Acts 2:43-47 “Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 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, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people..”
In these words Luke writes of the ongoing life of the Christian church in Jerusalem in the weeks that followed the day of Pentecost. In other words, it wasn’t that thousands of people were emotionally moved by the oratory of Peter so that in some emotional orgasm they made a decision and became very religious for a day or two. Rather, there was a permanent change in most of them, and this showed itself in a pervasive change in their relationships.
THE PEOPLE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD.
There are two features Luke comment on about how things had become in their relations with God.
i] Everyone was filled with awe. It was not that there was simply a group within the 3,000 who were real Spirit-filled men and women, and they were people in awe of God. No. If you were a true Christian, – devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship and breaking of bread and prayer -then you were filled with awe at who God was and what God had done and continued to do. You knew the Creator of the universe, the one who kept you going day by day, the one who had through Jesus Christ pardoned you for your sins, he had filled you with his Holy Spirit and brought mind-blowing truths into your understanding. Life was not meaningless; death was not ultimate reality; you were no longer a lonely individual, glad of one kind word or a smile from someone. Now you could look into the smiling face of Jehovah and call him your Father. You could know his great promises to be your good Shepherd and that you’d never again be in want because he said he’d make you lie down in green pastures and beside the still waters. He would restore your soul. He would cause goodness and mercy to follow you all the days of your life. And these things were not awarded to you because you had lived a very religious and righteous life – because you knew your own heart: you knew that you’d been bad: – but now through Jesus Christ’s life of righteousness imputed to you, and his death on the cross you’d received mercy.
He died that we might be forgiven; he died to make us good;
That we might go at last to heaven saved by his precious blood.
Imagine the Creator – who holds like a speck of dust in the palm of his hands the Milky Way with its hundreds of millions of galaxies – is a personal God. The God who made you is a God who loves, and he loves you so much he made up his mind to save you and keep you and take you to himself. How awesome! Everyone who believed that – and every Christian did – was filled with awe at the greatness of God. As we are still being filled with awe today. “I see the stars. I hear the mighty thunder. Thy power through all the world displayed. Then sings my soul my Saviour God to Thee, ‘How great Thou art!’” Men and women in awe and fear of God. But there was something else in their relationship with God.
ii] Everyone was praising God (v.47). That would certainly mean that they said to one another often the words, “Praise the Lord.” Priests were converted; miracles were done; prayers were answered; the congregations were offered places to meet in the Jerusalem winters; prodigal sons were restored; healthy babies were born; husbands and wives were reconciled; the gospel was preached by the apostles not in word only but with power and with the Holy Ghost and with much assurance. “Praise the Lord,” they often said from the bottom of their hearts. They were not superstitious. They didn’t say, “Aren’t we lucky?” They could talk confidently of the good things they had without being afraid that a cruel fate would immediately crush them. A woman came to my house this week to do some business, and I talked to her about some good thing that had happened to me – I can’t remember what it was – “Ooh,” she said, “You’ve done it now . . . you’ve had it now . . . it’s all up.” In other words she thought that I was tempting fate by acknowledging this good thing that had happened to me. She displayed blind unbelief! She lived a life of fear! You know how it grips people. They speak of some good result that they had from a visit to the doctor, that the lump was benign, that the operation was a success, and then afraid that fate had heard them say aloud those words they look for the formula that will prevent a cruel fate having its revenge on them and wopping them – “Touch wood!” they say, putting their hands on the table-top. These early Christians were delivered from such folly. They knew the God from whom all blessings flow. They lived in awe of him, but it was a doxological awe. They praised the awesome God.
You remember how our Lord teaches us to pray and to say to God, “Our Father . . . Abba Father.” But more than that, “Our Father who art in heaven.” There is familiarity, but there is also awe. One of Martin Luther’s helpers was a man named Theodorus. He said on one occasion, “I once overheard him in prayer; but oh! with what life and spirit did he pray. It was with so much reverence as if he were speaking to God; yet with so much confidence as if he had been speaking to a friend.” Do you know anything of this? What is your spirit as you pray? Do you come in awe to him, the God of light in whom is no darkness at all? But do you come with the trust of a child in a loving father? Are you willing for him to say ‘No’ to you? Do you say, “Not my will but thine be done”? So the first relationship we see for these Christians was their relationship with God, it was one of awe and also of praise.
THE PEOPLE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE APOSTLES.
Luke tells us next that, “many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles” (v.43). And immediately we are given an example of this at the beginning of the next chapter. Here is an event that once happened in space and time in the history of man on this planet. My little grandson often says to me after I have told the children a story, “Did that really happen?” That is a fair and important question. Well this incident took place just as I am about to read it to you. In his second letter Peter is eager to assure his readers that Christians had not brought to them cunningly devised fables, fantasies and fairy stories. John tells us that the books of the world couldn’t contain all the extraordinary things that Jesus did, how he banished disease from many towns in Galilee. Peter tells them that he was an eye-witness of what happened. So this incident recorded in chapter 3 occurred and incidents like it – on many occasions. Luke tells us in our text that many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles in the mornings, afternoons and evenings. This fact is one of the proofs of the existence of God. This particular incident in chapter three tells us of a well known figure in Jerusalem, a man quite unable to walk who had to be carried by his family or friends in the afternoons to one of the gates of the Temple to be there in time for the daily session of prayer. That Gate was his pitch, and there he cried out for gifts. That is how he lived. Let us read what happened to him. “One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer – at three in the afternoon. Now a man crippled from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, ‘Look at us!’ So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God” (Acts 3:1-8). There was a miraculous transformation of this cripple’s spindly legs and weak ankles, his muscles and tendons were given strength instantly! He could jump to his feet and he began to walk, running and jumping. He accompanied Peter and John into the courts of the temple. “Oh praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord!” he kept saying. Then all the people there hurried across to him. They knew the man. They had seen him for years and years. He was part of the landscape of Jerusalem. They had heard him crying out for money, but now this transformation – he is jumping and running. They all cried out again and again with the shout, “Hosanna! Praise the Lord!” They couldn’t deny that a miracle had been done, and that God alone had done it. They were filled with wonder and amazement.
This was an apostolic momentum that had begun with the miraculous powers of the Lord Jesus. He had told them that greater things than he had done they would do. So it was. We are told in Acts 5 and verse 12, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people.” Luke goes on tells us in verses 15 and 16 of that chapter the impact this had on Jerusalem, that “people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by.Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.”
These were signs that these men were the divinely appointed and supernaturally equipped apostles of the Lord Christ. Listen carefully to Paul speaking to the Corinthians; “The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance. How were you inferior to the other churches, except that I was never a burden to you?” (2 Corinthians 12:12&13). These miracles were signs that mark a man as being a real apostle of Jesus Christ. Paul did miracles, but he also made tents so that he wouldn’t be a burden to any of them. Or again you find the writer to the Hebrews asking these famous question, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation; which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed unto us by them that heard him; God also bearing them witness, both with signs and wonders, and with divers miracles, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will?” (Hebs 2:3&4). These miracles are God vindicating his apostles, bearing his own witness to them. God saying to the people, “These are my servants. They are speaking the truth. Listen to them. See the signs they do. Pay attention and believe and do what they tell you.”
So they did. You say, “Why don’t we see men with these gifts today?” Because the time for these gifts to be exercised has not yet come. That time will come when Christ returns, his apostles and angels with him. Then he will transform people who are on this world when he comes. The sick will be healed, and the dying will be raised. Then will be the time for that and not until then. Once the last apostle died no man was given the gift of performing miracles and raising the dead. There is no one in the world today who has the gift of performing miracles, and healing the person with Downs Syndrome. We cannot fly a man in from Argentina or China to heal our wives of Alzheimers or to empty the home on the hill of the people who have learning difficulties. Today we go to God on their behalf. We take them to God! No such apostles exist, but one day that is exactly what is going to occur. Hear these great words, “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed – in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality” (I Cor. 15:51-53).
Then have we nothing supernatural at all in our church? Of course we do. We have the miraculous words of the apostles here at the centre of our gathering. They were given this gift from God, so that what they wrote in the gospels and letters and Acts was exactly what God wanted them to write, to the dotting of the ‘i’s and the crossing of the ‘t’s. We have the word of God to the jots and tittles. It is here. We meet every Sunday in the presence of a miracle, and God does a miraculous work every Sunday, regenerating, making men new creations, convicting, saving, sanctifying, assuring men and women, so that every Christian here today and in every church is a miracle of grace. In fact there is a movement in the New Testament itself from the apostles and the miracles (largely found in the gospels and Acts) to the local churches they planted. The preaching of the word of God is the prime work of the church as Acts draws to a close and that is emphasized in the letters to Timothy and Titus. The movement in the New Testament is from apostles to preachers. From one kind of miracle to another. Today the supernatural comes to us by the apostolic word and once the church abandoned the infallible word of truth then miracles of grace disappeared from their congregations.
THE PEOPLE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH ONE ANOTHER.
There is a great emphasis on that dynamic in our text, and it is reflected in a number of comments that Luke makes.
i] They were together – “All the believers were together . . . Every day they continued to meet together” (vv. 44&46). There were no rumblings of discontent. There were no personal fan clubs of people who thought John was the greatest (“so loving”), or that Peter was the greatest (“so strong, like a rock”), or that Andrew was accessible or Thomas was very human, and thus they talked about mere men. No personality cults divided them; no emphases on certain doctrines; no arguments about the Lord’s Day and the Sabbath day, first day of the week and the last day of the week; no disagreement about what foods they could or couldn’t eat. They were together; as we say, they were all “singing from the same hymn sheet.”
This is set up before us as an admirable beginning to the life of the church in the world. We know that in heaven we will all be one; we will be doing the will of God, but here in this world Christians are challenged to maintain the unity of our life in Christ. Our Lord on the night before the cross prayed for us that we would be as much one as he and his Father are one. Paul exhorts the Ephesian congregation to take this very, very seriously; “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:3-6). These new believers were together in that sense, in other words, the fact that they met together reflected the inner spiritual unity that they all had been given by God.
You remember how extraordinary this was. Who were they? Not neighbours with family links from centre-city Jerusalem. They were “Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) and yet here they are united nations in Christ. We read the horrid news of Muslim Arabs killing each other by the thousand week after week. Here in Jerusalem 2000 years ago were citizens from fifteen named countries experiencing deep unity, and meeting together. This is the work of the living God.
It doesn’t come without effort. Paul doesn’t merely remind the Ephesians of their positional unity in Christ but he exhorts them to carefully maintain it. How do we stay together? It is not by some mysterious Christian touchy-feely fellowship. It is an effort. “Make every effort . . .” Listen to what Paul says, “Each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body. In your anger do not sin. Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry,” (Ephs. 4:25&26). Again a few verses later; “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephs. 4:29-32). There is no way that togetherness can be maintained if basic patterns of behaviour like that are ignored. We need the grace of Jesus Christ in us to keep together in that way. But there was another remarkable feature about their unity.
ii] They had everything in common. They “had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (vv. 44&45). Now if every Christian was called to live a life of total, voluntary poverty there would be very clear commands to that effect in the New Testament. It would be worked out in some detail. There wouldn’t simply be these two verses in the book of Acts describing the actions of these Jerusalem Christians. What do we see here? We see that the decision to share property and share possessions was voluntary. They chose to do it when and where they were led. What do we see in verse 46? We see a reference to their homes. In other words, they still lived in their homes. They hadn’t sold everything except for the clothes they stood up in. From the tense of the verb ‘selling’ and the verb ‘giving’ we can see that selling land and property, and then giving the proceeds to certain people in need, was occasional. A need suddenly arose and then it was dealt with. Peter says to Ananias about the land he sold and what he did with the money, “Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?” (Acts5:4). In other words your possessions, your homes and clothes and I-pads and cars and land don’t belong to this congregation. They are yours; you’re the Lord’s stewards and what you’ve been given in trust by the Lord is all to be used to his glory. But the decision and action is yours.
What is the great lesson we are to learn from the early church? The great lesson is generosity. The great lesson is making sure we are conscious of the needs of some Christians and helping them as much as we are able. The great principle mentioned twice in the book of Acts is this, “they gave to anyone as he had need” (v.45). It is repeated again in chapter 4, “there were no needy persons among them . . . the money . . . was distributed to anyone as he had need” (Acts 4:34&35). Remember John’s searching challenge in his letter, that if we have money in the bank, and have possessions and then we learn of a local fellow Christian in need, and we refuse to share what we have with them, how can we claim that the love of God is in us? (I Jn.3:17). Christian togetherness is Christian caring is Christian sharing. The poor person knows no shame; the rich person knows no meanness. So this description of the love the early church had for it poorer members is a constant challenge to us. But we are told more about their relationship with one another.
iii] They met together in their homes. “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God” (vv.46&47). They became conscious that they belonged to one family. You’re aware that your home is the place where you know they’ll let you in. You come home from school or from work or you return from a semester at college and you will be welcomed back home. You don’t have to ask your father as you go off on the school bus, “Will it be all right for me to come back this eening?” You’ve never dreamed of doing that because this was your home. So Luke tells us that Christians welcomed one another to their homes. On top of the new spirit of generosity there was a new hospitality. They ate together.
But you know how some hosts are terrified of inviting people to their homes for a meal. How will they measure up? They feel they are not very good cooks. Will their meals be criticized? Will people complain to one another as they drive away about the pudding, or be sniffy that the meat was tough? Will they grumble because the plates didn’t match and there was no wine served? What about the children? Will their behaviour cause the guests to be unhappy? So they dwell on things like that, and so they never consider inviting anyone from the church to their homes.
How does Luke describe these meals? They “ate together with glad and sincere hearts” (v.46). Their guests didn’t behave so rudely (as I’ve described to you). They were so glad to be there, and the family who lived in the home was so glad it had invited them. There was an ease and naturalness and sincerity about the whole occasion. It was a delightful time of “glad and sincere hearts.” Today we are holding our monthly Fellowship Lunch and my observation and experience of it is exactly this, that we meet together with glad and sincere hearts. We are not parading our best dishes. We are not making any statement about diets and menus. We are not critical. We are glad that you are with us and warmly invite you to this holy love–feast with us. We are honoured by your presence. Do your hearts good, and ours too, by your eating together with us with glad and sincere hearts.
4.THE PEOPLE’S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE CITIZENS OF JERUSALEM
There is this interesting phrase towards the end, “enjoying the favour of all the people” (v.47). The fact of these thousands of new Christians in Jerusalem was actually welcomed by their neighbours. These followers of Jesus Christ were more thoughtful people than they used to be. They were the ones on the street to look after their plants when they went on holiday! They fed their pets. They welcomed the children into their homes when their parents were detained at work. They practiced neighbourhood watch when the house next door was empty. They were more generous in giving to their neighbours some bread or milk when guests arrived without warning next door and had to be fed. They were different people, kinder and far more helpful. People spoke well of them. They enjoyed the favour of all Jerusalem.
You will remember Luke’s description of the way the young boy Jesus grew up in Nazareth. One of the things we are told him is that he increased in favour with men, in other words, our Lord got on with people; he was interested in them; he was well disposed to them; he was, in today’s tired cliché, a good communicator. He is set before us quite deliberately by Luke as a social and sociable being. It is tremendously important because here is something that we commonly tend to depreciate. It is in fact a skill which some religious people conspicuously lack, yet our Lord had this graciousness, so that we can say that people in Nazareth spoke well of him as a boy, and as a teenager and as a man. He was the one who fixed their doors and put in their rafters and beams and repaired the wheels of their carts. They enjoyed him calling and working in their homes and on their smallholdings. He was highly esteemed by the people; he had a definite affability; there was social ease and grace in that all-round portrait of our Lord.
As we read of John the Baptist we meet a deliberate contrast. He was a hermit and a recluse, who spent his life in the wilderness and was unsociable. He was stern and forbidding to an eminent and high degree. This is quite deliberately set out by Luke to show that Christ was not like that. The problem can arise when John the Baptist is made the model for religious men as if they ought to be detached and remote, as if they were to live their lives in isolation. It seems to me to be tremendously important that we face up to this and make sure that such an unsociable spirit – which is so alien to the ethos of our own congregation – should be refused a toehold here. There are those who rarely smile, who do not join in the hymn-singing, who are so critical of anything of which they disapprove, showing it in their stony faces and downcast eyes. Our Lord is set before us as one who got on with people.
Now I’ve got to qualify that quite obviously because the day came when they despised and loathed him. The hour arrived when the mob chanted, “Crucify! Crucify!” How do I explain that? I say it is taught very plainly that it was not because our Lord was deficient in humaneness, in humanity, in courtesy, in kindness, in social skills and graces. It was not for any of those reasons that men shouted, “Away with him! Release unto us Barabbas.” But a day came when it was incidental to his public ministry that he must tread upon the prejudices of men. He must condemn, and he must expose their sins, and it is at that point that his social grace was insufficient to get him immunity from their hatred and barbarism.
The same thing happened in Jerusalem as the chief priests and the Pharisees and Saul of Tarsus turned on the people of God. All the kindness and sweetness of character of Christians could not protect them when the Sanhedrin condemned them as heretics and decided their leaders should be stoned to death. Now Peter raises the same issue when he says to his readers, “Men may be persecuting and ill treating you and despising you. You be sure that it is not because you are an evil doer. Be sure that it is not because you are discourteous, a hard-liner, a self-appointed judge, selfish, rough, crude, unthinking and unfeeling. Be sure that you are being persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for the Christ-like spirit that you are showing. Be sure of that.” As the writer to the Hebrews exhorts them, “Follow peace with all men, and holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.” Follow peace; be on the best terms possible with your fellow men, and the limiting condition is holiness. Don’t follow peace to the extent that holiness is compromised. Don’t cultivate social graces and the favour of men beyond the point where you are embarrassed to do what you are doing in the presence of the Holy One.
So it is important to instill in our children social skills so that they can mix freely, communicate and form stable relationships. They must learn to co-operate with others, to lead, to tolerate and to function as members of a team, to control their egotism and aggression without losing a normal drive and competitiveness, to compete fairly, to lose graciously and to win magnanimously, and to do all that without compromise in a moral or spiritual sense. They must have cultivated in them from the earliest age an interest in other people, a concern for other people which submits their own interests to the interests of others, other children and adults. Our only grand-daughter was saying good-bye to her Nain, and she left the house after farewells and kisses had taken place in order to get into their car taking her to school. Then she remembered something. She got out, hurried back to her grandmother for a moment and she said to her gravely, “God’s blessing be upon you,” and then she ran back to the car. It was very touching. What potential for a future life of ministry to others. The Rev. Alexander Stewart of Cromarty would lament his lack of social skills. He said, “I feel as if destitute of the faculties for dealing with men. I ought to have been a monk in a cloister dealing with books and systems; living among people I feel myself powerless as a child.” I think he was underestimating his graces. We are under obligation to grow in social skills. We long to enjoy the favour of all the people of our town, without sacrificing anything of what we believe or how we are to live. These are the new relationships that characterized these new Christians.
24th May 2015 GEOFFREY THOMAS