The Second Sunday After Pentecost June 22, 2014
2, 464, 285, 39
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.
In the name of Jesus Christ who said, “If you abide in My Word, then you are My disciples indeed” (John 8:31), dear fellow-redeemed:
There is a U.S. auto manufacturer who years ago promoted itself in advertisements as “The Heartbeat of America.” I remember thinking that the slogan was a bit over the top. After all, to say that one company is the “Heartbeat of America” just seems like a claim to which none could live up, not even the biggest car maker in the world. It was an obvious exaggeration. At least I hope it was, because this is the same company that officially declared bankruptcy a number of years later. So if they’re the “Heartbeat of America,” that means that our country had a huge coronary!
Well, that claim was obviously an exaggeration. But the writer of the book of Acts makes an almost identical claim in our text for today. Only this time, it’s no exaggeration. He claims that there is one factor that is of such vital, over-riding importance in the lives of Christians that it’s not too much to say that this is “The Heartbeat of the Church.” What is it? It’s God’s Word! Particularly, that preaching of God’s Word that proclaims clearly the resurrection of Jesus Christ and what His resurrection means for us. If you’ve ever wondered why we in this church place so much emphasis on God’s Word, why we focus on it so exclusively and base our entire lives upon it—then your answer lies right here in our text for today. Join me as we consider the theme: GOD’S WORD IS THE HEARTBEAT OF THE CHURCH. I. It promotes unity among its members, II. It provides grace for its members, and III. It provokes good works from its members.
One of the guiding principles by which Martin Luther lived was the Latin phrase: sola scriptura—“by Scripture alone.” Like him, we in the Church of the Lutheran Confession (CLC) confess that the Bible is “the sole source and norm of Christian doctrine and life.” That means that what we believe and how we live is based solely on the Word of God. But when we adopt this principle we’re not following a mere human being, great as the Reformer was. We’re following the Bible itself. In nearly every chapter we’re reminded of how central are the pure teachings of Scripture to the lives of Christians. Clearly, God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church. Jesus said, “The words I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). “If you abide in My Word, then you are My disciples indeed” (John 8:31). “Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).
Once again in our text, the Word of God is obviously central. Verse 33 tells what a powerful force the preaching of the Word was in the early church: “And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” The rest of the text really elaborates on how that preaching affected the church. It’s a little like tracing how the blood flows from the heart to the various members of the body—we can follow the Word of God and see how it affects the various members of the church.
In the first place, God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church because it promotes unity among its members. Verse 32 says, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul.” The original words there are very explicit. It doesn’t just mean that the Jerusalem Christians were in general agreement with one another. It doesn’t mean that they all had similar feelings in their hearts. It was more than that. It means they shared a single heart—one heart among them all, and that heart was the Word of God.
They were so united, in fact, that they cheerfully shared all their material goods with any fellow Christian who had need. Our text says that not a single person in the church thought of his earthly goods as belonging to himself, but rather to the Lord and to his fellow Christians. Perhaps without even knowing it, they were fulfilling Christ’s parting instructions for His disciples, “These things I command you, that you love one another” (John 15:17).
The Word of God dwelt in them richly. It was the single heart, beating for them all, sustaining them all, nourishing them all—and the pure preaching of God’s Word produced an amazing unity. As one writer put it, “They all wanted one thing: to be saved eternally. They all thought one thing: only to be faithful to the Lord Jesus. They all experienced one thing: the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” They lived and relished the truth of the psalmist’s words, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1).
That total unity around God’s Word is a wonderful thing in a congregation. Unfortunately, it is also a rare thing. It’s not often that a group of believers is able to be perfectly united in supporting the work of the Gospel and supporting their fellow-Christians. Even if most of them are “holding up the prophet’s hands,” there are usually at least a few to be found who are hanging on his elbows instead. They’ll be insisting on their rights, gossiping about their fellow church members, and generally providing more problems than solutions for the fellowship.
If you’re saying to yourself right now, “I wonder if the pastor is talking about me,” you don’t have to wonder. I am talking about you, and I’m talking about me, and I’m talking about everybody here because all of us have a sinful flesh that wars with the Spirit. It’s full of pride and stubbornness and selfishness, and it chooses our own good above our neighbor’s. It can destroy the unity of a congregation. It is like the arterial sclerosis of the church—clogging the vital arteries that carry health and nourishment from the heart. The result is the same too—if you clog the pathways to the heart, the body won’t survive for long.
In our church, as in Jerusalem, the answer is the Word. The pure preaching of God’s Word provides true unity and strength and health to His believers. Another reason we can say that God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church is because it provides grace for its members. Verse 33 tells us, “The apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.”
It’s no coincidence that these two sentences are right next to each other. For it is the Word itself—the Word of the Gospel—that provides grace for God’s believers. It’s the Good News that we have a Redeemer—a Redeemer who lived a righteous life in our place, who died for us, and who rose again for our justification. God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church because it is a word of great grace. It tells of God’s undeserved love for us in Christ.
Years ago, the evangelist Billy Graham was driving through a small southern town when a policeman pulled him over for speeding. He freely admitted he’d been going too fast and was willing to pay whatever fine there was, but the officer said he’d have to appear in court. So the next day he stood before the judge who sentenced him to a fine of ten dollars, “One dollar,” he said, “for every mile you were going over the limit.” But in the next moment, the judge with a jolt recognized who he was. His manner softened. “You have violated the law,” said the judge, “and the fine must be paid. But I am going to pay it for you.” Whereupon he took a ten-dollar bill out of his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and promptly took the preacher out and bought him a steak dinner.
That’s a pretty good picture of how God forgives repentant sinners in Jesus Christ. When it comes to our record. you and I have to plead “guilty as charged.” There’s no alternative, because we are guilty: guilty of the original sin that we inherited from Adam and guilty of the actual sins that we commit every day. The Apostle John wrote, “If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). Yet, when we come to our Savior wretched and miserable confessing our many sins, what do we find? Grace! Instead of the penalty, we get the steak dinner. Instead of punishment, we receive grace—God’s undeserved love and favor for the sake of Jesus Christ. You see, the fine didn’t go away, it had to be paid. But the Judge paid it for us and not with a paltry ten-dollar bill, either. The Judge of all the universe paid the penalty of our sin with the blood of His own Son Jesus Christ. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).
You see now what a precious lifeblood this Word of grace is to the church. You see why God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church, carrying the spiritual nutrients it needs to all the members of the body.
Which part of the Word did the Apostles particularly focus on? The text says that they gave powerful “witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus,” [v.33] and they did that on purpose because the resurrection is the keynote of the whole Christian faith. The resurrection of Christ from the dead was the beginning, middle and end of the Apostle's preaching because if you’ve got the resurrection, you’ve pretty much got all the rest of it. The resurrection proves the divinity of Christ. The resurrection proves the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for our sins on the cross. It symbolizes our sanctification—our rising to a new kind of life in Christ—and it foreshadows our own resurrection to eternal life on the Last Day. That's pretty much everything!
Without the resurrection you have nothing, but with it, there’s nothing you don’t have! As Paul told the Corinthians, “f Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! …But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:17-22).
“Great grace was upon them all.” [v.33] Did you know that the Greek word for “grace” is almost identical to the Greek word for “joy?” It’s true, and it makes sense when you think about it, because those who truly understand what grace is—those who understand the breathtaking gift God’s given us in His Son—those are the people who have joy in their lives. Those are the people who have a clean conscience and can sleep soundly at night. Those are the people who are at peace with God and man, and who can face life’s inevitable challenges with confidence and cheer because they believe God’s Word, and the Word tells them that their big problem is solved. As Paul said, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
You’re probably thinking, “Boy, do I wish I could be that person!” If so, my Christian friend, then all I can say to you is, “Wake up and smell the coffee,” because you are that person right now! By virtue of your faith in Jesus Christ, every precious gift of God’s grace—those I mentioned and a thousand I haven’t mentioned—are yours this very moment, if you’ll only open your eyes and see it! Paul says that, as a believer, you have been “ …enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge, even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you, so that you come short in no gift, eagerly waiting for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:5-7).
This brings us to the last point. If God’s Word is the heartbeat pumping grace into your life, then people are going to be able to see that in the way you live. The ones who receive this Word of grace and understand it and appreciate it are the ones who also are going to produce abundant fruits of faith in their lives. God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church because it provokes good works from its members.
Our text says, Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common… Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold,and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.
Certainly this sharing of property wasn’t the only kind of good works the Jerusalem Christians did, but it does illustrate the astonishing “single-heartedness” that they enjoyed as a congregation. It really is astonishing when you think about it. Here in America, even when home values are low, one’s house is still likely to be by far and away the most valuable thing he possesses. The same was true then. What effect did the preaching of the Word have on the Jerusalem Christians? It prompted many of them to sacrifice this most valuable possession for the good of the church. Many of them actually sold their homes. Then they would turn the money over to the church for the work of the Gospel and to help support needier Christians. This was not something everybody did all at once, but it was common. Many congregation members did it. It evidently was a frequent occurrence that people would actually sell their real estate and bring the money to the church. God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church and that Word naturally provokes good works in believers.
The Jerusalem situation was truly strange and wonderful. Strange, because money and possessions are what human beings usually cling to most fiercely. One of the first words that every child learns to say is the word, “mine.” But it was wonderful, too, because that selfishness was absent among the Jerusalem Christians. Here were these people freely sharing with each other. They obviously viewed their possessions as belonging to the Lord and their neighbor rather than themselves. It was wonderful because, though so many were sacrificing so much for the Gospel, there was not “anyone among them who lacked.” [v.34] In a land full of beggars and starvation and poverty, not a single one of those thousands of Jerusalem Christians lacked anything! It was wonderful because they knew where their treasure was and it wasn’t in houses, or land, or bank accounts, or pensions or 401k’s—it was in Heaven. Like life-giving blood from a healthy and vigorous heart, they had the precious Word of God coursing through their veins, the Word which told them: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). May our treasure, as well, ever be there with our dear Savior in Heaven!
Do you know where the geographical center of the United States is? It’s near a small town called Belle Fourche in the northwest corner of South Dakota. If you want to see it, you have to drive out twenty miles north of town. There, in a lonely cow pasture, you’ll find the concrete and brass monument of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, marking the exact geographical center of our country. God’s Word is like that monument, for it marks the exact spiritual center of our lives as Christians. Everything in our lives emanates from it and returns to it. That’s why we can say—without exaggeration—that God’s Word is the heartbeat of the Church, for it promotes unity among its members, it provides grace for its members, and it provokes good works from its members.
So with Martin Luther, let us continue to say, “Sola Scriptura!” May God’s Word, with its message of grace, be the guiding principle of our lives, from this time forth and even forevermore. My prayer is that years from now, when folks look back at our small church, they will say the same thing about us that they said about those Jerusalem Christians: “And great grace was upon them all!” [v.33] Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.