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Building on the Rock

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on May 28, 2017

Acts 9:31

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If you would turn in your Bibles to Acts chapter 9; it’s found on page 918 in your pew Bibles. If you’ve been around here much, you hear that we repeat often the first question and answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism. And it really is an amazingly clear and helpful summary of the purpose of life. “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” If I could make one addition to that – and I’m sure that the men sitting in the Jerusalem Chamber in the Westminster Assembly would have been very eager to hear what I had to say! But if I could make one addition I would say this. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him together forever. And the reason I say that is because the church is central to God’s purpose for His people. And what we see in Acts chapter 9 verse 31 is that the church was being built upon Christ. And as it was being built upon Christ, they were going about “in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” You see, they were glorifying God and they were enjoying Him together.

So with that in mind, let’s go to Him in prayer and then we’ll read this very tonight.

Our Father, we ask that You would give us the fear of the Lord and give us the comfort of the Holy Spirit even as we read this verse and study it tonight. And as we go out from here, that we would go out to glorify You and to enjoy You together forever. We pray these things in Christ’s name, amen.

Acts 9, just one verse; verse 31:

“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

I want us to study this verse along two points tonight. The first is – built up. And then the second is – built out. Built up and built out. We’ll spend most of our time on the first one, and that’s where we’ll start, with built up.

Built Up

It says that “the church throughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up.” Another way we could say that is that it was being edified. It was being strengthened. The strength of the church is a big deal. The church is the body of Christ; it’s the bride of Christ. It’s the flock of the Good Shepherd. It was brought together according to the eternal plan of God, secured by the shedding of the precious blood of Christ, and it is ruled by the risen and victorious Lord Jesus Christ. It’s safe to say that the growth and the strength of the church depend upon Christ.

And in this verse, I think we see three things, three ways in which Christ is the one in which the church is built. Three ways in which the church is built upon Christ. One is that the church is built upon Christ’s command. We also see that the church is built up as Christ’s church. And then also we see that it is built up by Christ’s commitment. Let’s look at those three things.

Built Upon Christ’s Command

Number one, we see that the church is built up in fulfillment and in obedience to Christ’s command. You know one of the things that make this verse stand out in the book of Acts is that it serves as a summary. It’s a summary of everything that has gone before in the book of Acts, but it’s also a transitional verse. So it’s setting us up to tell us what is going to happen in the rest of this book of Acts. And as a summary, verse 31 is saying to us that the church, throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, was being built up. Now by mentioning those three places, in particular, we are being tied into the very purpose and order and outline of the book of Acts. Because you see, where does the book of Acts begin? The book of Acts begins in Jerusalem and it begins with Jesus and He’s with His disciples and He says to them to wait in Jerusalem, to wait for the coming of the promise of God, the coming of the Holy Spirit. And then right before His ascension, Jesus says this to His disciples. He says, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” The book of Acts begins with Jesus in Jerusalem. It ends with Paul in Rome. And it’s tracing this line of locations that Jesus gives to His disciples – Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.

“On This Rock”

And so in verse 31, we find that as the word of Jesus’ resurrection spreads, the church is built up in peace – where? “Throughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria.” It’s just as Jesus had commanded, just as Jesus commanded, so the church grew and was strengthened. You see, what Christ commands, Christ gives. When He commissions His disciples, His followers to be witnesses and to make disciples, He will fulfill what He has commanded. He will bring about and give fruit from their labor for Him because this is God’s plan and this is God’s work. You will remember in the gospels when Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ – and what does Jesus say to Peter? He says, “On this rock,” this confession of Jesus as the Christ, “On this rock, I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And there was intense persecution and opposition against the church in the time of the book of Acts. And the disciples, the apostles, were thrown into prison. They were charged not to speak of Jesus. We read about Stephen and the way that he was falsely accused and he was stoned; the first martyr in the early church. We read about, even in the chapter before this, that it was Saul, who became Paul – he was ravaging the church.

But if we could just distil the message of Acts down into just a few words, we could say that it is the witness of the resurrection with power and with persecution. And that’s what we find – that as the Gospel message, that Jesus has been raised from the dead, it goes out and by the power of the Holy Spirit the church multiplies and it grows and it builds and it’s strengthened in fulfillment to the command of Christ and in the face of intense persecution. Now we could take several lessons away from that, just from this one point, because we live in a culture in which, in almost every way, it is against the ways of God; it’s against God’s truth. We see acts of terrorism, which is almost a weekly reality, and it weighs more and more on people’s minds. And yet what do we see here in this passage? That even though the church seems like it’s on shaky ground, it needs to update, the real need is to reform; the real need is to return to the message of the resurrection and to a reliance upon the Holy Spirit knowing that is how Christ builds and strengthens His church.

It's also an encouragement for us. Maybe some of you wonder if it’s worth committing to the church? Is it worth serving and giving and making yourself vulnerable in the life of the congregation? Maybe some of you have served in the church for many years; you’re fatigued? Maybe it’s just not the priority that it once was? What we see here is that the growth of the church, the strength of the church, is Christ’s command. It is God’s plan and God will see His work through to completion, to fulfillment, to the end of time, for the glory of Christ and for the good of His people. This verse is saying to us, “Look at what God does for His church, with His church. He gives what He commands.” Expect that! Pray for that. Wait for that. And commit to His church.

Built Up as Christ’s Church

That leads us to the second thing. Who's church is it? It’s Christ’s church! This is Christ’s church that is being built up. Christ is the head of the church and there is one church; one church with peace and unity in Christ. Look back at the verse there, verse 31. Look at what it says. It says, “So the church,” the church singular, “had peace and was being built up.” It’s one church, even though it’s in multiple places. It’s in Judea and Galilee and Samaria, but it’s still one church. In fact, if we were to translate that word “throughout all,” where it says “throughout all,” we could say, “on the whole.” So you could say that it’s the church “on the whole of Judea and Galilee and Samaria.” And that word in Greek is actually the same word where we get the word, “Catholic.” This is what we profess or confess when we say the Apostles Creed and we say that we believe in the “holy catholic church.” We’re not saying that we believe in the Roman Catholic church, but that we believe in the one universal church, the worldwide church of Christ. We’re affirming our faith and our commitment to that. A church that is made up of believers from every nation, every tribe, ever language, every people.

One Church In Christ Jesus

That’s what Jesus prayed for before His crucifixion. He prayed with His disciples that “all who believe in Him would be one, just as He and the Father are one.” It’s what Jesus commissioned His disciples to do at the end of Matthew when He says, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” And what do we find when we get to the book of Revelation but it is a mixed multitude that no one can number that is before the throne and worship the Lamb, worshiping Christ. This is God’s promise, going back to His promise to Abraham that through Abraham’s offspring all the families of the earth shall be blessed. It’s one church and it’s in Christ Jesus. And we see the start of that unity right here in the book of Acts in verse 31 of chapter 9 as those from Judea and Galilee and Samaria are brought together and they enjoy a peace and they enjoy edification, being built up.

Overcoming Barriers

And already at this point in the book of Acts, the church has overcome great barriers. You know if you just take those three words, “Judea and Galilee and Samaria,” there is in those three words a complicated and a distressing history. There is idolatry, there’s civil war, there’s hate, there’s exile, there’s prejudice, there’s worldliness, there’s self-righteousness. Judea was the place of the temple. It’s where the religious elite lived and where they occupied. Galilee was Jewish territory but it was much more influenced and impacted by cultural influences by the Roman and Greek culture. Samaria was in between the two and they were not of pure Jewish descent and they followed different religious practices. And the Jews hated the Samaritans. We’re told that those from Galilee when they would go down to Judea they would cross the Jordan River to go around the area of Samaria. They did not want to come in contact with these people. And from time to time, intense violence broke out between these groups of people. But here we’re told that it was one church in these places and that church had peace and it was being edified. It was not just free from opposition; there was peace among them. There was peace between these people who had once been at enmity with God and now they were reconciled to the Father and given the gift of eternal life in Jesus Christ, the gift of the Holy Spirit. These were people who were at enmity with one another, and now they’re rejoicing together in joy, in faith, and in fellowship. And that word for “church” that we have here, it means, literally, “called out.” They were “called out” from their former ways and from their diverse backgrounds to come into one church, one body, one people for the glory of Christ.

And maybe the most obvious example of that radical transformation that these people experience is the transformation that happened with Saul or Paul. Here was the man earlier in this chapter, here is the man who was the chief persecutor and oppressor of the church and now he is brought into the church, into the fellowship of the saints. And not only is he no longer the persecutor but now he’s one of the chief instruments for building up the church. That’s the radical transformation that happens here in this chapter, in this verse that we’re being told. The growth of the church brings peace among those who are diverse and divided. Why is that important? Why is it important to have unity among that diversity? Because nothing else can do that; only Christ does that. It only happens in Christ’s church, and so that brings glory to Christ’s name. And we see that right here in this verse.

Built Up By Christ’s Commitment

The third thing we see about how the church is being built upon Christ is this description of the life that was enjoyed among the believers. We see here Christ’s ongoing commitment, His ministry to the church. The church is built up by Christ’s commitment to them. The verse tells us that they were “walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” Now think about the characteristics of Jesus’ ministry. What were the aspects of Christ’s ministry? Well, you could identify these two characteristics right here, couldn’t you? Because everything Jesus did and said was done for the glory of God. His commitment to spend time with His Father in prayer. All of His mighty works and miracles and signs and the teaching that He did was to bring God glory. And even going to His death on the cross and taking the wrath of the Father, that was done out of obedience and submission to the will of His Father. It was the fear of the Lord that permeated all of Christ’s ministry.

And the Holy Spirit, that Holy Spirit that worked supernatural wonders in Jesus’ life and through His ministry is the Holy Spirit that now continues His ministry in and through all who believe in Christ. Jesus had promised that. He had promised that He would leave His disciples but He would not leave them alone but He would send the Holy Spirit to equip them, to teach them so that they could engage in ministry in His name. Another name of the Holy Spirit, we’re told, is the Comforter or the Helper. What do we see happening right here in this passage? It’s that the Comforter is bringing about comfort. They’re going about “in the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit.” That’s the evidence that Christ was at work in His church. He was committed to His church. He was continuing to minister to His people because they exhibited the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Those two characteristics always go together – an awe, a reverence, a devotion, and a worship of God together with an encouragement and comfort, joy and blessing of the Holy Spirit.

The Fear of the Lord

We don’t hear much about the fear of the Lord, do we? It seems something of an Old Testament term maybe. And certainly, that was the appropriate response to God’s glory throughout the Old Testament is the fear of the Lord. But in the New Testament, on many occasions, the writers call us to fear in the light of the realities of the Gospel. Because you see, that’s what the Gospel teaches to us. The Gospel teaches us to fear the Lord. The Gospel teaches us that our sin deserves the wrath and displeasure and punishment of God. That there is nothing we can do to remove our sin and to earn God’s blessing. But our salvation comes at nothing less than the death and the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That is how destitute we are apart from Christ. That is how costly our salvation is. What could be a more appropriate response than to fear and awe and reverence and adoration before God? What could be a more appropriate response than what J.I. Packer, or to borrow from the title of his book, to “take God seriously”? How can we ever enjoy the comfort of the Holy Spirit if we’re not giving to God our utmost devotion?

I think it’s safe to say that all of us desire and long for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, but do we take God seriously? I wonder if we asked our kids, if we asked our neighbors, our co-workers, “What’s the top priority in our lives?” I wonder what they would say! We all tend to take ourselves seriously. Don’t we? We take our work seriously, we take our sports seriously, we take our appearance, our food and our drink, our entertainment, we take ourselves seriously. What’s more evident of that than the prevalence of a selfie? We want to take a picture of ourselves. And if we take ourselves seriously, we want to tell other people about ourselves. So we see that in our culture. But do we take God seriously? I confess that I want the Spirit to change lives, but do I always do that with an expectation and an eagerness of what God can do? And do I want to get a little bit of the credit for that along the way? I wonder how much of us we want our children, we want the youth to grow and to enjoy the comfort of the Holy Spirit, to mature in faith, to grow in discipleship, but just so long as they’re having fun doing that. And how often are we modeling an appropriate fear of the Lord in our own lives and the priorities that we choose for our families? We’re all prone to look for the comfort of the Holy Spirit and to neglect the fear of the Lord. But the comfort of the Holy Spirit comes with the fear of the Lord.

And when I talk about the fear of the Lord I’m not talking about a somber or gloomy demeanor. There’s a warmth to this, a joy to the fear of the Lord. There’s a freedom and a sincerity, a hope in times of trial; confidence in times of suffering. Strength and depth and unity being built up as the church of Christ. This is a beautiful picture of the church being built up in Acts chapter 9 verse 31. The church is God’s plan for the glory of Christ and for the good of His people. You know, in our family, we’ve sort of become bird crazy. I won’t say much about that because I don’t know how much I want to reveal about how crazy we are, but we are very attuned to the goings on of the birds in our yard! And yesterday I came across a bird’s nest. We see these all the time, but it just struck me how impressive this bird’s nest was. Here was straw and debris and dirt and these birds can put it together and make a nest for their eggs and for themselves. Isn’t it amazing what God does in building the church? He takes Jew and Gentile, Galilean and Samaritan, slave and free, rich and poor, and He brings it together as His church, as Christ’s church for His glory, this beautiful picture of walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit? That’s what God does in building His church. So the church is built up. It’s edified.

We’re also told in the last word of this verse that as it was built up, it was built out. This will be our last point tonight. It’s that the church was built out; the church multiplied. As the church was edified, the church multiplied. In fact, we could say that one of the signs of the strength of the church is that it is directed outward. It was built out as it was built up and it was built up as it was built out. This is not a static body of believers. This is not an exclusive club. This is a dynamic fellowship that we are being told about here. One of the buzzwords in the church today, in our culture, I think, is “community – doing life together.” And that’s certainly one of the priorities of this passage; it’s one of the beautiful things here. They are experiencing community together. But one of the dangers of elevating and focusing on the community is that the focus can become inward and the community can become ingrown. And it can become difficult to enfold newcomers or outsiders. And I’m sure many of us have experienced that in small groups or Sunday Schools or those sorts of things.

Built Out

But we see here, that when the focus is on God and when the focus is on Christ’s command to build His church and to go and to make disciples, the church reaches out and the growth of the church brings glory to Christ’s name. And what we see as the church reaches out, the qualities that provide the strength to the church are the same qualities that supply the growth. Those things which were present and evident in Christ’s ministry to them – the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit – those are the two things which are sending them out, driving them out, and bringing in the multiplication of those outside of the church. It’s as they walked in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit that the church multiplied. It was built out.

Edification Leads to Multiplication

That’s essentially the principle that you’ve heard Ed say from time to time, that “what goes deepest to the heart goes widest to the world.” That as the church is built up, it is built out. A lot of times we hear at times of Mission Conferences John Piper’s quote that says, “Mission exists because worship doesn’t!” We could also say that mission exists because worship does. And that’s what Piper actually goes on to say in that sermon where he’s talking about that. It’s that edification leads to multiplication. And the reason why that’s so important is that the church is advancing into hard places; it’s going to people with real, deep needs. Because what is the condition of the world? What is the condition of those who are outside the church? Well, it’s the opposite of what we see here. They are without the fear of the Lord and they are without the comfort of the Holy Spirit. There is not a sense of dependence upon God. There is no hope and peace and comfort but only pride and futility. I don’t think that we need to give examples of how that characterizes the world around us, but Christ gives us something better. He gives us Himself. And in Him, we are called to strength and unity and joy and peace and wonder and love. We are called to life, eternal life in Him.

As we hope for those things, we pray for those things, we wait for those things, one of the encouragements that we take is that we are praying for revival. We are praying for reformation, for refreshment, renewal. Did you hear that “re”? We’re asking God to do something that He has done before. We’re praying that He would do that. And we can be eager because we see that He has done it before. And the evidence of that is right here in Acts chapter 9 verse 31. We’re calling for God to do that again for the glory of Christ and for the good of His people.

I’m reading a book right now about the Mississippi River flood in 1927, Rising Tide. And the book is amazing! One of the main characters in the book is the Mississippi River. It’s one of the most dominating characters in the book. And it’s amazing to hear the way he describes the power and the intensity of the river as it flows downward and as it rises upward. And at every point of the way, the river is looking to break through the levees. It’s looking to rise over the levies and spread outside of the banks of the river. That’s the intensity and the power of the river.

That’s what we see with the church as the church is built up, as it swells, as it grows. It’s looking to reach out and to build out and to grow and to multiply for the glory of Christ. That’s what the church does. That’s what we see it doing here in Acts chapter 9 verse 31. We pray that it would do that in our own day as well.

A Life of Simplicity

Let me just finish with a couple of comments to conclude. You know I come to a passage like this and I always find that preaching and teaching on the fear of the Lord to be an especially difficult thing. I guess it’s the transcendence of God; it’s hard to put into words and to capture not just a terror but a reverent awe and love in that fear. So what does this look like? What does it look like to have the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit? A few words come to mind. And one is, I would say is this – it’s a life of simplicity. You know we’re so distracted and we’re busy so much of the time. We’re drawn to fill any kind of time of rest or quiet with noise or with visual stimulation. But there’s a call here, I think for us to be quiet. I think as David prayed earlier, to “be still and know that I am God,” and to take the time to wonder and marvel at God’s creation; to remember His blessings, to remember the Gospel, and to give Him thanks for that. To grow in appreciation for what He has done.

There’s also a simplicity that we see in the church in Acts. Isn’t there? If we go back to chapter 2, what was the church doing in the time of the early church? It was actually rather simple. They were devoted to praising and prayer. They were devoted to the word and sacrament. And they were giving themselves to fellowship and to generosity. It’s simple but it’s extraordinary. Isn’t it? And as they devoted themselves to those things, they were willing to look different from the world around them, to be salt and light in their world. There was a readiness on their part to endure trials, to endure through suffering, to suffer, with hope, and to be ready to give an account to those who saw them the reason for their hope. Why did they have such great hope? It’s because of the resurrection; it’s because of eternal life in Christ Jesus. And they were together strengthening one another through those times. And they were prepared to be a witness for Christ.

And maybe that’s where we measure this. If we lack a desire and a burden for the lost, maybe we haven’t fully comprehended the blessing of the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we haven’t fully appreciated the incredible privilege of the church, but also the incredible need of the lost. And maybe we need to go back to where we started the service, Lamentations chapter 3, the call to worship – “Let us search out and examine our ways and return to the Lord and let us lift our hearts and hands to God in heaven.” Let’s go to Him in prayer!

Father, we give You thanks for Your Word and for this Lord’s Day to come, morning and evening, to hear Your Word and to sing Your praises. We pray that You would, by Your Spirit, work in us to renew us and revive us and to give us joy in Christ and give us a heart for the lost and give us opportunities to reach out. And as we build up, that we would build out, for Your glory, for the glory of Christ and for our everlasting good. And we pray these things in Christ’s name, amen.