UNITED WE STAND

 

Week of July 1, 2007

 

Bible Verses:  Acts 2:42-47; 4:23-24,29-35.

 

Biblical Truth: Believers demonstrate unity by supporting one another.

 

United in Fellowship:  Acts 2:42-47.

 

[42]  They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. [43]  Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. [44]  And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; [45]  and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. [46]  Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, [47]  praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

 

Luke now shows us the effects of Pentecost by giving us a beautiful little cameo of the Spirit-filled church. What evidence did the early church give of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit?

 

A. It was a learning church. The very first evidence Luke mentions of the Spirit’s presence in the church is that they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching. We note that those new converts were not enjoying a mystical experience which led them to despise their mind or disdain theology. Anti-intellectualism and the fullness of the Spirit are mutually incompatible, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. Nor did those early disciples imagine that, because they had received the Spirit, He was the only teacher they needed and they could dispense with human teachers. On the contrary, they sat at the apostles’ feet, hungry to receive instruction, and they persevered in it. Moreover, the teaching authority of the apostles, to which they submitted, was authenticated by miracles: many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles [43]. The two references to the apostles, in verse 42 (their teaching) and in verse 43 (their miracles), can hardly be an accident. Since the teaching of the apostles has come down to us in its definitive form in the New Testament, contemporary devotion to the apostles’ teaching will mean submission to the authority of the New Testament. A Spirit-filled church is a New Testament church, in the sense that it studies and submits to New Testament instruction. The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.

 

B. It was a loving church. They were continually devoting themselves … to fellowship. Koinonia (fellowship) bears witness to the common life of the church in two senses. First, it expresses what we share in together. This is God Himself, for our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ [1 John 1:3]. And there is the fellowship of the Holy Spirit [2 Cor. 13:14]. Thus koinonia is a Trinitarian experience; it is our common share in God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But secondly, koinonia also expresses what we share out together, what we give as well as what we receive. Koinonia is the word Paul used for the collection he was organizing among the Greek churches [2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13]. It is to this that Luke is particularly referring here, because he goes on at once to describe the way in which these first Christians shared their possessions with one another: all those who had believed were together and had all things in common. Selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need [44-45]. These are disturbing verses. Do they mean that every Spirit-filled believer and community will follow their example literally? Neither Jesus nor His apostles forbade private property to all Christians. It is important to note that even in Jerusalem the sharing of property and possessions was voluntary. According to verse 46, they were breaking bread from house to house. So evidently many still had homes; not all had sold them. It is also noteworthy that the tense of both verbs in verse 45 is imperfect, which indicates that the selling and the giving were occasional, in response to particular needs, not once and for all. Further, the sin of Ananias and Sapphira [Acts 5] was not greed or materialism but deceit; it was not that they had retained part of the proceeds of their sale, but that they had done so while pretending to give it all. At the same time, although the selling and the sharing were and are voluntary, and every Christian has to make conscientious decisions before God in this matter, we are all called to generosity, especially towards the poor and needy. The principle is stated twice in Acts: as anyone might have need [45], and there was not a needy person among them … the money would be distributed to each as any had need [4:34-35]. As John was to write later: whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need and closes his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him? [1 John 3:17]?

 

C. It was a worshipping church. They were continually devoting themselves … to the breaking of bread and to prayer [42]. That is, their fellowship was expressed not only in caring for each other, but in corporate worship too. There are two aspects of the early church’s worship which exemplify its balance. First, it was both formal and informal, for it took place both in the temple and … from house to house [46], which is an interesting combination. It is always healthy when the more formal and dignified services of the local church are complemented with the informality and exuberance of home meetings. There is no need to polarize between the structured and the unstructured, the traditional and the spontaneous, the church needs both. The second example of the balance of the early church’s worship is that it was both joyful and reverent: with gladness and sincerity of heart [46]. Every worship service should be a joyful celebration of the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ. At the same time, their joy was never irreverent. If joy in God is an authentic work of the Spirit, so is the fear of God. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe [43], which seems here to include the Christians as well as the non-Christians. God was in their midst and they knew it. They bowed down before Him in humility and wonder. It is a mistake to imagine that in public worship reverence and rejoicing are mutually exclusive. The combination of joy and awe, as of formality and informality, is a healthy balance in worship.

 

D. It was an evangelistic church [47]. Those first Jerusalem Christians were not so preoccupied with learning, sharing and worshipping, that they forgot about witnessing. For the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit who created a missionary church. Acts is governed by one dominant, overriding and all-controlling motif. This motif is the expansion of the faith through missionary witness in the power of the Spirit. From these earliest believers in Jerusalem we can learn three vital lessons about local church evangelism. First, the Lord Himself did it: the Lord was adding to their number. Doubtless He did it through the preaching of the apostles, the witness of church members, the impressive love of their common life, and their example as they were praising God and having favor with all the people [47a]. Yet He did it. For He is the head of the church. He alone has the prerogative to admit people into its membership and to bestow salvation from His throne. Secondly, what Jesus did was two things together: He was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. He did not add them to the church without saving them, nor did He save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership belonged together. Thirdly, the Lord added people daily. The early church’s evangelism was not an occasional or sporadic activity. Just as their worship was daily, so was their witness. Praise and proclamation were both the natural overflow of hearts full of the Holy Spirit.

 

Looking back over these marks of the first Spirit-filled community, it is evident that they all concerned the church’s relationships. First, they were related to the apostles (in submission). They were eager to receive the apostles’ instruction. A Spirit-filled church is anxious to believe and obey what Jesus and His apostles taught. Secondly, they were related to each other (in love). They persevered in the fellowship, supporting each other and relieving the needs of the poor. A Spirit-filled church is a loving, caring, sharing church. Thirdly, they were related to God (in worship). They worshipped Him in the temple and in the home, in the Lord’s Supper and in the prayers, with joy and with reverence. A Spirit-filled church is a worshipping church. Fourthly, they were related to the world (in outreach). They were engaged in continuous evangelism. A Spirit-filled church is a missionary church.

 

United in Prayer:  Acts 4:23-24,29-31.

 

[23]  When they had been released, they went to their own companions and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. [24]  And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them. [29]  And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence, [30]  while You extend Your hand to heal, and signs and wonders take place through the name of Your holy servant Jesus.” [31]  And when they had prayed, the place where they had gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak the word of God with boldness.

 

Here is the Christian fellowship in action. We have seen the apostles in the Council [19-22]; now we see them in the church. Having been bold in witness, they were equally bold in prayer. They address God as the Sovereign Lord, a term for a ruler of unchallengeable power. The Sanhedrin might utter warnings, threats and prohibitions, and try to silence the church, but their authority was subject to a higher authority still, and the edicts of men cannot overturn the decrees of God. Next we observe that, before the people came to any petition, they filled their minds with thoughts of the divine sovereignty. First, He is the God of creation, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and all that is in them [24]. Secondly, He is the God of revelation, who spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of our father David [25]. Thirdly, He is the God of history, who had caused even His enemies to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur [28]. This, then, was the early church’s understanding of God, the God of creation, revelation and history, whose characteristic actions are summarized by the three verbs made [24], said [25] and predestined [28]. Only now, with their vision of God clarified, and themselves humbled before Him, were they ready at last to pray. Luke tells us their three main requests. The first was the God would take note of their threats [29a]. It was not a prayer that their threats would fall under divine judgment, nor even that they would remain unfulfilled, so that the church would be preserved in peace and safety, but only that God would consider them, would bear them in His mind. The second petition was that God would enable them His bond-servants to speak His Word with all confidence [29b], undeterred by the Council’s prohibition and unafraid of their threats. The third prayer was that God would extend His hand to heal, and to perform signs and wonders … through the name of Your holy servant Jesus [30]. In answer to their united and earnest prayers, (1) the place … was shaken; (2) they were all filled with the Holy Spirit; and (3) in response to their specific request [29], they began to speak the word of God with boldness [31].

 

United in meeting needs  Acts 4:32-35.

 

[32]  And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. [33]  And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. [34]  For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales [35]  and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.

 

Luke has just recorded that, in answer to their prayers, the believers were freshly filled with the Holy Spirit [31]. The immediate result was that they began to speak the word of God with boldness. Thus they ignored the Sanhedrin’s ban, and their witness was characterized by both boldness and power. Luke does not leave it there, however, he is concerned to show that the fullness of the Spirit is manifest in deed as well as word, service as well as witness, love for the family as well as testimony to the world. So, just as after the first coming of the Spirit he describes the characteristics of the Spirit-filled community [2:42-47], so after they are again filled with the Spirit he provides a second description [4:32-37]. Moreover in both cases his emphasis is the same. All the believers formed a closely knit group. They were together [2:44], as they devoted themselves to the fellowship [2:42], and they were of one heart and soul [4:32]. This was the fundamental solidarity of love which the believers enjoyed, and their economic sharing was but one expression of the union of their hearts and minds. Luke mentions three consequences of their mutual commitment. The first concerned their possessions. In heart and mind they cultivated an attitude so radical that they thought of their possessions as being available to help their needy sisters and brothers. Secondly, their radical attitude led to sacrificial action, namely that they would sell their personal possessions and bring the money to the apostles to be distributed to those who had need [4:34-35]. The same actions of selling and distributing are referred to in 2:45. Thirdly, both the radical attitude and the practical action were based on the equitable principle that distribution was proportionate to genuine need. The two accounts use the identical words: to each as they had need [4:35b; 2:45]. Only in the second description, however, does Luke state the consequence of the principled distribution of relief, namely there was not a needy person among them [4:34a].

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.      What are the four evidences of a Spirit-filled church mentioned here? How does your local church measure up to these four evidences? What are its strengths and weaknesses?

 

2.      The apostles’ teaching has been passed down to us in the New Testament. Are you continually devoting yourself to this teaching? Why or why not? What things can you do to increase your devotion to this teaching?

 

3.      The worshipping church strives to achieve a proper balance between formality and informality, between joy and awe. How can you achieve this type of balance in your own worship?

 

4.      What is the one dominant, overriding and all controlling motif that governs the book of Acts? What three vital lessons can we learn from these early believers?

 

5.      Analyze the prayer of the early church in Acts 4:23-31. How did they start their prayer? What did they pray for? What did they not pray for? What were the consequences of their prayer?

 

 

References:

The Book of the Acts, F.F. Bruce, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter-Varsity.