanks without ceasing.
When God saves, he rescues like that. Not from a deserted island but from something much worse. To think about what my sins deserve and to compare that to what the cross provides.
What if I could live with a conscious awareness of that rescue?
That is what I want us to do right now. Even if for a moment to focus and dwell on the promises of God in Jesus. Because of the substitution of Jesus as my sin-bearer, there is no more condemnation. God is now my Abba, Father. Upon my physical death, the curtain to my eternal existence will be pulled back and I will be ushered into what Psalm 16:11 calls “the fullness of joy.”
Can you taste the sweetness that is the honey of God’s steadfast love—the kindness that will flavor our eternal experience in the presence of Jesus? The fullness of joy. Being welcomed by the Father with open arms.
When I taste the sweetness, it will change my life from vinegar into honey.
May the world, our families and neighbors, feel that open-handed welcome from us and be compelled to become part of the community that is loved by Jesus—who for the joy set before him endured the cross for us.
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