More Characteristics of the Early Church, Part 2

More Characteristics of the Early Church, Part 2

Text: Acts 2:44-47

Time: May 25th, 2008

 

Our goal in studying the Book of Acts is to understand the early church and learn what we can about it in order to apply its teachings and example to the life of our own church today. There is no question that when we look at the early church and then compare it to our own church today there is a vast difference. Some of the differences have nothing to do with human choices or abilities today, they are just circumstantial differences between that ancient culture and our modern times. But other differences have everything to do with the choices we make and the things we do today in church. For example, we learn from the Book of Acts that the early Christian church operated under a more informal rather than formal organizational structure. Yet today, most churches operate under more formal than informal organizations. That is a choice Christians make today – to operate more formally than informally — that could be changed, if there were a will to change. And there are many such choices that we make today that are different from the early Christian church. As we search for better ways of doing church and fulfilling the Lord’s mission to make disciples, we should then consider how the early church went about their church mission and then compare it with the way we are currently doing things, and then finally ask ourselves the question, “Where do we need to change our ways to follow the original pattern for church?” Now some patterns in the early church cannot be followed today simply because it is impossible. For example, in the first church found in Jerusalem, the early Christians met daily in the Temple courts, but today that is impossible. First, because there is no Temple today; it was destroyed in A.D. 70 by the Romans and never rebuilt. The only thing that remains is the Western or “Wailing Wall” where Jews today meet and pray; no Christians are even allowed in this remaining section. But second, even if the Jewish Temple were still standing, the vast majority of Christians wouldn’t have access to it simply because they would be nowhere near it geographically. So something that the early Christians did is impossible for Christians today to do; we cannot follow the pattern of the early church in this detail. And there are other such things found in the Book of Acts that are impossible for us to follow today, even if we wanted to follow them to the exact detail. So when we examine the Book of Acts for patterns of church to apply today we must sometimes be ready to look beyond the specific details and look rather for the spiritual principles behind the specific practices. In that way, we can apply the spiritual principles in whatever time or place. So with that in mind, let’s look at some more characteristics of the early church with an eye for applying anything we can today. Last week I covered three characteristics; let’s look at four more characteristics of first century Christianity.

First, they were participating in the Lord’s Supper together. Acts 2:46, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” In this verse we encounter the phrase “broke bread together.” Most commentators take it to mean the same as Communion or the Lord’s Supper, although some seem to think it simply means eating a meal together. The NLT translates it like the majority of translations, “They . . . met in homes for the Lord’s Supper.” This makes the most sense because if we take the phrase “they broke bread” to mean they ate a meal and not Communion specifically, then the verse seems to say the same thing twice, “They ate together and ate together.” That doesn’t make sense. So it probably refers to the early Christians sharing the Lord’s Supper together, which was done at the beginning of a regular meal, as the last half of the verse implies. They were re-enacting the famous Last Supper of the Lord Jesus with his disciples. Jesus had commanded his disciples to continue the practice by saying, “Do this in remembrance of me.” So the early Christians followed the command of Christ by participating in regular Communion. When we survey churches today we see that almost all churches indeed continue to practice regular Communion; this is not something that churches have failed to practice. There are many individual Christians who live lives of disobedience to Christ by neglecting regular participation in the Lord’s Supper, and of this they should confess their sin, repent of it, and reform their attitude and actions and begin observing it. But the vast majority of churches, large or small, usually regularly observe Communion. The problem today with the Lord’s Supper in many churches is that while it is done, it isn’t done with much meaning and inspiration. Or in other words, while the outward form of Communion still exists, it’s inner spiritual meaning is largely lost for most of the people participating. Why is this? Because the meaning of the Gospel is largely lost in today’s culture, even in many churches the meaning of the Gospel is lost – and the meaning of the Gospel is at the heart of the Lord’s Supper. Central to Communion is the Lord’s death on the cross for our sins, Christ’s blood shed and body broken for our salvation. Through Adam’s fall we inherit a sinful nature, through our own selfishness we sin for ourselves, and as a result we are separated from God. Left to ourselves we will perish and spend eternity under the judgment of God in hell, but through God’s mercy and grace we are offered forgiveness through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. By whole-hearted trust in Christ we can be saved from judgment and saved to eternal life. Our participation in regular Communion at church is our reminder of this salvation. That’s one of reason why regular church participation is essential, because this can’t happen through a television or radio ministry; only in a legitimate church. If you are ever tempted to quit church and live your Christian life alone, apart from church, ask yourself this question, “How can I participate in regular Communion if I leave? How can I follow the pattern of the early church if I isolate myself from other Christians? How can I obey the Lord’s command, ‘Do this in remembrance of me?’” That is why church is essential, not optional.

Second, they were participating in joyful fellowship. Acts 2:46, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” Last week I talked about how they would all meet in the Temple every day for large-group fellowship, but here we see that they also met together in homes for private or small group fellowship. If you remember last week I talked about how fellowship in the early church was for two purposes: one, to encourage the believers in obedience to Christ, and two, to discourage the believers from sin and disobedience. Now you might think that because one of these is positive but the other thing is negative, that fellowship might have been un-enjoyable because of the negative element, the discouraging of sin, the correcting for disobedience, the confronting and discipline of rebellion within the Body of Christ. But no, it wasn’t. It says that they met with glad and sincere hearts. I think of the situation of children in the home, and specifically of myself as a child in my home with my parents and sister growing up. The home I was raised in was similar to the early church environment in this respect: it contained both encouraging and discouraging aspects. When I was bad, when I had rebelled against the instructions of my parents, I got disciplined, even spanked on occasion. That was the discouragement, the discipline aspect of my early home life. But most of the time I experienced encouragement and positive reinforcement for being good, because most of the time I was probably pretty good. But there were times when I was bad and got disciplined. Those times discouraged me from being bad and motivated be to be good. My parents were not mean or cruel; they were just trying to raise me right so that when I grew up I turned out good. When me or my sister got disciplined or punished, it was because we had done something bad and deserved it. Well, it was the same with the early church. The regular atmosphere was one of joy and gladness but there were times also of sadness because of sin and disobedience, but those times did not make up the majority of time. It should be the same way today in churches. The default mode of church should be joy and gladness, punctuated with certain times of remorse and sadness because of disobedience and sin found within the church. The problem today is that most churches refuse to deal with sin because confronting someone or disciplining someone for sin is a negative and discouraging experience. Pastors fail in their duties as leaders by ignoring or refusing to deal with sin in the church community. But as we’ll see later in the Book of Acts in the situation with Ananias and Sapphira, the early church community confronted and dealt with sin honestly and directly, yet they still enjoyed glad fellowship, proving that it is possible to have an overall positive environment even in the midst of negative discipline. My own childhood experience proves this truth also. So don’t be discouraged when you or someone else in the church is confronted over a sinful attitude or action. It just part of a healthy church community. Be happy you are so loved.

Three, they were participating in attractive praise and worship of God. Acts 2:47, “Praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” What people? The people of Jerusalem, mostly Jews, but probably some Gentiles as well – whoever saw them praising and worshiping God. Now what was so attractive about these early Christian believers? Their praise and worship of God. Now you must understand traditional Judaism at that time. It was big on tradition and small on inspiration. It was large on duty and light on delight. The Jewish leaders, scribes, Pharisees, priests and other official Jewish teachers had basically turned the living faith of the Jews into a burden on the backs of the people. It was mostly all about keeping the law, not just the laws written in the Bible, but also the many hundred extra rules and regulations that were worked out from the written laws. A good Jew at the time was a good rule-keeper. A bad Jew was a bad rule-keeper. But along came Jesus and the Gospel and freed people from a duty-based life to a delight-based life. What the law couldn’t do in motivating people to live holy lives, the Holy Spirit could do by inspiring people to live righteously. Christians actually enjoyed glad obedience. Living a holy life became a labor of love. Christians worshiped because they were inspired to, not because they were obligated to do so by the law. In the midst of a duty-bound Jewish culture, Christians lived inspiration-based lives and that was very attractive to outsiders looking in at them. In the Temple, Jewish Christians worshipped lively and enthusiastically while their traditional Jewish counterparts went through the Jewish ritual of worship dutifully. The way the early Christians lived had a huge impact on the surrounding people; that’s how they could “enjoy the favor of all the people.” Now that doesn’t mean that literally “all” the Jews appreciated the Christians’ joyful life. We know that some didn’t, and even persecuted them, and even later killed Christians. But the average Jew must have admired and even envied Christians for their energetic and enthusiastic commitment to God through Jesus Christ. This makes us ask ourselves this question: is my life so radiating the love and life of Christ that I’m attracting the attention of non-Christians in a positive way? Do people find your personality attractive because of your joyful love of God? Are people impressed with your strong moral character and curious to know what’s your secret? Do you stand out in a good way among your neighbors? Even if people don’t agree with you, do they admire or even envy you a little because of your faith? If you are living the true Christian life they should be attracted to you, and if we are living together as a true church people should be attracted to our fellowship. Are they? We need to think about that question. If not, we might have to repent and get right with God.

Fourth, they were growing through genuine conversions to Christ. Acts 2:47, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Notice it says that the Lord added to their number. It doesn’t say that they added to their number through their own clever plans and procedures. Lots of churches today make it their number one goal to grow big through church growth means and methods, but that isn’t the same as what took place in the New Testament. Back then, it says that the Lord added to the church. That’s important. If the church is what it should be, God will add to it. If the church does what it should do, God will add to it. We shouldn’t make as our goal how many should join our church or how many should attend our church. We shouldn’t set goals and make plans to increase attendance to a certain set amount because according to the Bible that is a result of God working not man. We should aim at being and doing what the church is called to be and do and then trust God for the increase as he will, not as we will. There are many churches today that are increasing with phenomenal growth but lack any spiritual depth because the growth is based on some slick marketing or advertising plan. Pastors gather together with their leaders to put together sophisticated plans to grow a big church through every possible means, and in many cases, they are successful, but that isn’t what the Bible calls us to do. We are called to teach and preach the Gospel and God’s Word, in season and out. We are called to pray. We are called to witness to the Gospel, live holy lives, love one another, etc. and in the process of doing these priority things, God adds to the church the number of people he chooses. The Great Commission of Jesus Christ is, “Make disciples, baptize them, teach them to obey all that God commands,” Matthew 28. That’s our agenda, and as we carry out that agenda, God in his good time and in his good way will increase our numbers as he wills. We must trust God’s means as well as God’s end. So rather than ask ourselves how we can grow a big church, we should really ask ourselves how we can obey God in the context of the church. Are we preaching God’s Word properly? Are we praying properly? Are we experiencing the fellowship God is calling us to? Are we witnessing and ministering to others as we are commissioned to do? Are we loving others as we should? As we look to the early church and what they did, we should seek to follow in their footsteps and do the things they did. We should not attempt to bypass what they did in order to take some shortcut to get to the end result they obtained – fast growth. Rather we should focus on being the Christians and the church we should be, and do the things we should do, and then trust God to grow His church in his way.

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