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The Spreading Flame - Series 1: Episode 7

Keys to an effective church

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 4:23-37

Following the release of Peter and John, the church spend time in prayer. Their trust in God, their unity in the faith, and their generosity to fellow believers is evidenced. Barnabas, the 'son of encouragement' is introduced.

Following the release of Peter and John, the church spend time in prayer. Their trust in God, their unity in the faith, and their generosity to fellow believers is evidenced. Barnabas, the 'son of encouragement' is introduced.


Thanks for joining us for this episode, as we continue the story of the church in Jerusalem. If you’ve been following these episodes, you will have noticed what an incredibly exciting story it is, from the time when Jesus ascended to heaven, the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, the explosive growth of the Church and the powerful miracles the Apostles performed.

Introduction and Background

In chapter 2 there’s something important which we’ll pick up in this episode, which is a description of the priorities of the Church. Acts 2: 42 - 47: they focused on the Apostles’ teaching; on fellowship, being together as a community; on breaking bread - that’s the Lord’s Supper, or communion in the context of a meal - and prayer. We need to keep that in mind because that theme comes up in this episode. In the last few episodes, we’ve been following a really exciting story which started when Peter and John healed a lame man, a 40-year-old man, miraculously, at one of the gates at the entrance to the Temple. That produced an amazing result in terms of a crowd gathering and people believing. We saw, in the last episode, how this was threatened by the religious authorities who arrested Peter and John, right there in the middle of the crowd, while they were still speaking, and took them into a prison overnight and then interrogated them in front of the whole ruling council the following day. Having warned them to stop preaching, they released them because they didn’t really know what to do with them at the time. That is the story we looked at last time and now concludes with a very interesting outcome from this rollercoaster series of events. We see Peter and John coming back to meet the church again. We’re not entirely sure where. It obviously isn’t all the church community, but as many people as possible gathered together.

Peter and John Return to the Church

Let’s read a couple of verses from the last episode We’re going to read in Acts 4:21 - 23,

21 ‘After further threats they let them go. They could not decide how to punish them, because all the people were praising God for what had happened. 22 For the man who was miraculously healed was over forty years old. 23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them.’

Acts 4:21-23, NIV

There’s an immediate gathering together and the church is made aware of the threats, the confrontation, what had happened in that one night in prison, and the outcome. Peter and John, in particular, had told them that the religious leaders had said, “You’re not allowed to speak about Jesus anymore.” If you were in that congregation, you would hear Peter and John saying, “They told us we’re not allowed to preach anymore.” What happens following this is partly their response to hearing that restriction being imposed on Peter and John, which Peter and John of course had no intention of obeying.

A Prayer Meeting

We find that they turn straightaway to prayer. We see, recorded in the next few verses, a hugely dynamic prayer meeting. If you’re interested in prayer then this is a very key text for you. We’re going to talk a little bit about prayer in this episode, because it’s one of the vital elements in the success story of the Early Church. It’s not just about the public events, the preaching and the miracles, it’s about the private devotion and prayer in Acts 2: 42 - 47. ‘They devoted themselves to prayer’. And here we have a moment of devotion to prayer, in community.

24 ’When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one”. 27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’

Acts 4:24-31, NIV

This is an amazing description of a prayer meeting. There’s a threat, a challenge, a restriction imposed, a difficult circumstance, and they turn immediately to prayer. Let’s think about the praying, which is summarised here by Luke, capturing some of the main sentiments of what would have been a much longer prayer meeting. That’s what Luke tends to do. He summarises some of the key points in speeches. There’s a lot of speeches and prayers, particularly speeches and sermons in the book of Acts, and Luke summarises the key things, but there would have been much more said than is actually recorded.

God, the Creator

What are the foundations for this confidence in prayer? It’s a very living faith in an active God. God is active. They quote the facts and start with the fact that he is the Creator. It’s a good place to start when you’re wanting to pray. He created you; he created the world; he created the circumstance that we live in. Verse 24 describes this: ‘You made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them.’ As soon as we think of God the Creator, we think of his power. One of the biggest hindrances to prayer is a lack of real inner conviction about God’s actual power.


Then they come to a prophetic scripture from the Old Testament. In our last episode we saw Peter quoting from Psalm 118, and we described it as a messianic Psalm, meaning it’s partly a prophecy about the Messiah, the Son of God, the promised Deliverer of Israel. There are quite a number of these Psalms in the Old Testament that were known by the Jews to predict this coming Deliverer, or Messiah. These Psalms were now taken hold of by the church and applied to Jesus, and we have an example here. There are a number of these Psalms that we’re confident the church understood in this way: Psalm 2, Psalm 16, Psalm 22, Psalm 110, and one or two others. We’ve got an example here from Psalm 2. This is an amazing Psalm. If you read the whole Psalm, which we’re not going do on this occasion, but it would be a great thing to do, you will see that the quotation there is in the context of a Psalm which states, that God himself has a Son, who is going to be installed in power in a human, divine Kingdom on the earth. For example, verses 7 - 9:

7 “You are my son; today I have become your father. 8 Ask me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. 9 You will break them with a rod of iron; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

Psalm 2:7-9, NIV

This Psalm predicts that God has a human individual who is going to enter into the life of Israel, and the life of the nations, as a ruler, as a powerful representative of God. The Jews understood this to be the Messiah and the Christians, in this context, quote the beginning of the Psalm. Bear in mind, whenever there’s a quotation from the Old Testament, always think of the passage around it, not just the words of that quotation because that’s how they understood it. Think of the whole Psalm:

1 “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? 2 The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed,”

Psalm 2:1-2, NIV

They think the recent events in Israel are an example of human powers and authorities rising up to resist the divinely installed King, the Messiah who God himself is raising up in power. Can you see how the Psalm is being used? What triggers them to think about this, is the actions of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin are saying, “You can’t speak about Jesus.” They’re rising up against the Lord’s anointed, and they’re saying to Peter and John, “Stop!” But how can the Church stop? People are rising up against the Lord’s anointed but Psalm 2, tells them that the Messiah is the King of Israel and indeed the King of the whole world. This Psalm has tremendous power, and it stimulates their prayer. They apply it also to the more general circumstances, not just of that particular event, but if you look at verse 27:

“Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed.”

Acts 4:27, NIV

This is a reference back to the events that led up to the crucifixion of Jesus. What they are saying in their prayer is, they are going back over these events, and naming some of the people who were conspiring together to bring about Jesus’ death. They name Herod the Tetrarch or Herod Antipas who ruled Galilee - the northern district of Israel where Jesus lived - and he was visiting Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ arrest. Jesus was sent to Herod at one point for an investigation so he is implicated in this. The area where Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem is not Galilee, it’s Judea. The ruler of that area is Pontius Pilate, on behalf of the Romans. Herod, who was Jesus’ legal ruler in his hometown, and Pontius Pilate, who was the legal ruler of Jerusalem and Judea, gathered together, along with the religious authorities, who already in their minds triggered the process. The Sanhedrin and the High Priest arrested and interrogated Jesus; they handed him over to Herod Antipas for another investigation; he sent Jesus back; then they sent Jesus to Pontius Pilate who had the legal authority to create the death sentence for Jesus and to execute him. They are recounting these events and describing it as a conspiracy of different authorities against the Lord’s Anointed. They see the Sanhedrin continuing that trend by trying to stop the Church at this point. Psalm 2: 1 - 2 comes to their minds.

God’s Sovereignty

But they pray with another very important foundation for prayer. Not only is God our Creator; not only is there a process of redemption through Jesus, which we’ve just looked at through that Psalm; but God is Sovereign. This is a really important part of understanding how to pray. When difficult circumstances come, some Christians cease to pray effectively, or they just cry out in despair. These Christians here, filled with faith, had learnt even in these early days, that when difficult things happen, things we don’t understand that cause suffering and setbacks, we should be reaching out to God as Sovereign. In other words, he’s ruling over; he’s got a greater authority than the people or the events that have hindered us or caused us to suffer. He is the Sovereign God. Verse 28:

“They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.”

Acts 4:28, NIV

God lets people do evil things on many occasions. The Christians have to believe that there’s something greater that God is doing, that isn’t easily seen when it all looks dark and difficult. That takes faith. That’s a discipline of faith. And There might be circumstances in your country, in your district, in your life, in your family, or in your workplace that look very dark to you and there’s nothing good about it. God didn’t directly bring them about but he’s sovereign over the circumstances and the causes, and he can bring good out of those things.

Risky Prayers

As the Sanhedrin makes this move against Peter and John, the church believes that God will actually bring good out of this conflict and this threat by faith. It’s interesting that their main prayer requests are not just for protection. They could have just prayed, “Lord protect the church, keep us safe. We don’t want more people arrested. We don’t want the Apostles to be punished more severely, or sent away from Jerusalem, or flogged.” They could have prayed those prayers and they would have been legitimate prayers. But they prayed, in verse 29, very courageously:

29 “Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders.”

Acts 4:29-30, NIV

In other words, they were praying a risky prayer because if Peter and John and the other Apostles actually did what this prayer said, they risked a rearrest. If they’re arrested again, the consequences are likely to be a lot worse. It’s unlikely that the Sanhedrin will just release them with a threat next time because the stakes would be higher. We’ll see how that story unfolds because this is part of a bigger story. This conflict is continuing and will continue through this whole narrative in Jerusalem. They prayed these big prayer requests.

A Minor Earthquake

Then comes a remarkable event - a minor earthquake. Verse 31:

‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.’

Acts 4:31, NIV

We can pass over these words very easily. But why was the place shaken? This is a divine action. I describe it as a minor earthquake as the best way I can describe what they actually experienced - very localised to that particular area. It brings to mind the fact that, at some key moments, when God is speaking to his people and moving his purposes forward, there is a sign that they experience, which is like a minor earthquake. It happened at the time of Jesus’ death, Matthew 27: 51, at the very moment that Jesus died at 3pm on Good Friday:

51 ‘At that moment the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open.’

Matthew 27:51-52, NIV

We can only describe that as a localised minor earthquake of divine origin. It wasn’t a geological event as such. Something very similar happened here.They felt the ground shaking. If any of you have experienced earthquakes, which I have in different places, they have a very deep effect on the psychology of those who experience them. They can induce a sense of fear, or awe, or vulnerability to a great extent. In this case, it was awe and respect for the fact that their prayers were being met by the living God, who was literally empowering them as a people, as they called out to him. They’re described as being filled with the Holy Spirit. There are a number of tangible ways in which we experience that sense of being filled with the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we feel this sense of the ground shaking; many times, we experience what the Acts described as tremendous joy; the sense of the closeness of God; sometimes people experience spontaneous spiritual gifts such as the speaking in tongues and prophecy. This is described in Acts, not only on the Day of Pentecost, but on other occasions too. Sometimes we experience the feeling as though there’s a wind in the room; or that there’s a fire around us in some way. These are human descriptions of unique divine interactions with us, as God’s power is made clear to us as Christian believers, as we go along in following him. Some of you may have had these types of experiences. They’re common in church life and have been over the centuries but particularly since the beginning of the 20th century, where God has been renewing and strengthening his Church, and there’s often a felt presence, a tangible sense that he is present in the room with you, speaking to you. Here is a very dramatic example of that. This also helps us to understand that although the Day of Pentecost was unique in some ways because it was the beginning, aspects of that empowerment of God, and the filling of people with the Holy Spirit, were reproduced many times. We see quite a number of occasions where that is the case described in the book of Acts, and here is one of them. There are several more coming up in different episodes.

Church Community Life

Verses 32 - 35. This is a description of how the church lived at that particular time:

32 ‘All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. 33 With great power the Apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales 35 and put it at the Apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.’

Acts 4:32-35, NIV

Our encounter with God as disciples and our empowerment is not just in prayer meetings, nor just in the impartation of the Holy Spirit. Truly powerful churches have very effective lifestyles, and here we’re looking at some of the issues that made this church powerful that were not in meetings, and were not about preaching or miraculous signs necessarily, but other dimensions of their lives. Obviously, prayer is one we’ve mentioned but here we have the mention of unity of heart and mind. The most effective churches are the churches where little energy is spent in internal conflict and debates or arguments or disagreements. There’s always a risk of an element of that but effective churches are where people are focused primarily on the mission, and exercise tremendous grace to the variety of people and temperaments and circumstances within their church. This issue of unity is going to be something that Luke is going to emphasise very significantly because the next episode is about unity being broken by something very negative that happens by two of the early disciples, Ananias and Sapphira. Keep that in mind. Now, though, we’re talking about unity as it was working out. This is a unity of faith. They agreed on what they believed; so often that’s a problem in some contexts. It was a unity in mission; they were focused on mission. The more churches focus on outreach, the less troubled they are by internal issues, would be a general rule, from experience and from the implication of teaching in the Epistles, and in the book of Acts. They had a shared lifestyle. In particular, there was a concern for the economic vulnerability of some people in the church community. This topic comes up on several occasions and it’s going to come up again at the very end of this series. There are particular circumstances in the Jerusalem church that we need to remember behind this amazing sharing of goods and possessions. Many of the early disciples who joined this rapidly growing church, were people who had been converted on the Day of Pentecost and were not resident in Jerusalem. They were visiting the city; the city was full of visitors. Therefore, they didn’t have a job, and they didn’t have a home in the area. Many of them didn’t even live in the country because they were coming from other countries where Jews lived. This created an economic challenge for the church to support these people who actually had real economic needs. This needs to be borne in mind concerning the radical actions that people took, which involved selling some of their goods. It also involved the Apostles organising some distribution of financial support. This is a topic we’re going to look at much more closely in an episode coming up shortly in Series 1, when we look at the distribution of food as a particular topic and seven men were appointed to oversee that. At this particular time, these decisions to share possessions were spontaneous; they weren’t organised by the Apostles; they weren’t demanded; they were voluntary; they were personal decisions that were made.


As we conclude, there’s one interesting example of this process. Verses 36 to 37 describes one person who made a dramatic act of generosity:

36 ‘Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.’

Acts 4:36-37, NIV

‘Putting it at the Apostles’ feet’ is an expression that means he gave the responsibility to them to do with the money whatever they wanted. This is an interesting character, who is introduced in our story and becomes a major player as we go along. His original name is Joseph, but he had a nickname, Barnabas, which represented how the church saw his temperament. As stated here, the name Barnabas means ‘son of encouragement’ - somebody with a very positive temperament and he encouraged the other believers. He didn’t come from the country. He was a Jew who lived in the Jewish community in Cyprus, but he was in Jerusalem at the time. He almost certainly had family in Jerusalem and that’s why he’s able to sell a field, and he will appear in our story later on. It’s very notable that Luke records the detail that his name means ‘son of encouragement’. This is the sort of detail you wouldn’t naturally put in, unless it was significant. The rest of the story in Acts shows what an encouragement he was.


As we reflect on this amazing story and amazing prayer meeting, there are a number of things that occur to me that we can learn. Number one; we shouldn’t underestimate the power of praying together in faith. This is easily lost in church life. But where the church is strong, you’ll almost always see a commitment to praying together. Praying on your own is important, and is a vital discipline that Jesus emphasised, which we taught extensively about in Series 4 in the Life of Jesus, when we looked at the Sermon on the Mount. Here we’re talking about corporate prayer: the gathering together of people in large numbers, or small numbers, to pray. My observation of the Church around the world is, where the Church is really thriving there is a consistent, corporate prayer life that’s vigorous and powerful.

The second reflection is about unity. You’re in a church. I want to ask you to reflect on the degree of unity in your church. That’s a sensitive and difficult issue for many people but we need to learn the lesson from here: the more unity is present, the more likely we are to be focused externally on mission, on reaching other people.

My third reflection is, there’s no substitute for being filled with the Holy Spirit regularly. This is a theme that comes up frequently in the book of Acts.

My final reflection, as we conclude, is to take serious note of Barnabas’ name, ‘the son of encouragement’. We learn from all of the New Testament, particularly from Barnabas and also from some of Paul’s writings, the power of encouragement. The final reflection is, how much of your communication with your fellow believers is affirming the good, and how much is questioning the less good, or uncertain, or even sinful? I would say Barnabas has encouraged me over the years, challenged me as a person, to spend a lot of time affirming the good. We don’t do it enough. Barnabas did it a lot and was a huge influence on the Church in years to come. Thanks for listening to this episode, and I hope you’ll join us next time for the next episode.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Write a prayer using Psalm 2 as a pattern.
  • Discipleship
    1. Pray some risky prayers!
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Explore God’s sovereignty by using tagging.
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