September 18, 2013

Heart and Soul

I grew up in Durban, South Africa, and loved the Bible from a young age. One of my clearest memories is of my grandfather reading John 14:1-3 for family worship. I enrolled in the Voice of Prophecy correspondence Bible course and looked forward to receive my lessons every two weeks or so in the mail. I would eagerly check if my answers were correct or not, and looked forward to digging into the next lesson. The lessons, printed in black on white, did not have an elaborate design—especially when compared to the glossy lessons we have today. Yet God’s Word was alive and full of power in my young teenage heart.

Many years later, when I studied theology at Helderberg College, it was a great privilege to meet Heather Tredoux, director of the Bible School. The Word of God slowly transformed a shy, stuttering young man into a preacher. In fact, the Bible helps us grow into the people God wants us to be.

The Word in Acts

The living, enduring Word of God is central to the evangelistic explosion and the birth of the Christian movement in Acts. The Word was the source of power in the evangelistic ministry of the disciples, and the people yearned for this Word.

Luke repeatedly tells us how people received the Word with gladness (see Acts 2:41; 4:4; 8:40). The disciples studied the Scriptures daily and aligned their lives with its teachings (see Acts 17:11). In their sermons the disciples quote, allude, or refer to Old Testament passages nearly 200 times. Clearly they had memorized and internalized the Scriptures and preached with deep conviction.1
Preaching is a major factor in the proclamation of the gospel and takes on the form of witnessing in Acts: “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
When Luke uses the phrase “word of the Lord” (Acts 8:25; 13:49; 15:35; 16:32; 19:10, 20) and the “word of God” (Acts 4:31; 6:2; 8:14; 11:1; 12:24; 13:5; 17:13), he is pointing to the divine origin and authority of the gospel.

In the Old Testament the Word of God has tremendous power and ability to accomplish the tasks that God sets out for it to accomplish (Ps. 33:6-11; Isa. 55:10, 11; Jer. 1:9-12).2 The centrality of the “word” in Acts led French scholar Marguerat to write that the leading theme of Acts is “neither the history of the Church, nor the activity of the Spirit, but the expansion of the Word. The real hero of the Acts of the Apostles is the logos, the Word.”3

The Word moves the narrative of Acts forward—and, literally, in new directions. “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). This is a summary statement of the work of the Word in Jerusalem and points to the satisfactory resolution of the conflict in Jerusalem (Acts 1:1-6:7).
“But the word of God continued to spread and flourish” (Acts 12:24) marks another summary statement of the spread of the Word to the outer parts of Judea, Samaria, and other Gentile areas (Acts 6:8-12:24). The Word is on the move, conquering for the kingdom.

The final summary statement of the section covering Acts 12:25-19:20 highlights the moving power of the Word and points to the geographical expansion of the Word into Asia Minor and Europe. “In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power” (Acts 19:20).4

Luke makes use of the term “word of the Lord” to show the progress of the church, especially in the context of human opposition. Just as the Word of God helped me to grow in South Africa, so the Word of God grew the church in Acts. The church grows as the Word grows. The Word conquers Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria. The Word then conquers an African in Acts 8, giving the reader a foretaste of the Word’s conquest of a family of Gentiles in Acts 10. Finally the Word triumphs over one of the most influential cities in the first-century world—Ephesus.

The church and the Word move and develop simultaneously. The two are so interconnected in Acts that it is almost impossible to separate them (cf. Acts 2:47; 5:14; 6:7; 11:21; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20). This becomes apparent when one notices that the Word never returns to an area twice as Luke tells us about the growth of the church.5

The Word determines and sets the agenda for evangelism and discipleship. The same Greek word (plethynein) is used for the “increase” in the number of disciples (6:1; 9:31) as well as for the increase of the Word (6:7; 12:24).

The Word in History

Peter Waldo, or Valdes, was a wealthy merchant of Lyons (eastern France), who experienced conversion about 1175 or 1176. He gave away his possessions and decided to follow Christ by leading a life of poverty and preaching. Convicted by the necessity of spreading God’s Word Waldo had the Latin New Testament translated into the vernacular, which formed the basis of his evangelism. He preached the message of Scripture fearlessly and powerfully so that he soon had a group of people following him. When the Word of God is preached fearlessly and with the anointing of the Spirit, there is normally an explosion of kingdom growth.

The group that followed Peter Waldo grew so effective and powerful that they came to the attention of the pope. They were given the approval of Pope Alexander III at the Third Lateran Council in 1179. They had one condition: Waldo’s followers were to gain the approval of the local church authority before preaching.

However, the Waldensians preached the message of the Bible and exalted the virtues of poverty without first seeking approval from the local bishop. Waldo loved quoting Acts 5:29: “We must obey God rather than human beings.”6 They continued to condemn the laxity and wealth of the medieval church. Their preaching of God’s Word was so Spirit-filled and blessed of heaven that in 1181 the archbishop of Lyon prohibited their preaching.

The Waldensians responded by preaching even more zealously. The church hierarchy were clearly troubled as the 1181 condemnation gained momentum. In 1184 at Verona, Pope Lucius III ordered that the Waldensians and other groups like them should be eliminated by inquisition and secular punishment. The Waldensians eventually fled from Lyons and grew rapidly in Lombardy and Provence. A movement of God always anchors itself in the authority of the Word. The proclamation of the Word disturbs, unsettles, and defeats the devil and his forces.

The Word Today

If the Word is central to growth and revival, then the local church must do everything possible to gather around the Word. Sadly, too often the Word is stuck in the local church building where it is proclaimed Sabbath after Sabbath.

Are we receivers or reproducers of the Word?7 Do we hoard the Word or do we share the Word? We often sit in church and take it all in but never pass the Word on. Or we may dissect the Sabbath morning sermon over Sabbath lunch and never share it with others or practice its principles during the week. We may study our Sabbath school lesson faithfully but never share it with others. The Word that is preached on a Sabbath morning or that we study in our devotions is a word that must be shared and practiced during the week.

Talking about sermons, Ellen White wrote: “What can we expect but deterioration in religious life when the people listen to sermon after sermon and do not put the instruction into practice? The ability God has given, if not exercised, degenerates.”8

The Word is not meant to stop with us—it has to spread through us! We need to let the Word out of the confines of the church building. The Word, and the Spirit that inspired the Word, are deeply relational. Hence the Word travels best in the context of relationship. Since the Word moves along relational lines, the church must be structured relationally. Discipleship structures have to be set up in the local church so that people have every opportunity to gather around the transforming Word of God and experience the power of the Holy Spirit in their lives during the week. Local churches that unleash the Word in the context of authentic discipleship structures can impact local communities and bring about lasting change for the kingdom of God. n

  1. R. Coleman, The Master Plan of Discipleship (Grand Rapids: Fleming Revell, 1987), p. 105.
  2. D. G. Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), p. 33.
  3. D. Marguerat, The First Christian Historian: Writing the Acts of the Apostles, Society of New Testament Studies Monograph Series 121, translated by K. McKinney, G. J. Laughery, and Richard Bauckham (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 37.
  4. Peterson, p. 34.
  5. David W. Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), pp. 150-155.
  6. Bruce Shelly, Church History in Plain Language (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), p. 208.
  7. David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2010), p. 99.
  8. Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the Church (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1948), vol. 6, p. 425.