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Setting the Scene
This is post number four in a six-part series on the essential system settings we discern from studying the early Christian community in Acts 2:42–47. We are asking, “What was it about the early church that caused it to be healthy and grow?” That question is important because we have the opportunity this year to reboot our churches as we restart in-person ministry.
As we reboot, I want these six “system settings” in Acts 2 to guide us. The first of the six is a devotion to sound, apostolic doctrine. The second is a commitment to the fellowship of a local church with the third being a focus on dependent prayer.
I am calling the fourth setting, found in verse 43, “expectant faith.”
As we discuss this aspect of a healthy and growing church, it is important to remember that Acts 2 describes the church in a unique context. The dramatic outpouring of the Holy Spirit prophesied hundreds of years before has just come to fulfillment at the Jewish pilgrimage feast of Pentecost. Historically, we are fifty days after the resurrection of Jesus and ten days after his ascension to reign as King in heaven. On the heels of the Spirit’s outpouring, the apostle Peter preached a sermon to which thousands of Jews became followers of Jesus. These early converts formed the earliest Christian community — the community we see in Acts 2.
Therefore, as we note the unique historical context of this passage, not everything we read surrounding this once-in-history redemptive event is intended to be normative for the church. However, there are these six principles, or settings, that are instructive and helpful for us to use as guides as we do our Church Reboot. With this goal in mind, let’s turn to our text in Acts 2:42–47.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 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, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
As I reflected on verse 43, I struggled to find the connection between the original context and our contemporary situation. We no longer have the apostles around performing signs and wonders. How does that element of their experience relate to ours?
For the answer, I turned my focus away from the apostles and to the believers. What the text says about them is crucial.
We read that something happened to “everyone.” What was it? They were filled. The Greek word the NIV translates “filled” is the verb, ginomai, which means “to be” or “to become.” It is a word that is used to describe the essence of something and is translated in a few different ways in English Bibles.
- NASB, “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe.”
- ESV, “And awe came upon every soul.”
- NLT, “A deep sense of awe came over them all.”
- NIV, “Everyone was filled with awe.”
It seems as if the translators are trying to get at the concept of transformation. The believers had been one thing but now are something else. Like a caterpillar turns into a butterfly through the dramatic process of metamorphosis.
Something happened so deeply to these people that they were overcome with a sense of awe. It wasn’t just a feeling. It was a filling.
They experienced a spiritual metamorphosis. They had been filled, overwhelmed, and transformed. The result is that they now lived with expectant faith. What was dormant now was active and alive and overflowing. They didn’t respond to the miracles performed by the apostles with skepticism but with “awe-filled” worship.
The word which is translated “awe” in our English Bibles is the Greek word phobos, which literally means “fear.” Yet, the translators are correct to emphasize the nuance of awe as the proper meaning of the word in this context. The believers were not afraid of the signs and wonders, they were strengthened by them and from them came to expect God to continue working powerfully in their midst through the apostles.
This is where I think the system setting of expectant faith is the best way to describe the application for us from this verse as we reboot. We want to shed our functional atheism and put on a fresh faith in the presence and power of God to “do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine.” (Eph. 3:20) Not only do I want us to believe that God is able but that he is actively at work among us, saving and sanctifying us, a people whom the apostle Peter calls “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, so that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)
The “so that” is an important marker in that passage from 1 Peter 2:9. We are chosen and treasured. To be such a people is to experience mercy and grace. The result of such divine kindness is that, beholding the cross of Jesus, we live in awe of God’s mercy and make a big deal about it.
An Awe-Inspiring Gospel
Nothing should be more awe-inspiring than God himself being crucified to rescue traitors to his Kingship and rebels to his authority. In any court of justice, we would expect to be judged and executed for our rebellion against a King. That is what sin is. Rebellion. Treason. Moral defiance.
The fact that Jesus would suffer the justice sinners deserve so that the ungodly could receive mercy is practically beyond human comprehension. We read of this staggering mercy of God in passages such as Romans 4:5, where Paul says, “God justifies the ungodly,” or Romans 6:6, where he writes, “Christ died for the ungodly,” or his statement to Timothy, where the apostle proclaims, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
The message of the gospel is the most awe-striking news ever to be released upon the planet. That God would justify the ungodly is a miracle of miracles. What other religion is centered on such radical grace? There is not one.
Every other religion known to mankind functions on a “do this” and be saved paradigm. In the Christian message, we are not told to do this but to believe this — believe that Jesus is my substitute in life and in death. Through his obedience to the law, he did what I failed to do and in his atoning death, he did what only he could do. Through his life, death, and resurrection, he is the sin-bearer and righteousness provider for anyone who trust him as Savior and Lord.
Signs and Wonders
By the way, what were “signs and wonders?” I don’t want to pass over that important phrase. Put simply, they were a unique kind of miracle intended to function in three ways.
- One, the miracles blessed the recipient of the miracle.
- Two, as signs they pointed to the miraculous, powerful work of God in their midst.
- And three, these signs testified to the authentication of God upon the men through whom the word of God was being spoken and inscribed in the New Testament Scriptures.
Of course, we no longer have apostles doing signs and wonders. That ministry was intended to be temporary and specific for a unique season of redemptive history as the Scriptures were being written and preserved as an apostolic testimony for generations to come. Thankfully, having their testimony, we do not need an apostolic ministry in order to have the same awe-filled, expectant faith we see in the Christian community in Acts 2.
Remember system setting number one? A devotion to the apostles’ teaching, which according to Paul centered on the substitutionary atonement of Jesus as the doctrine of “first importance,” along with his resurrection, ascension, present reign as Lord, and future return.
The focus of their teaching was not the necessity of apostolic presence and power but the necessity of God’s presence and power through his Holy Spirit. After all, the apostles did not inherently possess power to do miracles. They were conduits.
- Acts 19:11, “God did extraordinary miracles through Paul.”
- Hebrews 2:3b-4, “3b This salvation was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, 4 and was affirmed by God through signs, wonders, various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to His will.”
The source of power to do miraculous acts was not the apostles themselves but was the power of God working in and through them. Do you see what this means? Even though we do not have the apostles present, God is present through his Holy Spirit today in the same way he was present then.
So, with expectant faith in the powerful working of God today, what should we expect modern-day miracles to look like? In some cases, we may see apostolic-like miracles such as dramatic healings and the casting out of demonic spirits. I totally believe that happens, especially in mission frontiers.
If God is God, and upholds a universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies, physical healing is nothing for him. Like tearing open the wrapper on a candy bar easy, or snapping his fingers easy. The issue is not his ability, but his purpose for intervening or not intervening in a way that transcends the physical laws he has established that order the material world.
Regardless of the number of physical healings that take place, the fact is that the human body is destined to die. The implication of that reality is the necessity of the miraculous in the spiritual and moral realm. For example, most of us would consider someone who died physically coming back to life to be a verifiable, not to mention an astonishing, miracle. Like the resurrection of Jesus.
What about when someone is born again spiritually? It is possible to underestimate the power of God in such a context. But in Ephesians 2, the apostle Paul writes that apart from supernatural regeneration, the human person is spiritually dead and unable to respond to the preaching of the gospel. He or she doesn’t have what Jesus called, “ears to hear.”
Nevertheless, Ephesians 2:5 Paul says we are able to respond to the message of grace when he “causes us to be made alive (spiritually).” In other words, people who have eyes to see and ears to hear and respond are those who have experienced a spiritual resurrection from death to life. It is a modern-day miracle!
But there are more.
When we talk about the spiritual fruit that is produced in the lives of those born again disciples of Jesus, the words Paul uses to describe what is revealed is “the fruit of the Spirit.” Meaning, when I express genuine, sacrificial love, blessing someone at personal cost who doesn’t deserve it, I am a conduit of the miraculous work of God in and through me. The same is true when I manifest joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control.
These are not natural human virtues but are distinctively called the fruit of the Spirit — fruit that is the result of the presence and power of God in my life. The same is true when we own our sin through honest, without excuse confession. That is the work of the Spirit. In the same way, forgiveness unto reconciliation is miraculous! And what about humility, compassion, and generosity. If we have eyes to see, there are modern-day miracles taking place all around us!
The Source of Spiritual Fruit
But just like the apostles didn’t have the power within them to heal, we do not have the ability to produce spiritual, supernatural fruit. That is the result of God’s power, which fills us as we consciously abide in Jesus by faith as our sin-bearer and righteousness provider. In John 15, Jesus says we are like branches and he is the Vine, and “apart from me you can do nothing.” But then he says, “If you abide in me, you will produce much fruit.”
That is the secret of the supernatural life and is what causes expectant faith to flourish. When I find the source of my life in Christ Jesus. When I abide in his perfect righteousness, I am filled with his Spirit and equipped to live a miraculous life.
When our children were young, sometimes there would be conflict among the siblings. Whether it was an argument over playing with a toy or going first on the slide on the playground, there were issues of selfishness and forgiveness to work through. What would you expect? They are my kids.
Whenever Kristy and I would see one of them take the initiative to apologize or to share or to let someone else go first — or whatever seemed out of place for a four-year-old (or a forty-year-old come to think of it) — we would stop to notice and celebrate the miraculous work of God. “Schaeffer, you just apologized to your sister. That is not natural, but looks a lot like that Holy Spirit is at work in your life!”
The same goes for adults. When I look at our church’s financial records and see such generosity, especially in the midst of pandemic uncertainty, I am deeply encouraged. Not because our bank balance has increased but because expectant faith has been displayed. It is just not natural to give away large sums of money. Yet when we do, it shows that we are trusting God to replenish what we have sown, like a farmer planting seeds for an eventual harvest.
“There is Your Problem”
In Letters to My Students, renowned 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon asked one of his preaching pupils whether he expected someone to be saved every time he preached. There had been some frustration among those in his Pastor’s College who were not being as fruitful in their homiletical endeavors as they had hoped, and certainly not as fruitful as their instructor. In view of their growing exasperation, Spurgeon asked the question to diagnose the ineffectiveness of their preaching.
He asked, “Do you expect someone to be saved every time you preach?”
The student responded, “Well, of course not.”
To which Spurgeon replied, “Well, there is your problem.”
The students no longer had an expectation that God was really at work. But he was, and how much more would that inspire them to act, think, and feel more the presence and power of God. I wonder if I am like that unbelieving student in Spurgeon’s Pastor’s College. Going through the religious motions. Acting more like a functional atheist than an awakened, faith-filled disciple.
I don’t know how much to make of it, but we read in Matthew 13 that Jesus was unable to perform many miracles in his hometown of Nazaret. The reason is given in verse 58, which says, “[Jesus] did not do many miracles there because of [the people’s] lack of faith.” They looked upon Jesus, the carpenter’s son, with skepticism and contempt. But when people in other places, especially those in desperate need of God’s mercy, expressed expectant faith, Jesus would respond, saying, “Your faith has made you well.”
There is something about expectant faith that provides rich soil for the supernatural to grow and flourish. Don’t get me wrong. God’s intervention is not dependent upon whether we believe or not. But it does seem as if the Father loves to respond to faith with grace — whether saving grace, sustaining grace, or sanctifying grace.
I want to live with expectant faith, living in awe of the cross and with anticipation of what he is up to next. I bet that is what you want, too. Maybe what he is up to in your life is to give you eyes to see and ears to hear. Maybe you are seeing your need for Jesus as Lord in a new way or your need for him as Savior for the first time and want to receive him now. If either is true, take a minute now simply to confess that need and believe.