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"Fear, Trembling and Church Growth"


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          This week in our series of messages from the book of Acts, we pick up Luke’s narrative in the middle of chapter five.  The text for this morning is like two others we have studied so far in the book.  At the end of chapters two and four, Luke gives summaries of what he has said up to that point.  He does that by relating some of what occurred in the church on a day-to-day basis.  They met together daily in the temple, they daily heard apostolic teaching, were of one mind and sacrificially sold their property and gave the proceeds to the poor among them.  Luke uses those kinds of largely general comments to give us a flavor of what church life was like in these heady days of the early church. 

After he records the execution of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke gives another of these summaries beginning with verse 12.  He writes, “12 Now many signs and wonders were regularly done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. 13 None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. 14 And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women, 15 so that they even carried out the sick into the streets and laid them on cots and mats, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. 16 The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”

          Because Luke repeatedly mentions areas in and around the temple mount in Jerusalem—let’s put a graphic up on the wall to show you what Luke is talking about when he mentions “Solomon’s portico.” (See last page) Powerpoint graphic, “Herod’s “Second” Temple on the Temple Mount” Graphic,[1]  Notice Solomon’s portico is a very long, enclosed porch under which the church would meet.  It was about six football fields long so a lot of people could fit under there and by this time, there were thousands who made up the church.  In this summary account of early church life, Luke provides another set of characteristics of early church life.  This morning let’s look at two of them, one of which we have seen before, but haven’t treated in any detail, while the other one provides a taste of the church environment that we as a church would do well to seek after today.

          The first characteristic of the early church Luke reveals here is:  The church was marked by apostolic signs and wonders that helped advance the gospel.  This is really Luke’s primary concern here.  It’s important to remember that this miraculous power was, according to Luke, mostly limited to the apostles.  Here and in the chapter two summary, Luke emphasizes that these miracles were done by the apostles.  If someone needed healing or he/she sought out the apostles. This is only consistent when you understand the nature of apostolic ministry, which we saw in the opening verse of the book.  There, as Luke summarizes the teaching of his gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry, he says, “In the first book, (the gospel of Luke) O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and to teach…”  That tells us that Luke very much sees the book of Acts as a record of what Jesus continued to do and to teach but now, his doing and teaching is through the apostles.  Luke wants us to see the continuity between the signs and wonders Jesus performed in his gospel, and the signs and wonders he continues to do in the book of Acts through his apostles.  The reason the apostles were doing the signs and wonders is because they were uniquely commissioned to continue Jesus’ ministry.  This does not mean that the apostles were the only ones doing signs and wonders.  In chapter six, we see in verse eight that “Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” Stephen was no doubt given these abilities because he was appointed by the apostles and he functioned in some ways like an apostle during his very brief ministry. But according to what Luke records in Acts, Stephen was a rare exception.  Most of the time when signs and wonders are mentioned in Acts, Luke is careful to mention that the apostles are doing them.

          The kind of power we see in the apostles, Peter in particular as the leader, is nothing short of amazing.  Luke gives us a feel for this power in verse 15.  He tells of the sick being carried into the streets and laid on cots and mats so “that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them.” The power of God is so manifest here that even the shadow of Peter carries supernatural power.  We see a similar kind of healing in chapter 19 only in that case, God is doing his miracles through the apostle Paul.  Luke records, “11 … God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, 12 so that even handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were carried away to the sick, and their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.”  Again, the apostolic ministry of healing in these instances is even more powerful than what we see in the gospels in the ministry of Jesus.  In Mark chapter five, we see the woman who had been hemorrhaging for 12 years come from behind Jesus and be healed as she touched his cloak.  But these healings in Acts are even more remarkable.  This is probably a partial fulfillment of what Jesus said in John 14:12 when he said to the twelve, “12 "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.”

          These signs and wonders were remarkable, not only for their miraculous power, but also because of their comprehensive scope.  Luke tells us in verse 16 that “all were healed.” Again, we see the connection with Jesus’ healing ministry when, as in Luke 4:40 he writes of Jesus, “40 Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them.” Again, we see the unmistakable finger prints of Jesus as he does these miracles through the apostles in Acts. 

          Because the book of Acts is full of signs and wonders being done mostly through the apostles, it’s important to remind ourselves of something we said earlier about how we understand this book and apply it today.  It’s important to see Acts as a history book that records historical events.  It is DEscriptive, not PREscriptive.  When Luke records an event, that does not mean that he intends in his description to mandate that this is the way it must always be—it’s simply a description of what happened.  We get into trouble if we base our doctrine on things like baptism or healing or miracles or other works of the Holy Spirit from the book of Acts.  We must get our doctrine on these topics fundamentally from the New Testament letters where doctrine is specifically taught in a prescriptive way.  That means in this instance, it would be wrong for us to teach that signs and wonders are limited to only the apostolic era.  We discussed this before in some detail[2] in our series from First Corinthians.  There we maintained that there is no valid argument in the New Testament that limits the sign gifts to only the apostolic era.  One need only read some of the reports from missionaries to the unreached people groups, Muslims especially, to see that God is still very much in the signs and wonders business. 

          God still uses the sign gifts today to build his church.  John Piper says this about the purpose of the signs and wonders in advancing the gospel today:  “…the sign gifts can, if God pleases, shatter the shell of disinterest; they can shatter the shell of cynicism; they can shatter the shell of false religion.  Like every other good witness to the word of grace, they can help the fallen heart to fix its gaze on the gospel where the soul-saving, self-authenticating glory of the Lord shines.”[3]  One thing we learn from both the historical and doctrinal sections of the New Testament is that God intends the sign gifts to be used in the service of the gospel.  That is—to prepare the soil to receive the seed of the gospel by putting the reality and power of God on display.  That is certainly the way God used the signs and wonders in the book of Acts and that continues to be the pattern today. 

The sign gifts are most often seen today in areas where the gospel has not penetrated and where the powers of darkness have up to this point, almost completely shut out the light of the gospel.  God uses signs and wonders to open the door to the light of the gospel within a culture where the door has been held shut by the darkness.  That’s not to say that signs and wonders can’t happen in North America, but people in the third world, who are not used to relying on science and medicine to be healed, are generally much better at trusting God than we are.  They don’t have anything else to lean on.  The lukewarm quality of much of the North American church also, as David Wells says, has caused the Spirit of God to rest lightly on the church—he simply doesn’t much manifest himself in a church that is not thoroughly convinced of its need for him.

          Notice one more thing in this context of the apostolic signs and wonders.  In verse 16 Luke writes, “The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.”  This verse tells us at least two things.  First, that the signs and wonders caused the gospel to spread outside Jerusalem.  The movement of the gospel outward from the central hub of Jerusalem has begun.  Luke wants us to know that the Jews outside Jerusalem were hearing about people being healed in connection with this new movement.  From a missions standpoint, we must see how the signs and wonders were used in service to the gospel and the Great Commission.  The apostles were not engaged in social and medical ministry as an end in itself.  These were signs and a sign by its very nature points to something outside itself.[4]  A sign is never posted to draw attention to itself.  The sign gifts are always intended to point to Jesus and the power of the gospel. 

            Though Jesus calls us to heal the sick and feed the poor and clothe the naked, there is no indication in the New Testament that this was ever done as an end in itself.  It was always a means to a bigger end—the spreading of the gospel.  It does comparatively little good for a person if you heal them or feed them or give them shelter for this life, but don’t do anything for their eternal existence.  You simply make them healthier so they can live longer and sin more, which will cause them to suffer more severely in an eternal hell.  The “social gospel” approach to ministry is simply not taught or modeled in the New Testament.  Does this mean we are to supposed to let people suffer and die so their earlier death will spare them some pain in the judgment?  That’s absurd--Jesus calls us to love them.  But you can hardly say you are loving someone Biblically if you help them with a comparatively smaller, temporary, physical affliction, without addressing the larger, eternal, spiritual one from which they suffer.  They need Christ!

          This verse is interesting because it relates how the apostles ministered to those with unclean spirits by saying, “and they all were healed.  You might expect Luke to separate out those who were sick and afflicted from those tormented by demonic powers—but he doesn’t.  There, he’s just being consistent with what he and the other gospel writers record in the gospels.  Luke 7:21 says of Jesus, “In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits...”  Likewise, in Luke 6:18 where Jesus is ministering to a large crowd, Luke says that they “came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases.  And those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.”  Why does he use this therapeutic/healing kind of language to describe what is essentially a spiritual battle between Jesus and the powers of darkness?

Part of the reason is--because they got better.  They were no longer troubled by this and to say “they were healed” is descriptive.  Another answer is because the demons at times cause physical maladies.  Luke 13 records a woman who “…had a disabling spirit for eighteen years.”  The Bible teaches that not all diseases have as their ultimate cause, physical disease or pathology.  If, for example, you develop a banging headache every time you read the Bible or try to pray or listen to a sermon, the cause could be spiritual.  We shouldn’t assume every or even most physical illnesses— have a demonic element, they don’t.  But we should be discerning of those issues, even in our modern culture where Satan tends not to act as overtly as he does in the third world.  Some people physically suffer because they are under demonic oppression and Jesus heals them in Acts through the apostles.

          A second major characteristic of the early church we see in Luke’s summary is:  The church was marked by the paradoxical impact it had on the lost.  A paradox is something that seems to be self-contradictory, but is in fact true.  We see that here as Luke describes the impact the early church had on the lost people who were watching them.  To set the context here, we must remember that in Luke’s account of God’s execution of Ananias and Sapphira, he goes out of his way to tell us that those outside the church knew about this shocking act of divine judgment.  In verse five, he says this about Ananias after he had heard Peter’s pronouncement of judgment on him for lying about how much he gave to the poor, “5 When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and breathed his last. And great fear came upon all who heard of it.”  This obviously included not only those in the church, but also those outside.  We see this again in verse 11. After God strikes Sapphira down for her sin, Peter records, “11 And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.”  Again, we see that those outside the church had heard about this and they, like the church were in great fear.
           It’s into that context that Luke writes in the second half of verse 12, “And they were all together in Solomon’s portico.  None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high esteem. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women…”  The paradox jumps out at you if you read this in its plain sense.  That is—the church is gathered in Solomon’s portico and signs and wonders are being done.  But in the shadow of God’s holy judgment of Ananias and Sapphira, none of those outside the church would dare join them, NOT because there was anything dislikable about the church.  In fact, they held the church in high regard.  But at the same time, Luke records that the lost were being saved in unprecedented numbers—both men and women.  So you have this tension—this paradox.  On the one hand, there was activity happening in the church that was very scary to those who watched it from the outside and their fear made them want to distance themselves from it, even though they really respected the people in the church.  But on the other hand, more and more of these folks were getting saved.  At one and the same time there is both great trepidation of what is happening in the church, but also a tremendous attraction to the church.  That’s the picture Luke is painting here.
          Ajith Fernando in his commentary on Acts says this, “The emphasis on miracles…did not result in a situation where the gospel was cheapened and large numbers came into the church only for miracles.  Though Christians were held in high esteem, people were reluctant to join the church.  They realized that ‘the awesome power of the Spirit that judges also demands commitment and responsibility.’…The church did not lower its standards in order to win the lost.”[5]  This dynamic present in the early church provides a wellspring of truth from which the evangelical church today needs to take a deep drink.  Oh, that Christ would move on his church in such a way that the watching world, at one and the same time, would be both magnetically attracted to the integrity of her witness and the power of her ministry, while also being repelled by her blinding holiness.  This is what happens when Christ is clearly manifest in his church.  The world is attracted to his beauty and his love and his power to redeem and forgive and heal, but he as C.S. Lewis says, he is not a tame lion and the lost must be supernaturally drawn to this One who will not be domesticated and who can use his power, not only to redeem and forgive and heal, but also to prune and purge and judge.
           We see this same dynamic in First Corinthians 14.  Paul is teaching on the superiority of the gift of prophecy over tongues.  One way he does that is to tell the church that the gift of tongues in a public worship service will turn away the unbelievers present because it will sound like nonsense to them.  His goal however is NOT to make the worship experience comfortable for unbelievers.  We know that because of the reason Paul says the gift of prophecy is useful to unbelievers.  He says, “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”  That hardly sounds comfortable to me.  This would not go over very well in those churches that depend on the tastes and preferences of the unbeliever to drive how they worship publically.  You know—here is the kind of ministry we want our church to have to unbelievers on Sunday. Our goal is to minister in such a way that they will be convicted by all—they will see their tremendous guilt before God—the secrets of their hearts will be laid bare before them in a public setting.  The result will be that they will broken before God, fall on their face in the midst of the assembly and worship the Lord--declaring that God is present in the church.”  That doesn’t sound very “seeker driven” to me as that is commonly understood today and it doesn’t sound comfortable.  But that is the way Paul envisions the impact of the Spirit’s prophetic ministry within the body on an unbeliever who is there in the gathered assembly.[6]
          Paul and Luke agree that when the Holy Spirit is moving in a local church, there is something that is, at the same time, both magnetic and frightening to the unbeliever.  But Luke is quick to add that this dynamic resulted in unprecedented levels of growth.  Verse 14 says, “And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.”  So often, the church growth movement today tells churches that if they want to reach unbelievers, they must dumb everything thing down and make it as attractive and outwardly appealing as possible to them.  They don’t get that from Luke.  When Christ is present in worship through the Spirit, he is not a pussy cat to amuse and entertain people. He is a LION with enormous power to heal and forgive and redeem but also, to convict and if need be, even judge those who are not living under his authority.  When God is making himself manifest within a body of believers, it is both attractive AND repulsive to unbelievers.  He is weighty.  As one preacher says, there is not only gladness in worship, but also gravity[7]—not only not only adoration, but also trepidation.  The lesson from this text is not that we should use fleshly means to make our worship service more attractive to unbelievers.  Rather, we should make heroic, sacrificial efforts in prayer to plead with God to invade our worship services in his power and when he does, we will see his power to save sinners unleashed as never before with the end result being that the unbeliever “will worship God and declare that God is really among you.”
           This does not require the presence of miraculous gifts, by the way.  We see this same impact in Hebrews 4:12 that we quoted last week.  The author writes, “12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  When the word is preached in Holy Spirit power, hearts are pierced and laid bare.  Oh, that God would attend the preaching of his word with more Holy Spirit power.  This was the paradoxical impact of the church on the lost—adoration and trepidation.  We would do well to listen to the witness of Luke, rather than pay attention to those today who would try to sell us the fleshly counterfeit of a worship service driven by the perceived needs of the lost. 
          Where are we today?  Do we really want this kind of visitation from God? We like the idea of seeing supernatural expressions of God’s mercy and grace and the winning of many converts, but are far less attracted by displays of his holiness and what that may bring to the church.  Do we really want this visitation from God?  I pray that we do and if we do, we must ask God to prepare us for it as we cry out to him in prayer.  May God once again visit his church and gives us the power in ministry and the sense of his presence for his glory and our joy.


[1] Karbel Multimedia, Copyright 2008 Logos Bible Software.

[2] See the website “Pastor Duncan Ross.com” beginning with this message: http://www.pastorduncanross.com/FirstCor/1cor47.htm

[3] http://www.soundofgrace.com/piper91/02-17-91.htm

[4] Shreiner, Tom, New Testament Theology, p.67.

[5] Fernando, A. (1998).  The NIV Application Commentary: Acts (210).  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.

[6] From a message by Duncan that can be found at: http://www.pastorduncanross.com/FirstCor/1cor68.htm

[7] From John Piper’s seminar on worship, Gravity and Gladness on Sunday morning, http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibray/1724_Gravity_and_Gladness_on_Sundaymorning...


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