More Characteristics of the Early Church, Part 1

Title: More Characteristics of the Early Church, Part 1

Text: Acts 2:44-47

Time: May 18th, 2008

It is my goal in studying the Book of Acts to understand the early church and learn what I can in order to apply this knowledge to our present-day church. The early church is the only pattern we have of an “ideal” church, even though it was not a perfect church. First-century Christianity had problems too, as we can easily see from simply reading the New Testament, particularly the Corinthian letters, but also other writings. But what the early church had was the closest thing to an ideal church as we can get because it was closest to Christ himself and it had Christ’s apostles still living, teaching and influencing it. If any church in any age had it right, it was this first and earliest of churches. So there is great benefit in reading, understanding, and applying the principles of early Christianity to our churches today. In reading over the Book of Acts, I ask a number of different questions, which include: what was the earliest church’s gospel message, what was preaching like in the early church, what did Christian fellowship look like, what activities did the early church carry out, what were the main components of early Christianity, what were the essential features of the primitive Christian church, what was expected of early Christians, how did leaders lead in that first church, how did the early church make decisions, how did they praise and worship God, how did they spread the gospel, how did they raise up committed followers of Christ, etc. Today, we operate under certain assumptions of what Christianity is and what is a Christian church, so much so that we all think we have a pretty clear understanding of things, when in reality we may simply be repeating assumptions that we’ve been conditioned to assume rather than truths that the Bible actually teaches or models. For example, when we hear the word “Christian fellowship” many things may come to mind. We might think of the typical after-church get-together of punch and cookies where church members and visitors gather to mingle and share small talk. For many people that may be the one and only definition of fellowship in their vocabulary. When they read in the pages of the New Testament, particularly in the Book of Acts, for example, Acts 2:42, “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and to the fellowship, . . .” they may fill in the blanks and picture ancient people standing around in togas talking, sipping coffee and eating finger food – fellowship – which would be completely wrong! Fellowship in the early church was so much more, but if we aren’t careful we will read into the text our own misconceptions. That’s why I’m going verse-by-verse through Acts trying to understand what took place 2000 years ago, so that we might get a clear understanding today in order to live out the real Christian life and not just repeat popular but misguided conceptions today. So then again, let’s turn to Acts, 2:44-47, to help us know what it means to be a Christian and what it means to be a church today.

First, they were constantly meeting together. Acts 2:44, 46 “All the believers were together, . . . Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts, . . . They ate together.” It says all the believers met together, which implies that there were no isolated individual Christians living out their Christian lives in solitary, like we see today, and which is popular today. There are statistics of Christianity in the United States and other parts of the world that show that perhaps a majority of so-called Christians don’t regularly participate in any local church. What this data shows is that a large segment of the Christian population thinks that it’s perfectly ok to separate themselves from the Body of Christ and live out their Christianity separate and alone from the larger Christian fellowship of church. Well, that may be an acceptable American practice but it certainly isn’t something acceptable in the Bible as we read from the pages of the New Testament. The most early church, the first Christian church, the closest thing we have to an ideal church or model church, to these Christians being a believer meant meeting together regularly with other believers for the purpose of participating in church. This is basically Christian fellowship, but not the shriveled and deformed kind that we see in most churches today. Fellowship — or to use the Greek New Testament word “kononia” — is believers meeting together to encourage and hold accountable each other in following Jesus. I’ve spoken of this before, but following Jesus isn’t an easy thing, in fact, at times it’s difficult and at other times it’s nearly impossible, especially alone in isolation from other Christ-followers. But when believers regularly meet together for the purpose of encouraging each other in obedience to Christ and also for the purpose of discouraging each other from disobeying Christ and God’s will, then true Christian discipleship can happen on a high level. The problem today in churches is that true Christian fellowship isn’t much happening: obedience to God’s will isn’t being encouraged enough, and sin and disobedience isn’t being discouraged enough. Instead, as in the days just before judgment at the time of Noah, “everyone does that which is right in their own eyes,” to use the biblical language. Or to use the language of our culture, “Do your own thing.” That’s what is happening in most churches today, but it isn’t true Christian fellowship. Today, it wouldn’t help if believers met more often, because they aren’t meeting for the right reasons. If we simply meet to encourage one another, then we will be encouraging sin and disobedience also, since that’s what we all bring as sinners to church. It’s only if we are willing to discourage one another in our sins can we truly share with the early church in true Christian fellowship. True Christian fellowship is both encouraging the good and discouraging the bad. That’s what we see in the early church.

Second, they were sharing everything in common. Acts 2:44-45, “[They] had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” The reality of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit and the authority of God the Father was so great in this community so as to transform naturally selfish people into supernaturally generous people. After a person converted to Christianity in the early days they became a member of the church community, and as a member they became part of a new family of Christians, and family members took care of each other. They helped one another, they cared for one another. Now in those early days, the goal was survival, basic necessities of life, food, shelter, clothing, transportation, etc. They didn’t live like we do today, with a mixture of necessities and luxuries. For example, we need food to live, but we also think we need a telephone, but we really only need food to survive, we can actually survive without a telephone, so that’s not a necessity strictly speaking. Also, we need housing, but we also think we need television, but again, strictly speaking, we do need food to survive, but we don’t need television, that’s a luxury, that’s entertainment, that’s a non-essential. But it’s also something that we think is a necessity; if you don’t think so, try living without your tv and see how that feels. Some people spend close to $100 per month on cable tv while they struggle to barely have enough to buy food. My point is that when we read about the early church putting their money and goods together to provide for one another, we shouldn’t read into it our modern standards of living. We should see it for what it was – survival. Being a Christian wasn’t easy back then because it was so counter-cultural. These early Christians were Jewish converts living among traditional Jews. Converting to Christianity set one apart and against the mainstream Jewish religion. Often there was persecution – remember that Stephen was killed by the Jews for being a Christian and speaking boldly in Christ’s name – but there was also discrimination, prejudices against Christians by the Jews as well. Jews would disown family members who converted to Christianity. Other Christians would lose their businesses, homes, and properties. So in order to survive, Christians banded together and helped one another make ends meet. Think of a small, minority Christian community today in a predominantly Muslim culture like Egypt or Saudi Arabia; they might have to do what they early Christians did to survive. But the principle of helping one another can be applied to our context here in the United States. We must be willing to help one another where there is a real need. Simply applying Jesus’ teaching, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” would be a step in the right direction of living like the early church lived. How can you help someone in need? Do you ever ask that question? As Christians we need to ask it and also take action.

Third, they had daily devotions. Acts 2:46, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” Notice it was “every day,” that they got together for devotions in the temple courts. Now they were Jewish Christians, and so they had access to the Jewish Temple which was the place of worship for all Jews. The religion of Judaism and the Old Testament teachings are not incompatible with Christianity and the New Testament when one central truth is recognized: Jesus is the Messiah. If a Jew, any Jew, even today, will recognize Jesus is the Messiah, they can worship both Jesus and continue on in all the essential teachings of the Old Testament. These early Christians were still Jews only they accepted Jesus as Messiah. They were still permitted to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, so they naturally met there with other Christians off to the side in one of the corners of the temple court yard. What did they do there every day? They prayed, they heard teachings, they worshiped God, etc. The point is that they had their devotions every day, not just one day a week on Sunday. Today, it’s common to practice Christianity by going to church on Sunday. We must congratulate everyone who does in fact attend church every Sunday because that is still a very healthy and good habit to follow. Lots of good can and does happen in church on Sunday; even in churches of poor quality, God is able to break through and speak to people who focus on him and escape the modern, secular, pop culture even for one hour a week. But we can also understand why a once a week devotion time isn’t enough to maintain a strong Christian life. The early church gathered for public devotions every day! Remember, the early church is the model for faith and practice. There has never been an age with as much faith and commitment as in this early Christian community. We need to look to the church of the apostles, the church closest to the time of Christ himself, for guidance and example for our church today. And this primitive church community had daily devotions. Do you have daily devotions? I’m not talking about public devotions, but devotions of any kind, public or private. Do you take time each day to pray and hear God’s Word? I’m not saying that everyone needs to attend to public daily devotions today, but I am saying everyone needs to be having some kind of daily devotions, if not public than private at least. One of the secrets of having a really strong Christian life is daily devotions, daily prayer, daily Bible reflection. Do you take the time to do so? Is it a matter of personal discipline with you? These early Christians disciplined themselves to have daily devotions, and so if they could do so, so can you. Certainly doing so is more important than your daily television show. We need to get serious about these things and not treat them so careless and casual.

I’ll stop here and continue next week in the rest of the verse describing some characteristics of the early Christian church. When we compare the attitude and activities of these early Christians with our attitudes and activities we realize big differences. We notice immediately how highly committed they were to fulfilling the requirements of the Christian life, and how casual and careless we are generally about living out our own Christian lives today. Is it any wonder why we don’t see many of the supernatural and exciting things that they saw two thousand years ago? Today, for most people including Christians, God seems to be far away, He seems to have abandoned the earth, as if he were off concentrating on creating some other planet on the far side of the galaxy. But what if God is here, as close as ever? What if he’s never moved, but what if we’ve moved away from him? What if we as a people on earth, as members of Western culture in particular, have worked hard to live independent of God, to live apart from our Creator, to make our own rules and live by them rather than live by God’s will as individuals and as a society? Can we then complain that God has abandoned us, that he has left us? No. We must take responsibility for abandoning God, for separating ourselves from him, rather than the other way around. What does James 4:8 say, “Draw close to God and he will draw close to you.” The early Christian church was particularly close to God in those early days. Nearly all of them had experienced Jesus himself in their lives, and all of them had experienced the reality of the Holy Spirit in their lives. God was very close to them because they were very close to God. Today, we pray and pray for God to send a great, new revival, but are we willing to draw close to God in repentance of sin and absolute, wholehearted faith in Jesus? To do so would require change in our lives. We can’t have what the early church had, we can’t have a modern day revival, and continue on with business as usual. God wants to visit us with his power and presence but he won’t, he can’t do it, without change. The change won’t come from God, because as God he doesn’t change, “I am the Lord thy God, I change not.” So the change will have to come on our part. Are you willing to change your ways to accommodate God? Are you willing to forsake your sins for Jesus’ sake? Are you willing to change your ways in order to make more room for God? We say, “Yes, I want to, but then again, I don’t want to also.” We want to, but we don’t want to. In that case, we need to pray, “Lord, make me want to do your will, change my selfish heart to love the things I should love and hate the things I should hate.” Are you willing to pray that prayer? If so, then there is hope for you to experience something what the early church experienced.

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