“Beginning at Jerusalem”

With this post, we start a series on the Book of Acts.

1. Purpose of the Study.

We’re not interested in merely developing some “doctrine of the church.”  There may be a time and a place for such a thing, but in these posts we’re more concerned with “why” the church is than with “what” it is.  For example, when the Lord Jesus ascended, why did He leave only a small, powerless band of men who had no idea what was going on?  Further, what did He expect them to do?  The Book of Acts gives ample answer to these questions, as well as telling us why we have been left in a world increasingly hostile to the Lord Jesus and His message.

2. Some Things to Think About.

In some circles, we hear about a lot about “The New Testament Church.”  More than one group believes it can trace its roots back to Jerusalem, and so, of course, they are The New Testament Church.

An honest comparison between Acts and today shows such differences that it’s sometimes difficult to believe that there is any relationship between us and them at all.  Nor do we believe that it’s necessary to provide a “genealogy” for a church so as to put it in direct succession with the church at Jerusalem.  The only “link” that’s necessary is found in the Lord Jesus and not in some organization or group of organizations.

There are some things to keep in mind:

1. The “New Testament Church,” as such, is a concept, an ideal, that has never existed.  The disciples themselves were blatantly far from perfect and even the church at Jerusalem had its problems, as noted in Acts 5 and 6.  Indeed, most of Paul’s epistles were written to address problems and difficulties in “New Testament” churches.

At the same time, “New Testament churches” seek to be guided by principles of the New Testament and not by church edicts or dictates.

2. When we think of the New Testament church, though, we usually think of the first church, the church at Jerusalem.  A moment’s thought should serve to show that the church at Jerusalem would be absolutely impossible to duplicate today.

a. Many of the people in Jerusalem, both believers and unbelievers, had seen the Lord Jesus and had witnessed or participated in the events surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord.  Remember, the Lord was crucified less than two months before Pentecost.  Further, many Jews had seen His miracles or heard His teaching during the three or so years of His earthly ministry.

b. Pentecost, though not the “birthday” of the Church (a thought to which we’ll return later on), was the catalyst igniting it, as it were, and getting it going.   A second “Pentecost,” though some might earnestly long for it, is as impossible as a second Calvary.  It is no more necessary for the Spirit to be poured out as He was in Acts 2 than it would be for the Lord to be crucified.  Both were “once-for-all” events, though it is true that the effects and benefits of those two happenings must be individually applied and entered into.

3. Though many disagree, Acts records a final presentation of her King to Israel.  In Matthew 12:39-41, the Lord stated that Israel would be given one final sign that He was who He said He was:  He would only spend three days and three nights in the grave, no more.  He would physically and bodily rise from the dead.  Cf. John 2:19-21.  See also Matthew 16:4; Luke 11:29, 30 (note “this generation” in v. 30).  This is why the preaching in Acts always mentions the Resurrection.

Finally, it is sometimes said that Acts is historical and “transitional,” and so we shouldn’t rely on it to teach “doctrine.”  Acts is transitional, but it contains some very strong doctrinal statements.  Now, these must not be isolated from the rest of Scripture, as some do, but neither are they to be ignored.  Acts shows the “transition” from a Jewish emphasis to a Gentile emphasis.  Further, it shows the transition of Christianity from a local sect only in Jerusalem and Judea to an influence which moved the world of its day.

Revelation 1:19, 20: The Seven Churches

“Write the things which you have seen, and the things which are, and the things which will take place after this.  The mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands:  The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands which you saw are the seven churches.”  (NKJV)

John had been so overcome by the vision of our Lord that perhaps he had missed part of it, that is, what the Lord was holding in His hand.  He held seven stars and was standing in the middle of seven golden lampstands.  Our Lord describes what these things mean:  the seven stars are the “angels” (“angeloi”) of the seven churches and the lampstands represent the seven churches themselves.

There’s some discussion about who these “angels” were.  Some believe the word is simply used in its primary meaning of “messenger.”  These are human messengers sent from the churches.  “Angel” is simply the transliteration of the Greek word into English.  And it’s true that angels often brought messages from God.  Another view is that they are actual angels, who watch over the churches.  We do read in Scripture of the activities of angels with regard to what goes on in this world, Psalm 91:11; Daniel 11:20, many others.  Others believe it refers to the actual pastors and leaders of the various churches.

I tend to the view that it does refer to the actual pastors and teachers.  It teaches us that pastors don’t belong to the church, or to the denomination or even to themselves.  They belong to the Lord Jesus Christ.  They are His and, though they have responsibility to the church they lead, they are ultimately responsible to Him.  There is no greater calling in this world than to stand before people and open to them the Word of God.  But there is also no greater responsibility than that.  Even the simple posts that I write for this blog have eternal repercussions.  Spurgeon used to say that it crushed him into the dust to stand before eternity-bound men and women with the Scriptures.  I’m afraid we’ve lost that sense of awe in this day of mega-churches and Christian “personalities.”

The churches are depicted by seven individual lampstands.  These were lamps which would have burned olive oil.  This compares to the single lampstand with seven flames which burned in the Tabernacle, Exodus 26:31, 32, 37.  I think these portray the distinction between Israel and the church.  As a nation or as a people, Israel was a single entity.  They had a single “holy city,” and a centralized religion with its headquarters in the Tabernacle, then, later, the Temple in Jerusalem.  Later on, in the various dispersions and such, the “synagogue” sprang up as a local focal point of instruction and worship.  But the Jewish heart was always with the land of Israel, regardless of where the body was.

I don’t think Gentiles really understand the attachment the Jew has for his homeland.  I worked for a few months as a janitor in a conservative Jewish synagogue and saw firsthand their love for “eretz Yisrael”.

In contrast to the unity of the nation, “the church” knows no such centralization.  We have no “holy city,” no “headquarters” on this earth.  There is no such structure to the church.  Each church is directly responsible, not to some earthly leader or body, but to the Lord Himself.

Scripture describes the church as both an organism and an organization.  The “organism” is called “the body of Christ,” 1 Corinthians 12:31.  True believers are members of that one body.  If you are a believer, though you and I may never meet in this life and might be separated by thousands of miles, live on opposite sides of the planet and have different languages and cultures, we are still related through the Lord Jesus.  We are brothers and sisters.  For lack of a better word, the body is “universal.”  There is only one.

But that one body functions in and through the local church, the local “organization.”  The problem comes in with the confusing of the organism and the organization.  There is no universal “organization,” no world-wide “church,” in Scripture.  Each local church is independent.  No other church can tell it what to do, and it can’t tell any other church what to do.  Certainly, churches can cooperate in various endeavors.  The problem is that the “endeavor,” whatever it is, tends to take on a life of its own and to overshadow the local church.

Through John, our Lord addressed each of the seven churches.  He didn’t have John give the message to some centralized authority, which then filtered it down to the various churches.

These were seven local, contemporaneous churches.  They all existed at the same time.  But “churches” are really just the people who make them up.  So our Lord isn’t just addressing some nebulous something out there.  He’s talking through them to you and me.  He’s giving each one of us counsel, warning, encouragement, promise.  We can find ourselves described in one of these churches, with the attendant counsel given by our Lord.

The Sabbath and Israel

In our first two posts, we looked at the origin of the Sabbath, although it was simply called “the seventh day” at creation, and at it’s incorporation into the Mosaic Covenant as “the Sabbath”.  It was given to Israel as a reminder not only that God had delivered them from Egyptian slavery, but that He was the same God who had created everything to begin with.

In this post, we’ll see how well Israel paid attention to what God said through Moses.  In all this, remember that the NT has a further word about the Sabbath.

  • 2 Kings 4:23, So he said, “Why are you going to him today?  It is neither new moon nor the Sabbath.”

For the story around this, read 2 Kings 4.  Our focus is only on the husband’s confusion as to why his wife would want to visit Elisha the prophet on a different day than usual, cf. 1 Samuel 1:3.  It shows there was an established custom for the observance of the Sabbath and the festivals, or “feasts,” though not everyone followed it, as we’ll see.

  • 2 Kings 11:5-9; 2 Chronicles 23:4, 8.

These references are together because they record the same story:  the overthrow of the wicked Queen, Athaliah, who had murdered all the legitimate heirs to the throne of David, except one providentially hidden by God through one of his nurses.  The full story is in 2 Kings 11 and 2 Chronicles 22:10 through 23:25.  The verses we referenced simply tell some of the preparation for that overthrow:  those soldiers who went off duty for the Sabbath would stay on with those who came on duty in order to have plenty of protection for the new King.

  • 2 Kings 16:18, Also he removed the Sabbath pavilion which they had built in the Temple.

This is part of the story of wicked king Ahaz and his foolish and sinful joining together of idolatrous worship with the true worship of Jehovah, though he certainly wasn’t the first who did this.  There is no other reference to “the Sabbath pavilion” which he dismantled.

  • 1 Chronicles 9:32, And some of their brethren of the sons of Kohath were in charge of preparing the showbread for every Sabbath.

This refers back to the instructions given in Leviticus 24:5-9.

  • 1 Chronicles 23:31, and at every presentation of a burnt offering to the LORD on the Sabbaths….

This is part of the elaborate preparations David had for the service of the Tabernacle, and then the Temple which was to be built by Solomon.

  • 2 Chronicles 2:4; 8:13, …the Sabbaths, 

The first reference is part of Solomon’s request to Hiram, king of Tyre, for the things necessary to build the Temple.  The second reference is to Solomon’s activity after the Temple was built.  As you read through the first eight chapters of 2 Chronicles, notice the repeated references to David’s plans and preparations for the Temple.  Solomon did fine as long as the Temple was being built, and his own dwelling, but after the twenty years it took for all this, he soon fell into things the Law strictly forbade.  We wonder how much of the building of the Temple was really Solomon and how much of it was just left over, so to speak, from his father.  How often we see this, children getting away from the influence of godly parents, for whatever reason, and going their own way.  How we need to pray that God would be with our kids when we are no longer with them, either by distance or by death!

  • 2 Chronicles 31:3, The king also appointed a portion of his possessions for…the burnt offerings for the Sabbaths…. 

2 Chronicles 29-31 takes us near the end of Israel’s independent existence and the reforms under Hezekiah, who was the last “good” king of Israel.

  • 2 Chronicles 36:21, …to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths.  As long as she lay desolate, she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years. 

2 Chronicles 36:11-21 describes the final overthrown of Israel and the capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.  V. 21 refers to Jeremiah 25:11 and 29:10.  See also Daniel 9:2.  What Israel would not do willingly, Leviticus 25:1-6, she would do unwillingly.

  • Nehemiah 9:14, “You made known to them Your holy Sabbath,” 

Nehemiah was one of the books written after the 70-year Captivity was over and some of the people had returned to the land.  However, Nehemiah and the others record that Israel really hadn’t learned much and more or less fell back into the ways which had gotten her into trouble in the first place.  Granted, there were tremendous difficulties and obstacles facing the returnees.  Nevertheless, Nehemiah and the others show the error of those who believe that the Return fulfilled all the promises God made through Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and others.

Chapter 9 records one of the times of repentance and reformation brought by the ministry of Nehemiah, Ezra and others.  V. 14 is part of a prayer which listed the blessings which God had bestowed on Israel.  The Sabbath was one of those blessings.

There’s something else here, too, though it has nothing to do with the Sabbath.  Several times in Scripture the history of Israel is recounted to show all the blessings God had bestowed on her, cf. Psalms 105 – 107.  They also show Israel’s failure fully to understand those blessings and to act in accord with them.

The thing is, Israel knew her history.  Granted, it was written down for them.  But I wonder how many Christians know their history.  There might be some familiarity with the rise of Romanism, the Reformation, Constantine, the abandonment of Greek, the language of the New Testament and the adoption of Latin, the language of pagan Rome, Martin Luther and a few others, but there’s a whole litany of names of people hunted down and slaughtered in their tens of thousands by Rome and then the Reformers, who are pretty much unknown to us: Montanists, Novatians, Paulicians, Waldenses, Albigenses, Anabaptists, to name just a few.  These people were not perfect, to be sure – their enemies are quick to point that out, but then neither are we.  They just wanted to remain true to the New Testament and so refused to follow the “official” church, which they believed had departed from New Testament teaching.  For this, they suffered and died.  “The church” has not grown through the favor of the world-system and it’s governments, as Constantine and his followers apparently thought, and think, but rather has been watered by the blood of believers.  It’s history is written in red.  There is more to it than that, of course, how one interprets the Old Testament, for instance, but there’s more to “church history” than might be commonly believed.

  •  Nehemiah 10:31, 33.

Nehemiah 10 shows the results of Nehemiah’s intercession in ch. 9.  V. 31 records the people’s promise not to engage in commerce on the Sabbath, or on any holy day, even if the opportunity presented itself.  They would honor the year of release.  V. 33 shows their determination to supply things necessary for the service of the house of our God. 

  • Nehemiah 13:15-19, 21, 22.

Nehemiah 13 happens after an absence by Nehemiah in which he returned to his duties with the king, v. 6.  After a time, he was permitted to return to Israel, where he found, to his dismay and anger, that things were not going well, to put it mildly.  One of the reforms he started involved the Sabbath and it’s nonobservance by the people and others.

We’re going to have to bring this post to an end.  We’d hoped to get all that the Old Testament says on the Sabbath, but there’s just too much material.  We’ll finish it tomorrow, Lord willing.