Where is the Church in the Book of Acts?

Title: Where is the Church in the Book of Acts?

[Audio http://ab86qw.bay.livefilestore.com/y1pf59iO-YHyiJxIpxxJgqhB0pevjGhQkDoXDdt61dLK6UAAzEu2q-LlLTZU-0IZ6TRhi1yN_JORh7PE6m7aQ3zAZmf0DnhLhe-/5-22-08whereisthechurchinacts.mp3%5D

Text: Acts 2:41, 47

Time: June 15th, 2008

Last week I made the point that supernatural miracles were conspicuous in the early Christian church but rather inconspicuous in today’s church. Then I gave reasons for this difference, mostly because of a lack of faith on the part of Christians within the church today, but also because God sends certain special times of miracles and withholds them at other times. Nevertheless, we could see more miracles today if we were more seriously committed to God and God’s will in our lives, families, churches and communities. Now this morning I’d like to make another observation about the early church in comparison to today’s modern church that is just as stunning – most of what we know of church today isn’t even mentioned in the Book of Acts, or in the New Testament, or even in the whole Bible including the Old Testament. Think about that. In reading the pages of the Book of Acts we just might ask the question: where’s the church? Where is what we know as church? Where is what we call church today? For example, where are church buildings in the Book of Acts? There are none. There is the Jewish Temple, but that’s a site for Jewish worship that Christians used, but in no way was it a Christian “church building” like we know today. There were also Jewish synagogues, but again, even though Christians attended these meeting-places sometimes, later, nearly all Christians were eventually prohibited from entering these gathering-places. So in no way can these be called Christian churches. Christians mostly met in private homes. Take some more examples: where is church music, hymns, piano, organ, or instrumental bands and chorus praise songs? None. What about Sunday school for kids, nursery, youth group, etc? None. What about a particular order of service, the church bulletin (you know, the paper that the usher hands you upon entering the typical church), the liturgy, any kind of fixed church programmed meeting? Nothing mentioned about that in the Book of Acts. What about candles, crosses, stained glass windows, pews, the pulpit, etc? No mention of these things in the Bible. What of dressing up in fancy and formal clothing, the wearing of hats, wearing one’s Sunday best? Sorry, nothing to say about these things. What about choirs, robes, soloists, special music, anthems, hymn books and Bibles in the pews? Nope, none of these. What about ushers and passing the offering plates, announcements, and responsive readings? Nothing. How about the whole idea of denominations (like Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Assemblies of God, etc.) and para-church organizations (like Focus on the Faith, the Gideons, Salvation Army, etc.)? Once again, the Bible doesn’t mention any of these things. So we see already that church in the first century, the original church of the Apostles, was greatly different than the churches we see today in our day. What does this mean? Is it good, bad, or just different? Acts 2:41, 47 says, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. . . . And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Why is the church today so different from the early, original church? What should be done about this difference today? Should we change everything we are doing, or some things, or nothing in response? Let me give a few points regarding this.

First, the early church did the essential things. Acts 2:41, “Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Notice it says these new converts were “added to their number.” Whose number? The already existing Christians, that is, the Apostles and the other one hundred twenty Christians of the Upper Room assembly. There may have been other Christians also, although they aren’t mentioned specifically. But the new converts on the day of Pentecost were “added” to the small Christian community. But what was it they were joining? It certainly wasn’t anything like what we know of today when a person joins a church. There was no “church building,” large structures like we see today here in Jamestown on practically every downtown city block. Rather, they joined a network of believers, a family of believers – to put it in more personal terms. We see immediately they begin to learn the Word of God and prayer. God’s Word and prayer were really important in the early church among Christians. They worshiped together and fellowshipped with other Christians. They ate together and shared the Lord’s Super with fellow believers. They were baptized and continued in discipleship training. They were accountable to one another for believing and behaving according to God’s will, and if they sinned, they were called to confess and repent. If they didn’t, they were disciplined. They were filled with the Spirit and exercised their spiritual gifts in ministry both public and private. They experienced the reality of God’s presence by the Spirit. They witnessed the Gospel to others and spread the faith. They gave generously of their goods and money. They learned to follow godly leaders and even to become leaders if that was their calling. They joined in decision-making when the whole church met together for business. And finally, they experienced persecution first-hand, suffering, controversy, struggles, hardships, sometimes arrest, even sometimes death. All of this and more, was what the early church was made up of. Now as we can see, the typical early church experience is miles away from anything we are accustomed to today. But these early Christians represent the essence of Christianity. They didn’t have all the things we have today, but they had the essential things, the really important things, the things that really matter in the Christian faith. I remember hearing of a church member who was talking to his pastor and boasted about the state of the modern church by saying, “Pastor, in Acts, there’s the story of the crippled man calling out to Peter on the Temple steps, begging for money. Peter had to answer him that silver and gold had he none. Yet pastor today, our churches have money and property. Doesn’t that demonstrate that the church today is superior to the early church?’ To which the pastor replied, ‘Yes, but on the other hand, neither can we say today, “What I have I give you, in the name of Jesus walk!”’ That pretty much sums up the situation. The early church had more of what really counts of Christianity; today, we have less of what really counts, and more of what doesn’t really matter.

Second, today’s church often loses itself in non-essential things. Acts 2: 47, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Today, when a person joins a typical church he or she is inundated with learning “churchianity,” that is, all things and everything modern Christianity is all about — and what a complicated and complex thing it all is. It’s been 2000 years since the beginning of the Christian church. Two thousand years of a mix of essential and non-essential Christianity passed along generation after generation to the present day. Today, we consider all of it Christianity – even all of the historical and cultural baggage. I like to think of the difference between a young married couple moving into their first home and an older senior citizen couple after children, after careers, and a house full of memories of 50 years of living. Sort of like “Grandma’s attic.” Have you ever visited an attic full of antiques? Our family used to live with my grandparents for a while and they had a huge attic filled with old things that were interesting but took up a lot of space. These things were all important at one time to someone, and maybe once again they might prove useful to someone else, but I couldn’t think of any good reasons to use them. Well, that’s often the way a 2000 year-old Christianity operates sometimes. There are traditions that have made their way into the church that really take over the essence or essential parts of the real spiritual faith. The early church had very little excess baggage because it was brand new; what it had was the basic, spiritual essentials. Very little clutter. But today, a big problem we must battle with is clutter in the church. Just like in those old homes, especially Grandma’s attic, there is a lot of antiques and clutter. The sad thing is that a lot of times in church today this excess baggage begins to take on a life of its own and becomes the main thing instead of a side thing, and the real priority important things like prayer, God’s Word, evangelism, spiritual disciplines, etc. become secondary. Instead of simple, heart-felt worship, today we may have a huge music program that takes over on Sunday morning and practically drowns out pure worship of God. It becomes all about the music, not about the worship of God. Or maybe a church today is obsessed with growing big in attendance, but neglects growing spiritual followers of Jesus. The result is a huge crowd on Sunday morning, but very few serious disciples of Christ. That’s an example of confusing secondary things with primary things. Some church traditions have such a firm and fixed order of service at Sunday meetings that it’s impossible for the Holy Spirit to move freely in a spontaneous way. The early church was simple enough to leave room for God to move in its midst; we, on the other hand today, often quench the Spirit by over-planning our church gatherings by following the traditional order of service so rigidly. These are just a few examples.

Third, sometimes we need to prune the church today in order for it to spiritually grow. Acts 2:41, 47, ” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. . . . And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The new converts to the early church were taught a simple and lean Christian faith, not a complex faith that carries a lot of excess baggage, like we carry today. That really makes it hard for people today to convert to Christianity and join a local church. They are not just taught the simple biblical faith but also they are taught all the traditions and accumulations of 2000 years of Christian church history. What we need to do today is periodically prune the Vineyard of the Lord, or in other words, we need to do “housecleaning” in the church and determine what is and what is not essential, and throw out or set aside what isn’t important and bring to the forefront what is truly important. On the side of my house here in Jamestown I have three rose bushes that come out every summer. The problem is that I usually don’t give them much attention and they grow out of control. They get really big and accumulate a lot of branches and leaves, but in doing so, the actual beautiful roses don’t grow very well. The problem is that because I don’t trim them enough, the life-giving energy of the vine is being sapped by all the excess vegetation on the bush. What I need to do is trim off the excess branches and give the budding roses a chance to receive the nutrients and grow big and beautiful. Well, apply that to the church today. Most churches are involved in far too many things and not the right kind of things. This all saps the Spirit’s energy in the church and robs the essential things from happening right. There’s far too much clutter in most churches today. I’m not talking about furniture, I’m talking about non-essential activities. For example, in most churches, the church building takes up a lot of resources and time and energy of the leaders. But a dedicated church building isn’t even an essential thing – the early church met in homes or wherever else they could find to meet, without even having dedicated buildings for church. They didn’t lack anything essential in that situation. But today, we’ve got our buildings, but the Body of Christ, the spiritual temple, is weak and sickly. We have our priorities mixed up. That’s why we need to do church pruning or house cleaning within the church from time to time, and ask ourselves just what is essential and what isn’t essential. Then, we must decide to make the main thing the main thing, and keep the secondary things secondary; no easy task. But if there is anything the early church can teach us from the Book of Acts, it’s to keep the main things the main things. If we are doing lots of things not mentioned in the Book of Acts, we’ve got to question our activities. Only the things specifically mentioned in the New Testament are essential; everything else is secondary, maybe even optional.

What about your Christian life? Is what you are doing essential or non-essential? Are you doing the essential things outlined in the Book of Acts? Are you praying on a regular basis like they did? Do you even know how to pray? Are you devoting yourself to learning the Apostle’s doctrine – that is, for us, God’s Word the Bible? Are you really devoted to it? The early church was, it was essential for them. Are you serious about discipleship, that is, following after all that Jesus and the whole Bible teaches us to believe and behave? These are essential things. Or are you caught up in the non-essential secondary things connected with the church? If your favorite part of church is the picnic dinners, then you are majoring on the minors, you are making a non-essential thing, essential. You need to get your priorities right. Just like the church needs to do “spring cleaning” every year, so too do individual Christians need to examine their own lives and do “spring cleaning” in their souls. We need to throw out all sin – that’s for sure, that’s obvious. But we also need to bring back the good things that we’ve buried under lots of spiritual clutter. We need to bring back the priority things, like getting a clear understanding of the gospel. It’s easy to forget the basic parts of the gospel. How we all find ourselves as sinners in rebellion against a holy God. How left to ourselves we will face judgment and the condemnation of eternal damnation. How Jesus came to earth to die on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins in order to free us from sin, judgment and hell. How through turning away from our sins and turning to Christ in humble faith we can be saved. That’s the simple gospel. Next, we need to grasp again the basic spiritual disciplines of following Jesus with our lives today. How we need to learn to follow Jesus with prayer and Bible study. How we need to learn to confess and repent of sin when we fail, and recommit our lives again to God and God’s will. How we need to be held accountable by others in a local church, and receive correction when we are wrong, and encouragement when we are right. These and other essentials should never be covered over by non-essentials. I think the early church can teach us much by teaching and example in holding to the priority things. If you look at church history over the last 2000 years you’ll find a story of the church losing it’s priorities and then finding them again and then losing them and then finding them – and so on, and so on. That’s what the Reformation was all about – the church finding its essence again after many years of drifting in non-essentials. But the Reformation isn’t over, it’s ongoing. It needs to take place whenever we’ve lost our way as a church. The early church can help us find our way back home.

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