October 19, 1997
In the early church, the apostles faithfully taught from the Scripture because understanding the doctrine of God is the only way to truly know Christ. Therefore, it is essential that we study our Bibles and accurately interpret Christian doctrine with the help of expository preaching that is faithful to the Word of God. We can only love God with our minds when we come to know Him through proper study and worship.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Now can I invite you to take your Bibles and turn with me to the Acts of the Apostles and to chapter 2, where I’d like to read the closing verses of the chapter—they’re familiar words—reading from verse 42 through to verse 47:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Father, again we pray that we might have the awareness of your attendant blessing upon our speaking and hearing, understanding and obeying, that you might be glorified, and that we might be strengthened and equipped to serve you. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This morning, as we concluded our introductory study in 1 Timothy, we did so noticing the emphasis which Paul laid upon the importance of sound doctrine. And indeed, he was concerned to refute everything which stood in opposition to the sound doctrine which he understood to be so vital for the building up of God’s people. And we said this morning that we would return to this emphasis this evening. And what I want to do is to take this little section here in Acts chapter 2 and look at these marks of the burgeoning and growing early church, taking each of them in turn, and consequently, this evening, taking this matter of the apostles’ teaching—or, if you like, the apostles’ doctrine, for doctrine is just another word for teaching.
One of the books that has become a very important book to us as a church family—and not least of all amongst our church leadership—is a book that has been written by a Scotsman, as it turns out, Dr. Bruce Milne, and the book is entitled Know the Truth. And for those of you—some in the men’s Bible studies have gone through this book—for those of you who, like them, are aware of the book, you will perhaps recall that his introduction is quite striking. Because he opens up all that follows in the book by asking the question “Why … is the study of [Christian] doctrine so vital?” Why would anybody take all this time to write a book entitled Know the Truth that was full of Christian doctrine, the teaching of the Bible?
And he answers that with four simple answers, which he doesn’t expound in any way. And they’re these, for those of you who haven’t read the book.
He said the reason that it is so vital is, first of all, because “every Christian is a theologian.” “Every Christian is a theologian,” in the sense that theology is the science of God, or theology is the knowledge of God which emerges from an acquaintance with God, brought about by the work of the Holy Spirit and instructed by the pages of Holy Scripture. So it is impossible to be a believer—to be a Christian—without being someone who has a knowledge of God and who recognizes that that knowledge of God is something which is to be deepening all the time. And it is to be deepened as a result of the study of Christian doctrine. That’s the first reason that it’s so vital.
“Secondly,” he says, it is vital because “getting doctrine right is the key to getting everything else right.” If we want to know how we should worship, then the answer will be found in a knowledge of the Bible—in understanding Christian doctrine. If we want to understand how to be good witnesses, the answer is to be found in a knowledge of the Scriptures. How to conduct myself at work, how to be a disciple of Jesus Christ, how to nurture Christian relationships—the answer to all of these questions emerges from a study of the Bible.
In the course of the last few days, I’ve had all kinds of encounters with different people, none more lovely than the one which came about in encountering a lady who, along with her husband, had come to something that I was participating in in the last few days. And the lady wanted me to know two things. And she put them in this order: “Number one,” she said, “I’d like you to know that I have read the Bible through for the first time in all my life. It has taken me two years and three months. And number two, I am four and a half months pregnant.”
Now, if you want to know who she is, you need to go around and find somebody who is four and a half months pregnant. But the wonderful thing about it was, here is somebody who professed faith in Jesus Christ. Nobody laid a rod to her back, nobody said, “This is what you must do,” nobody press-ganged her into it. But over a period of some twenty-seven months, she set about the task of getting to know the Bible. And I can guarantee you that it is that knowledge which yields the opportunity to get everything else right in our lives. Not simply that a head knowledge, in and of itself, is sufficient, because the Bible says that what is going on up here cerebrally must also be translating to the very essence of our lives—to our hearts—viscerally. But nevertheless, we cannot get anything right until we get the doctrine right.
“Thirdly,” he says, “[a] study of [Christian] doctrine is an expression of loving [God] with our minds.” Remember, Jesus says—in response to the Pharisees’ question “[What] is the greatest commandment?”—he says, “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” What does it mean to love God with all your mind? How can a person love God with all their mind? The answer is, in getting serious about the Bible, in getting serious about God’s truth, in getting serious about a knowledge of God.
And “fourthly,” he says, “doctrine is vital because it is impossible finally to separate Christ from the truths which Scripture reveals concerning him.” In other words, our knowledge of Jesus is a knowledge which is gained through the Word of God . It is not a knowledge of Jesus that happens, as it were, over in some rarefied experience in a corner, but it is in getting to know my Bible that I get to know Jesus.
Now, it’s hardly surprising, then, that when we find Luke recording for us this little cameo description of the early church, right at the head of the list of that to which these new believers committed themselves was this aspect of apostolic teaching, or the doctrine. And what you have in these opening couple of chapters in the Acts of the Apostles is, first of all, a description of Pentecost—you remember, these “tongues … as of fire” lighted upon them, and they all heard each other speaking in their own languages. And as a result of that, people began to say all kinds of things. They experienced the event, which Luke describes, and then they were at odds with one another, trying to explain what it was about.
And so God has his servant stand up in the midst of it all, and he says, “Now, I want you to know that these people aren’t drunk, as some of you are suggesting. It’s far too early in the day for that! Let me tell you what has been happening here.” So the description of Pentecost is then clarified by the explanation which comes in Peter’s sermon, and as a result of Peter’s sermon, we have the expansion of the people of God, so that by the time we reach the end of chapter 2, Luke is thinking in terms of some three thousand people.
Now, it’s worth noting in passing, incidentally, that Pentecost is not, strictly speaking, the birthday of the church. This would be a question I would set for you in Christian doctrine. I would ask you, “Where do we have the beginning of the church?” And some of you, I think, would immediately say, “Well, you have it at Pentecost.” Well, there is a sense to the rightness of that, but it isn’t right. You need to go way back into the book of Genesis and to the call of Abraham and to the establishing of the people of God to find the very origins of God’s people. And what you have in the experience of Pentecost, strictly speaking, is a remnant of God’s people who became in that moment the Spirit-filled body of Christ. And the people of God moved into this dimension.
Now, when they were filled with the Holy Spirit in this way, what we’re noticing and what I want to emphasize for us is that the first evidence of the Spirit’s presence is a devotion to the apostles’ teaching. The first evidence of his presence is a devotion to the apostles’ teaching. So we find the church becomes a Bible school: three thousand pupils in the Bible school, and the teachers are none other than the apostles themselves. And they set about understanding what God is saying and has said in the Old Testament to his people.
Now, in noticing this, it is important to notice also that these individuals did not make their experience of the Holy Spirit the issue. They didn’t make experience the touchstone of what was going on. You meet people all the time, and they want to talk always about experiences: “I don’t want to talk about doctrine, I want to talk about experience. Have you had the same experiences I’ve had?” And then, “As long as you’ve had the same experience, we may get to Christian doctrine later, but it doesn’t really matter.” Have you met people like that? They’ll say, “Well, I don’t believe in this,” or “I don’t really believe in that,” or “I don’t hold to this,” or “I don’t really pay much attention to this particular area, but after all, what does it matter, because we have all had the same experience?”
Now, if that was ever going to happen, you would have anticipated it happening when there was such an effulgence of the Spirit of God on the day of Pentecost. But what do you find? You find that those who’ve been filled with the Spirit of God are immediately concerned to understand the Word of God. And that is always the case . Read your Bibles and you will find that what I’m telling you is accurate. They did not despise their minds; they did not disdain Christian doctrine.
And I meet people all the time who tell me, “Oh, Alistair, I wish you would cut down on your emphasis on Christian doctrine. Don’t you understand it is doctrine that divides? As soon as we introduce doctrine, we have division. Therefore, we must away with this doctrine, and we must talk about experience.” Well, that’s not what we find here.
Nor do we find them imagining that since they had received the Spirit, he was the only teacher that they required. To have done so would have meant rejecting the provision of God which he had made for the people of God in those who are to be the teachers of God’s people: the apostles, and in turn the apostles to those who were under them, and the likes of Timothy to faithful men, and faithful men to others. And the apostolic line of authority is not something which has emerged from Jerusalem; it is not something which has emerged from Rome; it is not something which flows from Constantinople, as was suggested in yesterday’s Plain Dealer with the article on the great resurgence of interest in the Orthodox Eastern Church, and the individual had the gall to say, “Well, you see, people are just so excited because they can come here and they can find the apostolic succession untrammeled throughout every generation.” No, they can find a commitment to all this rigmarole that’s going on, which has been preserved down through the corridors of time, but the true apostolic succession is from the apostles to the likes of Timothy, “to faithful men, who [will] … teach others also,” and to “pastors and teachers,” as in Ephesians 4:11–12, who are gifts to the church in order that the church might be edified and might understand Christian doctrine.
So instead of them being all excited about their experience, running all over the place looking for people who had the same experience—instead of them saying, “Well, now the Spirit of God teaches me; therefore, I don’t need to listen to anybody else,” which is, again, a customary expression of spiritual immaturity and pride—they were all ears. All ears! They were ready to get their notebooks out and sit at the feet of the apostles.
And in that respect, they established the pattern of the church’s activity for all time, right down to this evening. Because since the teaching of the apostles, to which they devoted themselves here, has come down to us in its definitive form—in what? Where do we have the apostles’ teaching? In our Bibles! That’s exactly right! So then, what is the contemporary expression of this kind of devotion? It is a devotion to our Bibles. It is a devotion to the New Testament truths, which were built upon the foundations of the Old Testament doctrine. And for these apostles, they were constantly having their eyes opened to the wonders of the way in which the Old Testament had dovetailed into all that was now their experience. And therefore, devotion—akin to the devotion here in Acts 2—will be a devotion to the authority of God’s Word. And the principle is simply this: that the Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God . The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.
If you want to know that you’re a member of a New Testament church, as it were—one that is following the pattern established by the New Testament, built on the foundation of the Old Testament—then you must ask the question, Do we have here individuals who have been cut to the heart; who have asked the question, “What should I do, having discovered myself to be sinful?”; have had the answer provided for them, “Repent and believe the good news!”; having repented and believed the good news, they have been baptized, and in their baptism have magnified the grace of God who has saved them, and borne testimony to their commitment to the lordship of Jesus Christ, and have identified themselves with the people of God, and in so doing have developed a hunger for the Word of God, and their daily experience is that the Spirit of God leads the people of God into the truth of the Word of God?
And God’s supreme instrument for renewing his people after the image of his Son is his Word. And that’s why the Acts of the Apostles are so full of the centrality of preaching. For example, in Acts chapter 6, in the first little negotiation that goes on as a result of the dramatic expansion that is taking place. There’s a little problem on a practical level about whether certain widows are being overlooked in the daily distribution of food, which has emerged from the way in which these early Christians were prepared to share so wonderfully with one another. They gathered all the disciples together and they said, “Now, look, it’s not right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word of God”—notice that phrase there in verse 2, “the ministry of the word of God”—“in order to wait on tables.” What they’re saying is, “First things first. It’s far more important that the Word of God would be proclaimed than that we would take time out of doing that in order to wait on tables. So let’s get some guys who are full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, we’ll turn the responsibility over to them, and we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the Word.” That is the apostolic pattern. That is the New Testament framework. That is what it means for those who are entrusted with the responsibility of the Word of God to be the very servants of God’s people in the bringing before Almighty God the needs of the people in prayer and in bringing before the people the very words of God himself, provided for us in Scripture.
And that’s why there still exists, and always will exist, the necessity of authoritative teaching of God’s Word by those who are called and equipped to do it. It’s been customary down through the years for me to hear people explaining that “preaching is in the shadows,” we don’t believe in it, and I’ve lived through the sort of music age, and now the video age, and now the cyberspace age, and I’ve watched and listened to it all. I’m growing old listening to it. But I’ve discovered something very interesting: that when the Spirit of God takes up a man of God who is able to open up the Word of God, people will attend with listening ears . And I drive to and fro my business on a daily basis and look at more abundant defunct churches establishing what they call “contemporary services” left, right, and center, as if somehow or another, if you let people wear jeans and bang tambourines and do certain things, that will be enough to stir up the people of God, and all revival will break out. And at the very same time, there is an absence of a commitment to the hard graft study in the secret place so as to provide the food that is necessary for the folks to gain sustenance so that they might march for another week.
Why else would Lloyd-Jones, assistant to Lord Horder, and with a career in medicine before him second only to none, with the opportunity of attending with his boss upon the royalty of his day in Buckingham Palace—with all of the opportunity of life before him and all of his scientific and academic background—why in the world would he ever turn his back on that to go to some remote Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapel and bury himself there in obscurity? I’ll tell you why. He said it himself: “To me,” he said, “the work of preaching is the highest and the greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called.”
Spurgeon thought so too. Spurgeon, from the Metropolitan Tabernacle pulpit, declared that his pulpit was more influential than the throne of the king of England. And it was! For he came from the very throne of God to his pulpit in order to bring to his people the truth of Christian doctrine.
It is no small thing to have the responsibility of standing, as it were, regularly, consistently, between a Holy God and the people of God with the responsibility of declaring Christian doctrine. It’s not a light thing. Not a superficial thing. It’s not the kind of thing that people should say to themselves, “Oh, I can do that.”
When you find it in the Old Testament, it says again and again—for example, in the prophetic books, the description that is given of the servant of God in giving birth to the very truth that he is to bear—it says that it is the “oracle” of Jeremiah, or it is the “oracle” of Haggai. And the word there actually—and it’s sometimes translated so in the Authorized Version—is “the burden.” It is the “burden” of Jeremiah. It is the “burden” of Isaiah. In other words, it is that which weighs upon the heart and mind of an individual that they should have the most awesome of all responsibilities: to bring the Word of God to bear upon the people of God. Not to give talks from the Bible! Not to give principles! But to bring the very Word of God to the people of God.
I tremble for colleagues and friends—and I mean beyond the walls of this building—who go to bear the Word of God without being burdened by the prospect. I do not understand how it is done. I would rather die than do that. I would rather shovel manure in a cow pasture than do that. It may take your very soul, it may take your life, it may crush your mind, it may burden your spirit, but it is no light thing to bring the Word of God to bear upon the people of God. And I do not mean expressly and simply from this pulpit. I mean in every dimension as the Word of God is brought to bear. It is a costly thing to teach those children in the Sunday school. It will cost you if you’re prepared to take it seriously that the very destiny of some of those children under your care, under God, is dependent upon the faithfulness of your preparation and the submissive heart with which you come to the task so that you might take seriously that these wee ones might know the Bible.
Eric Alexander, describing an encounter between himself and Martyn Lloyd-Jones, as it turns out, having heard Lloyd-Jones preach—and having been the one, I think, who’d been responsible for introducing him—was sitting in the spot to which Lloyd-Jones returned when he had finished preaching. And aware of all that it had taken out of him, Eric Alexander says to the doctor, “Are you exhausted?” To which he replies, “I am relieved.” To which he responds, “In what way?” And Lloyd-Jones replied, “I think this is the closest any man will ever come to the experience of travail and delivery.” To carry that burden, and then to give it up.
Are there young men here in whose life God is stirring? Do you have aspirations, as it were? Hopes? Then, please God, they will come to fulfillment. But never, ever think that it is an easy, casual, superficial, transient thing to bear the Word of God to the people of God.
Now, the reason I make much of this is because I don’t believe it is possible for us, ultimately, to be brought to an understanding of spiritual and Christian doctrine without the faithful and regular expository preaching of the Word of God. If I believed anything other, then I would do something other, but I don’t.
And that’s why, as I’ve said before—although to speak to you is to preach to the converted—is that it will always be, to my dying day, a matter of great discomfort to me to preach to almost three thousand people on the Sunday morning and to preach to some six hundred on a Sunday evening. Not that I am disappointed by your attendance; I am thrilled by it! But it is an indication—whatever else you want to say about culture and background and lifestyle and everything else—it is an indication, it is some indication, of the spiritual temperature of those who are under your care and the extent to which they are serious about, interested in, and deeply concerned about coming to a solid grasp of Christian doctrine. I’m not smart enough to get it on one shot. Maybe others are.
Now, I want to say just one last thing. I want to acknowledge that there is a link here between the apostolic preaching and the apostles’ teaching and the miraculous. I can’t be sure that I will come back to verse 43 in a later Sunday, and so I just want to say a word about it now. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching,” and within the context of teaching, people were “filled with awe”—verse 43—and in that context, “many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.”
Now, there’s a pattern here which you can find elsewhere in your Bible. For example, in Hebrews chapter 2, you find a similar statement to this: “This salvation … first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. [And] God also testified to it by signs, [and] wonders and various miracles.” In 2 Corinthians and in chapter 12, you have the same thing, where the works of the apostles are described in these terms. I think it’s about verse 12. Yes, it is; 2 Corinthians 12:12: “The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance”—“with great perseverance.”
Now, let me just say a word about this, and I’m through. There is no question—there is a clear implication—that the quality of and the quantity of supernatural events that unfold for us in the Acts of the Apostles reveal them to have been a special feature of the apostolic age. Now, people can debate about the age of miracles and so on, but we can say this with confidence: that the quality and quantity of what was happening supernaturally was a special dimension—an unrepeatable dimension—that was somehow tied to the apostles. The apostles were supernaturally endowed in a way that contemporary pastors or missionaries are not supernaturally endowed.
Now, it’s interesting that the emphasis here on the teaching of the Word and the accompanying signs is just that. And in 2 Corinthians 12:12—and with this I want to conclude—Paul is saying, “Listen! Yes, these things happened. But I want you to know that the accompanying signs took place within the context of perseverance. The signs and wonders and miracles were done among you with great perseverance.” That phrase is striking to me! Why do you add “with great perseverance”? Why don’t you just simply say, “Signs, wonders, and miracles were done among you”?
“They were done among you with great perseverance.” You see, because when Paul was in Corinth, he was, by his own testimony, scared. He was in danger, he was under immense stress, he was personally frail; but he was coping. And so, when those who knew him best observed his ministry, saw his burden, identified the cries of his heart, they recognized that the signs and wonders which God was prepared to perform through him were not flashy exhibitions of Christian showmanship. The signs and wonders took place—were born—out of suffering and out of adversity. These signs and wonders took place in the context of a life that was stretched to the limits. This was not somebody doing a performance for people.
So we would not go to him and ask him how much magic does he have up his sleeve. But we might go to him and ask how it is that he demonstrates such grit? That we would go to him and say, “How is it that you ever continue as you do? I saw you with your shirt off in the shower the other day”—or in the equivalent of—“and I have never in my life seen a body so battered and scarred.” We wouldn’t go to him and ask how many healings he’s performed. But we might go to him and ask him about the scars that he bears.
For, interestingly, when he declares who he is at the end of Galatians and he lays down, as it were, his apostolic authority, he says this. Listen! Galatians 6:17: “Let no one cause me trouble, for I…” Now, what does he then say? “For I have had handkerchiefs which have been used to heal people. For I have done, personally, more miracles than anyone else in the apostolic band.” He doesn’t say that. He says, “I don’t want to hear anybody’s nonsense. Let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. You want to know I’m an apostle? I’ll show you,” he says. And he takes off his jacket, and then he takes off his shirt. He did not point to dramatic displays of supernatural activity.
And Christian television continues to be focused upon, riddled with, preoccupied by, and confused—at best—on this most essential of issues. And all the time that people are being led up the garden path, what are they not doing? Paying attention to Christian doctrine. Because if they paid attention to Christian doctrine, they would be able to identify the true from the false.
These, you see, loved ones, are the marks of Christian leadership. The way someone copes with adversity, I think, is a better mark of their spirituality than any number of entertaining stories regarding miraculous answers to prayer. I’m not really helped by miraculous answers to prayer. They’re kind of over there, or up there, or beyond there. But I’ll tell you, I’m helped when I see somebody go through it and stay the course—when I see somebody lose a loved one, and through their pain, and through their emptiness, and through the sense of abject lostness, are still on the roller-coaster ride when it comes back round to the start. Man, I’m helped by that!
And what is it that enables the believer to stand the test, to face the challenge? Miracles? Signs? Wonders? Dramatic claims? No! A solid, experiential grasp of basic Christian doctrine.
And that’s why Paul was so concerned. That’s why it’s at the top of the list. And that’s why I’ve taken all this time—although I thought I would be much briefer—to share it with you now.
Well, our time is gone, but I want to quote a hymn. So, Sue, if you give me a hymnbook, then I’ll quote it. We’re not going to sing it, ’cause the singing was so good, I’d hate for us to sing it poorly.
How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He has said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
“Fear not, I am with thee; O be not dismayed,
For I am your God, and will still give you aid;
I’ll strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand,
Upheld by My righteous, omnipotent hand.
“When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply:
The flame shall not hurt thee; my only design,
Thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine.
“The soul that on Jesus has leaned for repose
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I’ll never, no, never, no, never forsake!”
I know of no better way to face a Monday morning than on the strength of that truth.
Let us pray together:
O God our Father, grant that out of all of these words you might get glory to your name, that you might reinforce within our minds the absolute priority and necessity of taking your Word seriously, of bowing beneath its truth—personally on a daily basis, in small gatherings, in fellowship groups, in Sunday school classes, in meetings in our homes, in walking and talking along the road, as men exhorting men, as women, and singles, and teens, and kids. Save us, Lord, from pride. Forgive us our pride. Mark our lives, we pray, with the power of your Spirit as we submit to the truth of your Word.
And may you bless us and keep us. Make your face to shine upon us and be gracious to us. Lift up the light of your countenance upon us and give us your peace, tonight and forevermore. Amen.
 Bruce Milne, Know the Truth: A Handbook of Christian Belief (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1982), 11.
 Milne, Know the Truth, 11.
 Milne, 12.
 Milne, 12.
 Matthew 22:36 (NIV 1984). See also Mark 12:28.
 Matthew 22:37 (paraphrased). See also Mark 12:30.
 Milne, Know the Truth, 12.
 Acts 2:3 (KJV).
 See Acts 2:6.
 Acts 2:14–15 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 2:41.
 See 2 Timothy 2:2.
 2 Timothy 2:2 (KJV).
 Mark 1:15 (NIV 1984).
 W. E. Sangster, The Craft of Sermon Construction (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1951), 11.
 Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Preaching and Preachers (1971; repr., Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), 9.
 See, for instance, Jeremiah 23:33 (NASB).
 See, for instance, Isaiah 13:1.
 Hebrews 2:3–4 (NIV 1984).
 “How Firm a Foundation.” Language modernized.
 See Numbers 6:24–26.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.