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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

Rooted and Fruited


“Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events"

Acts 5:11

Next time in Acts 5 (v.20), we will read an instruction given by an angel to the apostles. He told them to continue to ‘tell the people all about this new life’. This time, there is something else that is ‘new’ for us to consider - it is a new word. How many times have we already read about the stunning growth of the early New Testament church, in the first four chapters? Lots. It may be surprising, then, to realise that the word ‘church’ hasn’t yet appeared on the scene. Yes, the church has literally burst onto the scene in Acts 1 to 4, but the word ‘church’ hasn’t…. until Acts 5 11, where we are told that ‘great fear seized the whole church.’

Previously, we have been told that, ‘many who heard the message believed’ (Acts 4:4). Up until now, as a group, they have been called (appropriately!), ‘believers’ (as Acts 2:44). Now, they have a new name. In the original Greek of the New Testament, this word, which we translate as ‘church’, is ‘ekklēsia’. It means an ‘assembly’; an assembly of people. But it means more than that.

Throughout this region, during this era, the prevailing language was Greek. The Israelites had translated their Old Testament scriptures from Hebrew into Greek in a version called the Septuagint. In this Greek version of the Old Testament this word ‘ekklēsia’ is found. It is used to describe the assembly of the Israelites, particularly when they gathered for sacred purposes. But, now, this word is being used to describe God’s New Covenant people; the church. The church is God’s truly sacred people. They have been gathered together for a truly sacred purpose. They have been called to worship him continually in the only way that failed human beings can – through God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

When we looked at Acts 4 previously, we considered Peter’s claim, when he was first challenged by the Jewish Council. He quoted Psalm 118 and told them that ‘Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone’’ (Acts 4:11). In Peter’s first letter (1 Peter 2:4-10), he repeats this theme. He then says this about the church, ‘As you come to him, the living Stone – rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.’ Peter is talking about this ‘new’ way of sacrificial ‘life’ that believers are called into. In these early chapters of Acts, we see this as a beautiful, lived out, reality. Later on in his letter, Peter extends his argument. The language is so awesome that we really have only two conclusions that we can reach – either Peter is stark raving mad, or the church is a really, really, really precious thing in God’s sight. Peter says, ‘you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.’

In the description of the church at the end of Acts 2, in the section which the NIV titles ‘the fellowship of the believers’, they were doing just that. They were ‘praising God’. Also, they were ‘devoted… to the… teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ ‘Everyone was filled with awe’. They were caring and they were sharing. They were ‘together with glad and sincere hearts’. Now, as we come to the end of Acts 4 we have more of the same. There is an abundance of fruit in the life of the church. And I don’t mean that someone had fetched in a great big bag of oranges – although as I read that description of love in action, and how they ‘shared everything’, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone had! But the most precious fruit was that fruit which what was growing up in their lives. We read about the ‘great power’ with which the ‘resurrection of the Lord Jesus’ was testified to, ‘and God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all.’ They were rooted, and consequently they fruited. This didn’t just develop out of nowhere. This came from being rooted in the truth of the resurrection and being bathed in God’s Spirit given at Pentecost. What do we need to do as a church to generate this kind of attitude? Last time, I said that I need to ‘be more Acts 4’. Not by trying to look fruitful, but by actually being root-full.

Over the last month, or so, I have been splashing out. Every week I have spent one whole pound on a bunch of daffodils, with the weekly shop. When I receive then, the plants are all closed up. I put them in a dilute sugar solution and by the next morning they have really started to open up. The following day they are magnificent; proudly displaying the beauty of their creation. It’s awesome to see this fruitful display. The next day they’re dead! And they aren’t coming back – ever! And we all know why – they have no root. By contrast, I have enjoyed, on my cycle commute to work, the roadside daffodils. One day, they are magnificent, and the next day they’re still magnificent, and the next week or three, they remain the same. And when they finally die off, I can delight in something really special. Next year, without any effort at all, as I was once told by my favourite florist, Mr Arnold Schwarzenegger, they’ll ‘be back’. Because they have root.

In verse 34 of Acts 4, we read that ‘there was no needy person among’ this church group. I ask what we will need to provide for the very real needs that people invariably have in life. How will the church meet those needs, now, and in the future? What will the church need? It will need Acts 4:33 – ‘God’s grace… so powerfully at work in (us) all’. If our ‘good’ (John 10:11) Lord shepherds us into these pastures then we really will ‘lack nothing’ (as Psalm 23:1).

Then we read (v.34-35) of an example of early church, general practice - the giving according to the need faced. ‘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.’ Then our attention is drawn to a specific example (v.36-37). It’s a man named, ‘Joseph’. He was an Israelite, from the tribe of Levi, who came from the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. Is this important? Are our origins important? Perhaps. But perhaps more important than where we start from is where we get to. Joseph is our English form of the Hebrew name ‘Yosef’. It means ‘God will add’, or ‘God will increase’, or ‘God will give’. God did increase. That is a central theme of Acts! God did give. In his wisdom, he gave the church this man, named Joseph, and he gave Joseph a gift. We are considering ‘new’ things today. Here is another. Joseph’s gift was so visible to the early church that it earnt him a new name. Joseph got a ‘new’ name. In modern speak, he was given a nickname. That is how the NLT renders it – ‘the apostles nicknamed (him) Barnabas’. It is the Greek form of an Aramaic name, which means ‘Son of Encouragement’. They were calling him, in effect, ‘Mr Encouragement’. What a name! Oh that the Lord would fill his church with such people! Not pessimists like me. The church can never have too many Barnabasses, and it can never have too many Barnabelles.

Barnabas gave something to the church. He sold a field and gave the proceeds. What was the most important thing he gave to the church, though? Not his money, but his encouragement. We will read a lot about this man, introduced here, as we journey into this book of Acts. But we would be wise to frame our vision of this man, to begin with, by referring to Galatians 2:13. There, we read of a happening in church life where people had been deceived into behaving hypocritically. The apostle Paul tells us this, ‘by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray’. This is really important, because it confirms to us a necessary truth. As J C Ryle so beautifully expressed it, ‘the best of men are only men at their very best. Patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, – martyrs, fathers, reformers, puritans, – all are sinners, who need a Saviour: holy, useful, honourable in their place – but sinners after all.’

This man, who was ‘as human as we are’ (as James 5:17(NLT)), the newly-named ‘Barnabas’, was useful, and honourable in his place. We will soon get to read about the first martyr; the first person from this church group to be executed because of their faith in Jesus; a man named Stephen (Acts 7:54–8:1). Following this, and subsequent, bitter persecution, the church is ‘scattered’ further afield. But this isn’t something that falls under the banner of ‘Disaster!’ It is God’s amazing providence. He uses it to carry the gospel message forward; further into the Roman Empire. A church is formed in the city of Antioch, which is in modern day Turkey. Then the church at Jerusalem ‘sent Barnabas to Antioch’. We read of this in Acts 11:22-24. What did he do ‘when he arrived’? ‘He was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.’ How did he do this? ‘He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith’. What does that mean – ‘full of the Holy Spirit and faith’? He was full of Pentecost. He was rooted in faith in the risen Son of God. Out of that root grew the fruit of encouragement of God’s people.

Previous to this, in Acts 9, when the apostle Paul was converted to faith in Jesus, the church struggled to believe that his conversion was real. Paul was complicit in that murder of Stephen and ‘approved of their killing him.’ Paul had been such a murderous opponent of the church, before Jesus woke him and broke him, that the church thought Paul was now pretending. They believed that he was essentially a spy; that this was just a new trick to entrap more believers. Acts 9:26-27 tells us that ‘when he (Paul) came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.’ Imagine that! The apostle Paul couldn’t join the church. From our perspective of wonderful hindsight this seems utterly bonkers. But it was all too real in that moment. How was the Lord going to overcome this barrier to the future development of his church – ‘But Barnabas’, that’s how. The Lord sends Mr Encouragement along. ‘But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles…’ And he encouraged them to believe the wonderful, transforming ‘power’ of God’s grace. He can take a Jesus-hater and turn them into a Jesus-holder. Because there has been no-one in the church who held onto the truth of Jesus; who really grasped it, like the apostle Paul did.

But the truth is this – without Barnabas, we have no 1 Corinthians 13 and its amazing unfolding of what Christian love should mean. In fact over 30 percent of our New Testament wouldn’t be there. Our Bible reading programmes would be easier, but our Christian lives would be so much harder. Not because Barnabas actually wrote any of it, but because he took the man who would eventually write it, by his hand, and walked him into the company of God’s people, where he continued to mentor him, and encourage him, in his ‘new life’.

Why such a focus on this today? Because it’s really important. Often the gift of encouragement is far lower down our list of priorities than it should be. We may wish that we had more ability, to undertake a better role in church life. We may wish that we had more money to give. If we can give ‘love’ and we can give ‘encouragement’ then we have the ‘greatest’ role, and the ‘greatest’ gift, that the Lord ever gave to anyone in his church (see 1 Corinthians 13:13). If Riverside Baptist Church is on a financially sound, but spiritually poor, footing, then we are in danger. But it we are financially poor, perhaps never being able to afford our own building, but our love increases and overflows for each other, and we are encouraged by our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will be more than ok.

Well, we’ve hardly got to the account of Ananias and Sapphira. We’ve spent too much time in the company of Barnabas. But wouldn’t you rather? Land and property is often referred to as ‘real estate’. But Barnabas grasped this reality about ‘real estate’ - it isn’t ‘real’. That was what really motivated Barnabas to sell. He was a man of true faith, and like Abraham as described in Hebrews 11:10, ‘he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.’ That is ‘real estate’! Ananias and Sapphira had seen how Barnabas had been given a really cool nickname and they wanted the same honour. At the heart, of their heart motive, was not sacrifice but self. Barnabas ‘was a good man’ (Acts 11:24). Ananias and Sapphira just wanted to appear to be good. Sadly, that is often our preference. Would I rather be good but have people think that I wasn’t, or would I rather pretend to be good and enjoy the praise of my fellows?

These two accounts are linked by the Bible. Our chapter divisions, which are somewhat arbitrary, sometimes, break these accounts up. But this isn’t meant to be. Acts 5:1 clearly shows this, with the words ‘now’ and ‘also’. ‘Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property.’ We are meant to compare and contrast the behaviour and attitude of Barnabas with the behaviour and attitude of these two others. Barnabas’ behaviour was rooted in the sacrifice seen in Gethsemane’s garden. Ananias and Sapphira were more rooted in the Garden of Eden, and they suffer the same fate that mankind, as a whole, suffered there, when Adam and Eve chose to disobey God.

Why this drastic measure by our Lord in these early days of his emerging church? Isn’t this just a little bit OTT? After all, how many Sadducees dropped dead when they opposed the church? None. What should this tell us? Perhaps, that the serious opposition from outside the church, though apparently more threatening, to its continued survival, was actually less threatening than this subtle undermining that came from these two people.

The back garden of my house is probably relatively unusual. There is no path along the side, or access from the back of our property. The only way to reach it is from within the house. You have to be within the household to reach our back garden. Let’s suppose someone from my household goes into the garden and starts digging. At the same time some people from outside my household decide to attack my property – they start throwing bricks at the front of the house. What am I more likely to do – go and see how the digging out the back is getting on, or rush to the front and deal with that threat? But let’s think. What is the most damage that could be done in that situation? Yes, the windows might break, and the door might get (even more!) dented, but will the house be fundamentally at risk? I suspect not, but that is what I would be far more likely to deal with in that moment. So, I face up to that threat and go out the front door, behind my wife, and chase off the vandals. Then I turn round to return inside and suddenly with an almighty, thunderous noise, my house collapses. Why? Because I’ve ignored what someone from inside my household has done. What they were actually doing is digging out around the foundation stone. Eventually, its stability was undermined. The whole house shifted and fell down. Now, what would I think was the greatest threat to my house? I don’t want my house to collapse. I paid an awful lot of money for it. On a good day, I can still run reasonably quickly. But I’m not going to outrun Barclay’s Bank.

Earlier, I quoted 1 Peter 2, which describes the church as ‘being built into a spiritual house.’ God’s house, in the truest, New Testament sense, is his people. They are the ‘living stones’ that make up its structure. They must remain aligned to the foundation stone, which is Christ himself, or the whole structure is in danger. In these early days of the church, in Acts 4 and 5, there were no local expressions of Christ elsewhere. The church in Jerusalem was the church in its entirety. If hypocrisy and self-serving were to undermine it, the result would have been catastrophic. But we’ve still got 23½ chapters of Acts to go at – why? Because of the infinite wisdom of God. He truly understood this threat from within and dealt with it swiftly and finally. Why would our Lord not want his church to be undermined in this way? Because he paid a truly awful price to purchase it.

He paid the price to buy out the debt incurred by our old, empty, way of life. Now we have ‘new life’. In 1 Peter 1:18-19, Peter wrote this to the church, ‘you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’ What a price? – What a purchase? – What does this mean for God’s new people; the church of Jesus Christ, now? Well, 1 Peter 2:10 concludes that section where Peter describes the church in such awesome language, as ‘God’s special possession… called… out of darkness into his wonderful light’. 1 Peter 2:10 can conclude our message this morning – ‘Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.


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