How long is three hundred years? If we talk in approximate terms, that is the difference between the year 1700 and the year 2000. What happened near the year 1700? The year 1692 was the year of the Salem witchcraft trials. In 1701 a man pulled his boat up on bank of the Detroit River to establish a fur trading outpost. That spot is now the location of the Civic Center in downtown Detroit.

What did not exist in 1700? Virtually nothing that you use in your everyday life. Nothing that directly impacts your daily life existed in 1700. This nation was not even a nation in 1700.

  1. The church that Jesus brought into existence was the most unusual world religion that existed for almost three hundred years.
    1. "What was so unusual about the first three hundred years of the church?"
      1. Christians existed all over the Mediterranean world [and beyond], but no other religious group anywhere in the world was like them.
      2. Christians:
        1. Did not own any buildings that were used for religious assemblies.
        2. Did not build temples like the other religions.
        3. Had no priesthood who served in temples.
        4. Had no holy places where they gathered.
        5. Offered no sacrifices.
      3. No matter how many thousand Christians lived in a city, no matter how huge the city was, they did not have or do those things.
      4. In the beginning they had leaders that they called elders, or bishops, or presbyters, but these were spiritually mature men whose primary work was to serve and care for Christians by providing spiritual leadership.
        1. They were not authoritarians who controlled the church.
        2. They were not gifted business men who cared for church business.
        3. By today's standards, there was no business to take care of since there were no buildings and no properties.
      5. These Christians, who were the church, were not like us.
        1. If a group of them could visit with us this morning, everything we do would be very strange to them.
        2. They met in homes without Bibles or song books or literature; printing had not been invented, and the majority could not read.
        3. The songs we sing are not the songs they sung.
        4. Our music was not their music; four part harmony did not exist.
        5. I seriously doubt that we do anything as they did it, and I seriously doubt they did things in the same manner in the different parts of their world.
    2. Jesus Christ definitely build his church.
      1. He did not build it while he was alive, but his death did not prevent him from building it.
        Matthew 16:16-18 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it." (The New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update, La Habra, California: The Lockman Foundation, 1996.)
        1. Jesus built his church upon the truth that he is the Christ, the Son of the living God.
        2. By God's guidance, Peter announced to the Jewish world and to the non-Jewish world that Jesus was the Christ.
        3. The church came into existence after Jesus' resurrection, but not even crucifixion stopped him from building his church.
      2. The church belongs to Jesus, and only to Jesus.
        1. Paul told the elders from Ephesus in Acts 20:28 that Jesus purchased it with his own blood.
        2. He told the Ephesian congregation in Ephesians 1:22,23 that Jesus Christ is the head over all things to the church, and the church is his body.

  2. When you hear the word church, what do you think?
    1. Most of us think of a building when we think of the church.
      1. We quickly explain that the church is the people and not the building.
      2. But the truth is that when we think of the West-Ark Church of Christ we think about a building where Christians gather at 900 North Waldron Road in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
        1. We think of ministries, activities, and assemblies that are associated with this building.
        2. How can you have a church if you don't have a building? an address? assemblies and activities?
    2. Is it not obvious that when the Christians in the New Testament heard the word "church" that they did not think of a building, or programs, or assemblies?
      1. They did not have buildings.
      2. Their assemblies occurred in small groups in homes.
      3. But the word church obviously meant something when they thought about it.
        1. They thought about a family of people who belonged to Jesus Christ.
        2. They thought about a spiritual community of believers that Jesus the Christ sustained, guided, nurtured, and nourished.
      4. The church was not a nation like Israel was a nation.
      5. The church was not a religious institution like the pagan temples.
      6. The church was simply the "called out" people, the people who were called to belong to God by following Jesus Christ.
        1. That was the meaning of the word translated church: "the called out."
        2. These were the people who trusted the Christ that God sent.
        3. These were the people who willingly gave their lives to the Christ because he died for their sins.
        4. These were the people who let Jesus Christ be Lord of their lives.
        5. They were called out from everything that opposed God.
        6. They were called into the forgiveness and the salvation of the Christ.
    3. "I don't understand how that worked."
      1. "There were thousands and thousands of Christians."
      2. "But there were no buildings, no property, no printing, no Bibles, no collective assemblies, and no institution?"
      3. "I just don't see how that worked."
      4. But it did. There has never been a time in history when Christianity grew as fast, was as strong, or constructively influenced the world more.
    4. "What happened to change this?"
      1. For those first three hundred years Christianity was not a legal religion.
        1. There were times of persecution, but most of the time it was not widespread.
        2. Mostly those were times of intolerance because Christians believed in only one God, and the idolatrous world was deeply offended by that.
        3. But every form of persecution, opposition, and intolerance could not stop the spread of the people who placed their faith in and gave their lives to Jesus the Christ.
      2. Then in 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued an edict of toleration for Christians.
        1. He legalized Christianity.
        2. He also built the first building dedicated to Christian worship.
        3. Almost as soon as it became legal, Christianity began an amazing transformation.
        4. In time it became the ultimate institution dedicated to exercising authority and demanding control.

  3. "But none of those things have anything to do with us." Are you sure?
    1. Which is the more important in your religious life?
      1. To be a person "called out" of a world that does not care about God, who is "called to" follow and serve Jesus Christ?
      2. Or, to be a person who loyally follows "Church of Christ practices?"
    2. I am scared. I am scared that gradually through this last one hundred years that we have convinced ourselves that our desires are God's concerns.
      1. Gradually the focus of the church has shifted to what we want, what we like, what makes us comfortable as it shifted away from Jesus Christ's purposes.
      2. May I meddle a minute? Let me illustrate this by talking about some things that do not matter to God but are of serious importance to us.
      3. As I ask about these things, ask yourself: does this concern our personal desires and comfort, or God's purposes in Jesus?
        1. The time that we assemble? Is that important to you? Why?
        2. The songs that we sing? Is that important to you? Why?
        3. The length of our assembly? Is that important to you? Why
        4. Having anything but preaching when we assemble? Is that important to you? Why?
        5. And these do not even touch the "important things."
      4. Perhaps someone says, "David, you just want what you want."
        1. I have been preaching for 45 years.
        2. I have never worked with a congregation that was "what I wanted;" (that is probably good).
        3. I have worked with a lot of elders, and I have never known an elder who said the church was just what he wanted it to be.
        4. In fact, the elders that I have known that tried the hardest to control the church were the elders who were the unhappiest with the church.

  4. This is a good congregation, and I am honored to be a part of it.
    1. There are so many good things happening here.
      1. So many are involved, so many accept responsibility, so many do wonderful things for Christ privately and quietly.
      2. This is a loving, serving congregation!
      3. An example: your outpouring of love and concern in recent deaths so touched visiting members of families that many were deeply moved by your love, and one person returned home and was baptized.
    2. It is because we are an exceptional congregation; it is because there is so much love here for the Lord and each other; it is because our spiritual potential is enormous; that I want to issue some special challenges.
      1. I am asking you to pray more than you have ever prayed in your life.
      2. I am asking you to have more courage and faith than you have ever had.
      3. "What do you want all of us to do?"
      4. I want us to give the church back to Christ. I want us to be Christ's called out people.
        1. I want us to restore Christianity as it has never been restored here.
        2. I want us to commit ourselves to Christ's purposes in our personal lives.
        3. I want us to commit ourselves to Christ's purposes in the congregation.
        4. I want us to stop letting fear influence our decisions and start letting God use us as only God can.
        5. I want us to stop trying to take care of God, and start trusting God to take care of us.
        6. I want us to stop trusting "us" and start trusting God more deeply than we ever have.
        7. I want us to know with all our hearts that nothing is as important as letting the Christ prepare us and others for eternity.

Prayer: God help us become the "called out." Help us be what Christ died for us to become. Our congregation, our community, our country desperately need your family!

Will you do it? Will you pray as you never prayed before? Will you help give this congregation to Jesus Christ? Will you let God use you to help restore Christianity?

David Chadwell

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 4 April 1999

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