Acts 2:42 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”
Luke tells us a number of fascinating things about the new life that some people in Jerusalembegan to enjoy.
- WHO THESE PEOPLE WERE.
“They” did this. Who were “they”? They were, of course, the 3,000 new believers who by the providence of God were in Jerusalem at the feast of Pentecost. They were the men who had gone through three stages in their lives.
i] First, they were people who were sincere in what they believed, just like all ordinary people, many of them had been religious people who had come to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage. Others were local people who had rooms to let, or they had bed and breakfast establishments for the pilgrims who’d come from all over the Mediterranean basin, a cross section of people from the Middle East, but predominately Jewish, Old Testament believers. But remember that none of the 3,000 whom Luke is describing here in our text were originally Christians or had been Christians before this very day. Breakfast-time they were unbelievers. By supper-time they had repented and were devoted to the apostles’ teaching.
ii] Secondly, these people had heard Christian preaching and everything changed. This happens throughout Christian history and it occurs everywhere still today. There was a Dutchman called J. Fraanje in Barneveld and it happened to him. He said, “At a certain time in my life God opened my understanding to two matters, his justice and my own guilt.” Those are great discoveries to make, of our great worthlessness and his great love. When Fraanje submitted to God as a guilty sinner then he said, “God struck such a grievous wound in my heart that nothing could possibly heal it. I’d brought his wrath upon me and now my conscience became his holy sword . . . I shall never forget it. My sins were not mere deficiencies. They were things that I had committed. I had made onslaughts against God’s crown and justice. O it is a terrifying experience to discover one’s lost condition, and to lie there in it. Then God did something miraculous to me. He revealed his Son in me and gave me life in Christ” (J. Fraanje, Striving Together in the Divine Truths of Scripture, 1979).
This is exactly what happened to these people listening to Peter. They heard the gospel message; they experienced the justice and condemnation of God and, listen! We are told, “They were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins’” (Acts 2:37&38). They accepted the message and were baptized. It is these people whom Luke tells us “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (v. 42). There is no way that that extraordinary change can ever be accomplished so that you have a hunger and thirst to learn from the word of God unless God first does a heart work in your life, and you are repenting of your sin and trusting in Jesus Christ. There will be no desire for the Word, and no resolution to continue in learning from the apostles’ writings unless you first have a new heart and a new nature and a new birth, a heavenly birth, unless you are filled with the Holy Spirit, like these 3,000 men
iii] Thirdly, these same convicted people, 24 hours later, are the ones who were gathering to be taught by the apostles. Let’s guess that there were now around 3,600 of them, the 3,000 converts, the 120 Christians and others that they brought along, members of their families and friends, so each of the twelve apostles would have had about 300 people to teach. They would have met in different parts of the Temple courts, or outside the walls of the city in the shade of the trees, or in the Garden of Gethsemane amongst the Olive groves. They met in the north or south or east or west of the city the following day, depending where they lived and then day by day at a convenient time. Some were able to come in the mornings and others when their work was over in the afternoons or evenings. They would have been full of questions; “Who was Jesus of Nazareth? What did he say? What did he mean when he spoke of destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days? What did he do? Did he really cleanse lepers? Did he actually raise the dead? Why did he die? Did he really rise from the dead? Where is he now?” And so on. And the apostles had authority and a commission from the Lord Jesus to make the people whom he had converted true disciples by teaching them to observe everything he had commanded them. That was the calling of the apostles. They could not convert any of them, but they could, by the enabling of the Holy Spirit, recount the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus and explain the greatest three year period in the history of the world, the remarkable life and public ministry of the Son of God. Then as the years went by they went away from Jerusalem; they went all over the world teaching the truth, and eventually they wrote down in four gospels the teachings of the life of the Lord Christ. And so today from gospel pulpits everywhere and by individual Christians we now bear witness to the same things. I am today teaching you the teaching of the apostles concerning Jesus Christ. I may not deviate from that teaching by one jot or one tittle. If I do then I have no right to call it ‘Christian’ or to expect God to bless it, and that is true for every Christian man or woman. The parameters of our entire ministries are set forth for us in the writings of the New Testament apostles.
If men desert the teachings of the apostolic gospel of Jesus Christ for some religious perversion, then let them hear the inspired words of Paul in his first chapter of his letter to the Galatians. Hear this! Heed this! “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gals. 1:6-12).
If this pulpit should ever preach anything other than the teaching of the apostles, and the minister who is guilty of that will not hear your protestations, and he ignores your sobs and tears, then you must leave this beloved building and find or found a place which is faithful to the teaching of the apostles. Their eternal and saving truth requires it. There is one word given to us that is the word of eye-witnesses of the majesty of the incarnate God. It is the only word that God will bless. It is found in the Bible. This church does not belong to any man; it is Christ’s church and he builds his own church, and he builds it through the teaching of the men who were with him from his baptism to his resurrection.
- WHY THEY HAD TO DEVOTE THEMSELVES TO THE APOSTLES’ TEACHING.
What was the reason in the new pattern of their days and weeks. They were very busy people. They had to work to survive. They did not live in days of pensions and social security. There was no national health service, and yet they found time very often to go and hear an apostle teaching. Why was this essential?
i] To rid themselves of wrong ideas. Conversion and the new birth are just the first rung on the ladder to heaven. We bring into the kingdom of heaven with us tons of muddle and confusion. We have received all this by tradition from our fathers. We have muddled views of God, a muddled understanding of his nature and his attributes, and of what Jesus Christ has done for us. We may think that all our past sins have been pardoned, but not the sins of last night. That is wrong. We may think that there are many roads to God and that Jesus Christ is only one of them. That is wrong. We may have brought into the kingdom of God Jewish food laws or our culture’s view of women. We may not understand that this world of ours is actually going to end when the Lord Jesus returns in power and glory.
On top of that there is in every heart of every Christian a sinful antagonism towards God. We think and so we act in ways that are displeasing to God. We hear the apostles’ teaching and we have some understanding of what we are hearing, but we still say, “Yes, but . . .” So we need to listen to many messages on this subject by men other than our personal favourite apostle. Don’t say, “I am of Peter,” or “I am of Paul.” The apostle John and the apostle Matthew has much to teach you.
We often feel that we go to church and we hear two fine sermons every Sunday but we forget what we have heard. “My brain is like a sieve,” we complain. But after a sieve had been held under the tap and washed in a bowl it is much cleaner than it was. So it is with our hearing messages from the Bible. We are cleansed and purified by our contact with apostolic truth. We don’t have to remember much of the sermon but we have to be brought under its power and sanctifying energy. Jesus prayed for that. “Father sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” So we have to rid ourselves of unsanctified ideas. That is why we need the teaching of the apostles every week. It is absolutely essential. Then there is another reason why we need this teaching . . .
ii] To enable you to make wiser decisions in the future. For example, you are going to meet people with bright eyes and shining faces speaking with a glowing intensity about the blessings they’ve had from discovering this or that. If you know the teachings of the apostles then you will be saved from being gullible and bought by women’s smiles, and losing your way and getting caught up in cultic ideas. Your exposure to the teaching of Matthew and John and Peter and Paul is going to save you from losing your way in life. You might think wrongly, for example, that Jesus Christ is like God, but you have read the opening chapter of Hebrews and read there the words of the apostle where he tells us that God said to the Lord Jesus Christ, “You throne O God will last for ever and ever” (Hebs. 1:8). He is not like God at all he is God. He is the Word who was in the beginning with God and he is God. So by the teaching of the apostles you are saved from modernism, or from sects like the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
You will learn to be guided by the Scriptures and not by your feelings or your imagination. The Bible says to you, “Be this kind of father, or husband, or wife, or son. Be this kind of workman. Be this kind of boss. Be this kind of preacher.” What does the whole Bible say about your whole life, about your relationships with your neighbours, your fellow-Christians, your church leaders, even your enemies? So you are not waiting for the goose-pimples, or the tingle factor, before you act in a God-honouring and self-denying way. Your actions and your words are guided by all the teaching of the apostles, for example, all the self-disclosure of the suffering of the apostle Paul, and his wrestling with the thorn in his flesh. It is by the apostles’ teaching that you learn to handle your pains and trials and are guided about the future. R.B. Kuiper speaks of a farm labourer who was fed up with his life on a farm, and one day he went to see the farmer and told him that he was quitting to become a preacher. “What makes you think like that?” the Christian farmer asked him. “See those clouds,” said the labourer, pointing to the sky, “see how they spell out two letters, ‘P and C.’ That means God is saying to me, “Preach Christ.” “No,” replied the farmer, “the letters stand for ‘Plant corn.’ Get back to your work.” Well, we will not look to signs in the sky for guidance as to what we are going to do with our lives, but to a growing knowledge of the teaching of the apostles. Be this kind of preacher, with these kinds of gifts.”
Of course the teaching of the apostles is far wider than that. You may be a student. Are you studying psychology, or international politics, or law, or the natural sciences? You will receive great help from the Bible. It will bring your thoughts under the influence of God the Creator. The apostles’ doctrine will guide you in spending money, or in saving, or in tithing. In every dilemma, in every area of inquiry certain theological principles will come to bear on your thoughts, and those who have learned the doctrines of the apostles will be able to live more pleasingly to God. Then there’s another reason why we are also to devote ourselves to the teaching of the apostles.
iii] To enable us to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord. There is no other path to Christ-likeness than by a growing understanding the teaching of the apostles. We say about someone we like very, very much, ‘to know her is to love her.’ That is certainly true of knowing God. The more we know about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and his relationship with the world the better we will trust him, and then the more we will adore him, and we will want to magnify his name. Think of the virgin Mary after God had met with her and disclosed what he was going to do through her in fulfilling the promise of sending the Messiah. Do you remember her words? She responded; “My soul doth magnify the Lord.” She’d had a great view of God before this time, but as she was taught by God’s messenger her understanding expanded and she saw, “How great thou art!” She wanted to show any children God gave her the absolute magnificence of the Lord. She had the greatest possible . . . the maximal view of God.
What would you think of praise which consisted almost entirely of children’s choruses? What would you think of a diet of songs like, “I’m H.A.P.P.Y.” You would protest, “I cannot live by singing them. When I became a man I put away childish things.” Your understanding of God has grown. How mighty and infinite and glorious he is. Oh for a thousand tongues to sing my great Redeemer’s praise! Your problem is, “How can I sing that majesty that angels do admire?” Doxology is enriched as a vision of God grows clearer and brighter. Think of the Wesleys and what a concept of God comes through in Charles Wesley’s hymns. That is what true revival does; it magnifies God. His praise characterizes our gatherings.
The knowledge of God is often linked in the New Testament with mature Christian living. Paul speaks to young Timothy of “the teaching which accords with godliness” (I Tim. 6:3), and he repeats the phrase in writing to Titus in the opening words of his letter to him, “teaching which accords with godliness”; there are words and ideas that simply move us and thrill us and motivate us to living in a godly way. Now no Christian believes that all the chapters of the Bible are equally important. All are inspired in their composition by God at sundry times and in different circumstances. But they are not all equally crucial. The six chapters of the letter to the Ephesians are infinitely more important than the first six chapters of the first book of Chronicles. So too I do not believe that all the truths of the Bible are major truths. Certain truths about the return of the Lord Jesus Christ are quite minor doctrines. I am thinking of the millennium and a time of major tribulation, or again, how often we should hold the Lord’s Supper, that is a minor truth, or whether women should wear hats in church services – these are hardly subjects of major importance.
I was once chairing a meeting in which Sinclair Ferguson was giving a paper on the ‘Puritan Concept of the Judgment of God.’ It was quite magnificent and very moving and so when I got up to chair the ensuing discussion I first had to lead the congregation in prayer. Then I asked the opening question which was this, whether Dr. Ferguson considered the doctrine of the judgment of God and eternal punishment in hell to be a ‘leaf and twig’ doctrine or was it a ‘trunk and branch’ doctrine. Without hesitation he said he thought it was a trunk and branch doctrine, a major doctrine of our Lord and his apostles.
How do you tell the difference between trunk and branch doctrines and leaf doctrines? A trunk and branch doctrine is one that has a significant impact on our thinking and on how we live our Christian lives, and how we think of other people, especially non-believers. A twig doctrine (like the Bible’s teaching about a millennium) has very little impact on how we live our lives day by day and how we react to other people. So the teaching of the apostles, particularly in the 27 books of the New Testament, is very effectual to enable us to live a Christ-like life.
- HOW DO WE DEVOTE OURSELVES TO THE APOSTLES’ TEACHING?
Obviously there was nothing casual about the way they listened to the apostles’ teaching. They didn’t do it if they had nothing else to do, or if they were bored. “Well, let’s go along and hear Andrew speaking.” We are told that they were steadfast in being there (as the Authorized Version translates it), or there was a spirit of devotion about their commitment. They devoted themselves to it . . . So how can we do that?
i] With prayer. Paul warns the early church that knowledge alone puffs up. From his own experience he had been brought to that conviction. God himself was so aware that the knowledge Paul had gained on one never to be forgotten occasion when he had been caught up to the third heaven and had seen sights of glory and heard words of praise. So God was conscious of what past blessings may bring into our lives, that men can become puffed up by them, and so even the apostle Paul could become proud and useless and fail to continue as a helpful preacher-pastor and letter writer. So he thrust some thorn into the flesh of Paul as a counterpoise to his pride. So there was one voice saying to Paul, “You are a highly favoured and knowledgeable and blessed man” but there was another voice was saying to him, “Paul you are a sinner, only the grace of God can save you.” So Paul was driven to take three long sessions of prayer with one theme in all those times as he cried out to God, “Please Lord take this thorn away from me. See how much better I could serve you and the people without this. What a pain it is! How it drags me down!” But God simply told him by way of answering his prayer that his grace was sufficient for Paul to do all that God required him to do. Paul wouldn’t be more handicapped by having this thorn but actually more useful! So our dealings with God and the consequent growth in our knowledge of him would always be in the atmosphere of growing prayer.
ii] With humility. That follows from the first point because there is no such thing as proud praying. It is the poor in spirit alone who are blessed. It is the meek alone who inherit the earth. And Peter knew this as much as any apostle in the New Testament. He writes to a church and urges them to clothe themselves with humility towards one another. God gives grace to the humble, he tells them. That is apostolic teaching.
We can make rapid progress in our grasp of what Christianity teaches. At university we can join a Christian Union and hear numbers of good speakers. We can get some splendid books, and listen to famous preachers on line. We can have wonderful fresh opportunities of satisfying our new devotion to grow in apostolic teaching. Now there are old Christians we meet who have never had those opportunities. They did not go to university, and the place they get their teaching is from the pulpit of their local church, and so maybe they are less impressive in their grasp of Christian doctrine and the history of the church than we are though they have been Christian for fifty years. It is then so easy to be critical and dismissive of them, but they have kept the faith for years, and they have been married for years, and they have raised children and struggled with finances and paying their bills and looked after elderly parents. They have learned the obedience of God by the things that they have suffered, and been unable to hear loads of preachers and read a library of books. So you have to cry, “God give me a humble heart, and teach me humility especially with the great doctrines I am learning.” You are not learning these doctrines in order to win arguments. You are not learning them to put down another believer. You are not learning them that always you can have the last word. James tells us what being devoted to the apostles’ teaching achieves when he says, “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). The wisdom that is from above, he adds, is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits” (James 3:17). Then there is another way we are to devote ourselves to truth . . .
iii] With reason. I mean with sanctified common sense, and with understanding, so that we can draw certain conclusions from it about its relevance to your life today. We can come to some deductions from certain verses of Scripture that are correct, just as long as those deductions do not contradict the clear passages of other parts of Scripture. For example, we learn from apostolic teaching that the Father is God, and that the Son is God and that the Spirit is God. Yet we are told in Scripture that the Lord our God is one God. There are not three gods. And so we conclude that there are three separate persons in the godhead, all equally divine, and yet there is only the one God, the one being of God. So we do not twist the plain meaning of Scripture by quoting the more obscure verses. So also there is no contradiction between the responsibility of man to respond to the gospel and the electing grace of God in choosing many favoured sinners. Both are found in apostolic teaching. Again there is no contradiction in the New Testament between James saying that Abraham was justified by works and Paul saying that Abraham was justified by his faith in God. Both are true because those two men are using the word ‘justified’ in two different ways. James is using ‘justified’ in terms of ‘evidenced’ – we give evidence that we are justified by our works, but Paul is using the word ‘justified’ with the meaning of ‘being declared righteous.’ We need what both men teach us; we need the imputed righteousness of Christ, but we need the personal change as the proof of a righteous life if we claim that we have been justified. Use your intelligence and reason as you study the teaching of the Bible. Then we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching . .
iv] With a little help from our friends. I mean your pastor, and your youth leader, and older Christians, and your parents because of their experience and maturity, and also because of their gifts. Your pastors spend their days in the word of God and in prayer. There are Christians authors who must also become your companions. You should read J.C.Ryle, anything that he writes is clear and warm and to be trusted (with minor exceptions), but especially his book called Holiness. You should read Dr. Lloyd-Jones’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. You should read Iain Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon. You should read Walt Chantry’s Signs of the Apostles. You should read the life of Robert Murray M’Cheyne. All those books will help you to understand the teaching of the apostles for your daily life. Again we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching . . .
v] With meditation. Take notes, or at least make note of what you have heard or read. Think about it, or write it down in your diary and then see if you can follow the teaching to another part of the Bible. You will find Bible themes. I can remember when I was a baby Christian at 16 years of age and I was following my Scripture Union notes and I read through the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. There I came across a section that describes the second coming of Christ. “So it is true,” I said to myself. “It is really taught here in the Bible that Jesus Christ is going to return in glory.” And I made note of it and I soon found in John 14 and the opening verses that Jesus says, “And I will come again and take you unto myself.” There it was in the Bible and I did not doubt from that moment on that the world is going to end with the return of the King from heaven. So check out the teaching of the apostles with other parts of the Bible. Finally we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching . . .
vi] With thanksgiving and praise. I suppose that one of the reasons why the Systematic Theology(IVP) of my friend Wayne Grudem has become so worthily popular, because of the ethos of rejoicing and wonder in which it is written. The final end of being devoted to the apostles’ teaching is that the devotee is lost in wonder, love and praise. He cries with the psalmist, “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” (Ps. 139:17). He sometimes finds himself hugging his Bible to his heart and feeling, “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Ps. 19:8), or “In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches” (Ps. 119:14). In other words I’d much rather come under the power of God’s word than be a winner of the National Lottery. Or, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps, 119:103). In other words, if I could afford to buy the best meals every single day from each 5 star Michelin Guide restaurant in Europe but then to do that had to lose the Bible, then give me the apostles’ teaching every day first of all. That is more delicious to my taste and more nourishing. Or again, “I rejoice in your word like one who finds great spoil” (Ps. 119:162). When I read John 17 or Ephesians 1 or Romans 8, then to me to discover again the delights of those chapters is like going out with a metal detector and seeing the needle on the dial going crazy, and when I dig down in that place I find a hoard of buried Viking gold worth millions. “I rejoice in the apostles’ teaching like one who finds great spoil.” That is the goal of being devoted to the apostles’ teaching.
“Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counsellor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory for ever! Amen.” (Roms 11:33-36).
April 18 2015 GEOFF THOMAS