“The First Fourteen Years”

2 May 2004

Texts: Acts 2:42-47

 

Big Idea: With incredible growth come challenges.

Purpose: So show how the Holy Spirit is up to every challenge.

Interrogative: What’s the one healthy co-dependency?

 

            Over the next six sermons, excepting the Mother’s Day service on May 9th, we will be exploring the first forty years of the church’s existence.  Today we will be covering the first fourteen years, those which lead up to the martyrdom of the Apostle James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John.  Now with the incredible growth of the church came many challenges.  Internal challenges came like the episode with Ananias and Saphirra, and the challenge of the food distribution.  External challenges also existed such as hostility and outright persecution such as in rump trials, arrests and imprisonments and even the martyrdom of Stephen and unnamed others. 

 

            We begin today with the church waiting in Jerusalem.  The gift of the Holy Spirit, promised by the ascended Jesus, has yet to come.  What the church does in this interim is appoint Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot.  Apostles were guardians of the gospel tradition and they were the authorities before whom the gospel tracts had to pass muster.  The gospels we have and hold are books approved by the eye witnesses!  That work of guarding the traditions, and of passing them down faithfully was so advanced by the time of James’ death that the church had no inclination to replace James with Justus, a man plainly and manifestly qualified.[1]

 

            The Day of Pentecost[2] is the next event which falls some fifty days after Passover.  To the particulars, we should note that the saints were gathered in one place together.  It appears to have been a house meeting where the event of Pentecost occurred.  Pentecost is viewed at least four ways:[3] as the final saving act of Jesus , an act of divine empowerment , the beginning of a new day and fourthly, it was an occasion of religion revival.  Furthermore, three supra-sensory phenomena accompanied Pentecost: wind, fire and voices. More simply we observe: sound, sight and speech.  These same manifestations were present at the giving of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 19 and parallels, Deut. 4:11ff and Hebrews 12: 18-19).  By supra-sensory I mean that these happenings excited both the ordinary senses of sight and sound and they agitated the higher senses as well--  senses attuned to things spiritual and not merely the physical.

 

            There appears to have been an international crowd on hand.  God-fearing Jews were there from all over the known world at that time.  All the descendants of Shem, Ham and Japheth are mentioned!  These wonders attract their attention, arouse their curiosity.  We see that Luke chooses to focus chiefly on tongues.  He notes that it was the content of this extraordinary speech which riveted the attention of these visitors to Jerusalem.  The utterances were not the result of drunkenness, not a mistake and not incoherent.  This causes some perplexity for the observers.  My position is that what we have here is the double miracle of speaking and hearing.  This is a reversal of the curse of Babel.  We may infer that the curse of confused languages and separation of the nations terminates in Pentecost.  In the church, gathered on Pentecost, we see the barriers laid down by God[4]

 

            Now the function of tongues here is instructive.  We see two things, first,  they demonstrate the presence of the Holy Spirit.  The saints and apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and speaking in tongues was the outward sign of that filling.  Second, we see that tongues serve to edify-- even today, they largely build up the individual saint, or the body when no “outsiders,” or unbelievers are present.  Most common errors in understanding the place and purpose of tongues hinge on an imbalanced view of these complementary functions.  Either that, or they minimize the once for all-ness of the original occurrence.  And what we read is that on this occasion what these God-fearing Jews heard was the wonders of God being proclaimed in their own several languages simultaneously.  Their perplexity occasions Peter’s sermon which follows next.

 

            Again, some skeptics suggest, for various reasons, that we don’t have anything like the original sermon here.  But we can answer that we know factually that not all ancient historians fabricated speeches as they charge was done with this sermon.  We further know that Luke explicitly disavows such a practice in Luke 1 and also in Acts 1.  So we can take Peter’s sermon as presented as representative of an early apostolic expression (the earliest in fact) of biblical exposition on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Please open your bibles to Acts 2 and note the following.  In verses 14-21, Peter explains the perplexity of the God-fearers by citing Joel 2:14-21[5].  Peter exults that the promise of Joel has been fulfilled in their sight, their hearing.  And it is not fulfilled marginally, but as a deluge, with an irretrievable and irreversible outpouring of the Spirit.  The Spiritual revolution of Pentecost is also invasive--the old social boundaries of male, female, young and old are dissolved in its universal solvent[6]. 

 

            At this point Peter turns to his six-fold testimony of Jesus.  First, mark this point #1 in the margin at verse 22.  Jesus was truly a man but also truly a worker of miracles, wonders and signs--to which many of those in Jerusalem could testify.  Peter begins with what is known ( again, v.22)  Second, point #2, Jesus was delivered over by wicked hands to be crucified (v.23).  Even though it was according to the plan and purposes of God, God uses even human wickedness to divine advantage!  Third, in vv.24-32, point #3, citing Psalm 16:8-11 as proof of resurrection, Peter proceeds , to describe Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation.  Jesus’ death agony is transformed into the birth pangs of a brand new day.  David, Peter explains, could not have referenced himself because everyone knew that David died and was buried in Jerusalem.  No, Peter proclaims, this prophecy looked forward to the day of the Messiah, Jesus‘ day. This is Who they had delivered over to death.  All Scripture bears witness to the Christ, to Jesus as David’s seed.  Thereby Peter’s use of Psalm 16 is both coherent and logical.  They, the apostles, are witnesses to the resurrection.  Fourth, point #4 at verse 33, Peter explains Jesus’ exaltation by the same resurrection to a place of honor and absolute power--from which place Jesus has this day poured forth His Spirit!  (vv. 33-36)  The implication is that while David didn’t ascend to heaven, Jesus did.  Psalm 110 is applied to the ascension.  Indeed, we know that Jesus applied this scripture to Himself (Mark 12:35-37 and Luke 20:41-44).  Jesus is now, by reality and power what He has always been by right,  the exalted Son of God.  Point #5 is at v. 38, Peter moves on to the offer of salvation in Jesus’ Name because those who heard what they had done to God’s anointed were deeply cut, or convicted of their sin.  What were they to do?  They were to repent.  Repent of what?  Of the part they played in necessitating the death of the cross!  They, like us, needed to understand that our sin, our continued rebellion against and rejection of God was serious, worthy of repentance.  And, if they did so, they would receive two gifts: the forgiveness of sins and the endowment of the Holy Spirit.  The liberty of being forgiven and the power to become regenerate, indwelt, united and transformed lay within their reach.  And not only that, but the sixth point is vv. 39-41, they were to add to personal conversion incorporation into the Body of Christ.  Personal conversion is supposed to issue in corporate commitment.  That new community (2:40-47) fills out the remainder of the present chapter.

 

Acts 2:40  And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation!" Acts 2:41  So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:42  And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:43  And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. Acts 2:44  And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; Acts 2:45  and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.

Acts 2:46  And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart,

Acts 2:47  praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

 

            With this community life as a backdrop, Luke proceeds to describe for Theophilos, and for us, some of the wonders and signs done by the apostles.  The healing of the lame man recounted in Acts 3:1-12 provides Peter with yet another preaching moment.  This time the audience is found in the temple precincts, it‘s the common people.  This activity attracts the negative attention of the temple guard and the Sadducean party.  They are outraged.  Peter and John find themselves arrested but not before some 5,000 men were converted to Christ, turned by the same message of personal culpability, of their sin before God in their rejection of Jesus. (4:1-4)  Suddenly, Peter finds himself speaking to the same authorities who had betrayed his Lord.  He boldly declares that there is salvation in no other name (4:11-12).  The authorities command them to not speak at all, nor to teach in the name of Jesus.[7] 

 

            What recourse did the believers have in the face of this opposition?  Prayer.  And to prayer they went, asking for boldness to proclaim the gospel.  Again, chapter four closes with a beautiful picture of the Christian community--its love, sharing and mutual provision (vv.32-37).  Chapter Five informs us that the opposition, now that the church had grown to a multitude, was also internal.  Ananias and Sapphira choose to lie to the church with personally disastrous results. (5:1-11)  After this trouble, and resolution through angelic release, the healing and deliverance ministry of the church exploded (vv.12-16).  The Jewish authorities found themselves on the defensive again.  The high priest and the captain of the temple guard were nonplussed. When they heard that the apostles were back at it in the temple, they approached them more gingerly and, respectfully (in light of the power of God displayed through them by working miracles and in escaping common prison) put them on trial again.  Peter took this moment to complete the sermon he had begun back in 4:9-12.  This infuriated them more and they plotted to kill them (v.33); but Gamaliel[8] rose to the defense of the Christians by saying that if this was of God they couldn’t stop it (they would end up fighting against God).  They should leave the apostles alone.  So, after the apostles were beaten and commanded not to speak in Jesus’ name, they were let go.  Again power came forth from tribulation!

 

            The church continued to mushroom.  The food ministry became so huge that seven spiritual men were set aside to attend to the administration of that ministry.  But these leaders also had an anointing to preach, which they did effectively.  In 6:8 we read about Stephen being accused of blasphemy.  He was accomplishing many wonders and signs amongst the people.  Those who were jealous of him and his success, stirred up the people against Stephen.  They dragged Stephen before the Sanhedrin.  And, in response to a question by the high priest (Chapter 7), Stephen began a long, elaborate exposition of the spiritual journey of Israel.  He exposed the rebellion of the nation.  But when he came to the application (vv. 51-55), the offense of their spiritual rebellion and murderous intentions became unbearable:

 

Acts 7:51  "You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Acts 7:52  "Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; Acts 7:53  you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.". . . "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." v.56.

 

His listeners were convicted of their sinfulness.  But, instead of repenting, they cast him out of the city and stoned him.  This made him the first Christian martyr.  Note, beloved, it took this tragedy to propel the church out of her comfort zone, and spur her on to wider missions.  As God would have it, a young man, Saul of Tarsus was there approving (as consenting in his death (8:1)).  But he also heard Stephen plead with God for his murderers forgiveness even as they murdered him.  Stephen was like his Master, even as the enraged Jews were like the one who had mastered them even the Devil.

 

            Chapter 8 begins the account of Saul’s persecution of the church.  But we read, at the same time, that due to scattering through persecution, evangelism reaches into Samaria through Philip.  Again, healing and deliverance is proclaimed in Jesus’ Name.  Obedience through tribulation brings power.  In hated Samaria, a famous sorcerer named Simon is converted under the preaching of Philip; but it would appear his conversion was either incomplete, or superficial.  Furthermore, we read that even though Philip’s preaching seemed effective the Holy Spirit had not broken out in their midst--not until Peter and John came down from Jerusalem and laid hands on the converts.  Power broke forth!  Simon, enthralled with real power, tries to purchase this power.  He earns a stiff rebuke from Peter and, apparently, repented even more deeper than before. (8:24).  Subsequently, we follow the ministry of Philip as he leads the Ethiopian eunuch to Christ. After baptizing the Ethiopian, Philip is miraculously transported to Ashdod where he begins to preach through the cities all the way to Caesarea.

 

            At this moment in the church’s life we are informed about the conversion of Saul, now Paul, the apostle to the gentiles on the Damascus Road.  Chapter 9 recounts how he immediately began preaching Christ, now that his spiritual eyes have been opened.  The opposition is intense.  He narrowly escapes Damascus and proceeded to Jerusalem where everyone feared him-justifiably.  Barnabas vouched for Paul and after a dangerous season in Jerusalem, Paul is sent back to Tarsus.  Acts 9:31 tells us that the church then had a season of steady growth and prospered in peace.  During this time of peace, Peter goes on a mission tour to Lydda and Joppa.  (Joppa is where he raised Dorcas from the dead.)  It was while Peter is in Joppa that Cornelius, the centurion who had turned to God, comes to Christ through Peter’s ministry of preaching.  At this time the Holy Spirit fell upon the members of Cornelius’ household validating the Gentile ministry in Peter’s eyes--just as the vision had told him.

 

            However, he was openly opposed by some in the church back home, the Judaizers. Judaizers wanted Gentile converts to become Jews first, Christian thereafter.  Peter defended “repentance to life.” 11:18--salvation by faith alone, not dead rituals and the Law.  About this time, we learn about the church’s emergence in Antioch.  Barnabas is sent there, much as Peter and John had gone to Samaria earlier, and he perceives the need for Paul to come and teach there.  So off he goes to find his brother and they teach together for a whole year in Antioch.  A prophet, Agabus, arose at this time and warned of a great famine, but the church in her dispersed condition was not only able to survive the famine, but was even able to send aid to the distressed church in Jerusalem.  Saul and Barnabas were chosen to take this distribution to the saints in Jerusalem.  And thus we complete the first 14 years of the church’s life because the next recorded event is yet another cycle of tribulation, another persecution,  King Herod had the Apostle James put to the sword.  Shortly after this beastly act, that wicked king died.

 

            And what are we to learn from all this?  We are to learn that troubling times, even difficult times are good times for the church because God manifests His power in our desperation and in our weakness.  It’s not that we should pray for difficulties.  They come easily enough if you are doing what you’ve been called to do.  But that we should pray for grace to bear up, and for wisdom to gain the most advantage we can from our adversities.  The church will face challenges from within, and challenges from without and challenges along the way.  The Kingdom of God is not subject to good times, or bad times.  Obedience through tribulation not only refines us, it increases our power.  Let us all be strongly encouraged to persevere, just like the church in Acts and we will do well.

 

                                                                                                Amen



[1]  To understand why they did not replace James as an apostle, we need to grasp the time sensitive role of the Twelve.  The Twelve were foundational witnesses.  They all had free and unhindered access to the Master and they had all been witnesses of the resurrection.  When this role of witnessing was accomplished, there was no need for continuance--we now have the New Testament. In choosing Matthias, the early church followed a protocol of looking to God for guidance, searching the scriptures--Psalms 6 and 109 are the relevant ones as cited by Peter--and trusting the Lord who alone knows the heart of a man to lead them in selection.  When two options are equally godly and sound, the casting of lots is still useful.  We, however, due to the gift of the Holy Spirit, usually have a sense of direction which makes such a practice obsolete

[2]   Pentecost commemorated the Exodus in general, and the giving of the law from Sinai in particular, the Jews celebrated an agricultural festival, the Feast of Harvest which completed the grain harvest, the first of three in the agrarian cycle of Judea.  As such the elevation of the giving of the Law seems to mark the transition of the Jewish culture from predominantly agrarian/rural to commercial/urban.

[3]   Apart from His return at the end of time, this is Jesus‘ last work aimed at saving sinners.  This same act equipped the apostles and others to witness effectively as the age of the church began.  As the quotation of Joel’s prophecy by Peter in his sermon of that day suggests, the Holy Spirit is now active in the world as never before.  The revival of Pentecost, complete with conviction of sin, the conversion of hearts toward God within a general atmosphere of awe (in the face of what God was doing) has the same dynamics as many revivals that followed in Christian history.

[4]   God took these measures at the Tower of Babel to hinder human arrogance and pride.  But the curse is abolished by heaven stooping to earth, in Christ and through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  By this God is  gathering us all into one Body, even the Body of Christ.  This is a foretaste of the re-union to come in the fullness of time when Christ returns and people from every tribe and nation will be present.

[5]  He gives a pesher (Hebrew for a standard interpretation of the Old Testament) which declares that “this” (what you are experiencing right now) is a fulfillment of “that” (meaning what we’ve read in Joel 2 which pointed to this).  This practice was widespread among the rabbis of that time and place.

[6]  In that we, all believers, have knowledge of God in Christ, the knowledge of God has been universalized in Pentecost--so, as it is written, we are all prophets as well as priests and kings.  As Peter continues in his citation of Joel 2 we review the events of Good Friday as prophesied many centuries before.

[7]  ”The Name” is an euphemism, a common way of referring to God in Jesus’ day, without blaspheming through over-familiarity. In other words, Peter was attributing full divinity to Jesus when he said “in the name of Jesus” and the Jewish authorities knew it--hence the outrage! And the prohibitions.

[8]   Gamaliel was the teacher of Saul of Tarsus, later Paul and was a prominent figure in the Judaism of this time period.