We noted last week that the book of Acts is by no means a full history of the period it covers, but is rather a selection of incidents revealing the lines and tendencies, the principle and the passion, of that first generation of Christianity in the world. Each page flames with some surprise and we are held in suspense to the end—and then left to dream of all that was not recorded—all that followed after.
Nevertheless, every story reveals principles and laws, operating with unswerving regularity and showing the secrets of the amazing spread of that which seemed doomed to extinction at the Cross—but which rose into power on the Resurrection morning, and began a growth of increasing victory at Pentecost.
We must be impressed with the glorious regularity of the irregular in the work of the church by the Holy Spirit. It is a powerful argument against the stereotyped approach in church activity and method, and consequently a plea for room for the operation of that Spirit, who, like the wind, “bloweth where He listeth.” The very incompleteness of the story is, in itself, part of the method of the Spirit. When we come to the last sentences, we have a hundred questions we want to ask. We would like know if the feet of Paul ever stood on the soil of Britain but the book does not tell us—it is an unfinished fragment. It is the start of the story of the first movements of the Christian fact in the world; revealing principles, indicating methods, showing failure; and all in order that there might be at least one page of inspired Church history, which, men reading, might know the true meaning and mission of the Church in the history of the world.
The study of the Acts of the Apostles will have a two-fold effect on us—it will fill us with hope; it will fill us with shame. Before this risen glorified One passed out of human sight to return in spiritual power at Pentecost, He said to His own, “Ye shall be My witnesses, My credentials, My evidences—in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” and almost two thousand years later the church has not fulfilled that commission. There is failure all through this book, but yet there is gracious victory also. As we read it, we find a revelation of purpose and power; and we shall find the indication of the dangers that confront us as members of His body.
This paragraph serves as a link between the things of the “former treatise” of Luke and those of his new story. Here we have our last glimpse of the disciples before Pentecost and our last vision of Jesus “after the flesh” (as Paul says)—present among His disciples in bodily form. Surely the artistic hand of Luke is evident in the placing of this paragraph here. Yet we notice that this is the same Jesus as before, whose birth was recorded, whose ministry was chronicled, whose crucifixion was described, whose resurrection was declared, and who was finally revealed as One ascended to the Father. He is spoken of as “Jesus,” as the “Lord Jesus.” The Person is very familiar, coming from the olden days. We shall never in this book see Him again in the same visible and material relationship to these men. Henceforth know we not Christ after the flesh.
But we shall see these men again; and yet, all the way through the book, they will be changed and different; not in the visible externals but absolutely changed in the hidden facts of life. A new light will shine through the same eyes. A new tone will come into the same voices. A new atmosphere will be generated by the same presences. Peter will be the same man, and yet absolutely changed. All the old impulsiveness will be present, and the enthusiasm and the fire and the fervor. But there will be something else. The change will not be that which denies the natural, but the change that baptizes it with the supernatural, until the natural becomes a fitting instrument for the supernatural, the Holy Spirit Himself.
Notice also the ‘grouping’ of the apostles here. The moment we get into the Acts the grouping changes. Peter and John had never agreed in the Gospel story. They never understood each other. Peter was the practical man, John was the poet. Peter was always doing, John was always dreaming. Even when we get to the last chapter of John, John is still troubling Peter—“Lord, what shall this man do?” In the new grouping, they have gone into partnership: the doer and the dreamer; the practical man and the poet. Then James and Andrew, the courteous and the curious. Next Philip and Thomas. Philip the reserved man, who believed everything, and was willing to be on the edge of the crowd and bring strangers to Jesus, with Thomas, the skeptic, who demanded proof or he would believe nothing. Then Nathaniel and Matthew, thee guileless worshipper and the astute tax-gatherer. Does this new grouping of these men not suggest something to us? Does it not seem to say to us that the Cross and the Resurrection brought men into an affinity that cancelled all merely temperamental discords?
Thus we see gathered about Jesus a group of men with perfect confidence in their Lord, with joyful confidence in each other, with an absolute confidence in the Scriptures of the Old Testament. These things all resulted from the things He began to do and to teach.
We then notice their inability to execute His commission. He had said to them that they were to be witnesses, but here they were in the upper room; of one accord; steadfast in prayer; happy in each others company; still loyal; but unable to witness. These men were perfectly sincere, proceeding on the lines of revealed truth, but they were ignorant of God’s next method; unable to organize themselves for the doing of the work; needing the coming of the Comforter.
A little later we see these men gazing up into heaven. The cloud had enshrouded Him, and He was gone from their vision. Then two men stood by them—not angels—but men. They had lost one Man, the ONE was gone, but two were there. “This same Jesus…shall so come in like manner.” The form that you have loved to look upon will yet be seen of your eyes. For today, He is out of sight; but He is not away from you. So they knew that the One was not lost, but that at any moment He might appear again.
We do not understand it, but the sweet fragrance of His presence is still with us. Although we worship the eternal, the unseen Christ, we still work in comradeship with the Man of Nazareth. “The Lord working with them…”
Here we have the actual formation of the Christian church. The location is not identified but it was likely the temple. (Luke 24:52, Acts 1:14, 2:1, 2:46). Upon this company of individuals, united by a common love for and a loyalty to the departed Jesus there came the mystery of the baptism of the Spirit. Two symbols were given—one appealing to hearing, and the other to seeing. The symbol of sound—“a mighty rushing wind”; the symbol of sight—“tongues of fire”; (more than one and yet one—“it sat on each of them”).
These were but symbols, of no value except as signs for the moment. It is necessary that we recognize that fact, for there is always a hunger in the carnal heart for signs. What is of extreme importance is the experience described in the words “They were all filled with the Spirit.” The wind was but the chosen symbol—they did not hear the coming of the Spirit. The Spirit is not fire, and did not come in the fire they saw. That was the symbol granted but never granted since because unnecessary. The abiding fact was that of the Spirit filling these waiting souls.
So a new day dawned in human history, a new departure was initiated in the economy of God. Not a change made necessary by the failure of the past but rather a change following the accomplishments of the past.
In order for us to understand all that is to follow in the book of Acts and so for us to understand the things of our own life and service, we must consider two matters; first, the new facts following Pentecost; and secondly, the limitations of the Pentecostal age.
First, the new facts as to the Christ; the new facts as to the Church; the new facts as to the world. In reference to Christ, we remind our hearts of the Incarnation and the Exodus. His incarnation—Revelation; His exodus—Redemption. He came to reveal and to redeem. The new things that came with Pentecost were those of the administration of redemption in the actual lives of men. On the day of Pentecost, Christ by the coming of His Holy Spirit, was able to make over to trusting souls, the actual value of His Cross and the virtue of His Resurrection. In reference to the church, it is good to remind ourselves that the word church does not adequately convey the sense intended. The Greek word ECCLESIA means an assembly. The word ‘assembly’ in every instance refers to a select and gathered-out company, having certain qualifications, and being committed to certain work. Christ took hold of a common word when He said “My ecclesia.” The Jew understood it, it meant one thing to them. The Greeks understood it; it meant another thing to them. Combine the principles of the Hebrew and Greek uses of the word and we have exactly what Christ meant when He said—My assembly. He referred to His called-out ones, who, fulfilling certain qualifications, are committed to certain work. In that sense the Christian Assembly did not exist prior to Pentecost. Prior to Pentecost the disciples were disciples, standing away yet very near—we must not undervalue the nearness of those days, but they were not one with Him. When the Spirit came, they were made sharers of the life of Christ. His actual life passed into their lives and they became equipped to be “His witnesses.”
What else did the coming of the Spirit do for these men? Did it change the old relationships? By no means; it fulfilled them. They were still disciples, but they had a new vision. Not a vision coming upon them from the outside but a new vision coming from the actual shining in them of His life, so they began to see as He sees. Peter became the Apostle who proclaimed the Cross in Jerusalem, and gloried in it, because Christ looked through his eyes, and spoke with his tongue. This is the mystery of Christianity, “Christ liveth in me.”
As we remember Peter in his first Spirit-filled presentation we see that a new conviction came into the world, and we recall the words of the Master Himself “He, when He is come, will convict the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgment” and this through those who would allow the Spirit liberty to “blow whether He listeth.” As well as new convictions there were new constraints; the constraint of His love evidenced in the lives of the believers, shining out to the hearts of men, luring them, drawing them. The constraint of the Church’s light probing into dark places, revealing sin, and indicating the way to cleanliness and holiness.
Indeed, through the infusion of the Spirit at Pentecost, a new day dawned on the world, the day of the church, which is His body.
Let us now look at the limitations of the Pentecostal age. As to Christ Himself, His resources are limitless. While He was in the world He said, “How am I straitened…” Now in the bestowing of the Spirit, that restriction is gone but He is limited in His Body, the Church. He cannot reach China, save through her. He cannot accomplish the purpose of His Word in Africa except through His Body. Not by angels can He preach the redeeming, reconciling Word, but through His Body, the Church.
How is the Church herself limited? She is limited when she grieves the Holy Spirit, when she quenches the Spirit. These are two significant words: “Grieve”—having to do with the Church’s life. “Quench”—having to do with the matter of the Church’s service. How often has the Church grieved the Spirit, quenched the Spirit, and so limited herself.
As to the world, are there limitations? Again, as in the other areas, limitless resources are available in Christ. There is nothing the world needs that is not found in Him. Everything that makes for the uplifting if the race is in Christ. But the world is limited in the Church’s failure. That is not the world’s fault, the guilt lies at the Church’s door.
So we see that in the risen Lord, the Christ, the resources are as limitless as they were at Pentecost, when the Church was born. The question we should be asking is: Is Christ limited in us? We needn’t waste time talking about a revival in the world until there is a revival in the Church. It is when, in this the Assembly of the Christ, that He is allowed full sway by the indwelling Spirit, and He is unlimited, that the light will again flame upon the darkness and Pentecostal power will be seen again.