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Sunday, 19 July 2015

Acts part 4: A Gift beyond all expectations?

Building the right foundation part 4

Acts 2:1-13

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.
Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians—we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others mocking said, “They are filled with new wine.”
A gift accompanied by signs and wonders:

What really was happening on that day of Pentecost?

A number of things were happening in a particular sequence. The single most important factor in the passage is declared in the first half of verse 4.

They were all filled with the Holy Spirit.”

This as we will discover next time was the fulfilment of the prophesy of Joel. (2:28-32) Joel promised that one day God would pour out His Spirit upon people. In regard to this day Jesus had promised that One would come who had the same qualities that He had. The coming One therefore had to be in essence the same as Jesus who was fully God. The promise made by Jesus was of God's Spirit to come and be amongst His people. In many ways this was to be a return to what it had been before the birth of Jesus when God by His Spirit dwelt amongst His people but now He would be with people from all nations and not the Israelites alone.

When the children of Israel were in the Wilderness God by His Spirit was within the pillar of flame and smoke. When they were established in the promised land He was present with them in the temple where His people worshipped. Now ever since that day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit of God is present with His people who are the church which is the gathering of all people of every nation who are saved by grace through the sacrifice that Christ made on the cross.

The Holy Spirit of God is the gift to the church. It is the Holy Spirit who leads God's people to Christ for salvation and worship and continues to lead God's people into all righteousness until the time comes when they are glorified and in God's presence eternally.

The gift was in effect given on that day of Pentecost once again for all believers and for all time; therefore it is no surprise that the event comes accompanied by signs and wonders.

Before we move on to considering what the signs and wonders accompanying the coming of the Holy Spirit mean we must consider what God's gift means for us today:

  • As with Jesus who was never changing so is the Holy Spirit. The work of the Spirit of God is never changing, He always points people to redemption found through the Son of God. He is the same yesterday, today and forever therefore what God intended to achieve through His Spirit is consistent with how He is working in the church today. His ways are the same, His power is the same and so we need not look for new things but ought to expect a continuing work of God with His people across the generations. This does not mean that we become Hamish in our ways by clinging on to the old days. God is forever relevant and His gospel preached continues to be powerful for the salvation of all who will repent. The work of the Holy Spirit is to equip the church to present gospel truth He also brings sinners to the point of repentance and empowers them to believe and trust in Jesus. That work is unchanging, what did change on that day was the group of people who would be the recipients of the gift it was from then on to be the church and no longer the nation of Israel alone.
  • This point might be rather basic but we must always remember that the Holy Spirit is fully God; he is God with us. Therefore He is a person and not an it! As with the Father and the Son He is to be revered and worshipped as God almighty. We must guard against an over familiarity with God the Spirit!

  • In the old order God dwelt in a particular place, cloud, tabernacle, temple etc. He did empower individuals also but He especially was amongst His people in the place of worship. Israel was a signpost to what was to be the church. Notice on that day that the Spirit came down upon individuals as they were together but that they then unitedly spoke words that were understood by all who were witnesses of the event. All of the people heard words as if they had been spoken in their own language and by one person! The work of the Spirit of God is immediately being demonstrated, the gospel is from this moment on to be for all people. No longer for one nation but for every nation.

I am surprised that the disciples never guessed on what day the gift would come:

Pentecost simply means fifty days and refers back to the Old Testament feast of weeks which signified God's Spirit coming upon His people at the time of the barley harvest. This happened fifty days after the feast of the firstfruits which was three days after the passover. Jesus died at Passover, He rose from the dead three days later as the first fruits of God's harvest. Forty days after His resurrection Jesus promised the gift of God to come to His friends. The timing should really have come as no surprise to the disciples because the pattern had been laid out in scripture in Leviticus 23, Numbers 28 and Exodus 23. It had also been part of their religious tradition all of their life to celebrate the harvest of souls in the passover and the first fruits of the harvest followed by the in-gathering of the harvest at Pentecost.
On the Day of Pentecost or the Feast of Weeks, the “firstfruits” of the church were now being gathered. The world is now the harvest field and the church is the in-gathering of the harvest!

With the promised coming of the Holy Spirit, the first fruits of God’s spiritual harvest under the New Covenant had begun.

That was the gift now let us briefly look at:

The purpose of the signs and wonders:

This amazing event begins with the friends of Jesus being gathered in one place expecting the gift as promised by the Lord Jesus. To them it all began in the most normal of circumstances. They were sitting in a room together and waiting. I can imagine their reaction to what took place. Onlookers were bewildered by it but the followers of Jesus were changed forever:

for them nothing would be the same again.

Their faith had taken on a whole new dimension. They knew Jesus but now a power was coming upon them that is without compare. The power of the Holy Spirit that converts and works in Christians according to scripture is the same as the power which raised Jesus from the dead. These believers experienced the power of God suddenly and at first hand. In this they were the prototype of all believers to come, they were the pattern of the way that Christ from that time would build His church. The church is not built by might or power but by God's Spirit. This was a whole new concept from what they would have understood before, they were about to embark upon a whole new learning curve. Our bibles reflect what happened on the day of Pentecost, the Old Covenant or Testament closed on that day and a New Covenant or Testament began. From that point on the church would be built and it would be according to the pattern being set down.

For this reason this event was accompanied by signs and wonders. This was authenticated as a work of God by what accompanied the event. For this reason we must beware when we claim the accompanying signs to be normative for the church today. I will hopefully put some of you out of your misery by telling you that because we are looking at the events of the day of Pentecost in isolation and I am applying the signs specifically to that single event does not necessarily mean that signs and wonders are not ever in evidence today. We will be coming to that in the weeks to come, but to set up a theology of spectacular gifts in the church for all time from this event is doing a violence to what the passage is really all about!

Let us consider the signs that accompanied the event:

  • Firstly there was the mighty rushing wind that filled the whole house. Clearly this was a unique event, it was unusual and brought attention to what was about to take place. The question we have to ask is why did God use wind as a sign or wonder? It should not surprise us that the wind has been a sign before on a number of occasions:

In 1 Kings 19:11 when the prophet Elijah had run away from Jezebel and was hiding in a cave. God told him to stand outside the cave in the presence of the Lord and the Lord passed by. The Lord was accompanied by a wind so powerful that it broke up rocks. The scripture tells us that the Lord was not in the wind. That is equally true in our passage today. The Lord was not in the wind, as at the time of Elijah the wind was merely a sign that authenticated the presence of the Lord.

In Job 38:1 the Lord spoke to Job out of a whirlwind, the wind was not God but was the vehicle that made job pay attention.

Ezekiel 1:4 records Ezekiel having had visions of God seeing a storm brewing up preceded a mighty wind that was the beginning of a vision of the glory of God.

Then of course there was the parting of the Red Sea, Moses stretched out his hand and the Lord drove back the sea by a strong east wind and the Israelites were rescued from slavery through the sea Ex 14:21-22. God on that occasion used the wind to proceed His act of salvation.

On the day of Pentecost God was about to come upon His people by His Spirit and so He authenticated the work not by a random sign of a blowing wind but in the way in which He had previously done. This makes the sign even more powerful and with greater meaning. Pentecost fits with God's order for this to happen, remember that the passover was instituted and then the firstborn was consecrated. The firstborn was symbolised by the firstfruits following on from this some days later came the crossing of the Red Sea which was a gathering in or harvesting of the people of God. It is not only fitting that God should on that occasion use the wind as a sign but maybe it ought to have been expected. For this reason we should not expect a mighty rushing wind whenever we preach the gospel, it was a specific sign for that specific occasion.

Why the fire?

In the desert God revealed Himself to Moses through the fire of a burning bush Ex 3:1-6.

He led His people through the pillar of fire or smoke whilst in the desert Ex 13: 21-22. The fire went before His people as a guide and now the fire descends upon His people as individuals but also corporately. The fire signifies God leading His people.

Remember also the prophetic word of John the baptist in Matthew 3:11 said that Jesus would come and baptise His followers with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This event is a direct fulfilment of what John promised. A fascinating study you can easily do with a simple concordance is to look at all of the references to the fire of the Lord throughout the bible.

The sign of tongues of fire resting upon God's people is symbolic of His presence with His people in the same way that the lamp which was always alight in the temple signified God's presence with His people. The fire as a sign speaks clearly that God now dwells with His people the church by His Spirit! The church therefore unsurprisingly must be s lamp set upon a hill revealing the glory of God. We are a guide for all who will follow on into the promised land.

Why tongues?

To understand what happened on that day of Pentecost we must once again go back to Genesis: When Adam sinned it had a catastrophic effect upon the whole of nature but particularly upon man. He was immediately divorced from relationship with God and so all men of all time became enemies to God. Sin brought about disunity amongst mankind except for their unity in their general disrespect for God. Man will readily unite to oppose God's truth. This was first evidenced as far back as Genesis 11: 1-9 where man thought that he could together build a tower that reached to heaven. By their own effort they thought that they could get into heaven. They were united in this until God confused their one language into a multiplicity of different languages which was a sign of the separation from communion with God. From that day on their languages were to be as diverse as their many attempts to reach heaven.

But on the day of Pentecost God momentarily reversed that situation. Language became united once again and everybody heard in their own language about the mighty works of God Acts 2:11. This left them both amazed and confused. Something remarkable had happened and they did not know what or why. Babel was momentarily reversed as a powerful sign of God's new covenant with man.

This was a sign for all of mankind to know that there is now a new way to heaven, it is not by man's ability but through a people. A very special people who are blessed by God's Spirit. They are the church and they have a united message which points to the way to heaven. The gospel is for all people of every nation tongue and tribe and the message that needs explaining in the plain language of the hearer, just as Peter did following this event.

On this occasion this gift of tongues was for the benefit of outsiders to know that God had made a way possible for them to find salvation. Our gospel must be perfectly understandable, it is not meant to be in the language of yesterday however poetic it might be. We need in Britain to herald the good news in modern English. Apparently the Apostle Paul was capable of speaking and writing in classical Greek but he chose to use the language of the people. God opened a way for the gospel and has given the church the mandate to deliver the message plainly and simply. This remarkable sign not only authenticated the work of the Holy Spirit and the foundation of the church but it also reminds us today that our gospel message should be presented in a way that is clear and understandable to our hearers.

What do we learn from our passage today?
  • The Holy Spirit is God's gift to the church for all times.
  • His work is the same as it has always been.
  • The signs on that day accompanied the gift in order to authenticate that this truly was the work of God.
  • The Holy Spirit empowers His people to present the gospel but we must do that in an clear and understandable way.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Acts part 3: All together now.

Building a right foundation part 3.
Acts 1:12-26

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For it is written in the Book of Psalms,
“‘May his camp become desolate,and let there be no one to dwell in it’;
“‘Let another take his office.’
So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.

The church gathered: 120 in number, together united they did what came naturally. They devoted themselves to prayer the men and women together as one body. They were in the place appointed by Jesus (Jerusalem) in an upper room waiting for the promised gift. As yet they did not understand how that might happen or even what the gift was to be.

  • Obedience. They were obedient to the commands of Jesus.
  • Prayer. They prayed that the Lord would lead and guide them.
  • Unity and devotion. The mark of the church and evidence of true faith is unity in prayer and fellowship.
    They were all together.

The scripture proclaimed and applied:

Peter opened the scripture and applied it to their situation. He understood what the Holy Spirit had declared through the psalmist that Judas was the traitor, that it was no surprise to the Lord Jesus because it was plain to see from scripture but it was only now that they could understand. Judas was the guide for the soldiers to Jesus and he paid the price as was foretold in scripture. The scripture tells that another must take Judas' place and so Peter instructs the disciples to choose from amongst themselves a successor to Judas.

  • Scripture is the only guidebook for the church, it supersedes all including our constitutions.
  • Scripture is relevant for today, it may have been written long before the event but it was exactly what they needed for their situation. That is true today also, there is no need for further revelation, God does no new thing apart from what He has ordained in the bible.
  • From scripture we learn how to lead the church.
Trust in the Lord for decisions made:

This passage is somewhat confusing in that we know that Paul was going to be God's appointed replacement for Judas.
Did the apostles jump the gun in appointing Matthias?

It is difficult to say but what we can learn is that the principle they followed is a good one. The scripture declared that a replacement would be needed and the disciples did their best to fill the post. Personally I believe that they made a mistake and should have waited but the Lord makes no public judgement of that.

Lessons to be learned:

  • Wait for God to reveal the right man!
    Remember the instruction that they had received from the Lord Jesus: they were to wait in Jerusalem until promise of the Father had been realised. They knew that the promise was concerning the Holy Spirit who would baptise them more fully than John had baptised those who had responded to his message. They did not appreciate what this baptism would look like and it is not for us to discuss at this stage in our considerations in Acts.
    Our purpose is to learn from Luke's account of the events of this particular day when the foundations for the church were being put into place. There is plenty of scope in the weeks to come for us to consider all of the controversial issues. At this point in time Jesus had given a very simple instruction to wait. The problem that the disciples had was that they were fully human and as such were not too keen on waiting. There is the old adage that says that the devil has work for idle hands and so it is easy when we are waiting for us to be carried away with all sorts of distractions. On this occasion Peter had understood from scripture that Judas would betray the Lord and that he would die an horrific death. He rightly understood this from his knowledge of Psalm 69. He also saw that there would be a replacement for Judas from his understanding of Psalm 109:8. The very fact that Peter knew these passages and was able to interpret them speaks of a man of great understanding and not the ignorant fisherman that some would have us believe him to be. It was Peter's decision that the disciples should appoint a successor; that I believe was a mistake. God had appointed Saul of Tarsus to fill the post of apostle and Peter who was simply being true to his impetuous character decided to act immediately instead of simply obeying Jesus.
    It is so easy for us to jump the gun and make decisions before we truly know God's will. Jesus had told the disciples to wait and trust but they were pro-active in a decision making process before the Lord had ordained it.
    Sometimes we are called to a period of prayer and inactivity. What the disciples needed most at that time was to be rested and prepared for the task that was about to unfold for them. I am encouraged that there seems to be no criticism from God for their actions and so it was not sinful rebellion but their guilt in trying to give God a helping hand in His purposes. As the church we are given a clear mandate to make right decisions in a right way and to at times wait on the Lord for guidance and help in our decision making process. We are just as likely to make mistakes but they will not be earth shattering and are not the end of the world. We should avoid mindless meddling but equally we need to make the decision. God will forgive mistakes but refusing to go forward in God's plan is unforgivable.
    Pray for God's guidance and trust Him for the outcome.
    Peter knew rightly that an apostle was somebody who had been with or knew Jesus first hand, logic therefore told him that a replacement must be one of those in that room. From this pragmatic decision it was logical to appoint a man into post. There were two obvious candidates and so by the casting of lots they were to determine the right person. I do not want to focus our attention upon the rights and wrongs of the process or of the decision but to consider that even if their rationale was in error we can learn a great lesson by how the disciples conducted the business in hand. They put forward Joseph and Matthias as candidates and were about to trust their decision to the casting of lots but before the process was to begin they prayed!
    Prayer is the church's vital lifeline with God Almighty. The prayer prayed on this occasion was simple yet profound and is an example of their complete trust in God.
    Note first of all that their prayer was a direct approach to God. “You, Lord.” It would be impossible to be more direct than this with anybody let alone God in heaven. I do not know of any of the deities of the world that would tolerate their subject to approach them in such a manner. Many in fact would destroy (if they were at all real!) the person for such a blasphemous approach! But Almighty God hears such prayers from His children even when they are making decisions that are not directly in line with His command.
    The prayer continues: “ you know all of our hearts” an amazing statement and one which if we really thought about it might tempt us to believe that because God fully knows everything about us then He might never want to hear our little prayers. There could be nothing further from the truth. God delights in the prayers of His saints despite His knowledge of our hearts.
    This is followed by the purpose of the prayer; “please reveal by the lot which one of these 2 men should be appointed! They recognised Judas' failing before God and then went on in full faith believing that the decision made would then be God's choice. I am certainly not advocating lots for today but we do need in the 21st century to come back to a simple trust in the truth that God can aid us in our decision making process. They cast lots and Matthias drew the short straw and was immediately numbered amongst the eleven.
    Matthias was instated as an apostle, he was accepted by all and was appointed in a Godly manner. When we make our decisions as a church we make them in the understanding that God has directed them and that we accept the person appointed as God's person for the job unless somehow it is proven to be wrong and not as we might have thought according to God's plan and purpose. For the disciples at the time there was nothing that suggested that the decision was a bad one and so they simply got on with their duty in hand which was to pray and wait for God's Holy Spirit to come. We too have made important decisions and will soon look top appointing John to be an elder of the church. We would do well to keep our decision making by secret ballot in the church members meeting before the Lord in prayer, to seek His guidance as we vote as individuals and then to stand by the decision made. Matthias was appointed and Joseph was not, there was no reversal and there is no bitterness or upset recorded on behalf of Joseph. The decision made was done in a Godly way and was accepted as such, it must be the same with all decisions that we make as the church. The decision was made corporately by the whole congregation and is as such a foundation laid for our benefit, we make decisions together and then we stick together in the decision made. From this point on the church is marked by it's togetherness and so our motto ought to be:

All together now!