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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Oil of Joy Overflowing


“All the believers were together and had everything in common"

Acts 2:44

Last Sunday we briefly considered some things surrounding Pentecost. This was a Jewish festival of harvest celebration. The early crop of barley was all gathered in and the first mature stalks of wheat; the ‘firstfruits’ of a new crop, were cut and brought to the temple and presented as ‘an offering of new grain to the Lord’ (Leviticus 23:16). I said that, now, Pentecost, as a meaningfully observed festival, is over. However, that Pentecost day, described in Acts 2, was, surely, the most meaningful of Pentecost days.

When Jesus was here on earth he performed many miracles. This started at a place called ‘Cana of Galilee’ where Jesus changed water into wine at a wedding feast. To the embarrassment of the hosts, the wine had run out. John 2 tells us of Jesus stepping in and performing this sign ‘through which he revealed his glory’. So good was that wine, that the ‘master of the banquet’ exclaimed to a very relieved bridegroom, I suspect, ‘everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.’ It’s the same with Pentecost. Of all the thousands of such festivals that Israel celebrated, throughout Old Testament history, the best one came right at the end, on the first day that the New Testament church really began to take shape. This was the day that the Holy Spirit, promised beforehand by Jesus, was poured out. To that small, initial, group of Jesus followers, three thousand were added in a single day.

So, what happened next? Well Acts 2:42-47 tells us. All of a sudden we have a description of what looks very much like the church. Four times we read the word ‘they’. We are told what ‘they’ did, with ‘glad and sincere hearts’. The very first thing that we read is that ‘they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.’ Why would they do that? Well, they had much to learn. They were at the very beginning of a totally new experience. Many of them would have known little more of the truth of Jesus than what they had first heard in the first gospel message that Peter gave.

‘Devoted’ is a really strong word. It is most commonly used in the context of love and affection; affairs of the heart. To be committed to someone is considered a noble thing. But to be devoted suggests something more. The early church seems to have had a deep desire; a yearning to learn. I think it is an experience that many people have when they first come to faith in Jesus. But this is a process that should never stop.

Recently, we spent some weeks looking at 2 Peter. This was a letter written by one of the main characters in Acts 2. He was writing to believers who had been on their faith journey for a considerable time. But Peter didn’t assume that they now knew everything that they needed to know – he gave them further instruction, and also told them he considered it, ‘right to refresh your memory’; to ‘remind’ them ‘of … things’, ‘you (already) know’, ‘and are firmly established in’ (2 Peter 1:12-13). He said that the aim of his letters was, ‘to stimulate you to wholesome thinking’ (2 Peter 3:1). At the end of his letter he encouraged them to continue in their development - ‘But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Peter 3:18).

This week, I was reading about a man named George Campbell Morgan. If we could go back in time, exactly one hundred years ago, to a Sunday morning in February, then Mr Morgan would have been preaching. Whereas I delivered my first, in person, message, here at Riverside, at nearly fifty years of age, Mr Morgan, or possibly Master Morgan, gave his first sermon at the age of 13! Two years later, so at 15, he was preaching regularly in country chapels during his Sundays and holidays. He lived, and taught the gospel truth, until he died aged 81, in 1945. In his biography there is this word from Acts 2 – ‘devoted’. He ‘devoted’ himself to preaching and Bible exposition. It tells us that ‘his devotion to studying the Bible made him one of the leading Bible teachers of his day.’ That account was really encouraging. But the most encouraging thing to me was something that came towards the very end of his life, when he was 79. At that point he would have been devotedly studying, and setting out the truth of God’s word, for over 65 years. Yet, two years before he died, he came to a new conviction about a certain aspect of bible truth. He wrote a letter to a friend admitting that, in some of his expositions in the past, he had simply got it wrong. Would I do that? My pride would shout at me to keep quiet. That would really test how much I valued truth.

If we believe that we are at a point on our Christian journey, where we have little or nothing left to grapple with from God’s word; where our view is fixed and immovable, come what may, then can we really claim to be ‘devoted’ to growing in the knowledge of Jesus, that Peter encourages us to always do? The reality is that, if we believe that we have nothing left to learn, we will be left learning nothing.

Now, we often refer to our time of gathering on a Sunday morning as a time of ‘fellowship.’ This word is also used in Acts 2:42. In fact, it is one of four things that this early church group was devoted to. There is teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer, in that verse. We have all four of those things present in our assembling, today, because we believe that this early church sets out an important pattern. These are not matters that are ‘take it or leave it’. So, what is fellowship? What do I mean when I refer to someone as a fellow believer? The Oxford dictionary tells us what I should mean – A ‘fellow’ is someone ‘sharing a particular activity, quality, or condition with someone or something.’ When we have fellowship this morning we do share in a particular activity, one where we join around Bible truth and endeavour to collectively worship our Lord. But, actually, we are always each other’s fellow believers, in the sense that we share a quality or condition with each other. We are essentially the same. At this particular moment in time, I have a certain role within this church. Does that mean that my present status is somehow elevated above yours? It may do, but it definitely shouldn’t. We are all on the same level when viewed by the Lord. We should be on the same level when viewed by each other. Our dependence on the Lord should be total dependence. Our need of each other should be mutual.

The word ‘fellow’ appears a lot in the pictures of living that the Old Testament brings. We find it particularly in God’s commandments to the Israelites under the Old Covenant legal system. It is often used when dealing with situations where one Israelite appears to be in a better position than another. In those situations our perception can easily be distorted. The Lord God of Israel uses the word ‘fellow’ to remind his people of his reality. In Leviticus 25:35 we read this, ‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so that they can continue to live among you.’ Yes, that person who you are looking at may be destitute at this moment in time. You may appear to be on a different level of self-sufficiency, and be currently enjoying greater financial security than them, but they are your fellow. In God’s reality, you are the same as them.

For all Peter’s failings, those few years spent with his Lord and master, Jesus Christ, had taught him this truth well. It shines forth in his language. Three times in his Pentecost speech in Acts 2, he uses this word, as an adjective, to appeal to his audience. ‘Fellow Jews… fellow Israelites… fellow Israelites’ (v.14/22/29). And, in the incident in Acts 3, where the lame man is miraculously healed, Peter does exactly the same. He does it twice, and in two different ways. In Acts 3:12, the crowd is amazed. The fickle nature of humankind comes to the fore, and they are in danger of elevating Peter and John to a status that they do not deserve. ‘When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk?”’ In effect, Peter is saying, ‘You may think that I have something inherent that you inherently lack, but, no, you are my fellow.’ And, in verse 17, when Peter has confronted the people with the awful error that they have recently made, in rejecting and condemning to death God’s promised Son, he says this, ‘fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders.’ Peter is saying, in effect, ‘You made a grave error in your ignorance. You were blind to God’s reality. But I was the same as you. When my friend, Jesus, was led away to his mock trial, I also made an awful error; three awful errors, in fact (see Mark 14:66-72). Regarding Godliness; concerning failure, I am the same as you… “fellow Israelites”’. When we over-estimate others, or under-estimate others, we do not just tell ourselves a lie about another ‘fellow’; what we actually do is tell ourselves a lie about ourselves.

With their devotion to teaching, I trust that the education of the early church was rapid. So that, when we get to Acts 2:43 and read, ‘Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles’, what is actually meant here is not that they were in awe of the apostles but, through those miracles performed, and the unfolding of God’s revelation, they were in awe of the apostles’ God; their God.

This last section of Acts 2, references both miracles and money. The same themes are present in Acts 3, which I hope to consider a bit more thoroughly in my next message. The apostles performed certain miracles, in a way that was only present in these early days of this rapidly expanding group of people called ‘believers’. This was something promised by the risen Jesus, in Mark’s account of what Jesus said at the time that he commissioned his followers to do what we see unfolding in the book of Acts; to ‘go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.’ He said, ‘these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues’ (Mark 16:15-18). We see these new tongues, or languages, spoken in the earlier detail of Acts 2, and understand the necessity of that, for the immediate hearing of, and spreading of, the gospel message in that particular circumstance. It was such a great evidence of the pouring out of God’s Spirit who testified to Jesus (see John 15:26). The miracles themselves, such as those of healing that we see in Acts 3, provided further evidence of a now present reality, also.

During the public ministering of Jesus he was opposed by his critics, in an account that we find in Luke 11:14-28. Jesus had dealt with a man’s personal demons, if you like. Previously, the man was ‘mute’ - he had no voice. Jesus gave him a voice and, from that moment on, the man was able to speak. His opponents accused Jesus of enlisting devilish help to remove devilish influence from the man’s life. Jesus deconstructs their lack of reasoning and shows them the obvious conclusion. He could overcome the power of the devil, because he had the greater, ‘stronger’, power of God. There was a logical consequence to Jesus’ conclusion, when taken in the light of the Old Testament promises about the coming Messiah. Jesus says, ‘if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you’ (v.20). Now, in Acts, as Jesus continued his work on earth, through his Spirit working through his people, the apostles had similar gifts at their disposal. It was vital evidence, given so that the thinking of these early believers could be fully transformed from their old Jewish mind-set, into a new and better understanding of what was really, now, taking place.

These early believers needed transforming - they were being transformed. We see this in their attitude to money. That principle of assisting others financially, that I quoted from Leviticus 25, carries over into a New Covenant instruction; one not to be followed as a principle of religious obedience but, in a ‘superior’ and ‘better’ way (see Hebrews 8:6), to be followed on the basis of the ‘greatest’ of Bible motives (1 Corinthians 13:13); the principle of love.

Do you have a strong attachment to money? Do you like the relative security of knowing that you have enough in hand to meet your needs for this month and the next? Do you read and understand the motivation for the behaviour of the early church in Acts 2:44-45, and know that it is absolutely right, but also find it absolutely challenging to you personally? If you do, I’m your ‘fellow’. What these believers were doing was genuine evidence of change. They had found a new security; not in money, but in the miracle manifesting Messiah. In the record of Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus gave an ‘absolute’ statement. He mentions two things; God and money and says, ‘you cannot’ – ‘you cannot serve both.’ Why? Because God, through his son, is giving you a new and transformed, heart affection and, as Jesus says, ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’

In both my previous messages on Acts, I have quoted from Matthew 13, which records several parables of Jesus about ‘the kingdom’. Three verses of that chapter contain two full parables! These are the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl. The theme of them both is the same. The second one says this – ‘the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.’ To fellow sinners like us, Jesus is that ‘one of great value’. Are we willing to give up everything we have in order to truly follow him? What a challenge?! Am I ready to face-up to it? I have a wonderful example in the early church, here, but it isn’t the best. I’ll borrow from the words of the apostle Paul, written immediately before he rushes into his beautiful discourse on love. 1 Corinthians 12:31 finishes with this, ‘yet I will show you the most excellent way’.

Jesus Christ faced huge challenges. Before his mock trial, as he bowed down at the feet of his Father God, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, in Gethsemane’s garden, such was the pressure upon him that ‘being in anguish… his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.’ Why? He was in dire straits; a most desperate situation, not of his own making, but of my making and yours. I’ll read Leviticus 25:35 again. ‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and are unable to support themselves among you, help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so that they can continue to live among you.’ God’s one true Israelite came to obey that command, along with all the others. The level of our debt was truly horrific. We could not support ourselves. Through sin, we were foreigners and strangers to God, for ever. We could not continue to live in the land of his goodness. Death would finally banish us forever from his presence. The Leviticus Law commanded ‘help them’. God’s willing Son obeyed, and now we know the gospel news, that Peter began to publish at Pentecost. As 2 Corinthians 9:8 tells us, ‘for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.’ How?

Philippians 2:7 (NLT) tells us, ‘he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. ‘In human form’ - Jesus Christ, God’s Son, became my ‘fellow’!

I like to think that, in those early days of this newly emerging church, as they poured over the Old Testament scriptures with their newly found, New Covenant spectacles, to see with ‘awe’ the multitude of promises about the accomplishment that would be Christ’s, that they spent some time in Psalm 45. It begins with, ‘My heart is stirred by a noble theme’. To believers, there is no nobler theme, or nobler name, than that of Jesus Christ. Psalm 45:7, contains a prophetic promise to him. ‘You love righteousness and hate wickedness; therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy.’ The AV doesn’t use the word ‘companions’ in this verse. It uses ‘fellows’. Jesus became like us. Now he reigns above us. ‘God elevated him to the place of highest honour and gave him the name above all other names, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow’ (Philippians 2:9 (NLT)). The church then, the church now, is called to bow down to his authority and power. Why? Because we owe him.

What do we owe him? Well, I’ll finish by quoting a single word, found in those two short parables in Matthew 13:44-46, about the ‘hidden’ ‘treasure’ found in ‘one of great value.’ What do we owe Jesus? – ‘Fellow’ believers, we owe him ‘everything’.


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