"Revealed Truth "
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts September 26, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
Note: You may download this sermon at no cost, for personal use or for use in a Christian ministry, as long as you are not publishing it for sale. All I ask is that you give credit where credit is due. For all other uses, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org . Thank you.
Scripture Reading: Acts 2:37-42
Acts 2:37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, "Brothers, what should we do?" 38 Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him." 40 And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." 41 So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
What Comes First
When my son Nathan was about five years old we went on a marvelous summer vacation. First, we drove to Mammoth and spent a week staying in a condo up there, taking little hikes in the mountains and playing endlessly in the community park, which Nathan called "Windy Park" because the evening gusts were so strong. Then we flew to Wisconsin to spend a couple of weeks with friends who had a small resort on Long Lake. We enjoyed boating, fishing, walking in the woods, and visiting the annual Rutabega Festival in Cumberland, Wisconsin, where Nathan loved going on the carnival rides.
When we returned home, my mother asked Nathan about the trip. "So tell me about your trip, Nathan, what did you do? What was your favorite part?" Without missing a beat, Nathan answered: "I liked it when we got our car washed at the car wash." Great, I thought. We just carted this boy halfway across country. He's seen gorgeous natural vistas, swum in crystal blue lakes, and eaten lots of Wisconsin fried food, and the best he can come up with is getting the car washed, which actually happened the day before our vacation started? But, from the perspective of a five-year-old, seeing our van getting sprayed and soaped was a big deal, so he mentioned it first.
Grown ups also mention first what they tend to value most. If you ask a good friend of mine about any church service, he'll always begin by describing the size of the crowd. It doesn't matter what actually happened in the service. It could have been the most glorious worship since Pentecost. There might have been visible tongues of fire and prophecies in unknown languages. But none of this matters. First of all my friend will tell you, "Well, the crowd was very strong" or "It seemed like a whole lot of people weren't there today." This friend, you see, values getting a lot of people in church, so he mentions it first.
What Luke Mentions First
When Luke wrote the Book of Acts, the companion volume to his gospel, he described the activities of the earliest believers in this way: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:42). Now in fairness to my crowd-counting friend, Luke did mention in verse 41 that "about three thousand persons were added" to the core of the church that day. Then he tells us what these folks actually did once they acknowledged Jesus as Savior and were baptized. Notice carefully what Luke says first: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching." This tells us a whole lot about Luke's own priorities. But, more importantly, it also tells us bundles about the priorities of the early church and, indeed, the priorities of God for the church.
Let me but the matter simply: When the church of Jesus Christ has its act together, it will always be devoted to "the apostles' teaching." Of course this raises lots of further questions: What does this devotion tell us about what really matters in church? How can we follow the example of the earliest church since we don't have actual apostles of Jesus hanging around anymore? What should we take away from Luke's description for our own lives, both as individuals and as a church?
One of these questions has a fairly straightforward answer. It's true that we don't have literal apostles to teach us today, but we do have the sacred writings upon which they placed their imprimatur. I’m speaking of the Bible, of course. Like Jesus himself, the apostles endorsed the authority of the Old Testament by their use of it as God’s Word. And the New Testament writings were either written by the original apostles or their disciples. The early church accept as New Testament Scripture only those writings that were fundamentally in agreement with the teachings of the first apostles. So, though we don’t have apostles to teach us, we have the Bible, which functions for us as our source of divinely-inspired, authoritative truth.
Given that Scripture serves for us in the place of "the apostles' teaching," I want to suggest four implications of Luke's description for us.
Implication #1: The genuine church is centered in the truth.
Why did the earliest Christians devote themselves to the apostles' teaching? Because they wanted to learn the truth about Jesus and what it meant to be his disciple. Why did the apostles spend so much time teaching the new believers? Because they realized that genuine Christian living is always centered in the truth of God. And so is the church.
Now of course the truth isn't everything in our Christian experience. Action matters deeply to God, as we live out the implications of his truth. Emotions are also a vital element of the Christian life. Just read the Psalms and you'll see how much our relationship with God isn't only a matter of thinking, but of feeling.
Nevertheless, the genuine church, though active and passionate, will always be centered in the truth. And if the church ever drifts from its truthful center, inevitably it gets blown to and fro by every wind of doctrine, and ends up getting swamped by the waves of cultural confusion.
Let me add that what I've said about the church is also true for each of its members, including you. When your life is centered in God's truth, then everything else finds it rightful place. When you lose this truthful center, then you'll find yourself in a heap of trouble.
Implication #2: The genuine church is centered in revealed truth.
You'll notice that the second implication simply adds the word "revealed." The genuine church is centered in revealed truth. Since the earliest believers in Jesus were Jews, they already grasped this fact intuitively. After all, Judaism is fundamentally a response to God's revelation.
Consider the case of Abraham. He didn't figure out some religious scheme to get the Promised Land. Rather he was confronted by the Lord who spoke to him and told him to go "to the land that I will show you" (Genesis 12:1). Everything Abraham did thereafter was a response to revelation.
Likewise with Moses. He didn't dream up a strategy to liberate his people from Egypt. Nor did he invent some nifty laws to guide their life once they had been set free. No. Moses simply responded in faithful obedience to God' revelation of himself and his plan for Israel.
So those first believers in Jesus would no doubt have assumed that since God is obviously doing a new thing through Jesus, he will also reveal new truth to make sense of this and to help them live in a new relationship with God.
We, of course, live in a culture with vastly different assumptions about where truth comes from. For us, truth comes from ourselves, either through a social contract, or through our genetic predisposition, or through our reason, or through our emotions. These days, emotion tends to win this battle of the either-ors, of course. People claim the right to make up their own truth, and they justify this in terms of their own inner convictions.
It's quite easy even for Christians to fall prey to this cultural mindset. A classic case is the question of sex outside of marriage. I can't tell you how many times I have heard people confess, "Well, I know what the Bible says about sex before marriage, but I really love my boyfriend, so I decided to sleep with him." In other words, my feelings trumped the clear teaching of Scripture, so I just went along with them as the floated along in the cultural stream.
When our culture and our feelings tell us that sex outside of marriage is okay, or that salvation can be found outside of Christ, or that material success is more important than following Jesus, we have a choice: Go with our feelings, or go with God's revealed truth. The genuine church - and the wise Christian - will choose truth over sentiment. Of course the good news is that the more you marinate yourself in God's Word (to use Ben's Patterson's wonderful metaphor), the more you draw near to God in worship and prayer, the more you are filled with the Holy Spirit, the more your feelings will be conformed to God's truth. In time it won't be a matter of either/or, but both/and, as God's truth and your feelings flow in concert together, not in conflict.
Implication #3: The genuine church will be a place for authoritative teaching.
First of all let me qualify this point by saying that every believer has the equipment to teach others. As I demonstrated last week, every Christian has the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, dwelling within him or her. Moreover, every Christian has access to God's revelation in Scripture. Thus we must all take seriously the exhortation of Colossians 3:16: "Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom" (NRSV, adapted). This is a command for all Christians, including you: teach and admonish one another.
But this isn't the whole story. God has also designed the church so that some people will have a special role of teacher. These are folks who combine natural talents, educational experiences, spiritual gifts, and obedient lives. They become "authorized" by the church to teach, both on the basis of who they are and in light of their track record in teaching. Of course some of these teachers will be recognized by having little "Revs" in front of their names. But many others without the title will, nevertheless, be put in position to teach with authority.
Consider our Wednesday morning Women's Bible Study, for example. It has sometimes been taught by pastors and other "professionals." But usually this study is taught by women from the study itself, women who have demonstrated their biblical wisdom in the group, women who have solid knowledge of the Bible, women who devote themselves to careful preparation so that they might faithfully teach God's truth. From these teachers the Wednesday morning women receive biblical instruction that's every bit as good as what they'd get from the pros, and, I expect, often better.
Please keep in mind a couple of crucial facts about the authority of the Christian teacher. Number one, this authority is always directly related to the extent that the teacher truthfully passes on the content of God's revelation in Scripture. You should not believe my preaching, for example, just because I said it, but because I've shown you how it can be found in Scripture. Number two, the authority of the teacher is always granted by the church, to which the teacher is accountable. In time you'll grow to trust your trustworthy teachers, of course. But don't forget the biblical call to "test everything" (1 Thessalonians 5:21). If you've followed the sad story recently of Paul Crouch and the Trinity Broadcasting Network, you've seen what happens when Christian leaders cut themselves loose from the clear teaching of Scripture and from accountability to the body of Christ.
It's important to mention the centrality of authoritative teaching in the church because this also goes against the grain of our culture. We tend more and more to reject so-called authorities and to prefer our own insights to those of the experts. You'll find many "cutting edge" churches these days that minimize the role of authoritative teaching, favoring instead a more collegial effort to seek the truth. Now I'm a big fan of inductive Bible study and group discussion. It's both wonderful and even essential to a healthy church. But there still is a need for people with the proper training, experience, and gifting to teach with recognized authority.
I first ran into the a rejection of this kind of authority when I was beginning my college ministry at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood. I was leading a Bible study about Jesus, focusing on his proclamation of the kingdom of God. I was teaching the collegians what Jesus meant when he referred to the kingdom, pointing out the meaning of Jesus's Aramaic words, the prophetic context in the Old Testament, and the expectations for the kingdom among Jews in the time of Jesus.
In the midst of the study a young woman interrupted me. Claire, I'll call her, said, "I hear what you're saying about the kingdom of God, but I feel this isn't right. What Jesus was really talking about was having a sense of God's presence. That's why he said that 'the kingdom of God is within you.'" I acknowledged Claire's point and tried to affirm what I could, but I also showed her what Jesus really meant when he said "the kingdom of God is within you," pointing again to the meaning of the original language, etc.
Claire wasn't convinced, however. "But that's not what I feel is right. The kingdom of God is really about feeling God's presence." When I tried once again to stretch her understanding, she became upset. "You're telling me my feelings aren't correct, and you have no right to tell me I can't feel as I do." At this point Claire began to cry and rushed out of the room. The other collegians were angry with me. "How can you say Claire is wrong?" they objected, "Her feelings are just as valid as yours!" I thought to myself: Perhaps if I had run out of the room crying they would have sided with me against Claire!
In telling this story, I'm certainly not suggesting that I handled the matter perfectly. But my point is that biblical truth isn't simply up for grabs. What Jesus actually meant by the kingdom of God isn't so much a matter of how someone feels about it as it is about the facts of Jesus's ministry, understood in their historical and theological context. Claire, who certainly had a genuine and deep relationship with God, needed me to help her grow in that relationship, both in truth and in depth.
Now I should add that there are certainly many times in group study when the teacher doesn't have all the truth. In the Thursday morning Pastor's Study, for example, when we share personal experiences or work out personal implications of the truth, I learn a lot from the input of others. This happens all the time. And, frankly, there are also times when insights from the group help me to correct or to sharpen my understanding of the Bible itself. But because I've been blessed with a certain amount of education, and because I've spent a whole lot of my adult life teaching the Bible, and because the leaders of this church have determined that I am generally trustworthy, and because you folks actually pay me to take time to study the Bible, then I can bring authoritative teaching to the Pastor's Study. This is, I daresay, helpful to the folk in the study in a different way from a free-for-all conversation.
My friends, you know I believe that personal Bible study and meditation is an essential part of your Christian life. That's one of the reasons I prepared the daily Bible readings and urge you to do them. But I also believe that we need to be in places where the Bible is taught and discussed. Authoritative teaching combined with group discussion and accountability will help you to grow in your knowledge of God's truth, and therefore in your relationship with God. I know that many of you are regularly involved in some sort of group Bible study, and this is great. But I also know that many of you are not. I understand how busy your lives are. So is mine. Nevertheless, I want to urge you to find a place, on a regular basis, where you can be exposed to faithful Bible teaching, and where you can wrestle in community with the meaning and application of God's Word.
Implication #4: In the genuine church, people will be devoted to the study of God's truth.
In Acts 2 we learn that the first Christians were "devoted" to the apostles' teaching. This is a strong verb in Greek. It means being committed to something in spite of contrary challenges. It means that the earliest believers didn't just learn from the apostles because they thought they should, but because they were eager to do so.
Now what if, to speak honestly, you're simply not that excited about Bible study? What if you acknowledge that you should do it, but, quite frankly, you're just not motivated to do so?
It's common for a new Christian to regard Bible study as a treasure hunter regards a newly found treasure chest. The new Christian rejoices to dig into Scripture, delighting in all sorts of discoveries as he or she studies the Bible for the first time. But, it's just about as common for more mature Christians to regard Bible study as a the way some of you think about your securities that are locked away in your safe deposit box. You're glad to have them, and someday you may even use them, but you're not especially eager to rush down to the bank and starting reading the fine print.
So, if you're not eager to study the Bible today - our version of "the apostles' teaching" - what can you do? How can you develop excitement, even a passion, for the Bible?
A passionate commitment to the Bible comes from several sources. First, it comes from believing that the Bible is God's uniquely inspired Word. God speaks authoritatively to us in Scripture, our preeminent rule and guide for life.
Second, a passionate commitment to the Bible comes from recognizing the rich benefits of knowing it. As 2 Timothy 3:16-1 says, "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work." Which of us wouldn't want to be taught and guided to live abundantly and to be equipped to make a real difference in life?
Third, a passionate commitment to the Bible comes from our experience of its power in our lives. The more you read, study, meditate upon, and follow God's Word, the more you'll find that your life is in fact better, and that you are in fact prepared to live more significantly.
Fourth, a passionate commitment to the Bible comes from being in a community of Christians who share this commitment. So if you're someone who isn't especially excited about being in a Bible study, ask a friend who is excited why. And if you're pumped up about the Bible study you're in, share you enthusiasm with others. It will help to draw them in.
I want to close with two additional reasons why Christians are passionate about the Bible. They are, I believe, the most powerful of all.
The fifth reason is that through the Bible we grow into a deeper and truer relationship with God. When we read, study, meditate upon, and pray the words of Scripture, we come to know its Author more intimately. Speaking for myself, nothing draws me to the Bible more than when I experience a deeper relationship with God because I have made the Bible a central part of my life. On the contrary, one of the greatest obstacles to a devotion to the Bible is the tendency to turn it into dry bones worthy of archeological study rather than a vital encounter with the living God. Yes, to be sure, the point of Bible study and teaching is to pass on the truth of God. But knowledge of the truth is never the real end. Knowing the God of truth is the ultimate end.
The sixth and final reason why people are devoted to the Bible is the one we find most clearly in Acts 2. It is a result of the work of the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who inspired the writers of Scripture, the same Spirit who helps us to understand it, is the same Spirit who enflames our passion for God's Word. So if you find yourself less than eager to be devoted to Bible study today, ask the Spirit of God to quicken your heart, to give you a hunger for God's revealed truth.
Sisters and brothers, the earliest Christians were devoted to the apostles' teaching, that which comes to us today in the form of the Bible. May we have similar devotion to God's Word. May we study it, teach it, memorize it, and internalize it! May we do this when we're alone and when we're together! May we meditate upon Scripture and pray over it! May we live out God's truth in both the church and the world! May the Word of God written in Scripture always be at the center of this church, guiding our faith and life together!