The Focus of the People of God
Do you ever wonder what people say about the Union Church in La Harpe? How would an objective observer describe our congregation? Would they say we were a church that was committed to sharing the gospel? Would they say that we are people who are trying to reveal Christ in the way we live? Would they say we enjoyed each other’s company?
We may never know what others say about us (and may not want to know) but we do know the reputation of the early church. In Acts 2:42-47 we have a capsule summary of what the early church was like. These are verses so rich and full that we could easily explore them for several weeks. We aren’t going to do that because many of the themes in these verses will come up in other places in Acts.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. 46 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, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Luke points out the passion of the people of that first century congregation.
THEY WERE DEVOTED/COMMITTED
We are told the early believers were devoted (42) and they “continued to meet” (v. 46) every day. The same word is used in both verses. The word highlights the idea of commitment, perseverance, passion, intensity and focus.
The mere fact that these people were committed does not set them apart from others . . . people are committed to all kinds of things. They may be committed to their jobs, success, making money, or developing the athletic ability in themselves or their children. People are committed to their families, their hobbies, and their political ideologies. Simply being committed does not set us apart from others. What set these people apart as believers was what they were committed to.
They were committed to the Scriptures. We are told that they were committed to the Apostle’s teachings. Remember, there were 3000 new converts added to the church in just the first day. The only way they had to learn about Jesus was through the teaching of the apostles. They were hungry to learn more about their Savior.
This should be true of any believer. A person who truly trusts Christ wants to know more about Him. The best way to do that is to study the Bible.
Think about it like a marriage. Suppose you say you love someone and go through a wedding ceremony. Now suppose after the wedding ceremony you never tried to learn anything new about your mate. You didn’t try to find out what they liked and didn’t like; you didn’t try to find out their expectations for marriage; you never asked them about their feelings or their dreams. You never talked about having a family. You didn’t do these things because you figured that since you got married you didn’t have to concern yourself with these things any more.
Would you believe that this person loved his/her spouse? Of course not. The person in love wants to know everything they can about the person they love. That’s how a relationship grows and deepens. It’s the same way with Jesus. Too many people seem to think that after they “say a prayer” there is nothing more to do. But “saying a prayer” is like a wedding ceremony. It is just the beginning of the new life.
In our “experience oriented” society it is sometimes difficult to find solid Bible teaching. The people of God need to hear God’s Word not our opinions on how to have a better life. Beware of any church where the message is not drawn from Scripture. Be suspicious of those churches where the Bible is not opened and no one seems to bring their Bible to worship.
How committed are you to the Word of God? Do you read your Bible regularly? Do you take time to try to understand the character, commands and heart of God? Do you claim to be a believer but neglect His Word? I encourage you to work at setting time aside to read your Bible. A daily and attentive encounter with God’s Word is more important that reading the paper, watching the news, sleeping later or even eating breakfast. It must be FIRST on our list of priorities because He must be first.
They were committed to Each Other (Koinonia) Notice the phrase . . . they devoted themselves to THE fellowship. This is an important distinction. There are many people who are devoted to fellowship. They are eager for any opportunity to get together and “have some fun”. They make time to go out and have fun with their friends. But the goal of the early church was not just to get together to have some fun . . . the goal was to grow in and with each other. These people were committed to each other.
We are told,
“44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
Some have made a big deal about this and said the early church was socialistic or communistic. That’s not true. Later in Acts we see that many of the people had property. These people were not forced or required to sell their possessions. They did this voluntarily to help those who were in need.
Remember, following Christ in those days could be very costly. Some lost their jobs, others lost customers, some had to quit their job because it was contrary to their faith, some were cut off from their families. So, they helped each other. They considered their Christian friends to be their new family.
A gift I received for Christmas was the mini-series “Band of Brothers”. This sometimes graphic depiction of life in one small platoon of soldiers in World War II is quite moving. It reveals the sacrifice, heroism and also the brotherhood of these soldiers. They helped each other, defended each other, and at times risked their lives to save each other. These men served our country with honor. They were committed to each other and to the cause of freedom. This is the kind of fellowship that existed in the early church.
There is a unique bond between brothers and sisters in Christ. The word for fellowship is the word “koinonia”. It carries the idea of sharing and intimacy. This is why we can meet a fellow believer for the first time and immediately feel that we can share our lives with that person. We hold several things in common. We have a common view of our sinfulness and our need for grace. We have a common experience of God’s transformation in Christ. We have a common standard and values as found in Scripture. We have a common goal and a common destiny. We are on the same road, traveling the same direction.
In the book of Hebrews the author exhorts the church,
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching. [Heb. 10:24,25]
The author (probably Paul), spotlights the importance of our fellowship together. There are always those who say they don’t need to belong to a church in order to worship God. Hypothetically that is true but practically it is not. We cannot grow in isolation. We need the encouragement, the instruction, the correction, and the strength that comes from being together.
You might think that the plea to worship regularly is the “commercial” message of every church. It’s not. It is a biblical command. When you are sporadic in worship you disobey God and hinder your spiritual growth and hurt the Kingdom of God. When you and I allow other things to get in the way of our regular worship with the people of God we are allowing other things to come between us and God . . . we are engaging in idolatry. I know these are strong words but they are accurate words. Our commitment to “meet together” is an act of obedience as well as an act of joy.
They were committed to worship. We are told that they were committed to the “breaking of bread” and prayer (or as the Greek says, “the prayers”). The breaking of bread may have referred to eating together and may also refer to communion. It is likely that it referred to both. In those days the people would get together for a meal and then at the end of their time together they would have a communion service.
Did they celebrate communion every time they got together? The text really doesn’t say. Jesus didn’t say how often we were to celebrate communion, just that we were supposed to do so. The purpose of the Lord’s Supper is to help us remember and to proclaim the truth of the gospel. We need to celebrate the Lord’s Supper as often as necessary to keep us focused, but not so often as to make communion into a ritual that loses it’s value.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones captures what communion was supposed to be,
Look at these people meeting together there in the early church in one another’s houses, breaking bread, declaring the Lord’s death until he comes. Many of them were slaves, very ordinary people having a hard time and being persecuted and maligned, sick in body perhaps, and some sick in mind even. But there they were, going through this weary evil world, with the world and the flesh and the devil against them. But they broke bread, and they remembered not only what Jesus had done but what He was going to do. They lifted up their heads. They said,
“We are destined for glory. We are the children of God. We are joint heirs with Christ. We have an ‘inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven.’ (1 Pet. 1:4).
What does it matter though men kill us, though they revile us, though the whole world be destroyed—we have an inheritance that can never be taken away. It is ours. It will be there until He comes. Then He will take us to be with Himself, and we will spend our eternity with Him in His glorious presence.” [Lloyd-Jones, Authentic Christianity p. 117)
They celebrated communion, and they gave attention to the prayers. The fact that the Greek text actually says, “the prayers” leads me to believe that they observed the formal times of prayer that every Jew observed (at 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m.). This doesn’t mean that they merely went through the motions of prayer; it meant they were regular and disciplined in their praying. As we read through Acts we will see that the church was a praying church. They confessed their sins, sought God’s will, fellow-shipped with God, and prayed for each other.
Do you notice how prayer has begun to slip away from the contemporary church? If you were to go into a dozen different churches you would be surprised at how little time is devoted to prayer. This is because many feel prayers “bog down” the time of worship. It “disrupts the flow”. So in many churches prayers are replaced with skits and songs. This speaks volumes about our commitment or our lack thereof.
Would it bother you if you were paid from your job every other, or every third pay period? Would that inconsistency have an impact on your home life? Would you be upset by such a practice? If your heart beat only every third or fourth time in the cycle would you be able live a full life? Would you need to give that problem some attention? If your car started only every once in awhile would that affect your job performance and negatively impact your life? Of course these things would be problems.
If you are inconsistent in your pursuit of solid instruction in the Bible, the fellowship of other believers, worship and prayer will it affect the quality of your spiritual life? You bet. Will this inconsistency be a barrier to joy? Indeed. Will this lack of devotion compromise your witness to those in the world? I’m afraid so. We must be committed.
THEY WERE REVERENT (Phobia)
Luke tells us that in the early church everyone was filled with “awe”. The word for “awe” is the word “phobia”. We would usually translate “phobia” as fear. Claustrophobia is the fear of close spaces. Hydrophobia is the fear of water. Xenophobia is the fear of strangers. Agoraphobia is the fear of public places.
The early church had a fear of God. But this is not “theo-phobia”. This was a different kind of fear. These people respected God’s power, His standards and His might. They respected His place as the Ruler of the Universe. They did not take Him lightly. Notice the text says, “everyone” was filled with awe. As a result of these believers even those outside the church came to respect the God of the Christians.
This raises a convicting question: “If the people of the world do not respect the God of Creation, the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, is it because the world does not see that respect among His own followers?”
They were reverent in response to God’s Greatness. As we learn about God we come to see His greatness. And as we see His holiness more clearly we become more acutely aware of our sinfulness. As we examine His standards we become aware of His wisdom and our failures. As we see God’s work in our life and in the lives of those around us we are humbled by His love and transforming power. We fear Him because of His greatness.
Have you ever had the chance to meet someone who you respect a great deal? Maybe it was a political figure, an athlete, a writer, or a respected teacher. Often as you approached that person you were afraid. You weren’t afraid that this person was going to hurt you . . . you were intimidated and made fearful because you felt unworthy to be in this person’s presence.
It is the same way with God. When we realize our sin, we fear Him because of His judgment. But when we discover and experience His grace we tremble before Him because He is so magnificent. We are reverent because words seem foolish before Him. We know that we have nothing to teach Him but have everything to learn from Him.
They were reverent as a result of God’s power. We are told that the apostles did all kinds of miracles. Every time the people saw one of these miracles they were strengthened in their faith. Every time they witnessed God’s intervention they were humbled again by their unworthiness and by God’s incredible power. This was especially true for those outside of the faith.
Should we expect signs and wonders today? I feel I must address the question of signs and wonders today. Wouldn’t it be great to see a few spectacular signs to strengthen our faith? Haven’t we all wished for God to do something dramatic like in the days of the Bible? Why don’t we see these kinds of miracles today? I see several possibilities,
- God does not want us to come to Him because of the “show” He puts on but because of who He is.
- By definition a miracle is an uncommon occurrence. If miracles were commonplace then we would come to expect them. We would feel entitled to them (like many government programs). We might even demand them.
- God is doing miracles all the time; we don’t recognize them. In the early church they looked for God’s hand at work in their midst. Today we look to explain away anything miraculous.
- We don’t have enough faith. It’s possible that we don’t believe sufficiently for God’s power to be released. We want God to act but we don’t really believe He will.
I don’t know which, if any, is the right answer. I’m going to guess that the answer to our question lies somewhere in the midst of these possibilities. So we pray confidently because we know that our God is able to do far more than we can ask or imagine. We trust completely because God knows what He is doing. If He should work through a miracle we will be grateful, if He chooses not to, we will trust that He is doing something deeper and better than merely erasing a difficulty from our life.
THEY MADE AN IMPACT
It is intriguing to see the ripple-like impact of the early church.
We See this Impact in their own attitudes. They met together with glad and sincere hearts. These were joyful people! They faced difficulties and an uncertain future but they did so with joy. They were thrown in prison but they sang songs. They were tortured but still they joyfully gave thanks to God for the privilege to suffer in His name.
I imagine the early believers to be people who whistled as they walked down the street. They always had a smile. There was a joyfulness in their eyes that was uncommon and infectious. These people were having the time of their lives even though times were hard. Does this describe Christians today?
We See the Impact in Their Relationship with God. God was no longer distant to these folks; He was near. There was an uncommon intimacy with the Almighty. God was honored by the lives of these believers. His name was celebrated and I am sure that God smiled.
We see an impact in the wider community. These believers enjoyed the favor of all people. Not everyone agreed with these early believers. They were viewed favorably not because they catered to the world, but because of their devoted commitment to the Lord and to each other. The people around them couldn’t overlook the love, compassion, sincerity, reverence, and obedience of these people.
These people were the best citizens in the world. They were the best neighbors, the best friends, and the best employees. Because they loved God they saw the people around them through God’s eyes. They were eager to help, willing to be involved and showed love in their words and deeds.
We see an impact on those who were lost. Luke tells us that “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”. This is not that surprising is it? Wouldn’t you join a church like this? Wouldn’t you want to know the Jesus that these folks proclaimed?
So, “How do we become a church like this?” I suggest that the answer to the question comes as we ask some appropriate questions,
- Am I devoted to the Lord or do I have a casual relationship with the Lord?
- Am I diligently working to learn more about God and His Word? Do I spend time daily in God’s Word? Am I consistently exposed to solid Christian exposition of God’s Word? Do I have a disciplined approach to prayer?
- Am I increasingly drawn to the fellowship of other believers? Is my fellowship superficial or is this sharing deep?
- Do I make worship a top priority or do other things (other Gods) come first? Ask yourself what will cause you to miss worship and you will have discovered the idols of your life.
- Do I fear God or do I treat Him as my servant?
- Do I take my faith into my everyday living or do I leave at the church?
I’m convicted by these questions and I suspect you are too. We will not find the power of the early church in some program or style of worship. This kind of infectious joy, passion, and power starts in the individual hearts of God’s people.
Was the early church unique in it’s experience and impact? I don’t think so. I believe if we will learn from the examples of our forerunners in the faith, we will see God making an impact through us. May God help us to this end.