I have long looked forward to studying the Book of Acts with you. Over many years of Sunday evening services we made our way through the historical books of the OT, from Joshua to Esther. It is high time we made our way through the great book of early Church history in the NT.
And for the very best reasons. Acts is a book so relevant to every facet of Christian life today that it should be one of the books of the Bible that every serious Christian is thoroughly familiar with. Tonight I want to consider just a few ways in which the study of Acts will serve us as Christians at the end of the 20th century; just a few ways in which this 2,000 year old history is as relevant, as essential reading for Christians as it has ever been.
I. First, Acts provides the standard against which we are to test our spiritual culture.
You know, of course, that churches and Christian traditions are, in many ways, quite different from one another. They differ theologically, of course, but they differ in many other ways in what we might think of as their personality: for example, they differ in their approach to ministry, in their emphases, in the impressions they make on others, in the way they worship, in the way they organize the life and fellowship of the church, etc. I have attended churches, as you have, that have had personalities very different from one another. One church had virtually no activities apart from the stated services of the week and did so on purpose. The minister didn’t approve of small groups or ladies Bible studies or young people’s meetings. It was the most Spartan church program I had ever encountered. It also had the longest Sunday services — by far — of any church I have known. But that church also had, far and away, the finest prayer meeting I have ever encountered, a very faithful congregation many of whom were actively evangelistic and hospitable. It was perhaps the most influential congregation I have ever been associated with, having had a great impact on its denomination and its nation. But, as I said, it was very different from other churches I have been part of and many would object to its way of organizing its life, worship, and ministry.
It used to be that, in general, denominations produced churches that were quite alike — Presbyterian churches all looked pretty much the same, Methodist churches looked like Methodist churches, and Baptist like Baptist. The denominations differed from one another, but the churches within those denominations resembled one another quite closely. Denominations produced, in a particular time and place, a spiritual culture in which the member churches participated. That was true in my experience as a boy growing up in the RPCES. Wherever one went in the denomination, one felt at home. The worship, the preaching, the atmosphere of the church was the same from congregation to congregation. Well, in our day, denominationalism has died. You can go to ten churches in the same denomination — even in our own PCA — and think yourself in ten different denominations. The churches don’t look the same, act the same, don’t seem to care about the same things, and, in some cases, you can’t even tell if their message is the same. Everyone, every church today is doing what is right in its own eyes.
How are we to judge what is right and what is wrong among all of those choices we are presented with today? Which spiritual culture, which way of doing things is most faithful to the pattern laid down in Holy Scripture? What is a church supposed to look like, how is it supposed to act, what is it supposed to care about more than anything else? Well, Acts will tell us.
Acts will tell us what the church was like when the Apostles gave it its new shape after Pentecost. It won’t tell us everything, of course — there is no description of a worship service in Acts, for example — but it will tell us many things, very important things. It will not tell us what our spiritual culture must be in detail — and that is also an important lesson of this book — all the churches described in it are not the same in various ways — but it will give us the principles by which to judge the faithfulness of our spiritual culture.
Let’s take an example. When I was growing up the practice of giving evangelistic invitations at the end of church services was a fixed part of American evangelical culture. That invitation system is dying away now and you find it much less often, even in churches where not so many years ago any tampering with that system would have been regarded as the first step toward liberalism. That was, in other words, part of my spiritual culture. The Bible doesn’t tell us to give invitations to come forward at the end of sermons. It doesn’t forbid it either. What is right? What should we do? The church never did this until the mid-19th century, but for a hundred years many evangelical churches thought that not to do it was virtually equivalent to unbelief.
So, Acts is the place to begin, for there we find out what the Apostles did; how they practiced evangelism. It is certainly true that it will not be the same practice in every time and place. It is clear, even in Acts, that some things done in Jerusalem, for example, were not done in the churches Paul founded in Europe. The community of goods practiced early on in the Jerusalem church was not practiced in Philippi or Thessalonica. That in itself, as I said, teaches us something. The church will not always do the same things in the world. But, the principles by which we make such choices and decide what is appropriate in our time — these we find in Acts — not in Acts only, of course — but there in flesh and blood, in history, in actual events and actual churches. Here is the pattern for us to learn so that we might apply it ourselves in our own unique situation. Here is the pattern.
In Acts the church had no buildings — it was brand new, of course, and was not yet established in the world [in this it was like Israel in the wilderness, as opposed to Israel settled under David and Solomon. We cannot draw from the fact that there were no church buildings for congregations in Acts, that they met in homes, that churches are supposed to meet in homes! Many have tried to construct that argument, but it would be akin to arguing that the tabernacle was better than the temple!]. In Acts there were miracles that we do not find in the church today, the claims of some notwithstanding. So our life is not the same in all points as the life of the church in those earliest days. But, many things are the same and ought to be the same, and, even where they are different, Acts will teach us what the underlying lessons and principles of those differences are and how we can be faithful to them in our own times. Virtually every issue that presently agitates the church can be studied from the vantage point of this early Christian history.
II. Second, Acts will restore to late 20th century Christians the nobility of our faith.
What you have in Acts, what we will find in this history is a form of Christianity that is wonderfully impressive in many different ways. It was brand new, of course, in many of the places and to many of the people to whom this faith came. And we find it coming to them in a very pure, pristine form, not yet encrusted with stultifying traditions. (I don’t mean that there was not sin in the church — there was [Ananias and Sapphira, Simon Magus, False teaching such as was addressed in Acts 15] –, but that only makes the presentation of Christianity in Acts all the more impressive. For, in spite of the fact that people were just as sinful then as now, the faith, the experience, the activity of the church, was deeply impressive, beautiful really.
What we have, in fact, in Acts, is revival Christianity. And in revivals you get Christianity and Christian living in a purer more authentic form. You get people acting as they ought to act, as we would act if we are as moved by the grace of God as we ought to be, if we were as much in love with God as we ought always to be, if we believed the promises of God with the faith we ought always to have.
Here is authentic “worldly” Christianity, that is Christianity in the real world, in its ideal form, and in a day like ours we need to be exposed to this frequently (Acts and Church History, for there have been other revivals!). Our children need to know that this is what their faith really is, that Christianity is not some polite middle class lifestyle, but is, in fact, a truth so wonderful, a calling so demanding and so exhilarating, a way of life so fulfilling and so worthy of the full consecration of all that we are and have, a life so far above every other philosophy or morality in the world, that it will require everything they are and have — and grace upon grace from God — if they are to do any kind of justice to it in their own lives, and everything of themselves they pour in to it will repay the effort a thousand-fold!
[So often, nowadays, Christian churches seem to fear making real demands on Christian people; seem to think the only Christianity that will sell is one that asks for very little! [Dick and my experience at South Coast PCA, Encinitas, CA! Nothing there to die for!] Young people, Christianity is not something for you to put up with; it is something for you to die for! Acts will show that Christianity to you and show you how beautiful, how thrilling, how noble it is. The community of goods; rejoicing to be found worthy of suffering for the NAME; the love of enemies; the utterly new thing they presented to an old and dying world! Young people, are you going to be like so many of your Christian peers who feel that they are being put upon to be asked to come twice to church on the Lord’s Day? [Covenant College students!] I very much hope not. I hope that you will love to be in the house of God, love to study and learn the Word of God, love to sing hymns to God’s praise, love to be with the saints, love to do the work of prayer, and love aggressively, yet winsomely, to commend the truth of Christ to others. Acts will not only show you that this is the spirit of authentic Christianity, but will show you how beautiful, how true that spirit is! [The 60s protest against middle class values — There was much that was true in that criticism.] The problem was that they replaced those jaded values with something worse. The better thing is here in Acts–true human life, authentically beautiful human life — and it is ours to live as Christians! [It will put your ministers on their mettle to fulfil your demands for the best, most engaging, comprehensive teaching possible.]
III. Third, Acts will teach us how the church advanced, how it confronted the world, and how it persuaded men and women to embrace the Gospel.
The Book of Acts is about the extension of the kingdom and the growing of the church. Throughout the book, the chief divisions of the book are marked by phrases such as these:
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” 2:47
“So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly and a large number of priests became obedient to the truth.” 6:7
“The word of the Lord spread through the whole region.” 13:49
How was this done? How did this happen? This is a question of great importance for us today. We do not deny, of course, that sowing and watering will produce nothing if God does not give the increase. (The verse immediately before that last one I just read to you reads, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed to eternal life believed.”) But, the question remains for us, what is our part and how is it best done? And Acts, I think we will see, has a great deal to say to us about that!
IV. Fourth, Acts will restore hope and confidence to us in a day when, frankly, the Church is dispirited and discouraged, and, if the truth be told, in certain respects we in this congregation as well.
There are works we are not doing as avidly as we should in large part because we have lost hope of seeing any results from those works. Acts will restore our confidence. I want to study Acts for your sake and my own, as much as for anything else, in order to restore our confidence in such works.
It is, of course, striking how like our world today was the world that the early Christians took on for the sake of the Gospel. It was a dying civilization, whose institutions were increasingly moribund and ineffective. It was a society that had lost its way. All manner of religious views were proliferating as people sought some anchor, some solid ground for their feet. It was a decadent society. The love of pleasure, sinful pleasure was paramount. Abortion was common, so was divorce. Crime was a chronic problem, taxes were rising. Entertainment was a huge part of popular culture.
And into this world came a band of Christian disciples — just a few hundred of them, and turned this world upside down!
We immediately tend to think that they had one immense advantage over us, viz. the Gospel was brand new and came into that culture as an alternative that had never been tried before. We, however, have to live down the fact that the church as been a part of our culture for 2,000 years and has a terrible reputation for many reasons among many people — religious wars, bickering, scandals, worldly and openly sinful ministers, TV evangelists pleading for money, conformity to the world, etc. Folk don’t naturally think of the church as a solution for it is so identified with the culture it seems to be part of the problem.
There is a sense in which that is true, no doubt. But, there is an important sense in which it is not. For Judaism was, of course, the church of God, and it had been around for a long time and the Roman world was quite familiar with it and, in many ways, it already suffered from a bad reputation in the empire (unpatriotic, the agitation in Judea, etc.). For a long time the church was confused with Judaism in the public mind and for perfectly obvious reasons (the same Bible; the same God — the same monotheism; the same law and ethics, etc.). So the Christians did have to live down an already existing reputation that was generally negative.
But, fact is, what Acts provides us is a theology of revival. And revival has renewed the church and sent it powerfully forward even in cultures that were long familiar with a moribund, unimpressive, worldly, and compromised church.
Acts will teach us to hope again and will show us what the church must again be if she is to be taken seriously by a jaded world!
So, let us begin our studies in this great early church history and begin with the prayer, the expectation, the understanding that our study is not to satisfy our curiosity but to reform, inspire, and sanctify our lives both individually and together as a congregation!