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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Be More Acts Four



 

“With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus."

Acts 4:33


In Luke 24, we have the account of some ladies going to Jerusalem’s graveyard. They expected to find the dead body of the man who had lead and fed them spiritually for the previous couple of years. They had really fond memories of him. They took ‘spices’ with them. In love, they wished to anoint that body; to give it the care and affection that they believed was deserved. They had received so much from this man, named Jesus. Their worthy intention was to give something back – that was their plan. But it wasn’t God’s plan. His plan was for them to carry on receiving. They received some news when they arrived. Not just any old news, but truly earth-shattering news. The good news, which Christians refer to as ‘the gospel’ was spoken to them by ‘two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning’. They said this about the recently crucified Jesus – ‘He is not here; he has risen!

The book of Acts is about what happened next – after Jesus rose again and then returned to heaven’s glory. Because this wasn’t the end – it was just the beginning. It was the start of something new. Hebrews 9:26 says this about Jesus – ‘he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.’ This ‘culmination of the ages’, is the climactic point of something. The life, and death, and rising again of Jesus, came at the end of a particular ‘age’. This ‘age’ is detailed in the Old Testament in our Bibles, where God, time and again, promised that he intended to send someone very special to our fallen earth to rescue people from the consequence of their own shortcomings and failings, which the Bible calls ‘sin’. This message was given particularly to a nation called Israel. What was presented, in prophecies and promises, was God’s plan – his worldview. Psalm 2, which we read this morning, is an example of this. In Old Testament times, those Israelites that truly believed, were looking forwards; waiting for God’s ‘anointed’ one to arrive on the scene; until he finally arrived and completed his mission here by doing ‘away with sin by the sacrifice of himself.


The account in Acts describes the beginning of something new. It is a new age. It is the age of the church of Jesus Christ. Acts tells us about the growth of the church, that group of people who believed the message about the risen Jesus. At the start of this age, in Acts 1, we read about a first gathering of this group, containing around 120 people. Within days, this number had swelled to over 3000. By the time we get to Acts 4, this number is over 5000! How had this been achieved? Surely we must be witnessing an extra-ordinary human effort to make this happen? But, no, that isn’t the answer.


I enjoy riding my bicycle. What I don’t enjoy is being overtaken… particularly by other people on bicycles. It seems such an insult to my imagined, athletic prowess! In my head I make up excuses – they are going ‘full-gas’, I’m on a recovery day. I’m on a heavy, steel mountain-bike, they are dressed in aerodynamic clothing, riding a lightweight, carbon-fibre, racing machine. Relatively speaking, even as they disappear into the distance, in my head I’m actually going faster! But, in recent years, I’ve found myself being overtaken by much more unexpected characters. I’m going flat out up a hill and am passed by someone going twice my speed. That ‘someone’ happens to be a frail looking pensioner, not in lycra, but wearing an overcoat and hat, and smoking a pipe. I’m drowning in my own sweat, while they make it look effortless. How can this be? Well, it’s the emergence of ebikes – bikes fitted with an electric motor. This isn’t just human power – it’s greatly assisted human power. So it was with the early church. They didn’t produce such impressive output, so quickly, by human effort alone. They were assisted by the additional power of God’s Holy Spirit, which Jesus promised would be given to his followers, throughout this church age, once he left earth for heaven (John 14:19-21). They were not on their own. Through his Spirit, Jesus, effectively, remained with them (Matthew 28:20). The church doesn’t continue to this day because it is impressive on its own. It isn’t. It continues because it has God’s power to push it along; to get it over the many lumps in the road of life; to keep it going when otherwise it would flag and grind to a halt.


In Acts 4 the church is rooted in the resurrection – the rising of Jesus from the dead. In the first part of this chapter, two of the church’s leaders have experienced heavy-handed opposition from the authorities. Their crime? Telling people that Jesus had risen from the dead and that the only way to be safe from God’s wrath towards sin, was to put your trust in the appointed, ‘anointed’ rescuer that God himself had sent. Through the power of God’s Spirit, Peter and John had healed a man from a physical affliction. Through the power of this Spirit, that man had been healed from his spiritual affliction as well. He had believed the message of these two men, and put his trust in Jesus. When questioned, again, about how this healing had happened, Peter said this – ‘it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed… Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved’ (v.10 & 12).


Acts 4 is a picture of Christ’s church rooted in new, risen-again, living. What a challenge is thrown our way in verses 32-35? ‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there was no needy person among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.’ It is what the church should look like now. So often, it does not. When I read those verses, it makes me so conscious of my own personal failings within church life. I ask myself why I fall so short of the mark. Perhaps I’m not alone. Perhaps the answer lies in the root. Am I rooted enough in what happened at Calvary? Am I rooted enough in that news, first heard in Jerusalem’s graveyard? Am I rooted enough in Acts 2, where the Spirit of Christ was poured out on his people in such abundance?


Why does the church community in Acts 4 look so beautiful? Because, at that moment in time it was grounded in resurrection truth, and had the resulting change of heart and life which that truth demands. I think the Lord has a message for me when I read this chapter – ‘Be more Acts 4.’


There is a wonderful phrase used in this chapter to describe the early church. Peter and John had been opposed by people who had power and influence in that first century Israelite society. They commanded Peter and John to stop proclaiming the saving name of Jesus and then issued ‘further threats (before) they let them go’ (v.21). Peter and John’s opponents were on a very different page, to them, regarding their understanding of God. In fact, it was as if they were reading a different book altogether. What a contrast these two men must have experienced when they returned to the assembled ‘company’ (Acts 4:23 (AV)) of believers. These were people that were on the same page, of the same book, as them. These were ‘their own people’. That is how verse 23 describes the church. Do we feel this way when we are with the Lord’s people? Again, I think Acts 4 is telling us something here!


Let’s say I hear a knock at my front door. I open it and see a lady standing there who I have never seen before. She tells me her name and that she lives in London. ‘I’m up here on business and was just driving past your house when I remembered that my grass needs cutting desperately. Can I borrow your lawn-mower? I’ll bring it back next time I come to Yorkshire.’ What would my answer be? I think I’d have more questions than answers at that point. By contrast, let’s suppose I open my front door and my brother, Simon, is standing there with the same request to borrow my lawnmower. I wouldn’t have any questions. Why? Because he belongs to me, and I belong to him – he’s family – he’s ‘my own people’. Actually, I’ve a really good example of this in our church life only this week.


Here at Riverside Church, we have some relatively new believers, that wish to follow the Lord’s commands by being baptised and we are hoping to carry this out in the near future. We don’t possess a baptistery – Not many scout huts do, for obvious reasons! Actually, we are in the same position as another small group of believers in nearby Ossett. Hope Fellowship also don’t have their own church building or accompanying baptism pool. Both groups, Riverside and Hope, have received a really generous offer. Thornhill Baptist Church ‘possess’ what we now need. They have said that we can use their facilities whenever it suits us – without charge! What is this? Well, I think it’s Acts 4:32 in action – it’s living and breathing now! Why is this? Essentially, it’s because they see us as fellow believers – we are ‘their own people’ and they love us like we are family. They have demonstrated this in what they have been prepared to say and in what they have been prepared to do. And it encourages my soul massively because, in doing that, they look like their Lord and Master, Jesus Christ. And there is no better sight than that.


Peter and John return to ‘their own people’. Here we have another ‘be more Acts 4’ moment. They report the serious opposition that they had just faced. What does the church do? What we should do? Verse 24 says, ‘When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God.’ My initial thought was that this is what I would do. But, on closer examination, I found that Acts 4 once again had the ‘power’ to cut me down to size. What would my inclination actually be to pray for, when I expect to face opposition to my faith? I would be inclined to ask that the expected opposition might not be as expected or, at the very least, of a particularly mild variety - ‘Lord, instead of Vindaloo, just let me have Korma’! But that isn’t the prayer of the church here. They don’t pray for a reduction in the heat that they faced. Rather, they pray that they’ll have the stomach for it – they ask for ‘boldness’ – ‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.


The greatest advances the church has ever made, in its subsequent history, have been in times of the fiercest opposition to the message about the risen Christ. When the church has been really bold, the Lord has stretched out his hand to heal the souls of men, women and children, from the awful consequence of sin, ‘through the name of (his) holy servant Jesus’. Is it worth us praying this prayer? Does the Lord answer such prayers? The answer is in verse 31. ‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’ We might struggle to ‘be more Acts 4’, but our God will never be anything less!


Their attitude in prayer is grounded in the risen Saviour. Their language is based on the words of God himself. In verse 25, we read, ‘You spoke’. Our Lord is so different to us. I hate being held to account. God loves it. He loves it when his people plead the ‘very great and precious promises’ (2 (Peter 1:4) of his word when they pray. When we pray, ‘you spoke and said this’ the Lord says, ‘Yes I did. Yes I will.’


The words of Psalm 2 are quoted, ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.’ They then point out what they have now realised. These Old Testament promises have their ultimate fulfilment in Jesus Christ. The church has realised that this is exactly what had happened in the streets of Jerusalem only a short period of time before. Nations, people – both the most religious and the most pagan, along with kings and rulers, had all conspired together to do away with Jesus, God’s anointed Son and servant. Had they achieved what they set out to achieve? It appeared so. But, then, the quote from Psalm 2 has two words that tell us otherwise – ‘in vain’. Why, ‘in vain’? It’s as Peter says in verse 10 to his opponents. Yes, you achieved your wicked aim of crucifying Jesus. But your plans were trumped by God’s loving plan of mercy to humankind. As in Acts 3:15, in the message that Peter gave, that originally got him arrested and imprisoned, ‘You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead.


God’s opponents believed that what they had done was done through their own will and authority. The church knew differently now. With wonder and adoration they praise God with these words, found in verse 28, ‘they did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’


How did they get so blindsided? Well the answer is found in one or two words? And I mean that! It is two words in the NIV; it’s one word in the original Greek language of this New Testament book. The church begins its prayer with an address. Verse 24 says, ‘Sovereign Lord’. In the Ancient Greek this word is ‘despótēs’. It is very similar to our English word, ‘Despot’. Now, this may make us feel uncomfortable, because this is a word with negative connotations. We use it to describe men like Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong. The Bible isn’t uncomfortable with this word in relation to God – neither was the early church. Why? Because he is the true meaning of ‘despótēs’. He really is the ‘Sovereign Lord’.


A ‘despot’ is an absolute ruler, whose word and authority cannot be questioned, and cannot be over-ruled. Those men that I have named, who seemed to personify evil, believed that their words and their will should be unchallenged. But where are they now? All of them have gone. Like those rulers in Psalm 2, their plans were frustrated in life and ultimately undermined by death. Like all those who believe that their own power and authority, over other humans, comes about by their inherent, superior wit and planning, they were just pretenders. Our God is the Sovereign Lord. He frustrated the opposition against his Son, early one Sunday morning in Jerusalem, when he raised him from the dead. And there is more.


Men who gain the title of ‘Despot’ all have something in common. They will stop at nothing, being willing to destroy others, to protect themselves and their family’s interests. Actually, we see this nepotism; this giving of jobs and positions, and the accompanying power and security which they bring, in this very chapter. Just read verses 5 and 6. But what a contrast with the true ‘despótēs’; our ‘Sovereign Lord’. To save us he gave his Son. Why? John 3:16 says, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’


Whoever? Perhaps you might be wondering if that could ever include you. Do not question the word of the Sovereign Lord. If he says ‘whoever’ then he means ‘whoever’.


I mentioned before that we have some people here who have put themselves forward for believer’s baptism. Despite all the opposition that is found in our culture to even the notion of the existence of God, they have decided to follow Jesus. Why? Because they have simply believed that ‘whoever’ includes them, and that they are broken enough to need the healing that comes from the cross of Jesus Christ the Saviour. We, at Riverside, are finally going to be able to follow one of the principle commands of our Lord.


At the end of Matthew 28:19, the risen Jesus, who had promised his followers beforehand that they would face opposition in taking this saving, Good News, into the world, commanded them this, ‘Therefore go and make disciples…baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ ‘Therefore’ - this type of word is called a ‘conjunctive’. It joins two things together. Because we can only be successful; indeed our success is guaranteed, by what Jesus stated immediately before he gave this command to his followers. It is a truth that is rooted in the victory which his rising again from the dead announced as signed, sealed and delivered.


The risen Jesus said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go…’ Because of this we can follow him through whatever apparently uncontrolled randomness life throws our way. We can believe that he is in control. We can believe that we will have the victory, because we already have it (1 Corinthians 15:57). The Lord’s people occupy a truly blessed position. That’s why the promises of Psalm 2 finish in the way that they do. The last verse references the promised ‘son’ who was coming and concludes with this claim – ‘Blessed are all who take refuge in him.’ He is Jesus. ‘He is risen’.

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