Speaking to a large audience, D.L. Moody (an 19th century American Evangelist) held up a glass and asked, “How can I get the air out of this glass?” One man shouted, “Suck it out with a pump!” Moody replied, “That would create a vacuum and shatter the glass.” After numerous other suggestions Moody smiled, picked up a pitcher of water, and filled the glass. “There,” he said, “all the air is now removed.” He then went on to explain that victory in the Christian life is not accomplished by “sucking out a sin here and there,” but by being filled with the Holy Spirit.(Today in the Word, September, 1991, p. 30.)
Today’s title is called ‘The Powerful Witness of a New Community’. We shall see that it was the work of the Holy Spirit in the new community of Christians after the events of Pentecost, which enabled them to be a powerful witness for God.
Firstly though let’s just recap what has happened so far in the book of Acts. The book of Acts was written by Luke as a continuation of the Gospel of Luke. It connects the life of Jesus with the birth and life of His Church. The ministry of Jesus on the Earth had been for 3 ½ years. Then, following His death and resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven. This marked the end of Jesus’ physical ministry on the Earth and the next stage was the ministry of believers on the Earth. Acts chapters 1 & 2 tell us of this next stage when the first congregation of believers, or the first Church, was born.
This birth of the Church was as dramatic as it was culturally ground breaking. The disciples had been told to wait until the Holy Spirit came. Then the Holy Spirit, who had only ever throughout the Old Testament period had been given to certain people, was now poured upon all of the assembled believers in the house that they were in. And so at the end of chapter 2 we see 3,000 people responding to this mighty work of the Holy Spirit; and to the speech that the Apostle Peter gave.
What we have here in these last five verses of Acts chapter 2, is a summary of what the church was doing, how it was functioning as a body of believers. Let’s not forget that when Jesus was on the Earth He was the leader of the disciples and they followed and did everything that He asked of them. Now that He was gone, how were the disciples going to continue Jesus’ work? Who was going to lead them?
Blueprint for a Christian Church
I have recently moved house and as a consequence of moving house we needed to get some new flat pack furniture. This is furniture that you order, perhaps over the internet, and it comes in a cardboard box all nice a neatly packed inside; flat packed ready for you to assemble. The most important part of putting the flat pack furniture together is the instructions of how to assemble it and it will contain a blueprint of how it should look like once assembled.
Well these last few verses contain, if you like, a set of instructions and a blueprint for how the first church was assembled. It shows us how the body of believers were continuing to spread the gospel, but also inwardly, how they were building up the body of Christ, to strengthen it for service.
We read here in verse 42 four activities that they did. Let’s take them one at a time.
- Devoted to the apostles teaching
Firstly we read that they ‘devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching’ which gives us a sense that they applied themselves or they gave themselves over exclusively to understand the apostles teaching. Remember that they only had the Old Testament at that point to help them and it didn’t say anything about the Church. So they turned to the Apostles teaching of which the Apostles were well qualified because they had been with Jesus.
If you think about it, 3,000 people had just come to faith and they all needed help in understanding what their “new faith” meant – because of course they were formerly Jews so they already had faith in God and now they had faith in God’s Son Jesus.
Now we know that there was 120 people in the house when the Holy Spirit came so this means that after the day of Pentecost each disciple who was in the house had 25 people, possibly, to shepherd. Imagine that, 25 people to mentor. It is more people than some of the churches in this country today!
Of course today have the benefit of all of the Apostles teaching contained in the New Testament but how devoted are we to learning and understanding our Bibles? These disciples, were grounded in Scripture – are we? Can we do better in knowing our Bibles?
- Devoted to fellowship
Secondly they devoted themselves to fellowship.
The Greek word for fellowship comes from a root meaning common or shared. So fellowship means common participation in something either by giving what you have to the other person or receiving what he or she has. Give and take is the essence of fellowship, and give and take must be the way of fellowship in the common life of the body of Christ.
Christian fellowship is two-dimensional, and it has to be vertical before it can be horizontal. We must know the reality of fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ before we can know the reality of fellowship with each other in our common relationship to God (1 John 1:3). The person who is not in fellowship with the Father and the Son is no Christian at all, and so cannot share with Christians the realities of their fellowship. (Your Father Loves You by James Packer, (Harold Shaw Publishers, 1986), page for March 2.)
One of the ways that we can share fellowship is over food .
3. Devoted to the Breaking of Bread
Thirdly they devoted themselves to the ‘breaking of bread’ which in this context we understand it to mean Communion. The very act of remembering the death of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was something that they took seriously and something that they did together at every opportunity.
This is of course the centrality of the Gospel Message. Our Christian faith hangs on this crucial event of history. Without it, there is no saving grace and we are all doomed in our sins to an eternal future of despair. With it we have the hope and joy of having a restored relationship with God and the assurance of His acceptance and love eternally.
We too must ensure that we continue remember the Lord’s sacrifice and remember the great cost that has been paid for our sins. This is reason to celebrate and what gives us such joy.
4. Devoted to Prayer
Fourthly they were devoted to prayer. Prayer is a powerful weapon against the enemy. It sets people free, it mobilises Angels and it’s our direct way to speak to God through His Son Christ Jesus. Prayer is such a vital activity in the life of the church and in our own lives that we must not neglect it.
As the saying goes,
‘Seven days without prayer makes one week’
and it is certainly true in my life. If we don’t pray then we can be out of step with God and the Holy Spirit. How can we know what the Father wants for our lives if we don’t talk to Him?
Now I said that the birth of the Church was dramatic as it was culturally ground breaking at the start because, if you think about it, the Church had just received a huge kick-start. What I mean is that before Pentecost there was 120 believers but when 3,000 came to faith all of a sudden there was almost 2% of the city was converted. And those that were visiting just for the feast of Pentecost would have been taught these four fundamental characteristics of the life of a Christian; studying the scriptures, sharing in fellowship, remembering the Lords sacrifice and prayer.
So we can see that those who were just visiting Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost would have been grounded in these four areas before they went back to their towns, cities and villages. Of course from these places they would have then shared the gospel which would have resulted in localised groups of believers in those different countries.
Luke says that the converts were ‘God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven’ and so this would have been a direct fulfilment of Jesus words in Acts 1:8,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And this is key, in order to be a powerful witness we need the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
Authenticating the Message through Miracles
It was of course evident, as we read in verse 43, that the Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and it was the Holy Spirit that enabled them to perform the amazing signs and wonders that they did.
Now let’s just pause briefly on this expression, ‘signs and wonders’. We are not told what these were but in context they were supernatural events and an example is given to us in Acts chapter 3, when Peter heals a lame beggar.
Now throughout church history the debate has continued as to whether these signs and wonders were just for the times of the Apostles or for us now. This theology has even got a name, you’re either a cessationist (all of the miracles stopped with the death of the Apostles) or a continuationist (miracles are for today). Well I’m not going to spend too long on this but I believe the answer is somewhere in the middle because to restrict our miracle working God to anything else is, I believe, imposing our theology on God.
There are a couple of scriptures that I’d like to highlight which will help us understand this subject area a bit better. The first is Acts 14:3,
“So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.”
And then Mark 16:20,
“Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”
Notice that in both of these texts the Lord does not confirm the apostles themselves but rather “his word” or “the message” that the apostles were preaching. Signs and wonders do not testify to the apostles themselves necessarily but to the message of salvation preached by the apostles. So the two principal things that are authenticated by miracles are the Lord Jesus and the message about the Lord Jesus.
Does this mean that we shouldn’t expect miracles when we pray? Not at all but if we today witness any miracle, or if a miracle should happen to us, then we need to ensure that we give God all the glory and honour. Our God is a miracle working God and I have personally been a witness to miracles and miracles have happened to me.
Holding on Lightly to What We Have for Others
Next we see in verse 44 and 45 that the believers were being strengthened in service for each other by sharing what they had with each other. It reads,
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” Acts 2:43-44
Now it’s clear from the next verse that they didn’t sell everything, they still had homes to go to so this wasn’t an attempt to live in a commune. The take home point here is that since they were in such fellowship together, that they were in unity together and, if there was a need in the community, then they sold what they had in order to provide for those in need.
At this time there wasn’t any social security or benefits that you could claim from the Government; you were on your own. So this would have been a very real demonstration of holding lightly to what they had, and this would have been a witness to those non-Christians around them.
Now there isn’t a command that we should do this today but are we prepared to give financially if there is a need? If we hold tightly onto what we have, then how can God bless us with more? The idea is that we give in order to receive; and this requires faith.
Let’s just think for a moment about what we own. If I was to ask you who owns your house, what would your response be? Some of you might say, “I do”, others, “The bank until I pay off the mortgage” and both, in a sense, would be correct. However, what does the Bible say?
“Wealth and honour come from you; you are the ruler of all things……Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.” 1 Chronicles 29:12-14
This is teaching is echoed in the New Testament,
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” James 1:17
The point here is that since God gives us what we have, what we call our own, we should therefore be ready to give whatever is required for God’s service. This can call for sacrificial giving but as Jesus Himself observed the woman in the temple giving two small copper coins, she was more blessed than all the others who had given out of their wealth (Luke 21:1-4). In other words, it’s not what we give – it’s the heart attitude that we give it in.
Which is a perfect Segway into verse 46. Let’s look at it together,
“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 favour of all the people.” Acts 2:46-47a
The first Christians heart attitude was one of thankfulness, they were thankful for the Holy Spirit who had filled their hearts with joy and for the continuing witness and teaching of the Apostles. And such was the unity and fellowship amongst them that they met together daily, in the temple, to encourage each other and learn more. They also met together in each other’s homes and shared meals together to get to know each other through fellowship.
Underpinning all of this activity was their heart attitude; they had glad and sincere hearts that were devoted to each other and to God.
If we are to win souls for Christ then we also need to have this same heart attitude because it is our heart attitude that defines our character and therefore our witness to those around us. It is no good meeting on a Sunday for a few hours and being holy, if for the rest of the week we act like the world around us!
This new community of Christians were a powerful witness because they were devoted to the faith, had the right heart attitude and revered God. Because of this we read that they ‘enjoyed the favour of all the people’. They were accepted by the religious Jews around them for what must have appeared, in those early days, as being very religious.
And it wasn’t just the religious Jews who saw that they were making a difference in their community but the ordinary folk of Jerusalem. Such was the dynamic power and witness of these Christians that others were attracted to Christ through them.
This happened during the 1904 Welsh Revival. During that time so many people were coming to Christ in Wales that the crime rate dropped to zero in some places and some of the local pubs had to close because of the lack of patrons! The pit ponies, who were used to being sworn at, couldn’t understand the miners when they were spoken to cleanly. We are not told from the text that this also happened after Pentecost but since we have this modern day example of a move of the Holy Spirit I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that it was just the same then. And even more glorious!
When God moves in the hearts and minds of people there is a new hunger for all of these things stated in verse 42. There’s a hunger for the Word of God, fellowship, Communion and prayer. And this is attractive. People come to Christ through the witness of God-fearing Christians.
Are we God-fearing people? Do we revere our awesome God and worship Him with all honour?
Let me give you an example:
Neil Marten, an MP for Banbury in the early eighties, was once giving a group of his constituents a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. During the course of the visit, the group turned a corner and were met by Lord Hailsham, then Lord Chancellor, wearing all the regalia of his office. Lord Hailsham recognized Marten among the group and cried, “Neil!” Not daring to question or disobey the “command,” the entire band of visitors promptly fell to their knees! (Today in the Word, July 30, 1993)
Now our God doesn’t demand that we kneel before Him but do we give Him the honour and reverence that He deserves? The Bible says in Philippians 2:10-11 ‘that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord’. We shall do it willing and with joy whereas those who don’t know the Lord will do it with fear and trembling.
Daily Saving Grace
OK finally it says in the closing of chapter 2 verse 47,
And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The supposed quotation from St. Francis of Assisi that says, ‘Preach the gospel, and if necessary, use words’, is incorrect. The only way that people will hear and respond to the Gospel is if we use words. Peter did when he said to the crowd,
“Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 2:38
The Gospel message hasn’t changed from that time to now and if we are faithful to God and use our opportunities to share the Gospel then the work of the Holy Spirit will continue changing lives. And God will add to our number for His glory.
In summary then if you didn’t pick up on what I think these few verses are teaching us.
The first Church was a powerful witness in their community because they gave themselves over, or devoted themselves to four things:
- To the Apostles teaching. For us today this is the whole of scripture.
- To fellowship with each other and this included the caring for one another as each had need.
- To Communion, remembering the Lord’s sacrifice on the cross. This is the centrality of the Gospel Message.
- And to prayer. We today pray for ourselves, others and our Nation.
If we want to be a powerful witness to our community then also need to be filled with the Holy Spirit and devote ourselves to these things. Amen.