Do you enjoy getting missionary letters? In this age of voluminous and many times worthless communications, I suppose there are Christians who get missionary letters and simply throw them away, the way they throw away many worthless advertisements. But for my part, I enjoy missionary letters. I enjoy them because, by reading them, I feel that a window has been opened for me into Christian work in some other portion of the world, and I am interested in that. I am encouraged to learn what God is doing there.
Acts is something like a missionary letter. Only the window it opens is not a window to a church that exists somewhere in the world today. It is a window to a church that existed almost two thousand years ago in the very first days after Pentecost. This early church had its problems. It had its sins, just as our churches today have sins. In fact, when we come to next week’s Bible study, we are going to see one of them. It was a serious sin. Still, when we look at the church in these early chapters of Acts, we find a portrait that is meant to be encouraging. More than that, it is undoubtedly meant as a model for us and our churches.
We have studied one portrait like this already. It was found at the end of chapter 2. There it was said:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (vv. 42-47).
When we come to the end of chapter 4, we find another portrait of this church which, as I have tried to suggest by the title of this week’s study, shows the church at worship and at work. At worship, because in the first half of this section of Acts we find the apostles leading the people in a service of thanksgiving (vv. 23-31). They had been released by the Sanhedrin, and the believers were praising God for it. John Stott says, “We have seen the apostles in the Council; now we see them in the church. Having been bold in witness, they were equally bold in prayer.”1 At work, because in the latter section of the chapter we see the church actually operating as a fellowship of renewed Christian people (vv. 32-37).
The background for this encouraging portrait is the miracle done by the apostles, recounted in chapter 3. Peter and John were on their way to the temple when they saw a man who had been lame for many years. We are told in the fourth chapter that he was over forty years old when he was healed. So he had been at the gate of the temple for a long time. Everybody knew him. When Peter and John came by, the man asked for alms. Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:6). And the man did.
We are not told all the details of this healing, but we should probably assume that this man knew about Jesus of Nazareth. So when the challenge to believe was put to him personally, he believed that Jesus of Nazareth, about whom he had heard and in whom he was already perhaps faintly believing, really was able to heal him and he responded in faith. Peter and John took him by the hand, lifted him up, and he was entirely restored. Then he went with them into the temple, walking and jumping and praising God. The lame man was happy. Peter and John were happy. The Christians were happy.
But the rulers were not happy.
Why? Well, the situation in Jerusalem may not have been exactly what we might find in a war-torn country where there is a curfew requiring everybody to be off the streets by a certain hour each night. It was not exactly that. But these were still volatile times, and the leaders were concerned whenever anything too intense began to happen. Suddenly, as a result of the miracle, there was much excitement. A crowd gathered, and Peter spoke to them. The leaders did not like that. It was dangerous. So they sent the temple guard, hauled Peter and John in, and began to question them. The text tells us that they were astonished because Peter and John had not been trained in their rabbinical schools, yet were speaking persuasively and eloquently. The words, it turned out, were about Jesus whom the Sanhedrin had been instrumental in getting crucified.
When they looked at these men and noted what was happening, they said, “Whatever are we going to do?”
The words suggest great frustration on their part. These religious leaders thought they had done away with Jesus of Nazareth. He had caused trouble for three years, going around the country preaching to the masses, winning disciples and moving many people. He had been doing it apart from the established religious structures. He was so dangerous that they had done away with Him. But here, a short time after His death, these similarly untaught disciples were, like Jesus, beginning to turn the city upside down. They would have been even more frustrated and frightened if they knew that Jesus had told His disciples, “I am sending you to be my witnesses, not only to Jerusalem, but to Judea and Samaria and to the uttermost regions of the earth.”
1John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: To the Ends of the Earth (Leicester, England: InterVarsity, 1990), 99.