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"A Spirit Filled Church."

MESSAGE FOR DECEMBER 13, 2009 FROM ACTS 2:42-47

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          This week, we finish our study of the second chapter of Acts, which records the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  In this week’s text, Luke describes in some detail the impact the Holy Spirit had on the church when he came. These verses describe the church when it is filled with the Holy Spirit--when the Holy Spirit’s ministry is strongly manifest—when the church is strongly under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  This text is very important for churches to study because it gives us a rare, condensed treatment of the elements present within a healthy church.  Because our truth-driven vision is to be healthy as the Bible defines healthy, and this text lays out a summary of what a healthy church looks like, this is a very important passage for us.  The Holy Spirit, who inspired Luke, doubtless intends that individual churches use this text as a measuring rod.  Though we may not reach the spiritual health of this church, we must continually allow these truths to expose those areas where we are not manifesting the Holy Spirit’s influence.

          It’s also important because David Wells is right when he says in his excellent book, “God in the Wasteland,” “The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church [That is—his influence is not strongly felt].  His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common.”[1]  It is the Holy Spirit’s ministry to bring his truth from the distance to confront our hearts.  It is the Holy Spirit who causes us to see grace NOT as ordinary, but when his influence is manifest in our lives, we see grace as utterly amazing.  It’s the Spirit who keeps us from seeing God’s judgment as benign and harmless by impressing upon us the fear of a holy God.  It is the Spirit who humbles us by revealing afresh the supernatural quality of a life controlled by the gospel and it’s the Spirit who continuously compels us to magnify Christ, not diminish him into someone who is common.  Because those things are not happening within so much of evangelicalism and our church, that tells us that God the Holy Spirit rests lightly on the church, exerting little of his influence.  This passage helps us to see some specific ways in which that is true by showing us what the church looks like when the Spirit’s influence IS being experienced.

          To illustrate what this means, here are some statements or attitudes that, as we will see, were NOT present in this Acts 2 church. “You know honey, we have small group tonight.  It’s been two weeks already?!  Is there any way we can get out of it?  No, we’re bringing the salad.  Oh, good night!” Or, “There’s just nothing for me at church on Wednesday nights.” Or, “We have to serve in the nursery again!  Can’t they find someone else to watch those kids?” Or, “Do we have to go to church Sunday night—the Vikings are playing?” Or, “I don’t care if the church needs money—if we give all our money away, we wont’ be able to afford that trip we’ve planned.” Or, “That prayer meeting went forever tonight. Let’s not go to any more of those, alright?  Contrast those attitudes and statements with what we read of those 3000 new converts, “42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” 

          There’s a pretty big gulf separating the attitudes of these Spirit-filled people and the statements I cited earlier, isn’t there?  One of the problems with many of us is that instead of comparing our attitudes, desires and actions with these believers Luke holds up as a legitimate example for us, we tend to compare ourselves with the people down the row from us who we judge (rightly or wrongly) to be far less committed to the Lord and the ministry of his church. “I’m doing better than so and so; therefore I am in a good place.”  We must not fall into that trap, but instead use this inspired and radical Biblical example to be the measuring rod to reveal to us the level of the Holy Spirit’s influence in our lives and church.

          Perhaps the most important word in this passage is the main verb in verse 42, “And they devoted themselves… The reason that word is so important is because verse 42 is a summary statement of this section.  They were devoting themselves to four areas of ministry--the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Everything else Luke tells us about this church in these verses simply elaborates on those four areas of ministry.  That means that the descriptive phrase that broadly describes everything this church did is, “they devoted themselves…”  This was a devoted church.  The word “devoted” means they were strong on a consistent, steadfast basis. The word brings out the tenacious character of the church.  They were not strong for a moment or for a particular worship service or a prayer meeting or for a season—they were strongly committed to these areas of ministry over the long haul—they were consistently strong.   

This supernatural influence of the Spirit is steadfast—it persists, it perseveres.  This church didn’t run hot and cold.  Think about how different that is from the negative examples I cited earlier. Oh beloved, we need for God to rest heavily on our church, not lightly!  My desire for this message is that by God’s grace, we might internalize our great need as a church for a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  That we would by God’s grace use God’s measuring rod for us and long for a transforming work of God in our lives through the gospel.  In all they did, these believers were strongly and persistently committed and that is owing to the powerful influence of the Holy Spirit within the church.

As I look at this passage, the way I get the most out of it is to use this church’s incredible balance within their ministry as a lens through which to examine the work and presence of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit brought such balance to this church.  In nearly all churches, there are certain areas of ministries that seem strong while other areas of ministry that should be equally strong are virtually non-existent.  This church is remarkable because the Spirit kept all the ministries in balance with one another.  I want to briefly look at six areas of this balance within this church as a way for us to see the Spirit’s influence.  The first area of balance is: This Spirit-filled church had a strong emphasis on both apostolic teaching and the fellowship.  So often in churches, you see EITHER a strong emphasis on Biblical teaching and doctrine OR warm, loving fellowship.  We tend to militate toward one of two extremes on this continuum.  Often, churches that emphasize strong, Biblical teaching tend to be a bit cold and academic—made up of people who are more interested in Bible knowledge than in loving God’s people.  On the other hand, churches that place a strong emphasis on community and interpersonal ministry can often be great at having fun together and deeply enjoy one another’s company--even serving one another in love, but they often have no strong hunger for Bible teaching.

The influence of the Spirit in this church makes no such separation.  Verse 42 says, “…they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship...”  They were strongly committed to BOTH strong apostolic teaching of the truth of the Bible AND to a loving fellowship. I daresay the fellowship was driven by the truth of God’s word.  The apostle’s teaching would have included material that is consistent with what we read in the New Testament.  There would have been a strong emphasis on doctrine---who is Jesus Christ and what did he accomplish in his life, death and resurrection?  What is the gospel?  What is the role of the law?  What is the church and what is required to be a part of the church?  What are baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  But there would have also been strong ethical teaching on how the gospel is lived out in daily life amid Jewish and pagan cultures.  They were devoted—strongly committed to the apostles’ teaching.  They hungered for the truth—they worked at hearing it often and they worked at understanding it and applying it to their lives.

At the same time, they were deeply committed to the fellowship—the “koinonia” of believers.  We see what Luke means by this in verses 44 and 46.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.”  These people were strongly committed to being with one another and they were together every day.  The notion that being with the gathered church on a Wednesday night or being in a small group would contribute nothing to them, or worse, would be an unwelcome burden would have sounded profane to them.  That kind of consumer mentality is contrary to the Spirit.  They were in Christ together and that bond of unity in the Spirit was precious to them. When Luke says “they all things in common” he’s not speaking demographically, as if they were all from the same socio-economic class or educational level or the same cultural background.  We know from earlier in chapter two that there were people from more than 10 distinct cultures represented in this group. There were Jews from Palestine and there were Jews from the nations of the Diaspora—those Jews dispersed all around the Mediterranean whose native language was not Aramaic and who were much more Greek in their cultural background.

So what does Luke mean when he says they had all things in common?  What he means is this: if Jesus is absolutely everything to you and he’s absolutely everything to someone else, then on a practical level—you have all things in common.  If God and Jesus and faith are far and away THE dominant passions of your life and the same is true of me, then the fact that we are in different socio-economic stratas or careers or stages of life or ethnic backgrounds is unimportant.  The Spirit causes people to be so adamantly, passionately in love with Jesus that people who share that love have all things in common. After Jesus, everything else in life is just details for these Spirit-filled people.  

Verse 46 unpacks this further.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes…” These people were together every day in the temple courts and after they prayed and worshipped and were instructed in the temple, they went to one another’s homes.  They couldn’t get enough of each other!  They learned, prayed and celebrated the Lord’s Supper together daily.  Today, if a church existed like this, we would swear it was cultish—people just shouldn’t like to be together that much!!  They do if they share the same passionate love for Christ who unites them at the deepest levels of their hearts.  If Brett Favre had been a first century gladiator visiting Jerusalem, it’s clear that this church would never have missed a chance to be with one another just to watch him “gladiate”  This church was devoted to both teaching and fellowship. 

Another element of balance is very similar and that is: This Spirit-filled church was strongly supportive of both intellectual and emotional expression.  Again, only God can strike this balance because these two areas typically do not exist together.  Often, people are divided into “learners” and “feelers.”  Those who like to learn and those who like to emote. The Spirit, when he is actively at work in your life,causes you to love God with all your heart and soulthe emotional component—there’s passion there.  But he also causes you to love God with all your mindthe intellectual component.  We see the intellectual component in that this was a church committed to strong teaching—they wanted to know the truth.  But in verse 47, we also see their emotional passion for God.  They were “praising God and having favor with all the people.”  According to verse 46, they had “glad hearts.” These were a praising people—they were would have been a joy to be around.  But they were also serious student of God’s word.

Another area of balance is: This Spirit-filled church served and worshipped God with both joy and reverent fear.  As we saw in our series on worship several months ago, genuine, Spirit-led worship is marked by reverent joy.  There is no separation between fearing God in reverence and rejoicing in him.  He is holy and he is good and our worship, if it is under the influence of the Spirit, will reflect an understanding of both of those attributes.  We see their reverence in verse 43 where Luke writes, “And awe came upon every soul.” The word used for “awe” is often translated “fear.” It’s what people experience when there is a strong sense of the presence of God in his holiness.  And in this Spirit-filled church, all the people felt this persistently.  This is the sense of God’s weightiness that is today so lacking in the church—the sense that God is here and he is transcendent—he is different—he is holy.  The sense of awe was pervasive in this church.

But it wasn’t oppressive or paralyzing because there was, as we have seen, great joy here as well.  The sense of God’s holiness did not throw a wet blanket on the joyful worship of these saints, instead it deepened it.  This was a reverent joy—there was a layering—a spiritual depth to their emotion here.  This was not a momentary chill that runs up your spine—it was a persistent sense—filling this church.  Another area of balance within this church is: This Spirit-filled church was both prayerful and actively, sacrificially giving.  One of the four main pillars of ministry in this church was their prayer.  They devoted themselves to “the prayers” according to verse 42.  This may mean prepared prayers like those found in the Psalms—you can pray powerfully using written prayers.  But it also refers to the prayer-soaked environment that marked the church.  We know that because prayer plays such a huge role for Luke in both his gospel and Acts.

Tom Schreiner does a good job of summarizing the prayer ministry we see in Acts.  “The apostles in particular were obligated to “devote [themselves] to prayer and to the ministry of the world” (Acts 6:4)…Similarly, the apostles laid their hands on and prayed for the seven who were appointed to deal with the problem of the Hellenistic widows [in] Acts 6:6.  The Sanhedrin threatened the apostles for preaching Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord, and the apostles returned from the meeting and prayed that the Sovereign Lord…would grant them boldness to continue to proclaim the gospel [in] Acts 4:23-32.  They prayed that God would confirm his message through signs and wonders.  That prayer is clearly portrayed as being answered in the shaking of the building, the filling of the Spirit, and the bold witness to God’s word (Acts 4:31).  ...Saul was praying when God instructed Ananias to go to him and to lay hands on him so that he would receive the Spirit [in Acts 9:10-18]…Cornelius [the first Gentile convert] was commended as a man of regular prayer…God granted Peter the vision of animals in a sheet lowered to earth while he was praying [in] Acts 10:9.  Peter’s liberation from prison was due to the sovereign work of God, and yet we are told that the church was praying fervently [in] Acts 12:5, 12.  The commissioning of Barnabas and Paul for the first intentional mission to the Gentiles occurred in a context of worship, fasting and prayer [in] Acts 13:2-3.”[2]  There are many such instances where prayer is crucial to the ministry of the church.  This church didn’t do anything of significance and God doesn’t appear to do much of significance apart from prayer.  A 120 of these people had prayed—before the Spirit came--for 10 days straight.  This is not the kind of church where people complained because the prayer meeting runs longer than expected.

Yet, it wasn’t as if the church is filled with navel-gazing mystics who do nothing but sit around and enjoy their intimate times of communion with the Father.  This was not a monastic community that isolated themselves from the needs of the real world.  The combined their prayers with sacrificial acts of mercy.  Verse 45 says, “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  As we said in our study of the rich young ruler, Palestinian Jews of this time regularly gave 20% of their income away and many more (like the rich young ruler) gave at least an additional 10 percent—it was part of what they owed for temple worship and gave as alms to the poor.  If you were part of a strict monastic sect within Judaism called the Essenes, you were required to liquidate all your assets and give them away.  So this level of sacrifice was not unheard of by these Jews.

What’s different here is that these radical acts of sacrifice were done without external pressure.  This was not any law or rule—it was the Spirit of God who had written the law of love on their hearts.  Its clear from the context that what motivated these saints was not their desire for God to prosper them financially—the Holy Spirit does not teach the prosperity gospel—these people were motivated to give all their money away—“distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”  They weren’t generous just to be generous—as if their money meant nothing to them.  The Spirit didn’t produce within them an indifference to money.  It was their need-meeting love for their brothers and sisters that the Spirit had placed in their hearts.  Their love for Christ united them in such a way that it was clear that meeting the needs of a brother or sister was a vastly superior way to invest their assets than piling treasure up on earth.  The Spirit produced a selfless desire to help those in need that is completely inconsistent with complaining because someone else isn’t doing their fair share in the nursery or other ministries.  This was both a praying church and a church actively, sacrificially giving to others.

Another area of balance in ministry is: This Spirit-filled church was both distinct from the world, but also attractive to the world.  It was distinct in all the ways we have seen.  If an unsaved investigative journalist from the Jerusalem Herald Examiner would have lived within this community and genuinely tried to live like them, he would have felt very frustrated very early.  This church lived so differently than the rest of the Jews—there were huge lines of division between this church and the world—darkness and light—carnal and spiritual—life and death.  But at the same time, we read in verse 47 that they were “praising God and having favor with all the people.”  The point is not that the world loved the church at all points and many of the Jews eventually grew to hate the church.  The point is the saints lived lives that were attractive to the outside world.[3]  There is something very attractive about this kind of close-knit, sacrificially committed community to the average person in the world who craves this kind of love and acceptance.  A healthy church is attractive to the world in many ways BECAUSE it is distinct. 

A final area of balance in the church is: this Spirit-filled church was committed to both discipleship and evangelism.  This church was clearly a teaching church, but we read in verse 47, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.  That implies that these believers were telling others about Jesus and bringing them into the church.  There was both a desire to grow the church deeper in discipleship AND also a burden to grow it wider through evangelism.  Though it is wrong for churches to separate those two areas of ministry because they are two sides of the same coin, many churches do that.  The so called “teaching churches” are often lousy at outreach into their community.  They want sound doctrine, but their doctrine does little to increase their concern for the people around them who are dying and going to hell.  And churches with a strong emphasis on reaching the lost are often guilty of being inch-deep in their theology.  They may good at getting lost people to respond, but they can easily produce false converts or believers who don’t come to know Christ very well and whose doctrinal ignorance makes them vulnerable to false teaching.

 As we have spent some time examining this Spirit filled church, how are we stacking up to this inspired measuring rod?   We must remember the gospel as we think about these things.  That is—all these admirable qualities we have seen in this Spirit-filled church are all part of our inheritance through the gospel.  If we have genuinely trusted in Christ, then all the blessings and promises we see being fulfilled here…are ours. That means that we have every spiritual benefit these believers enjoyed in Acts chapter two—Christ purchase for us this Spirit-filled quality of spiritual life—do we believe that?  This is who we are in Christ!  He purchased for us by his blood a hunger for apostolic teaching and a love for the church and hearts that are willing to surrender everything for our brothers and sisters in need.  He purchases for us a passion to be in God’s presence in corporate prayer.  All these are ours in Christ.

Tragically however, in many cases, we have much more in common with the folks who whine about going to their small group or gripe at the limited class offerings on Wednesday night, or who complain about having to repeatedly serve in a ministry, or who prefer watching the Vikings to being with their brothers and sisters in Christ, or who have a death grip on their wallets, or who swear off prayer meetings that feel too long to them.  That’s not the influence of the Holy Spirit—that’s not what Luke records here at the end of Acts chapter two.  How do we change?  The New Testament does not improve upon Second Chronicles 7:14.  14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”  When we see how far we are from this example of Acts two, the first step is to admit that there is sin.  Our problem isn’t that we are too busy—our problem is idolatry.  We have allowed the things of this world to fill the God-given hunger we had when we first came to Christ and we have been deceived about our level of spiritual health. 

We must humble ourselves before God and pray earnestly and by God’s grace repent.  This is what we strive to do in the monthly concerts of prayer.  We will devoting the first week of the New Year to an emphasis on prayer as we seek after God for repentance and blessing.  But if God is moving in your heart today, humble yourself and come forward and begin repenting.  Claim your inheritance—claim the promises of the gospel—the hunger for God’s word, a love for God’s people, a passion for prayer and a willingness to die to your personal possessions or agendas for the good of others.  May God give us the grace to be who he paid for us to be with the blood of his Son.


[1] Wells, David, “God in the Wasteland,” Eerdmans, 1994, p. 30.

[2] Schreiner, New Testament Theology, p. 704-5.

[3] Dever, Mark, The Message of the New Testament, Crossway, 2005.

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