Sermons

January 10, 2021

A Word-Shaped People

Dave Zuleger (South Campus) | Acts 4:31-37

And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.Acts 4:31–37

Outline

Introduction: A Life of Liturgy

  1. The Centrality of the Word in the People of God (Acts 1–4)
  2. The Word and Prayer in the People of God (Acts 1–4)
  3. The Life of a People Shaped by the Living Word (Acts 4:32–35)

Application: An Ancient Apologetic

Introduction: A Life of Liturgy

This week has been another hard one. More chaos. More fear. More anger. More outrage. It was hard to process. Yet, as we’ve seen in Acts, certainly the people of God have faced hard times before—even times of blatant persecution. And yet here we are. What has held the people of God together? I think it is fellowship with God through the word and prayer. And that is why every year at Bethlehem we start with sermons on prayer and the word—to remind ourselves of our primary sources of fellowship with Jesus that inspire hope and worship.

Now, a couple weeks ago, I talked about living in a culture where the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior will make less and less sense. And that’s true. But let me be clear that our culture is still a culture that is always engaged in worship. In fact, I would argue that all the events we see in our day—whether godly or ungodly—are fueled by a life of liturgy. So what is liturgy? Liturgy is a word that simply means a way to organize worship. When Nick planned the worship service today, he was planning a liturgy.

We all organize our lives—how we spend time, energy, money, and talents—around different things. And here’s what happens: As we grow in love for something, we spend more time, energy, and resources on it, and then our devotion grows. In this life of liturgy, we get around other people who have these same ideas, and our devotion grows. This organization of our lives around what we love is a life of liturgy. It’s a life of worship.

What happens often in political races and rallies is political liturgy. What happens when protesters gather and even when riots ensue is social liturgy. What happens in a Planned Parenthood building is a type of liturgy. What happens when a Facebook thread about masks, riots, or politics takes up a life of its own is liturgy. Think I’m way off?

I heard at least three different politicians refer to the Capitol as “The Temple of Democracy.” I’ve heard Planned Parenthood doctors argue against protesters outside their door as violating a sacred space. I’ve heard many people refer to politicians as the only ones who can “save” this or that. I remember when the marriage amendment passed, some people said it was a “holy moment.” Those aren’t just words. They are evidence that our culture—though growing increasingly apprehensive about Jesus—is still full of worship. And as we breathe in the air of the culture around us, we need to be increasingly vigilant to make sure that our lives of liturgy are formed around and calibrated by Jesus Christ—the only Name under heaven, given among men, by which we must be saved.

Christians, there is a world out there that is apprehensive about Jesus but longs for his forgiveness whether they know it or not. They try to bury shame by making wrong things “right,” but what they really need is the freedom of forgiveness. There is a world out there that thinks trusting in Jesus makes you a foolish bigot, yet this lonely generation needs the comfort of knowing Jesus and the freedom to obey his commands. There is a world out there that thinks the church is useless, yet it is desperately lonely for the self-giving love that ought to mark us as a people.

In our passage today, we get to see how a people saturated in the word and prayer as the liturgy of lives centered around King Jesus can become a living apologetic that shines as a light in all the darkness we are seeing today.

1) The Centrality of the Word in the People of God (Acts 1–4)

I want to dive in by again reading verse 31 from last week to get us going today.

And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.—Acts 4:31

I just want to point a couple things out here. First, notice that the place is shaken and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. If we were to go to Isaiah 6 or to Mt. Sinai in Exodus 19 we would see that when God’s presence comes, his presence fills the place and things begin to shake. Then, if we went to 2 Chronicles 7 as Solomon finishes the temple, we would see the glory of the Lord fill the temple. In other words, what Luke wants us to see here is that the people of God are the new place where God’s presence comes to shake and fill. The people of God have become the temple of God. And what happens in the temple? Worship. Lives of liturgy.

We see this right away in verse 31—as this new temple is filled with the presence of the Lord, worship breaks forth as they speak the word of God with boldness. We see it again in verse 33:

And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.—Acts 4:33 

As the new, living temple of God, they are a living worship center, always proclaiming the triumph of their Savior and King. Now, what I want to show you is the centrality of the word of God in this people who are the new temple of God in what we’ve already seen in Acts 1–4.

In chapters 1:12–26 they need to decide what to do about a vacant apostolic seat. Where do they go for wisdom? They go to the Word—they go to Psalm 69 and Psalm 109 to show God’s plan and purposes.

In chapter 2 when Peter needs to explain what has just happened when the Spirit of God fell at Pentecost, how does he explain it? He goes to the word—he goes to Joel 2 to show God’s plan and purposes.

As he seeks to explain the resurrection of King Jesus, how does he do it? Simply by sheer eyewitness statements? No, he goes to the Word!—to Psalm 16 and 110 to show that Jesus was always going be raised from the dead and reign as Lord. As they gather together after the church is born, what are they devoted to in chapter 2? They are devoted to the Word.

When Peter needs to explain the significance of the miracle that has happened and call people to repentance, how does he do it? He goes to the Word—to Deuteronomy 18 where we see that Jesus is the promised prophet like Moses and to Genesis 22 where we see Jesus is the promised offspring come to bring blessing to the nations.

When Peter was responding to the rulers last week in Acts 4? He goes to the word of Psalm 118:22 to show that Jesus is the cornerstone that has been rejected. And when they gather to pray after they’ve been threatened, they pray the word of Psalm 2 where the nations rage but the sovereign Lord reigns. And what do they ask for boldness to do? To preach the Word.

Bethlehem, we need to be this kind of people if we will have a chance to stand and to shine in the days ahead. We hear the heart of God and the purposes of God in his word. I mean, these apostles don’t know how to talk about life or decisions or persecutions or prayer without the word of God. And they don’t want to be devoted to knowing or proclaiming anything more than the word of God. Why? Because this is how they know and make Jesus known by the Spirit. Church, we need to swim deep in the Word.

Don’t spend your lives on random, bizarre prophecies that promise earthly victories in this or that or on blogs that proof-text an issue to help you support your position. Let’s be deeply biblical. Let’s know to our core the heart and purposes of God. Let’s scour the Bible for worldviews that accord with our Savior so that he can work and teach among us and through us. Don’t settle for proof texts. Kids, as you learn verses to earn your memory verse knights, store these words in your hearts and ask your parents what they mean, so that you can walk closely with Jesus.

If we want a life of liturgy around King Jesus, then we’ve got to be radically devoted to God’s word from cover to cover. You need to plan for how you’ll read it and memorize it if you want to be the kind of person the world looks at and says, “They’ve been with Jesus.” You need to drink it in deeply if you want to have the sword of the Spirit in your hand to fight against the spiritual forces of the devil and your own fleshly temptations. Do we want Jesus more than anything? Do we want the world to see Jesus more than anything else? Do we want the power of Acts? Do we want the Spirit to move among us like in Acts? Do we want to see the gospel spread like it spreads in the book of Acts? Oh, we need to have our minds, our worldviews, our comments, our social media pages, and our dinner conversations centered around knowing, sharing, and submitting to the words of our King.

2) The Word and Prayer in the People of God (Acts 1–4)

You’re probably already getting the picture that I’m not merely interested in a people that can recite facts about the Bible, but a people whose very affections and lives are shaped and formed by the words of our King. And if that happens—and if the Spirit is at work as we devote ourselves to the word—then we will be a praying people. We see this in Acts, right?

As the believers seek to decide on a new apostle and wait for the Holy Spirit in Acts 1, what are they doing? Praying. As they gather as church in Acts 2, they are devoted to prayer. Right before the miracle happens in Acts 3, where are they heading? To pray. Right after they are thrown in jail and come back to the other believers, what do they do? They pray. 

As I think of the Christian life I want to give you a picture. The Word and prayer in the life of a true Christian church are like breathing in and out. Kids, take a deep breath in and a deep breath out.

We take in the word of God and let it penetrate our souls, pierce through the bone and marrow, and reveal whatever is in us—then we breathe out our praises, supplications, and pleas for help and repentance. Breathe in. Breathe out. Word. Prayer. If we are going to fight against the supernatural work of the devil then we will need the living words of God and to plead for his divine power to come to us from the throne of grace where he promises us grace, mercy, and well-timed help. Listen to this quote from Martyn Lloyd-Jones: 

The ultimate test of my understanding of the scriptural teaching is the amount of time I spend in prayer. As theology is ultimately the knowledge of God, the more theology I know, the more it should drive me to seek to know God. Not to know “about” Him but to know Him! The whole object of salvation is to bring me to knowledge of God …. If all my knowledge does not lead me to prayer there is something wrong somewhere.

Breathe in the Word; breathe out in prayer not just to know about God but to know him. To know his presence and his power. Is this the breath of your life? Is this the breath of our church? Listen, Jesus doesn’t love you more based on the amount of time you spend there. Our union with him is never broken. But I am trying to stir us up to not live our lives on a ventilator of articles, social media posts, and three-second attention spans pointed in the wrong direction. Instead, what if we made 2021 the year where we took deep breaths in and out and were filled with the life of Jesus? If his life is not in us as a church, then we ought not expect to see this kind of Spirit-empowered work among us or through us to a watching world.

Is it any wonder in a year that left us more distracted and disgruntled than ever that so much of the world looks on the church now and sees a bickering people anxious about losing comforts and rights rather than a united people anxious about a lost world perishing without knowing Jesus? The Word and prayer are the means by which the Holy Spirit comes in and works. The word of God is the sword of the Spirit and we are to pray at all times in the Spirit. South Campus, do we want Jesus to work and teach among us by the Spirit? Breathe in the Word. Breathe out prayer. And then let the sovereign Spirit do what he will.

3) The Life of a People Shaped by the Living Word (Acts 4:32–35)

What happens among this people who is devoted to the word and prayer as the Spirit works among them?

Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.—Acts 4:32–35

How do you think this oneness of heart and soul came about? Devotion to King Jesus. To know him and make him known. Lives of liturgy centered around the throne of King Jesus. As the word was breathed, prayer was breathed out and the unity of the gospel was maintained. Their identity as brothers and sisters in Christ became primary over any other earthly allegiance. They knew the kingdom they belonged to and their lives were all-in to be devoted to knowing Jesus, making him known, and loving his people as he had loved them.

And as the Spirit worked in their lives of liturgy to King Jesus, great grace came and the gospel was not only known and loved, but it was displayed practically among them. This is not some odd communal experiment. This is the self-giving, gospel-shaped, resurrected power of the love of Jesus on display among his blood-bought family.

When there were needs, those who owned things sold them to meet the needs, because Christ gave himself up to meet our deepest need. No one any longer said that anything was his own, because they finally had a true view of reality that everything they had belonged to their King and therefore everything they had was simply a gift to be stewarded for his kingdom.

As the word of the gospel was being proclaimed with great grace the word of the gospel was also being displayed with great grace. This was not just a people who knew the gospel, but a people who were shaped by the gospel in their everyday lives. Some gave with generosity and humility. Others received with gratefulness and humility.

I can’t manufacture this with the phrase “blood-bought family.” But if we would be a people with lives of liturgy around King Jesus—breathing in the Word, breathing out prayer, and doing it together—perhaps the Spirit would come in power and grant us great grace to proclaim the gospel and to display the gospel. Perhaps Jesus would come and work and teach among us in word and in deed. Perhaps the Lord would shape us so deeply that his word would go forth so that, day by day, people are added to our number and, day by day, everyone in this family feels like they are loved and cared for with the love of Christ. Now, this is not going to be perfect. There are issues in chapter 5 coming up and then issues in chapter 6. But this is a real gospel-shaped people: imperfect, but radical.

Application: An Ancient Apologetic

If all of our life is a liturgy, then all of our lives together are meant to be an apologetic: a defense of the goodness and a display of the beauty of the gospel. It should not surprise us that as we proclaim the gospel, our display of the gospel really matters. 

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.—John 13:35

Back in the 2nd century there was a philosopher named Aristides in Athens. The story goes that the caesar was beginning to grow worried about this little cult of Christianity. You think now is a rough time to be a Christian? It was rougher then. So, the caesar sent this guy to find out about them, and Aristides became converted and delivered what is known as “The Apology of Aristides.” Let me read a little of what he says about Christians:

They know and trust in God, the Creator of heaven and of earth ... from whom they received commandments which they engraved upon their minds and observe in hope and expectation of the world which is to come …. And their oppressors they comfort and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies …. Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he, who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother; for they do not call them brethren after the flesh, but brethren after the spirit and in God …. And if there is among them any that is poor and needy, and if they have no spare food, they fast two or three days in order to supply to the needy their lack of food …. Such, O King, is their manner of life …. And verily, this is a new people, and there is something divine in the midst of them.

Oh, that this ancient apologetic of Christian love and godliness that comes from devotion to Jesus alone through his word and prayer might rise to the surface again among us today. What would someone say about us if they peeked in on us? If they got into our small groups? Onto our Facebook pages? Would Jesus be the main thing proclaimed and displayed?

South Campus, would our lives be again oriented around our King, breathing in and out his word and prayer so that the Spirit might come in power to proclaim the gospel of the self-giving love of Jesus and so that the Spirit might come in power to display the self-giving love of Jesus among us. I am praying Jesus would lead us back to him and make us one in him for the sake of his Name and the good of the world around us—even those whom you feel are enemies right now.

Sermon Discussion Questions

Outline

Introduction: A Life of Liturgy

  1. The Centrality of the Word in the People of God (Acts 1–4)
  2. The Word and Prayer in the People of God (Acts 1–4)
  3. The Life of a People Shaped by the Living Word (Acts 4:32–35)

Application: An Ancient Apologetic 

Questions

  1. What does “liturgy” mean? How is all of life liturgy?
  2. What does your life look like? As you examine it—is your life of liturgy planned and oriented around King Jesus?
  3. In the early church, how central was the word of God? How central is the word of God in our church
  4. How central is the word of God in your life personally? Are you drinking deeply or settling for a sip here and there?
  5. In a world where people are more distracted than ever, are you finding time to breathe the Christian breath of the Word and prayer? Or are you content to live on a ventilator of other things?
  6. How can you plan to build in the Word and prayer into your life? What about the word and prayer with other believers?
  7. How does the Holy Spirit work as we breathe in the Word and breathe out prayer?
  8. What kind of people might the Holy Spirit create if we develop this pattern of breathing in and out the Word and prayer?
  9. What is the ancient apologetic Pastor Dave talked about? Would you pray for the Lord to do this work of love among us? 

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