By Simon ManchesterSunday 13 Nov 2016Christian Growth with Simon ManchesterFaithReading Time: 15 minutes
We’re following, on these Sunday mornings, these early chapters in the Book of Acts. We are seeing the spread of a supernatural Church, which means, of course, people transformed by Christ.
And this section we come to this morning is very interesting. There are two little windows. One is into the praying of the Church, and one is into the sharing of the Church. And I wonder if it would be true to say (before we tick the two boxes – pray, share) that the two commandments (love God, love your neighbour) which are so straightforward, would be the two areas in which we unite in reverse by not loving Him, as a world, and by not really loving our neighbour as ourself. Is it possible to say that the world unites well in this one area of being rebellious to God and seeking to refuse or to replace a neighbour? And therefore, when we see this early Church honour God and care for the neighbour, we are seeing a transformed community, something that God Himself is doing and has done, which is quite the reverse of the way of the world.
Well, this comes in the early Church at the cost to self-interest. When the early Church pray that the Word would go out, whatever the cost, it’s a painful experience for them, as they suffer. When they offer to give up their possessions to the community of the fellowship, of course, it costs them. And so, contrary to the way of the world, which is to be safe and secure and make your promotion of self, we see this work of God transforming people.
I want to look with you at these two little sections this morning: the conviction of the early Church that Christ should be honoured, and then the concern of the early Church that Christ’s people should be cared for.
First of all, Acts Chapter 4, Verses 23-31, here is the early Church, praying that Christ would be honoured. Do you remember the lead-up to this is that a crippled man has been healed by the risen Lord Jesus? The Apostles have used the miracle as a platform to preach the risen Lord Jesus, and now they are being threatened. If you look at 4:21, you will see, after further threats from the religious authorities, they let the Apostles go and could not decide how to punish them because all the people were praising God for what had happened.
If you were the Apostles, and you had just been threatened by the religious authorities not to say any more about Jesus? Where do you go? These religious authorities had successfully put Jesus to death, and it wouldn’t be too difficult for them to follow the same steps and see the Apostles put to death. So where do persecuted believers go for help? Should they go to the Romans? Should they go to the public? Should they go to the new converts? And the answer, in 4:24, this very wonderful answer, is that the ordinary believers go straight to the sovereign God.
Here is one of the great privileges of being a Christian, that whatever the opposition that you are facing, whatever the persecution, you have the privilege of being able to go to the One who is, as the Book says, above all earthly powers, and to be able to pray to Somebody who rules the cosmos. And that’s what they do (Verse 23), when the fellowship, which Peter and John belong to, heard of the threats of the authorities, they raised their voice as one (literally, with one mind), they raised their voice (singular).
These were ordinary believers. This was not just the Apostles praying; this was the ordinary Christian. And I want you to notice this morning, that as these ordinary believers prayed, I want you to see what their view of God was, and what their request of God was, and what their experience of God was.
First of all, their view of God. Five verses of the seven have to do with who God is. Have you ever prayed like that? Have you ever said, ‘I am about to pray and I am going to spend five sevenths of my time describing the God that I speak to’. Extraordinary isn’t it. This is the theological grasp of God, that then gives the ‘wings’ to the small, short request. And they take their view of God to be, first of all, the Maker of Heaven and earth and the sea, and everything in them. Everything in them comes from Him. Once you grasp this view of God, that He has made the Heavens and the earth and the sea, to take that kind of three-layered artificial perspective of the world, once you recognise that He has made the layers, and He has made everything in the layers, then you can no longer see the opposition from any of those layers as being a danger to Him. He is not phased by those threesome or the components of those threesome. He made even the opposition.
And then they say, still thinking of God, Verse 25 & 26, You are a speaking God. You, God, spoke, by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of Your servant, David, and said (quoting Psalm 2), ‘Why do the nations rage and the people’s plot in vain?’
And so they quote the Psalm of the Old Testament, where the writer asks the question: what is the point in opposing God? Why do the nations rage against Him? Why do they rage in vain against the Lord and His Anointed, when the Lord has put His Anointed on the throne. What is the point? And the early Church, you see, takes up this Psalm (which they now recognise) to focus entirely on the Lord Jesus, who has just been in their midst and has been executed (crucified) and raised from the dead. And they recognise that the opposition is zeroed-in on Jesus and they quote the Psalm to encourage themselves, as they pray to God, ‘What is the point?’… the One they put all their opposition onto, has been raised. He is on the throne. It’s pointless to oppose Him. And so they speak to God, who can predict what happens.
And then, Verse 28, they speak to God, and this is the third thing that they think about God. They say: Herod, Pilate and the people did what Your power and Will decided (Verse 28). So not only does God make the villain, He writes the script for the villain, and then He tells the villain when to walk onto the stage. ‘Oh God, as we face opposition, You made the opposition. You scripted the opposition. You directed the opposition.’ It’s a remarkable and cosmic view of God, isn’t it. And this is the God they pray to.
So their mind is full of theology, and I want to remind you, in passing, not to despise theology, in case you think that theology belongs with someone else. Everybody in this building has a theology. It’s just a question of whether it’s a very limited theology or whether it’s a full theology; whether it’s a Sunday-school theology or whether it’s a strong Biblical theology. And the more you know the God of the Bible, the more you know what the Bible says about God, the more you will find yourselves praying in a way which is full of confidence in Him. And that’s what this early Church does.
Well, it makes their request very interesting, because you would expect them to pray, ‘If You made the opposition, get rid of the opposition. If You predicted the opposition, well, predict something else about the opposition. And if You decide what the opposition will do, now decide that the opposition will drop dead!’ There’s a good prayer.
And they don’t. They (in Verses 29 & 30) consider the threat, look at the threat, see the threat, take note of the threat, in the light of the threat and this is their request: give boldness to Your servants to speak Your Word. This is what they say: God, You made, You spoke, You controlled please look and give boldness.
Now this is a very appropriate prayer because there is no point in the Apostles praying that God would remove all opposition. That’s just not going to happen. Nations, by definition, rage against God (Chapter 4, Verse 25), ‘It is the nature of the world that the nations will rage against God until the end of the world. To ask God to remove the raging is to ask God to remove the nations. And to ask God to remove the nations is to ask God to finish the world. No. What they pray, is that in the light of the world’s opposition to the Lord and His Anointed, because it is the nature of the world to do that, they pray that the Gospel will go boldly forward, the Gospel which will change the individuals in the world would go boldly forward.
I hope in your prayers you don’t pray that God would make the world just ‘nice’. It’s good for us to pray that God would bring peace. It’s good that God would pray that He would bring down injustice. And it’s good to pray that God would raise up justice and all the blessings of the world, with which He is pleased.
But we certainly don’t want the world to just be nice and godless, safe and godless, quiet and godless. If the world is like a door off its hinges, we don’t now just want to pray that it would be painted green. We want the door back on its hinges. The world is not really safe until it relates to the God whose Anointed is on the throne. That’s when the world is safe. That’s when it is secure. That’s when it really has peace. And that’s what these early believers begin to pray. They recognise that even Jesus Himself did not ask God to remove evil, but to save people.
And I do think that Christians can be quite naïve in prayer, as if that the world just being calm would be the goal. No. The world is against God. It has risen up against God. And because the world is risen up against God, in the past, God split the world (Genesis 11, Tower of Babel). And He split the world because He does not want the world to be at peace, godless. That is a very dangerous world. The greatest need of the world, is that the world would be reconciled to Him, and therefore in the whole messy complex of the world, and all the opposition that comes, aimed at the Lord Jesus and His people, we need to pray that the Gospel would keep going forward, and whatever circumstances would help the Gospel to go forward, because that’s when individuals will be transformed, and everything else will begin to spill out of the lives of transformed individuals. And so this early Church asked, in the face of opposition, that they would have the boldness to speak the Word. They wanted to get the Gospel out, which would turn people against God, for God, by kissing the Son (as Psalm 2 quite graphically says, doesn’t it: ‘Kiss the Son’). In other words, make-up with the Son. Take advantage of His reconciliation. Take advantage of His forgiveness. Be at peace.
And as they ask for this boldness to speak the Word of God (which is a very wonderful thing), they ask God to stretch out His hand (Verse 30) and do signs and wonders which will help the world wake-up.
Now the Church, as you probably know, has been divided over many years as to whether signs and wonders are still the way to wake the world. And so I would simply want to remind you this morning, that signs and wonders (the miracles of the Bible) belong largely in four sections of the Bible: the time of Moses (the coming of the law), the time of Elijah Elisha, (the coming of the prophets), the time of Jesus (the coming of God’s Son) and the time of the Apostles (the coming of the Holy Spirit). There are galaxies or clusters of miracles around those four epochs and there is not a lot in between. There are, dotted in between, miracles. But that is what the miracles are really for, to indicate that this is a new work of God.
And I would suggest to you that the signs and wonders that surrounded the Apostles are really built-in to the foundation work of the Apostles. We don’t want to deny that God can do a sign or a wonder any time He wants to, but it’s the on-going work of the Word which belongs to all the generations. It’s the signs and wonders which marked that particular epoch when the Apostles laid the foundation of the Church.
Now the principle of this request which they ask is very important, because there is opposition to the Gospel and we need appropriate boldness. We need to pray again for appropriate boldness. I don’t know whether this is on your prayer-list (and I am asking myself this question as well). I don’t know if this is what you pray when you are with your triplet. How easily we fall into these ‘make it safe… make it nice’ … but we need to be praying that God would make us bold. And we ought to be praying this at the prayer meeting again, because we are in a day which requires a bold Church. We are not facing the fires of persecution that some countries are facing, but we are facing what one preacher has called the ‘ice opposition’. And I think he is right.
There is a great cooling of the world to spiritual things in the west. And if the Church cools at the very time the world cools, we really are going to just blend right in, aren’t we. And we need to pray that God would give to us a re-warming, to be courageous in the face of the ice-age, spiritual ice-age, which is coming across us. You must feel this with your people at work. You must feel this with your street that you live in and the block of units that you live in, that there is this great cooling to Christianity. It’s quite a scary thing. And the people that we mix with, you know, in the streets and the pubs and the clubs, they are asking the same sort of questions that dogs ask. That’s the real problem today, isn’t it.
Questions like: how are you? Have you found anything to eat? Have you had anything to drink? Have you been for a run? Have you had sex? Have you had a good sleep? These are the questions that dogs ask, and people are not asking much better. We have turned into a kind of a nation, haven’t we, of dogs in clothes: eat, drink, sleep, sex, run, work. It’s the theology of the Kelpie, really, isn’t it! Or, on the north side, it’s the Labrador, perhaps, or the Poodle.
But somebody has got to start asking a bigger question than the questions that the dogs ask, because we have been made with a mind and a heart and a perception and a perspective which is much bigger than the dogs in the street. And if you and I don’t wake-up to ask the questions which ought to be being asked, we are going to find that we are just going to be contributing to the ice-age in which we live.
So we need to ask God for boldness. There is a King, says the Scripture. He sits on the throne. His wrath is terrible. His refuge is wonderful. And the experience of this early Church, in Verse 31 (this is the third thing: their view of God, their request, and their experience) is that the place shook, a sign of God’s presence. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, His rule in their lives and they spoke the Word of God boldly, and that was what they prayed for, that they would speak the Word of God boldly.
So this is a prayer that God approves. They don’t ask: take away the opposition. That, of course, is naïve. They do not ask: please make us safe. That’s just cowardly. No. They ask that we would be given the boldness for the circumstances. And friends, if you say this morning, that’s too frightening a thing to say, you are underestimating the sovereign God, because you and I must go straight to the top and we must say, ‘Since You have put us in this context, make us appropriate for the context’. Because there is no other solution, especially if we are concerned for God’s honour.
Now the last little section is a concern for Christ’s people (Verses 32-36). We discover that this bunch of early believers were one in heart and mind. No-one claimed that any of their possessions was their own. They shared everything they had.
There is a link, isn’t there, between the praying and the sharing. It’s a link of relationships. The praying says, ‘I really do want to do Your Will’ and then the sharing says, ‘I really do care about your people’. There is a link of relationship. You can’t say to God, on the one hand, ‘I want to be Yours’ and not say at the same time, ‘I care about Your people’. A big heart for God and a big heart for people go together.
And there is also a link in generosity. When the Christian says, ‘I am interested in people’s needs of the Gospel’ they, at the same time, will find themselves saying, ‘I am not that interested in stuff, in things’. A person who has a real concern for the spiritual and eternal welfare of others, will find that their grip on their stuff (their property, their possessions) is loosened. And I guess it is the mark of the spirit of the aged to get a real grip on the world because that is all you have got and not care two hoots for the spiritual welfare of people. And it is the mark of the Spirit of God to get a real grip on the spiritual needs of people and to loosen your grip on the stuff and the possessions and the property.
And that’s what seems to happen. And it’s under the influence of Jesus that this early Church thinks like this, because we remember that the Lord Jesus Himself prayed, that He would have the courage to suffer for the Gospel. But He didn’t just pray that He would have the courage to suffer in the face of human opposition – that was bad enough – He prayed that He would have the courage to suffer in the face of His Father’s punishment. And He went ahead with that. The prayer was answered.
And He was able then, as a result of His dying on the cross, to share out a new life, which you and I have taken hold of, which we appreciate to some degree today and we will appreciate hugely in a thousand years’ time… because of course He went forward with the generosity of praying and of sharing what He had.
Barnabas is illustrated in this section as a man who gives-up his property. He seems to be one of these people who is willing to voluntarily pool his possessions. Some of them seem to be selling off surplus property – fields and houses – or else they are pooling their accommodation. And they give it to the Apostles so that it is distributed carefully and faithfully. Isn’t it interesting what this miracle is? They don’t say, ‘We share everything’. They say, ‘I own nothing’. That’s the mark of the early Church. They don’t just say, ‘You can borrow my lawnmower. I share it with anyone in the Church’. They say, ‘I don’t own a lawnmower’. They have pooled what they have.
Now this decision of the early Church is not laid on the continuing Church, but it is an illustration of the work of the Lord Jesus in the early Church as they gave themselves boldly to the work of the Gospel and they gave-up anything which was needed or wanted by the rest of the Church.
We owe to Jesus, do we not, more than we can measure. We can admire the early Church and especially His work in the early Church. But we might ask ourself, as we finish this morning: do we pass the Acts 4 test… which is, ‘I do want people to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ and I do want to be set free from the stuff which is really passing, anyway and could get in the road’.
Well, you may like to check your prayers, to see whether you really are concerned for people’s salvation. Check your prayers. See what is being prayed. And you may like to check your spending to see whether your grip on this world is loosening.
As we share today in the Lord’s Supper, we give thanks that the One who did this great work in the early Church is able to do it in our midst as well. He’s the One that we look to for help. He is the One who has all the resources.
Let’s pray. Our Gracious God, we thank You for Your work in the world, to make a people more and more in the image of the Lord Jesus. And we pray that you would cause us, not only being remade, but transformed into the image of the Lord Jesus, to have the same priorities. And we ask this in His Name. Amen.