NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–I grew up near Randleman, N.C. That location may not ring any bells with you if you aren’t a NASCAR fan, but for those who follow stock car racing, they may recognize it as the original location of Petty Enterprises — which it was during my childhood. In those days, before racing became such a big business, it was possible to go by the Petty garage and see what was going on.
If you were there at the right moment, you might see them unload a crate containing one of the powerful “hemi” engines that powered the Plymouths that Richard Petty drove. That engine was unloaded from the crate, dismantled, tested, tweaked and mounted in one of the Petty blue racing machines.
During his prime, Petty was the most dominating driver on the circuit. One year he created quite a stir when the words, “powered by Plymouth” painted on the side of his car were replaced with “powered by Petty.” Apparently, he was attempting to be more accurate about the power plant under the hood of his car. By the time his mechanics finished with that stock engine, it was substantially different than when it arrived in the crate. Thus the words “powered by Petty” seemed most appropriate.
What would we write on the side of our church? Is its source of power its programs, organizations and staff? We often act as if that’s the case, and the results are clear when we look at the lack of vitality and growth displayed by the average church in America. What would happen if we wrote “Powered by the Cross” across the wall and began to appropriate the power made available by Christ for the launching of the church as the instrument of Kingdom advance? Would we see greater vitality? More baptisms? Greater levels of commitment? Sacrificial levels of giving?
THE POWER OF PROMISE
Speculation concerning the identity of Jesus was reaching a fevered pitch as messianic expectation grew. The miraculous signs that Jesus accomplished had caused some to believe that Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah. In truth, some of their notions of what the Messiah might be and do for them were more political and militaristic in nature than those Jesus would espouse. Nonetheless, excitement was mounting and the crowds were growing in size.
The religious establishment was troubled by the growing popularity of Jesus. Matthew 16 tells us that the Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus with a request for a sign from heaven to test Him. Jesus refused to perform a miracle and told them that the only sign that would be given was the sign of Jonah. This reference to the Old Testament prophet who spent three days and nights in the belly of a whale was a prophetic reference to His pending death and resurrection.
With this background, Jesus asked His disciples concerning what people were saying about Him: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is? (Matthew 16:13). They were rattling off the various suggestions being made, when Jesus confronted them with the question of the hour: “But you, who do you say that I am?” Peter, the spokesman of the twelve dared to articulate what they had come to believe — “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16).
Jesus not only confirmed the identification, which had been made known to them by the Father; He then revealed His plan for advancing His Kingdom throughout the earth. His daring strategy was to redeem a called-out community (church) that would be given such power and authority that the gates of Hades could not stand against it. This church would be given the keys of the Kingdom, enabling it to have an eternal impact.
But there is more. Matthew states it this way: “From then on Jesus began to point out to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day (Matthew 16:21). Now that the disciples knew His true identity and His plan for advancing His kingdom throughout the earth, He could tell them about His coming death and resurrection.
It may seem a bit incongruous to mention the triumphant church in one breath and His death in the next. At least, it did to Peter. Thus, Peter took Jesus aside and rebuked Him, indicating that death and victory did not seem compatible. But it was precisely the death and resurrection of Jesus which provided the victorious launch of the church in its Kingdom activity.
We must now fast-forward to the end of Matthew’s Gospel. The events of the passion have now unfolded before their very eyes. Jesus spends His last Passover on earth with these men who are to be instrumental in establishing His Kingdom community. He again reminds them that the time of His crucifixion is near. He gives them the sad news that all of them will fall away and be scattered because of Him (Matthew 26:31).
As painful as this news must have been to those early disciples, Jesus assures them that the crucifixion is not the end of the story. “But after I have been resurrected, I will go ahead of you to Galilee” (Matthew 26:32). The resurrection is an accomplished fact in the sovereign plan of God, and thus, Jesus refers to it to assure them that He will meet with them again in Galilee in a few days.
Following His resurrection, the disciples obediently gather in Galilee at the mountain which Jesus had designated (Matthew 28:16). When they see Him, their first response is to worship Him, the resurrected and triumphant King. Jesus tells them that the events of the crucifixion and resurrection will have far-reaching eternal consequences. “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). You may recall that Jesus’ ministry began as the Devil offered Him all the kingdoms of the earth (Matthew 4:8). Now by virtue of His obedience to follow the way of the cross, He has been given far more — all authority in heaven and earth.
The power forms the foundation for the commission to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). It must have sounded incomprehensible that such a small group of believers could have a global and eternal impact. Yet the book of Acts gives us compelling and convincing evidence that this small group of unlearned and untrained men turned the known world upside down. It was the promise that He would be with them always to the end of the age, which assured them that they could succeed in the task set before them.
The book of Acts picks up the story. Luke tells us that Jesus provided many convincing proofs concerning His resurrection and taught them concerning His Kingdom (Acts 1:3). Nevertheless, He does not yet allow them to engage in this venture of expanding the Kingdom. He commands them to wait for what the Father had promised, the baptism with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4-5). The Holy Spirit will be God living in them, empowering them to accomplish the task set before them in the power of the resurrected Lord.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, the Spirit descended on them in power, and their witness and preaching resulted in the gathered crowds hearing the Gospel in their own language. This advance of the Kingdom to the ends of the earth was inaugurated with the power unleashed by the cross.
But the story doesn’t end with the book of Acts. It continues in your church today. The promise has become reality, the power of the resurrected Christ has been given, and the purpose of advancing the Kingdom has become our responsibility.
Are we willing to appropriate the power and assume our responsibility for the reaching of the nations? The Acts 1:8 imperative has not been completed, and the power of the cross is still available to you and your church today. Will we become Kingdom-centered churches and do our part to complete the task?
We are living in days of great opportunity. The financial meltdown we have experienced has reminded us that we are dependent on God for daily bread. The world around us is looking for answers. Will we walk through this door of opportunity powered by the Gospel of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?
Kenneth S. Hemphill is the SBC’s national strategist for Empowering Kingdom Growth.