Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GOD REASSURES THE THREATENED CHURCH OF JERUSALEM THAT THE HOLY SPIRIT REMAINS MIGHTILY PRESENT."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
With a measure of envy we look back from our position in Kelmscott in the year 2000 to the events in Jerusalem on Pentecost day so long ago. We read of the powerful outpouring of the Spirit, read too of the marvelous results in Acts 2 –Peter’s powerful preaching, the wonderful response in 3000 souls coming to faith, the unity of the brethren- and our hearts fail. What we see in Kelmscott today is so negligible, so disappointing, so insignificant compared to what Jerusalem saw…. It makes us feel jealous…, also makes us feel like failures…. Where is the mighty working of the Holy Spirit in our midst?! If the Spirit were active in our midst today, wouldn’t we see at least something of the conversions and the unity and the powerful preaching of Acts 2?
In an attempt to answer some of these questions, brothers and sisters, I ask your attention today not for Pentecost itself, but for an event that occurred some time later. Not much later, to be sure, but later nevertheless. Was it a week, or a month, or a year? I don’t know; the Lord hasn’t told us. But He has told us in the event described in our text that the power of Pentecost endures throughout the New Testament dispensation. That is: the Spirit poured out at Pentecost has not departed from His church but is present still with all the power of Pentecost - no matter what the naked eye may see. And that’s so reassuring for us today.
I proclaim to you the gospel of Pentecost with this theme:
GOD REASSURES THE THREATENED CHURCH OF JERUSALEM THAT THE HOLY SPIRIT REMAINS MIGHTILY PRESENT.
- Why the church prayed
- How God answers their prayer
- What the answer means today
Why the church prayed
Our text tells us that the congregation gave themselves to prayer, and that God in turn responded to their prayer. To appreciate the response, we need to understand first why the church prayed and what they asked for.
The prayer of the church is put to paper for us in the vss 24-30. It’s a prayer that came hard on the heals of the report put to the congregation by Peter and John after their release from prison. The situation was this.
A week, a month, a year ago the Holy Spirit had been poured out with great power on the day of Pentecost. Around town people heard all about the mighty deeds occurring in the house where the disciples were gathered, and so many were marvelously touched by those events. True, there were those who mocked (Acts 2:13), but once Peter "raised his voice" (vs 14) and began to preach, the power of his preaching silenced the critics and they responded instead with the dismay of vs 37: "when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?!’" And Peter’s response again met with a favorable reaction; "that day about 3000 souls were added to them" (vs 41). And these 3000 (together with the existing 120) "continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (vs 42). Talk about a marvelous, a powerful event! And look at the results of the Spirit’s outpouring: such preaching, so many converts, such unity!
But the shine of the Spirit’s outpouring quickly enough disappeared. Pentecost was a demonstration of the Lord’s power, was a demonstration of victory; the kingdom of Satan had to make way for the coming of the kingdom of God. Here’s power, and here’s results…. Surely Satan will not take that lying down….
There came the day when "Peter and John went up together to the temple at the hour of prayer" – I read in Acts 3:1. At the gate they met "a certain man lame from his mother’s womb" (vs 2), and healed him (vs 7). Talk –again!- about the power of the Holy Spirit! And the result of the miracle was that Peter had opportunity to preach another sermon on Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. The response of the crowd is recorded in Acts 4:4: "many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand." Incredible, powerful! But the authorities of the land reacted differently. That’s Acts 4:3: "they laid hands on them, and put them in custody…." Thereafter the elders and scribes talked the matter up and down, and settled on a stern instruction to the apostles "not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus" (vs 18). See there, brothers and sisters, Satan’s response to the inroads the kingdom of heaven was making in the domain of Satan. No, he wasn’t going to take the victory of Pentecost lying down…; chap 4 records Satan’s counter-offensive.
Notice, beloved, the nature of Satan’s counter-offensive. What was the catalyst to the conversions of chap 2? Where did that powerful display of unity and love at the end of chap 2 begin? It all began with the preaching! That’s 2:14: "But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them:" … and there follows his Pentecost sermon. And vs 37: "when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, … What shall we do?!" So too in chap 4. What prompted the 5000 men to believe? This: "they heard the word." So what does Satan do? What’s his counter-offensive? Attack the preaching! Silence the disciples! Threaten them, forbid them to speak anymore about Jesus. Silence the preaching, and you destroy the mechanism God is pleased to use to work faith, and therefore fruits of faith….
This counter-offensive produced a crisis for the church. Is Pentecost sufficiently real, sufficiently powerful to withstand the attacks of hell? Or is this demand from the elders and the scribes and the chief priests the beginning of the end for the church?
This is the material that Peter and John laid before the congregation after their release from prison (4:23). The congregation’s response to this attack is recorded in 4:24: "so when they heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord." That’s to say: they prayed. They knew well that they "were not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Eph 6:12). The enemy was not people, and so the battle was not to be fought with human, with earthly weapons. Since the enemy was God’s great enemy, the battle was to be fought with the weapons God had specified, and that includes "praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit" (6:18). For Christ has ascended into heaven to the throne at God’s right hand, so that He is Lord of lords and King of kings (Eph 1:20ff). With boldness, then, should God’s people come into His presence with their requests (Heb 9f).
And what do they pray? No, their prayer is not one of fear and despair. Instead, they open the Scriptures and pray back to God what God inspired David to pray in Ps 2 when he –and so his kingship over Israel- was attacked by foreign armies.
"Why" –prayed David- "do the nations rage,
And the people plot a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the Lord and against His Anointed" (Ps 2:1f).
That’s their analysis: the Pentecost congregation recognizes in the actions of the elders and scribes and chief priests a repeat of the opposition of the kings of the earth in David’s day against the gospel of Jesus Christ. They see the same root –and the same folly!- behind the actions of the Sanhedrin as David saw behind the actions of the Philistines and the Moabites and the Edomites; behind it all is a Satanic –but futile!- effort to dethrone the Lord Jesus Christ.
Hence their prayer of confidence, their earnest petition of vs 29:
"Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word, by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus."
Notice what they ask for. They seek from God grace to "grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word" (vs 29). Satan attempted to silence the preaching. But the church will have nothing of that and so get specific in their petition: ‘grant, Lord, that with all boldness Your servants may speak Your word.’ They know: that word of God is a powerful hammer that breaks the hardest hearts – as Jeremiah the prophet had said (Jer 23:29). They’ve seen it: that word cracked open so many of their own hard hearts; through Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost and after his healing of the lame man in the temple, so many who had cried out some months before to "Crucify, crucify Him!" now came to faith in Jesus Christ. So that word must continue to go out. Hence their petition: "grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word." Only that Word, the preaching of the Word, will crush the opposition generated against it. This is the antidote to the devil’s attacks.
And together with boldness to preach, they ask that God stretch out His "hand to heal", and that God grant that "signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus" (vs 30). They’re not asking here for miracles separate from the preaching. In chap 3 the healing of the lame man in the temple generated opportunity for the gospel to be preached, and they seek more such opportunities. And the "signs and wonders" they look for are the fruits that come on the preaching, the conversion of many and fruits of faith that invariably follow on conversion – things like the communion of saints as described in chap 2. Such "signs and wonders" - they know it from the way the phrase is repeatedly used in the Old Testament- will give clear evidence to men that God is at work. And that will show that Satan’s counter-offensive in the face of Pentecost’s triumph will come to nothing. That’s what they want; evidence to the people around them that God almighty is in fact powerfully at work.
That brings us to our second point:
How God answers their prayer
I read in our text:
"And when they had prayed, the place where they were assembled together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness."
"The place where they were assembled together was shaken." Now what, according to Old Testament Scripture, is shaking a symbol of? Mt Sinai shook – as evidence that God was present. The door posts of the temple in Isaiah’s vision shook – because God was present. The ground shook at Christ’s resurrection because God was present, working the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Put it together: the ground shaking, a house shaking are indications that God is present.
True: the shaking does not affect the whole city; the text does not speak of an earthquake, only of a house shaking. It’s a very local sign. But it’s the people in the house who are confronted with that troubling question: does Satan’s counter-offensive, his efforts to destroy the preaching, mean that the power of Pentecost is broken? They have the question, they are faced with this new crisis, and they get the answer. What the answer is? The Lord causes the house where they’re gathered to shake – as evidence to them that God is present! That is: God the Holy Spirit, poured out on Pentecost, has not withdrawn from His people. Though hell may rage and "the kings of the earth took their stand … together against the Lord and against His Christ", the powerful Spirit poured out at Pentecost has not withdrawn from earth to heaven, has not deserted the church bought with Jesus’ blood either. Here is confirmation that the Spirit poured out at Pentecost is present with His people still!
As part of that confirmation of the Spirit’s presence, the Lord grants that "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit." No, brothers and sisters, this is not a repeat of Pentecost. It does not mean either that the Holy Spirit they’d received on Pentecost had partially withdrawn from them in the intervening days. Here is instead simply answer to prayer. They had asked that the Lord give boldness to speak God’s word, had asked that in a situation very different from what it was a week ago, a month, a year ago at Pentecost. To speak the Word when things are peaceful and hearers keen to listen is one thing. To speak the Word in the face of official opposition and hellish hatred is quite something else. And that was the situation now, so many days, so many weeks after Pentecost; the disciples were strictly commanded not to speak anymore in the name of Jesus. To disobey that command would certainly bring its penalty. In the face of that pressure, the Lord gave boldness to speak –how?- by filling the assembled congregation with the Holy Spirit. The result is recorded in vs 33: "And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus."
The evidence that the Spirit poured out at Pentecost was still fully present with His entire congregation is pointed up the more in the following verses. Vs 32: "the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul." Back in the book of Deuteronomy the Lord told His people numerous times that they were to serve Him with an undivided heart, to serve Him with all their being. That concept of ‘all their being’, of serving God with ‘an undivided heart’ is captured with the phrase "all your heart and all your soul" (cf Dt 4:29; 6:5; 10:12, etc). Well now, this undivided heart is attributed in the church of Acts 4 not to each person individually but to all the people together. The Holy Spirit is present, He’s made His home in the thousands of believers of the time (I Cor 3:16), and that’s why "the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul" – undivided from each other, just as it was directly after Pentecost. Through the working of the one Spirit poured out some weeks, some months ago, all these sinners-become-saints are focused on the one God, and they do that with a unity of purpose, a unity of zeal (cf Eph 4:1ff). This undivided service of the one God as prompted by the one Holy Spirit indwelling them all translated into specific actions that touched each other so warmly. For each, we read, shared with the other of the possessions God had given – "they had all things in common." Here is obedience to the word of Jesus in Jn 13:
"A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (Jn 13:34f).
Well, there love in the church of Acts 4. And it should be fixed in our minds: this is not natural for sinful man. What we confess in Lord’s Day 3 of the Catechism is so true for the people of Acts 4 also; "I am inclined by nature to hate God and my neighbor." But here is love, here is a people undivided in their focus on God and therefore in their care for each other. How come? This is the work of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost! For "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness…" (Gal 5:16). The unity of the church of Acts 4, the love, the caring and sharing is what the Holy Spirit generated so noticeably on the day of Pentecost –we read it at the end of Acts 2- and this same unity, this same love, this same caring and sharing He generates again in Acts 4. Why He does it? To show that the Spirit remains present! In the face of the growing opposition and hatred of Israel’s leaders, the disciples had prayed, asked for boldness to speak God’s word, asked also for "signs and wonders … done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus." Well, here’s a "sign and wonder"; sinful people genuinely care about each other. In the face of Satan’s teeth, what an encouragement of the Spirit’s presence! He’s not forgotten His own, has not deserted His own; here’s confirmation that the Spirit of Pentecost is present still. With what courage, then, could the church go forward into the coming storm; the Spirit of Pentecost, with all the promises that come with His presence, was true for them still.
That brings us to our last point:
What the answer means today
We can understand that the church of Acts 4 was encouraged by the Lord’s answer to their prayer. But we live so many years later, in a whole different situation. We’re not so sure what gospel this event has for us today….
As it is, brothers and sisters, the Lord’s answer to the prayer of Acts 4 was not to be a once-off answer. I mean this. God’s answer in Acts 4 confirmed to the early church that the Spirit poured out on Pentecost was present with the church still, despite the opposition growing around them. That answer is true today still. Though we are now twenty centuries past Pentecost, and the world in which we live is so disbelieving of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and even in the church we see so much brokenness, God would impress upon us that the riches of Pentecost remain. If the Spirit’s outpouring and presence remained a reality a week, a month, a year after Pentecost, His outpouring and presence remains a reality 20 weeks, 20 years, 20 centuries after Pentecost. In fact, the evidence of His presence remains the same as the evidence God gave to His church in Acts 4.
What confirmation did the church of Acts 4 receive to show that God’s people were filled with the Spirit, that the Spirit was still present with them? This: "they spoke the Word of God with boldness" – just as Peter did on Pentecost day (2:14,23,29). For without the filling of the Spirit no one will proclaim God’s word with boldness. But look now with me through the book of Acts. Time and again we read that Paul (for example) preached the word of God with boldness, and each occasion is evidence that the Holy Spirit of Pentecost was both present and mightily at work. I read in Acts 9 that Paul proclaimed the Word of God boldly in Damascus (vs 29), I read in Acts 13 that Paul and Barnabas "grew bold" and spoke pointed words to the Jews (vs 46), I read in Acts 14 that the same two men spoke boldly in the Lord to the Gentiles of Iconium (vs 3), I read in Acts 19 that Paul went into the synagogue of Ephesus "and spoke boldly for three months" (vs 8), etc. And that is to say that the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost remained with Paul; else He could preach the gospel with boldness. That there may or may not have been many converts to Paul’s preaching is beside the point; the very fact that he proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ with boldness is evidence that the Spirit poured out at Pentecost did not withdraw from the church, is evidence that this Holy Spirit remained with Christ’s church.
Nor was Paul the only one to proclaim that word of God with boldness. To proclaim that word with boldness was precisely the instruction he gave to Timothy (II Tim 4:2) and to Titus (2:15), and we may be sure these preachers of the gospel carried out this instruction too – in the strength of the Spirit of Pentecost. This is equally how Chrysostomus preached, and Calvin too and Rev deCock – by the strength of the Holy Spirit who does not desert the church Christ bought with His blood. And the preaching you have heard over the years –to mention only the labor of Rev Bruning; he received the crown of glory- the preaching of Christ crucified that you heard over the years was the mighty work of God the Holy Spirit for your salvation. Sure, Paul was a weak and sinful man – ask the Corinthians for their opinion of Paul! And Calvin was a weak and sinful man (as so many in Geneva could tell you) and so was Rev deCock, and so is every preacher of the gospel. But nothing of that takes away from the fact that men powerfully preach the gospel of Jesus Christ only through the working of the Holy Spirit. You wish evidence that the Spirit of Pentecost has not withdrawn, is still with the church-of-all-ages? Observe the preaching of the gospel; natural man does not proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ crucified for sinners.
Yet that’s not the only evidence of the Spirit’s abiding presence. The "signs and wonders" manifest in the church in Acts 4 remain with the church of Christ throughout the ages. Chap 4 tells us that "the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul", and that reality became evident in their eager sharing of gifts and possessions – evidence of the Spirit’s presence and work in the weeks after Pentecost. Then we page further into the book of Acts and we read in chap 11 of a famine, and then these words: "Then the disciples, each according to his ability, determined to send relief to the brethren dwelling in Judea" (vs 29). You see, congregation, there’s the same attitude, the same self-emptying love as in Acts 4. How come? Because the Spirit hasn’t withdrawn from the church! And I read in Acts 16 of Lydia who insisted on opening her house for Paul; all she had was laid at his disposal (vs 15) – here is the sharing of Acts 2 and Acts 4, evidence that the Holy Spirit has not deserted His church. And I read in Romans 15 that "it pleased those from Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor among the saints who are in Jerusalem" (vss 25f). Yes, "in a great trial of affliction the abundance of [the joy of the Macedonians] and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality. For –says Paul of them in II Cor 8- I bear witness that according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing, imploring us with much urgency that we would receive the gift and the fellowship of the ministering to the saints" (II Cor 8:2ff). What that was? That willingness to share was the work of the Holy Spirit in their hearts; He’d not deserted the church at all!
I can tell you of the eagerness of the Thessalonians to demonstrate the love for another in deeds of mercy (I Thes 4:9f), and I can tell you of the efforts of the church in the first centuries after the New Testament was closed to help the poor, and I can tell you of the communion of saints in the time of the Great Reformation, and of the efforts by the early migrants to Australia to help each other with their last pennies. And I can tell you of what the deacons see as they make their visits through the congregation of Kelmscott today, of the care that’s there, of the love and the readiness to help and to sacrifice for another. Was the caring and sharing of Acts 2 and Acts 4 without flaw, perfect? Was the effort of the disciples to send relief to the brethren in Judea perfect and total? Was their evidence of sin and selfishness in the willingness of the Macedonians to help the poor of Jerusalem? Did the fathers in the time of the Reformation exercise the communion of saints to perfection? Or our fathers when they migrated to Australia? Let’s be honest; there was as much brokenness and sinfulness in sharing as we see in our midst today. That’s exactly why the New Testament Scriptures are so full of instructions to love, to share, to be of one mind. Rom 12: "let love be without hypocrisy" (vs 9). Rom 12 again: "be of the same mind toward one another" (vs 16). Philippians 2: "fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (vs 2). Etcetera. But the imperfection that remains does not take a thing away from the fact that the beginning of sharing and of love is the evidence that the Holy Spirit of Pentecost is present with His churches still!
It is true that the devil who attacked the church of Acts 4 attacks the church today also. But the Lord would impress upon us, brothers and sisters, that the powerful Spirit of Pentecost remains with the church, controls the church, preserves the church – no matter how strong the foe’s assault. The Lord does not give to us a confirmation of the reality of Pentecost to the decree and in the manner of Acts 4. Instead, He simply tells us of the confirmation He gave at that time, and asks us to believe. And at the same time He gives evidence of His presence in the church in Kelmscott today –how?- in the fact that the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and in the fact that there is love for the brethren.
Do not, my brothers and sisters, do not, I urge you, let the weaknesses you see in the preaching or the imperfections you see in the communion of saints prevent you from accepting that the preaching you hear and the communion of saints that exists is the work of the Spirit in our midst, is the evidence that the Spirit remains with us. We have so much to grow, it’s true. But meanwhile the Lord impresses on us that the Spirit of Pentecost is in our midst.
That’s so comforting! Amen.