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"An Example to Follow."

MESSAGE FOR March 14, 2010 FROM ACTS 4:32-37

CLICK HERE FOR WMA - Audio file of the sermon

This week, we come to the end of chapter four in our series of messages from the book of Acts.  Last week, we saw that when the Jewish authorities commanded the apostles to stop preaching Christ, the church prayed an intensely God-centered prayer asking God to give the apostles boldness to preach.  God powerfully answered by shaking the place where they were praying and filling them afresh with the Holy Spirit.  Our text for this morning is similar to one we saw in chapter two where Luke gives us a slice-of-life picture of this early church.  Luke is saying, here is what life was like in the church during this time period—they couldn’t be together enough—awe and wonder marked their gatherings and they sold their possessions and distributed the profits to those in need.  As we read this text in chapter four, you will hear strong parallels with Acts 2:42-47. 

Luke writes, “32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”

          Both these texts in Acts chapters two and four relate to a verse in Deuteronomy chapter 15.  There, Moses is preaching and telling God’s people the purposes and plans God has for his people when they get into the Promised Land and in verse four he writes, “4 But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess…  I doubt seriously whether the goal that there would be “no poor among you” was ever fully realized in Ancient Israel, but here—for this brief season in the history of the early church, it was—“There was not a needy person among them...” Luke explains in Acts that this happened because of the profound sense of community in this church.  Luke’s summary description of this is, “…those who believed were of one heart and soul…” 

How did that community manifest itself?  Luke tells us.  “…and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.”  This was not a conceptual unity or sentimental unity or emotional unity.  This was a very tangible, measurable, substantial unity as seen profound community.  This community was radically manifest in how they viewed their possessions, their property and by implication, their time.  This was their attitude—what I have does not belong to me—it belongs to those in need.  Notice the mark of being in genuine Biblical community is radical unselfishness.  This kind of beautiful community that the Bible calls “koinonia”—(that word group literally means “to share”) cannot occur when people are possessive about their stuff and their resources.  What you have belongs to others.  This is far more radical than what we would call unity today.  Today, we tend to think of unity as agreeing on the same truths—we are unified around certain truths or attitudes like the major themes of Scripture.  That is an indispensible part of unity.  There must be a shared set of basic beliefs about worldview and the gospel for Biblical unity to exist, but unity and community for the early church were much deeper than mental or intellectual agreement on basic Christian doctrine.  It was about sharing--not just sharing the same opinions and attitudes, it was about sharing everything--all possessions and property—what I have belongs to you if you need it. 

There are some telling ways in today’s culture we can measure the number of relationships we have that are marked by this kind of koinonia community. For instance, one expression of this is seen in what Will Miller calls “Refrigerator Rights.”[1]  That is—you know you have some level of this community with a person if, when they are in your home, they feel the freedom to come into your kitchen and open your fridge to see what you have for them to eat.  Miller calls that having refrigerator rights and the point of his book is to grieve the fact that in our culture, we have fewer and fewer people in our lives who have refrigerator rights.  There are increasingly fewer people in our lives who have an understanding that the food in your fridge is there as much for them to eat as you.  On one level, it’s a silly illustration, but because this kind of koinonia is expressed precisely in these more mundane ways, it’s actually very instructive.

          But this kind of community goes beyond that—it’s also about giving others a right to our time.  For many of us, our most important commodity is not the ice cream or leftover meatloaf in our fridge—it’s our time.  A person with whom you enjoy this kind of community feels the freedom to call on you 24/7 if they have a legitimate need you can meet.  There is an understanding between the two of you that if there is a need, your time exists as much for them as it does for you—you have little private ownership of your time with them.  They have as much right to it as you do.  I am not speaking of dysfunctional relationships where people manipulate and selfishly seek to monopolize your time.  I’m talking about people who you love and care for and want to give your time to, because of your affection and regard for them. 

This community also includes (most obviously from the text) the money and property we have.  People with whom we have this kind of community know that if you are in a financial crisis, their money exists as much to be used by you as it does to be used by them.  This is not about giving money away foolishly, but in the case of genuine need—they know that your bank account is as available to them as it is for you.  Also, with respect to property, these people have as much right to the use of that lawn mower or snow blower sitting in your garage as you do.  Your espresso maker or four wheeler or cabin or vehicle is, on a functional level is their espresso maker, four-wheeler, cabin or vehicle.

That’s the way this radical koinonia unity or community is expressed today.  And for the vast majority of us—those with whom we have that kind of radically unselfish relationship is limited strictly to our immediately family, or people who we look on as being like immediate family—they are around so often, or you have known them so long they become de-facto members of your family.   In the early church, everyone was family—everyone in the body of Christ had “pantry rights.”  Everyone in the body had access to you and it was understood that if they were in legitimate need, they had as much right to your money, property and time as you, because “no one said that anything that belonged to him was his own.”  This was not some sort of government mandate—this was not imposed on the church by the apostles—this was all voluntary.  This was simply the prevailing attitude in the church. 

This is such a radical way of living and so foreign to our way of life today in this culture.  This is a picture of a group of believers who God obviously puts here as an example for us.  These texts in Acts chapter two and four can be so discouraging to us because it’s hard to imagine a culture more far removed from our self-centered, self-absorbed culture.  Secular sociologists have for decades been writing books about the incredible self-absorption of our culture.  I heard recently that in Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone” the statistics transparently show that America has become intensely and increasingly self-absorbed.  We live in a culture where giving yourself away is simply not practiced and is in fact, not valued.  Putnam found that there had been a 25% decline in voting over the past 30 years—voting is an expression of our concern not just for ourselves, but for our nation.  In the same time period, there has been a 50% decline in participation in social, civic and fraternal organizations. 

As we draw more and more into ourselves, we don’t have time for that kind of involvement with others.  There has only been a 10% decline in church attendance in worship, but there has been a 50% decline in participation in church activities outside attending weekly worship services.[2]  The labor force in the church is half what it was 30 years ago, while at the same time; people’s expectations of the church for themselves and their kids have never been higher.  This explains the mega-church movement.  In the mega church with 1000 or more in weekly attendance, the sheer volume of attenders and the highly skilled administrators these churches attract, enable people to have all sorts of programs offered to “meet their needs” without them necessarily needing to be involved.    

Americans are giving significantly smaller percentages of their income away to churches and charities than those who lived a generation ago.  And that generation gave a significantly smaller percentage of their income away to churches and charities than the generation before them—so there is a downward spiral in contributions to charities and churches.  And that downward trend has occurred during a time when as a nation, our living standards and disposable income have soared to unprecedented levels.   We live in an intensely self absorbed culture and we are naïve at best if we think we have not been profoundly shaped by it.  We are simply as a culture spending more and more of our resources—money, time, energy on ourselves.  To use the metaphor, there have probably never been a people who have had fewer relationships marked by refrigerator rights.

We must read these radical texts on community in Acts two and four with an awareness of our present context.  We have to realize that we are further removed from this quality of Christian life in practice than perhaps any church culture in history and we are drifting further from it away by the moment.  To be honest, these texts have become almost completely irrelevant to today’s church.  How many believers read these two texts and think, “Yeah, we need to do that in our church?”  The dominant impact of these texts  in our culture is to make us feel vaguely uncomfortable when we read them.  Today, someone who is considered to be very active in church—that person would have been considered to have been about average 50 years ago.  And a person who is average in their participation in church ministry today, might very well have been considered a backslider in a healthy church just two generations ago.  The plates have shifted in such a way as to take us very far away from the reality of the quality of corporate spiritual life described in Acts chapters two and four.  As Bob Dylan says, “The Times They Are A-Changin’” But the stubborn truth is—God hasn’t changed—the Holy Spirit who filled and controlled these first century believers is the same yesterday, today and forever.  He doesn’t determine faithfulness based on some cultural curve. He puts this radical community in his Word as an example to follow, so what do we do? 

The first thing we do is we discover what on earth the church of the apostolic era had that we do not have.  We know it wasn’t money.  Only 10% of the population even had property to sell.[3]  The difference Luke mentions here is at the end of verse 33 where he explains all this by saying, “and great grace was upon them all.”  They had a lot more grace than we have.  That explains it but what does that mean?  We see the answer when we compare this account in chapter four with chapter two.  Notice the pattern in Acts chapters two and four.  In Acts chapter two, God pours out the Holy Spirit for the first time and in response, Peter preaches his great sermon, many are saved, and in the wake of the coming of the Spirit, Luke gives his account in Luke 2:42-47 describing this same kind of radically unselfish community.  In Acts chapter four, again the Spirit is poured out and in response to that—there is bold preaching and again Luke follows with a description of this same radical unselfishness.  The implication from Luke is what these people had that we do not have—what brought this level of radical lack of self-absorption was a dramatic encounter with God.  That happened in chapters two and four with these two outpourings of the Spirit.  We know that this is what Luke means when he says “and great grace was upon them all” because in both chapters two and four, something happens that is an unmistakable indicator of a dramatic encounter with God.  In chapter two, there is fire when the Spirit comes and that is a common Scriptural marker for a powerful encounter with God and in chapter four there is an earthquake.

That too is one of God’s more common calling cards in the Bible.  We see it at Sinai, in Isaiah six, the crucifixion, here and when Paul and Silas are in the Philippian jail.  It’s no accident that Luke records these two accounts of this radical community on the heels of these two encounters with God—he wants us to see the connection.  The biggest difference between these believers and so many of us is that they had recently had an encounter with God and the fire and quake Luke records is his way of helping us dramatically see that.  When you have an encounter with the living God, everything else changes.  In the past, we have described this by using John Piper’s illustration from the world of physics.  That is— when something has mass, it also has gravity and when something has enough mass, the gravitational pull it exerts is so strong that other masses begin to orbit around it.  The same is true spiritually.  What is really important to us we give spiritual mass and therefore gravity.  We give given certain things in our life so much mass that the gravitational pull causes us to orbit our lives around it.  God’s will is that he will have ultimate mass and therefore gravity in our lives so that we will more and more orbit around him.  But if we are giving that kind of ultimate mass to our jobs or kids or a hobbies then we begin to orbit around them—we have given them the power to control our how we feel and think and that is idolatry.

While I was convalescing, I heard an even better explanation of this dynamic from Tim Keller and I like it better because its rooted in a very common—even dominant Biblical theme and that is—the glory of God.  The next four paragraphs are from something I heard from Keller on the internet.[4]  Keller reminds us that the Hebrew word for glory literally means “weight.”  God’s glory means he is infinitely weighty.  That is—he is more permanent, more substantial and more real than anyone or anything else in the universe.  Compared to anything else, God matters more than anything.  We see this illustrated in the physical universe.  If you drop an object in water that is heavier than the water—it makes a big splash or impact on the water because it has more “glory” than the water.  If you drop an object on ice that is heavier than the ice, the ice cracks from the  impact of the weight or “glory.”  Keller rightly says that when God and his glory really, truly come into your life, it begins to change everything because his weight, his glory displaces everything else—he rearranges all the furniture in your life.

There are many people who attend church who mentally believe the gospel and affirm what the Bible says about God, but for them (again, using Keller’s words) God is not a reality, he is a concept.  There is a profound difference between on the one hand, believing in your head the truth about God as a concept and on the other, experiencing him as a reality.  The difference between God as a concept and God as a reality is God’s glory—his weightiness in your life.  God as a concept is lighter than you—you shape it—it fits in around your existing patterns.  God as a concept will not change your habits or thought patterns or behaviors because he is lighter than them—he fits in with your existing beliefs.  You shape the God concept—it doesn’t shape you.  If you are not walking as closely to God as you once did—if things you used to think were sinful are now not so bad, or, things you used to think were a waste of your time but are now not, then it may very well be that you have simply shaped your God-concept to fit in with your idols.  You have more glory than your God concept.  What’s more, if this describes you, then you may very well have actually used your God concept as a means to help you reach your personal goals in life and meet your needs.  The God concept is simply a means to an end. He helps me get what I want, but I don’t love him just for who he is.  He fits in with my worldview and serves my existing agenda.  That is the way an awful lot of us relate to God.

But if God is a reality, then he is much, much weighteir than you—he has more glory than you.  You don’t shape him, he shapes you.  He changes the way you think, he alters your schedules and your career path and your direction in life and you build your life around him, not vice-versa.  At times, he comes in like a wrecking ball and tears down your treasured agendas and priorities and plans that do not serve his purpose because he has more glory than them.  When God is a reality, he changes even your most strongly held beliefs—he turns your world upside down.  The reality of God doesn’t fit into your agenda; he becomes your agenda because he is more weighty, more substantial and more real than your individual needs.  You can tell if God is a reality to you because he is still contradicting you and still demolishing your old value systems.  But if those things aren’t happening, then God has been reduced more to a concept than a reality and you are simply squeezing that God-concept into your own selfish agenda. 

For these believers in Acts chapter four, the reason they were selling all their property and giving it away to meet the needs of other people is because—that’s what happens when a person has an encounter with God—“great grace was upon them all.” God had far more weight in their lives than their money and property.  God had a far greater gravitational pull on them than their possessions and God’s very strong pull was in the direction of these other believers—not themselves.  God’s weight—God’s glory was so real—that glory caused them to see everyone else in Christ just like they saw the members of their immediate family and they treated them like it—giving away their possessions and time to everyone else in the family of God and the result was--no one had any need.

For us, the implication is—if God has the same level of glory in our lives as these first followers of Christ, we will act just like these believers because God and his agenda haven’t changed.  The degree to which we do not love our brothers and sisters this radically (however that would be expressed in our culture), is the degree to which the glory—the reality of the things of this earth are much more weighty, more important to us than God.  And we know that because Acts chapters two and four show us what it looks like in the church in this area of community when God is more weighty than the things of this world.  For so many of us, our self-absorbed culture carries more weight than our self-sacrificing God.  So what do we do?  First, ask ourselves if we really want this great grace in our lives because to be honest, some of us don’t even want this.  We like our self-absorption—it works well for us.  For people who are in that place, I wonder if you have ever had an initial, saving encounter with the reality of God because if you are comfortable with a self-absorbed lifestyle, I have a hard time believing the Holy Spirit we see in Acts two and four lives in you.

But for those who do want more of God—who want to know the reality of God anew, the answer is to have another encounter with God and specifically—as the text says, with the grace of God.  We must be praying for great grace.  Prayer is where it starts—this is what the concerts of prayer are about—praying for a visitation from God.  In the Bible, there is a fairly common pattern manifest when people encounter God as a reality.  I saw this pattern yesterday in my daily devotions in Deuteronomy 10.  God is about to use his Hebrew people to drive out the larger, stronger Canaanite nations as they come out of the wilderness.  And in chapters seven, eight, nine and ten, God through Moses presses the point that all these marvelous victories will have nothing to do with anything in them.

He reminds them almost ad-nauseum of their stiff necks, their hard hearts and the many ways in which they have rebelled against God.  He reminds them that what he is about to do with them is for his glory and by his power—it is in no way an indicator of their righteousness because they were rebels.  In the midst of that context where God reminds them again and again of their great sinfulness, God says to them in verse 14, “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it.  Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day.  Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn.  For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty and the awesome God…”  This pattern is all over the Bible.  First, God communicates to us that we are sinners who are rebelling against the God of gods and Lord of lords—maker of heaven and earth and we in no way deserve any of his blessings.  As God’s grace acts on us, he convinces us anew the reality of the great wickedness in our hearts as seen in our giving more weight to the things of this earth—our possessions, our past-times—than to the Lord of the universe.

As we come to that conclusion and we feel the reality of God’s weight in response to our sin, he doesn’t leave us there. He breaks into our lives and says, “Yet, the LORD set his heart in love on you…” And for us who live on this side of the cross, we know that he expressed his love to us by giving his Son to die for us on Calvary.  When we see that God loves us like that in the midst of our sin and if we turn to him, he will use us in spite of our enormous sin and that glorious truth becomes a reality—when then see the twin truths that “we are more wicked than we could have imagined and more loved than we could have ever dared hope”[5] as God visits us with the ultimate glory of his gospel, its not just a concept for us—then guess what?  The place where you are begins to shake, he pours out his Spirit and God takes on more glory than the things in your life and he re-arranges your furniture.  This is what causes people to go into the mission field and repent of long cherished sin and exchange self-sacrifice for self-absorption--because GOD is more real and more important and more substantial and more permanent than any of the things in this life.  And we know joy unspeakable and full of glory because we’re no longer trying to fit God into our agenda, God IS our agenda.  Is this what you want?  THIS is what we need, beloved!  May God give us rebels the grace to meet him in the weighty reality of his undeserved gospel love and may that reality never stop shaking up our world.

[1] Will Miller, “Refrigerator Rights,” 2002

[2] As quoted by Tim Keller in a message on Isaiah chapter six.  http://sermons2.rdeemer.com/sermons/gospel-and-your-self

[3] Bock, Luke, p. 215.

[4] http://sermons2.rdeemer.com/sermons/gospel-and-your-self

[5] Keller, same message.


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