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Occasional Letters: The Exceptional and the Enduring?

D Newell, Glasgow

One of the great attention-grabbing chapters of the Bible is Acts 2. It is important for a number of interconnected reasons.

First, it recounts the fulfilment of a promise. Just before His ascension the Lord Jesus had instructed the disciples "that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me" (Acts 1.4). He is referring back to that body of teaching, unique to John’s Gospel, which we call the Upper Room Ministry where, on the eve of Calvary, He prepared His disciples for His departure. Yes, He was returning home, but they would not be abandoned – instead, they would each be indwelt by a divine person who would take up permanent residence inside them: "I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever…when the Comforter is come, whom I will send unto you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, which proceedeth from the Father, he shall testify of me" (Jn 14.16; 15.26). It was a lovely Trinitarian assurance: the exalted Son would pour out from the Father the Holy Spirit for the spiritual empowerment of the disciples. And on the Day of Pentecost that promise was fulfilled, proving that Christ, rejected of men, was now glorified by God. In a world of broken pledges it is a daily encouragement to know that God always keeps His word.

Second, it describes the arrival of a Person, for the disciples "were all filled with the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2.4). Astonishing as they were, the supernatural phenomena – the rushing mighty wind, the tongues of fire, and the unprecedented linguistic aptitude of untrained Galileans – pointed to something far more astounding. After a brief sojourn on earth one Person of the Godhead had returned to heaven, to be replaced by another whose residency would last the length of the new dispensation His coming inaugurated. This is not to say that the Holy Spirit was inactive before Pentecost. On the contrary, the Old Testament notes His energetic ministry in creation (according to Job 26.13, "by his spirit he hath garnished the heavens"), in inspiration (says David in 2 Samuel 23.2, "The Spirit of the Lord spake by me, and his word was in my tongue"), in spiritual enablement (Judges 3.10 records of Othniel that "the Spirit of the Lord came upon him, and he judged Israel, and went out to war"), and in Israel’s future regeneration (Ezekiel 36.27 teaches that "I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them"). However, at Pentecost, in the sovereign purpose of God, the eternal Spirit entered a new sphere of activity, coming upon men not occasionally and fleetingly but permanently, so that church age believers are "sealed with that holy Spirit of promise, which is the earnest of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, unto the praise of his glory" (Eph 1.13-14).

Third, it signals the commencement of a period. The Spirit’s coming introduced a new era, one where all God’s saints without exception would be indwelt by a divine person. That this is no mere inference is borne out by Peter’s language as he reported back to Jerusalem his experience at Caesarea with Cornelius and his household: "as I began to speak, the Holy Ghost fell on them, as on us at the beginning. Then remembered I the word of the Lord, how that he said, John indeed baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost. Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?" (Acts 11.15-17). Peter is quoting from Acts 1.5, words which were fulfilled at Pentecost. But don’t miss that significant little phrase, "at the beginning". Pentecost was both the fulfilment of the Lord’s words and the commencement of a new epoch in the history of the world, one in which, as the sign of tongue speaking indicated, saved Jews and saved Gentiles were placed on an equal footing.

Fourth – and this is my key point – it marks the establishment of a pattern. This pattern is condensed into two verses, one of which was painted on the notice board outside the Gospel Hall of my childhood: "they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2.41-42). Now it is here that we need to be aware of the difference between the passing and the permanent, for not everything recorded in the Acts is for Christian practice today. After all, it is the history of an exceptional period of time. We usually have no problems with the Old Testament. Take Genesis chapter 6. The historical record illustrates abiding spiritual principles: that man’s heart is wicked (Gen 6.5), that God judges sin (Gen 6.6), that God moves in sovereign grace (Gen 6.7), that grace will manifest itself in godliness (Gen 6.8), that God delivers His people (Gen 6.14). The lessons are endless. But one thing we do not take from that chapter is that believers should invest in gopher wood and build an ark. The same is often true in the Gospels. No one today obeys the command, "go not into the way of the Gentiles…But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt 10.5-6). Why not? That instruction was directed to a unique group of men at a unique moment in history. Here’s another example: "pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day" (Mt 24.20). Have you ever heard anyone use these words at your assembly prayer meeting? Of course not! Instinctively we recognise that the Lord’s instructions relate to a future time when Israel will endure a terrible period of tribulation to be terminated by the glorious return of the Messiah. Similarly, the local miracles of Pentecost have long passed, for that day stands alone in history, as unrepeatable as Calvary. Just as the Lord Jesus will never again be born, die, or rise again, so too the coming of the Spirit to inaugurate the church age happened only once. The promise has been fulfilled, the person has arrived, the period has commenced – but the basic pattern of Christian obedience continues. But you will notice that even the brief statement of that pattern is immediately followed by an account of activities which are not to be taken as a model for today. Acts 2.43-47 describes the conduct of exclusively Jewish saints in Jerusalem. Apostolic sign miracles, themselves previews of the coming kingdom era (Heb 6.4), voluntary communal living and distribution of property, regular gathering in the Temple precincts, widespread favour among the people of Israel – all this fostered a heady expectation in those early days that the nation as a whole might yet repent and trust its Messiah, ushering in the promised Millennium (Acts 1.6; 3.19-21). These things were passing.

But the pattern in vv.41-42 endures. It is in any case backed up in the Epistles, but I shall leave it to you to find appropriate parallels. What then is the model? Believers today should gladly welcome the Word, receiving it not like a gas bill or a blow on the head but like an affectionate yet authoritative voice from heaven. A local assembly is a company with room for all the Scriptures, however challenging. Believers should be baptized, and this is no option but a command (Mt 28.19; Acts 10.48). Those who trust the Saviour should be added to the assembly, deliberately making their spiritual home with the gathered people of God. Believers should "continue steadfastly" (or, as Darby renders it, "persevere") in their assembly exercises, arranging their personal timetables around the activities of the saints. Believers should attend the Bible teaching meetings of their assembly, so that they can be fed with the apostles’ doctrine. In New Testament times, with no books, cassettes, CDs or DVDs, the only way the new believer could be exposed to the taught Word was to go and hear the apostles. There is of course nothing wrong with recorded ministry, but it must never replace our regular attendance at the gatherings of the saints. Believers should work together: to continue "in fellowship" does not mean a chat over supper but practical involvement in spiritual service. Believers should break bread in remembrance of the Lord Jesus, the simplest of actions with the profoundest of meanings. Believers should participate in collective prayers.

It is worth noting that all the activities described in v.42 were corporate (they were not designed to promote individualism), continuing (they were not occasional and irregular), and connected. Each one who received the word and was baptized persevered in all four distinctive spiritual exercises – listening to and obeying the apostles’ teaching, teaching which formed the non-negotiable doctrinal basis of their fellowship, a fellowship which found particular expression in the breaking of bread and in prayers. In a sense we could read the passage as a little spiritual health check. Measured against those early saints, how am I doing?

To be continued.

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