Atheist After All?

The book of Acts provides a selective record of the first three or so decades of the kingdom’s advance and even in this short account Luke provides us with allot to think about. It is no surprise that Acts has long been held up as a “model” of what church is to be.1

Unfortunately, most attempts to determine what exactly we should do to be like them have left us trying to get Luke to answer questions he isn’t all that interested in. He seems to have little interest in defining how one is “filled the Spirit” (just be sure you are), what mode of water baptism is correct, the governmental organization of the church, etc.

What he does seem to be most interested in is how God’s people fully cooperated with God in the moving forward Jesus’ kingdom purposes in the world. It is Jesus’ mission and ministry which they now fully embrace and in which they are now full participants. And importantly, the transfer of the movement’s leadership has been made, the baton passed, to Jesus’ representative the Holy Spirit.

A key verse is found in Acts 9:31, perhaps the key to understanding the whole of Acts. It reads,

“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.” NAU

We come into immediate problems when reading this verse. We think we know what “built up” and “increase” means. We think of larger buildings, of bigger budgets, of needing more chairs because more people attend our services, etc. – all because this is how we have measured church “success” in American culture – quite wrongly thinks Luke.

Even a quick reading of Acts up to 9:31 reveals how off-base such ideas are – in fact Luke would no idea what we are talking about. His measures of success seem to be individual transformation, increasing numbers of radical Jesus’ followers (what they would call normal),2 whole communities shaped and shaken by God’s power (Jerusalem and Samaria), enemies that become devoted friends (Saul = Paul), where listening to God might well send you on “crazy” journey seemingly into the middle of nowhere (Phillip), devoted love for Jesus that brings suffering and then death (Stephen) and where sin might cost you your life (Ananias and Sapphira).

The two conditions to their success are spelled out: the fear of the Lord and the comfort of the Holy Spirit. These two things were for them essential to continued success and by implication will always be essential for every generation of believers who would take seriously God’s agenda. Let’s take a look at these.

While the phrase, the “fear of the Lord” is used only this one time in Acts, it is a common idea in the OT, often repeated and thematic throughout. It is primarily about an attitude or a posture – it is how we “position” ourselves or see ourselves in relationship with God. Here it is a reference to Jesus.

It is a combination of two things: awe and love. The magnificence and wonder of God should leave us in trembling awe;3 the revelation of His love should draw out from our deepest heart intense love and passion for Him. Such was true for those early believers. This reverential love for Jesus had a profound impact on every aspect of their lives.

What of the “comfort of the Holy Spirit?” Our English “comfort” is quite inadequate to capture what Luke has in mind. The Greek here for “comfort” is the word “paraclesis” – a word related to the name of the Holy Spirit, “Paracletos.” In talking about the phrase “the comfort (paraclesis) of the Holy Spirit” A.T. Pierson says this,

“It contains that word paraclesis which, like that mysterious name paracletos to which it exactly corresponds, is untranslatable. It really includes all the work of the Paraclete, whether in the church or the world…in a word, His entire administration of the whole church life and church work. All this is embraced in this word ‘paraclesis’…”4

What Pierson has understood is that it is the Holy Spirit with Whom those early believers were fully, relationally engaged – in everything, every moment. They sought His direction, followed His lead, heard His voice and would not think of doing life any other way. Their lifestyle was one of “space and place” given to Him so that they could order their lives accordingly.5

How to understand this? Simply this: the early church fulfilled God’s purposes in their personal lives and in their generation because they lived in a reverential love and submission to Jesus and because they did so, they walked in a powerful, full on, totally engaged relationship with the Holy Spirit. It was their total surrender to the Lordship and leadership of Jesus that enabled them to walk fully with the Spirit and as a result they accomplished what God intended.

This was normal Christianity. Better, let’s say it out loud: “This is the only kind of Christian life the Bible knows.”

They did what Jesus asked, when He asked it, where He asked, how He asked it – all in the powerful presence and reality of the living Holy Spirit. Their story, their lives, can only be explained in this way!

Acts 9:31 indicates that the early church grew and matured because they feared the Lord and because they walked in the “alongsidedness” of the Holy Spirit. They were aware of His presence and activity and sought to continually fully cooperate with Him. They followed Him and He led them as the Person of God who lived and walked with them; they recognized that without His practical, moment by moment presence they could do nothing of kingdom significance. Nor can we!

We must live out of the conviction that His presence is essential and we must refuse to move ahead in our own strength and wisdom. The primary way we live out this reality is to be active seekers and listeners, eager to hear His voice and obey His direction. He is our focus, our love, our passion, our center. We are enthralled with Him, hungry for Him, desperate after Him. He is both the means to His ends and an end in Himself.

You see, we can be deceived into thinking we are “fully devoted followers” and in the end simply be practical atheists. We do what we please, how we please, when we please. We might call it Christian, but in the end there is little of His presence, power and authenticity in it.

Consider the following questions as application.

  • Are we “practical atheist,” doing our own thing, or are we actively engaged with Jesus and the Spirit? We should know!
  • If the Holy Spirit died, would it and how would it make any difference in your life, your church? Would things go on “business as usual?”
  • What in your life, right now, is the evidence that you are walking in the “fear of the Lord” and the “alongsidedness of the Spirit?”
  • What risks are you taking for Jesus, what are you doing right now that will totally fail, if He doesn’t come through?

Copyright 2015  Mike Huckins. All rights reserved. August 2015

1 It is typical in times of revival and renewal for people to go back to the early church to look for a pattern or model that matches their new found devotion to Jesus and fresh empowering of the Spirit.

2 Only in an age of easy-believism and compromise does one feel the need to define what it means to follow Jesus. Think of the oxymoron’s we use: nominal Christian, carnal Christian, “saved, but not living it (really!!). And these absurd redundancies: “fully devoted follower” (is there another kind?), “true believer” (so one can be a false believer?), radical Christian (in contrast to what – a lukewarm one?).

3 One of the best pictures of this truth is be found in the children’s book by Kenneth Graham, The Wind in the Willows. See my excerpt under “resources” on our website.

4 A.T. Pierson, Acts of the Holy Spirit, 72-73.

5 Read Acts 13:1-4 and 10:9. In both instances, they were actively waiting on God to speak to them. We tend to see waiting as a passive thing, but for them it was an essential activity – a relational engagement.

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