Acts

R.L. Dabney on the Preacher as Herald

dabney-eeR.L. Dabney’s book on preaching, Evangelical Eloquence, makes a very strong case for the practical of expository preaching. That is, preaching through entire books of the Bible, verse-by-verse, with the aim of making known “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to the people of God.

In a chapter entitled, “Cardinal Requisites of the Sermon,” he deals with “the general qualities which must characterize the structure of every sermon” (p.105). It is telling that the very first one of these qualities that he states as a cardinal requisite of true biblical preaching is that of “textual fidelity” (or sticking to the text, so to speak). There he writes,

The best argument to enforce upon you this virtue is suggested by the same fact – that the preacher is a herald. The first quality of the good herald is the faithful delivery of the very mind of his king. Our conception of our office, and of the revealed word as an infinitely wise rule for man’s salvation, permits us to discuss the text in no other spirit.” (p.105)

A firm persuasion of the truth of the calling of the preacher as a herald of the King ought to lead those of us who have the great privilege and responsibility to be pastors and preachers to stick to the text (to tell the truth of it), to preach through entire books of the Bible (to tell the whole truth of it), and to not mingle it with ideas that are not truly present in the text (to tell nothing but God’s truth).

Only then can the preacher say, with the Apostle Paul, that he is ‘innocent of the blood of all men because he did not shrink back from declaring to them the whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:26-27).

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The Urgency of the Gospel

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Many of us are tempted to procrastinate when it comes to dealing with certain problems in our daily lives.  We often procrastinate knowing full well that ignoring problems and hoping that they will go away often just serves to make them even worse. Who among us can honestly say that we haven’t been there and done that a time or two?

But when it comes to eternity, procrastination can be devastating. The time that we each have in this life to settle where, how, and with whom we will spend eternity is really quite limited. Time flies, as the saying goes.  It is with good reason that the Psalmist writes,

So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12, ESV)

In asking the Lord to teach us to number our days” (emphasis mine) the Psalmist shows us that numbering our days does not come naturally to us. We always seem to assume that tomorrow is somehow guaranteed to us. It is not, at least not in this life.

In his commentary in the book of Acts, Derek Thomas writes,

“Souls are lost by reason of procrastination. Awakened consciences that fail to make good their resolve to find peace with God discover that before they realize it, they have fallen even deeper into the mire of sin. Thinking that they can turn to God “at any time,” they discover that they are unable to do so.” (p.673)

He is speaking there of the example of the Roman Governor Felix in Acts chapter 24. Felix was very familiar with Christianity. In v.22 Luke writes that Felix had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way.” Not only had he heard the gospel explained to him on numerous occasions (v.26), but he had heard it from no less  a preacher than the Apostle Paul himself!  Paul spoke to him about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v.25). Paul did not beat around the bush.

What did Felix do with that knowledge? What was his response to the gospel of Christ? He procrastinated; he simply put it off.  As far as we know, he never repented & turned to Christ by faith.  While he was “alarmed” (v.25) by Paul’s mention of the judgment to come, he wasn’t “alarmed” enough to actually turn from his sin and turn to Christ by faith. Rather, he turned from hearing the gospel at all, telling Paul, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you” (v.26).

In other words, not now – maybe later.  He just assumed that he could put it off until later. He assumed that he would always have an “opportunity” (v.26) to hear the gospel and believe later, whenever he got around to it. How many today are of a very similar mindset?

Maybe that even describes you?

It is not without reason that the Scripture says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2, ESV).  As  the writer of Hebrews (quoting Psalm 95) warns us, Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8, ESV). Did you catch that? To “hear his voice” in the gospel of Christ and to reject it or put it off is to harden your heart. In other words, procrastination is not a neutral posture. Indecision about Jesus Christ is itself a decision, and it has consequences.

As the example of Felix serves to demonstrate, hearing the gospel is not enough. Hearing it numerous times is not enough. Being familiar with the faith is not enough. Even being alarmed at the thought of the judgment to come is not enough if it does not lead to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus.

If you are not yet a believer in Jesus Christ, turn to Him by faith while there is yet time.  Today, if you hear His voice in the gospel, do not harden your heart by indecision and procrastination. Come to Him and have life that is abundant (John 10:10) and eternal (John 17:3). As the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21,

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Don’t just fear the coming judgment –be delivered from it by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ! Be reconciled to God in Him!

The Mother of All Heresies

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“Ambition is the mother of all heresies.”

This is Calvin’s remark about Paul’s words in Acts chapter 20, where the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesian elders that after his departure, “fierce wolves” would come in (v.29) or even arise from among their own number, “speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (v.30).

Ambition, either for a personal following, for financial gain, or both (as one often follows the other) may be found at the root of most or even all false teaching.  Calvin goes on to say,

“Pure handling of the Scripture aims to give Christ the preeminence, and people cannot appropriate anything for themselves without detracting from the glory of Christ. It follows that those who try to promote their own glory are corrupters of sound doctrine.” (Acts, Crossway Classic Commentary Series, p.339)

So if you are a minister of the gospel of Christ, beware of pride and the temptations of self-promotion.  Seek to make much of Christ in your public and private ministry of the Word.  It is no wonder that Paul admonished the Ephesian elders to “Be on guard” for themselves before telling them to be on guard for all the flock (v.28, NASB).

The Grace of Giving

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The grace of giving should be a distinguishing characteristic of the Christian church.

I know what you’re probably thinking: “It’s somehow always about money, isn’t it?”  But bear with me – don’t go packing your bags for that guilt trip just yet!

First, we can see from the example of the church in the book of Acts that the grace of generosity was characteristic among Christians from the earliest days of the church’s infancy.

In Acts 2:42-47 we read:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

And the same thing happened later on in the book of Acts as well.  A large crowd of Gentiles in Antioch heard the gospel and believed.  They were then taught the great truths of Scripture by Barbabas and Saul for an entire year (!).  And what was the result?  Once again, it was generosity toward their fellow believers who were in need.

And Acts 11:27-30 says,

Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

Not only that, but look at what the apostle Paul has to say about the subject.  He thought it was so important, that he exhorted the church at Corinth to “excel” in the grace of giving. And he did so by reminding them that this particular grace was evident even among some of the poorest churches in Macedonia:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints—and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us. Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see that you excel in this act of grace also. (2 Corinthians 8:1-7 ESV)

Notice the arithmetic of grace that Paul mentions:

Abundant Joy + Extreme Poverty = Overflowing Generosity

That being the case, there was no excuse for a well-to-do church to not be excelling in that same grace of giving.  And there still isn’t.

What about us?  Do we excel in the grace of giving?  If not, why not?

Is poverty (admittedly a very relative term) a valid reason?  We might think so, but that sure didn’t stop the churches of Macedonia, did it?  In fact, while their “extreme poverty” could have been viewed as a reason not to give, the thing that made all of the difference was their abundance of joy in the gospel.

Because of the joy that they had in Jesus Christ, they not only gave beyond their means (v.3), but even begged (!) Paul to allow them to participate in relieving the needs of the saints (v.4).

And Paul not only urged them to give on the basis of the godly example of the churches of Macedonia, but, ultimately, on the basis of the gospel.  In v.9 he reminds them of the sacrificial love of Christ, saying,

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (v.9).

So Christ is our ultimate example of the grace of giving, but Paul is saying much more than that, isn’t he?  Christ’s grace toward us in becoming poor resulted in His people becoming rich!  The riches that Jesus won for us on the Cross are not financial in nature (despite what some prosperity preachers may say), but they are no less real! 

In fact, our riches in Christ are far more real than anything that we could have in a bank account or investment portfolio. (Elsewhere we are told that we have an “inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” – 1 Peter 1:4.)  The riches of Christ bring such joy to the life of a believer that he or she almost cannot help but be generous.

If we really know that we have treasure in heaven, we will be much more generous with our earthly treasures, whether great or small.  We may (mistakenly) think of giving in legalistic terms, but it’s really all about grace (or should be).  No wonder Paul calls it an “act of grace” (2 Corinthians 8:7)!

May we excel in our joy in Jesus Christ, that we might also excel in the grace of giving!

Lessons from the Conversion of Saul (Paul)

How did the Apostle Paul understand the significance of his own conversion?  He tells us in a letter or epistle that he wrote to  his young colleague, Timothy:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15-17)

The conversion of Saul was a “display” that is meant to show us something about the mercy and long-suffering of God in Jesus Christ.  Here are at least three (3) lessons that we can learn from Saul’s amazing conversion:

1.   Jesus is always reigning over & watching over His church no matter how it might seem.  Saul was trying to destroy the church (Galatians 1:13), but the Lord Jesus had other plans for him.  Not only would he stop trying to destroy the church, but he would quickly end up “preaching the faith he once tried to destroy” (Galatians 1:23).  Jesus came into the world to save sinners!

2.   We should see the enemies of the church differently.  You just never know whom the Lord Jesus might save.  When Paul tells us that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15), that’s exactly what he meant.  Even some of those whom we view as the worst of the worst may yet be objects of the mercy and grace of God in Jesus Christ.  No wonder Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).  Some of those enemies may end up becoming our brothers and sisters in the faith!  Jesus came into the world to save sinners!

3.   No one is beyond the reach of God’s grace in the gospel.  If the Lord Jesus saved Saul of Tarsus, there is no one who is beyond saving in this life.  So if you are not yet a believer in Jesus and think that you are somehow too sinful to receive His mercy and grace, think again!  He saved Saul (who considered himself the worst sinner of all)!

And if you are a believer in Jesus Christ, do not think that there is anyone else who is beyond the reach of God’s grace either.  Do not write anyone off, presuming that there is no way the Lord would save them.  Let the conversion of Saul teach you that Jesus came into the world to save sinners!

No wonder Paul says, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (v.17)!

The Two Most Amazing Words in the Book of Acts

What are the two most amazing words in the book of Acts?  I would suggest the following:

“Brother, Saul . . . .” (Acts 9:17)

Of these simple but very profound two words, John Stott writes,

I never fail to be moved by these words. They may well have been the first words which Saul heard from Christian lips after his conversion, and they were words of fraternal welcome. (The Message of Acts, p.175-176, emphasis mine)

The conversion of Saul of Tarsus is arguably the high point of the book of Acts.  It is certainly the turning point of the book.  He becomes the dominant human figure in the rest of the book.  His conversion is recounted no less than three times in Acts (chapters 9, 22, and 26), so it must be important.

His conversion must have been a shock to everyone who heard of it.

First, it must have been no small surprise to Ananias.  When the Lord spoke to him in a vision, telling him to go seek out “a man of Tarsus named Saul” (v.11), he thought there must have been some mistake.  He went from “Here I am, Lord” (v.10) to saying, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem” (v.13).  The salvation of Saul was the last thing Ananias would have expected, but the Lord Jesus assured him that Saul was indeed His chosen instrument (v.15).

He would take the persecutor of the church and turn him into one of the greatest preachers of the gospel of Christ that the world has ever known!  And Ananias was honored to be the one chosen by Christ himself to be the messenger of those two amazing words: “Brother, Saul . . .” (v.17).

It was also the last thing in the world that Saul (later renamed Paul) ever expected.  Saul was confronted by the risen and ascended Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus.  He was blinded and practically incapacitated by the Lord (v.3-9).  For three days Saul was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.  His life was turned utterly upside-down.  He had thought he had been serving God by seeking to destroy the church, only to find out that he had been attacking the Lord Himself (v.5).

We do not know what was going through Saul’s mind during those three days in Damascus, but it would seem that he had no reason to expect anything but judgment and destruction.  But instead he hears those amazing two words from Ananias: “Brother, Saul . . .” (v.17). The Lord showed mercy and grace to Saul.  His sight was restored and He was filled with the Holy Spirit (v.17-18).  Ananias was the Lord’s messenger, not of judgment, but of salvation!

Lastly, it was more than a bit surprising to the church.  It was so shocking that the saints did not believe it either at first:

And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. (Acts 9:26 ESV)

They thought that it must have been some kind of trick.  Perhaps Saul was trying to infiltrate the church in order to arrest more of them!  But that wasn’t it.  Not even close.  He was now brother Saul, a fellow disciple of Jesus Christ!  They (like we often do) underestimated the grace of God in Jesus Christ.  But not for long.

Saul went from seeking to arrest disciples of Jesus Christ (v.1-2) to seeking to make disciples of Jesus Christ (v.20-22).  And the only explanation for this amazing turnaround is the power of God in the gospel.

Jesus Christ came to seek and save sinners, of whom Saul (Paul) saw himself as the worst (1 Timothy 1:15).  And if He would save Saul of Tarsus, truly no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace in Jesus Christ!

Famous Last Words

Acts 7:59-60 gives us the last words that Stephen spoke before he was martyred for the cause of the gospel of Jesus Christ:

And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

His last words in sound familiar, don’t they?  They are an echo of Jesus’ last words from the Cross (Luke 23:34, 46)!  Like his Lord Jesus, Stephen showed great love, mercy, and grace to those who showed him none of the above!

If you stop and think about it, those are amazing words.  That is an amazing prayer!

How was Stephen able to pray for the Lord not to hold their sin (his own murder!) against them? How was he able to cry out for their forgiveness even as they were killing him?

Can you even imagine being able to do that? We often have trouble forgiving far lesser things, don’t we?

How can we learn to forgive our enemies like Stephen did here in Acts 7? The key is the gospel.

The more that you grasp the reality of the love and forgiveness that are yours through faith in Christ, the more willing you will be to stick your neck out for the gospel.

And the more willing you will be to forgive even the worst offenses against you.