Acts 2: 42-47 and Acts 3: 34-37
On our kitchen wall there’s an old sign from my Granddad's store--“Fleming’s Grocery”. Underneath are pictures of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. Sometimes I look at those pictures and see my features and those of my children staring back at me. Those snapshots remind me of where we came from. Knowing the past helps us cope with the present.
The book of Acts contains similar reminders of where the church came from. It gives us pictures of church life from the the first generation of Christians. If we want to know what Jesus intended the church to be like, then we can read its early chapters and get a good idea.
Today we have many models of church life. The megachurches present a corporate model. Their pastors are like company presidents who never meet the ordinary people in the seats. Mini-churches our house churches have small group models, where people sit in living rooms discussing the Bible. In these groups, everyone looks the same and thinks the same. Then there are the old-fashioned neighborhood churches where people go there to make to make friends and connections.
They often resemble civic clubs or retirement villages. There’s the “activist” model, which sees the church as an instrument for world change, not inner growth. They can be evangelistic or focused on social change. Then there’s “school” model, where the church is a place to learn about God, but not living God’s Word.
Most churches are a mixture of these models. But if we stand them next to these snapshots of the church in Acts, they don’t resemble it much. The church in Acts isn’t like any of these modern churches.
What are the characteristics of the church, according to the Bible? Let’s look at two of these snapshots and find out.
The first was taken just after Pentecost in Act 2: 42-47. Pentecost was the “big bang” of the church--a moment of wild creation when the Holy Spirit came down. Three thousand were converted in a single day. Then, things settled down and looked like this:
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
I want you to notice three characteristics from this early church in this picture.
I. They wanted to learn as much as they could about Jesus. They did this by listening to the apostles. They wanted firsthand information about Jesus.
Does the church today want to know Jesus? Not much. “Knowing Jesus” and “getting saved” are not the same thing. Getting saved is finding assurance of eternal life, but knowing Jesus goes on for a lifetime. These people weren’t satisfied with a minimal knowledge of Jesus--they wanted details. They were all passionately interested in looking, acting, thinking and behaving like Jesus.
2. They wanted to be together. Luke says they devoted themselves to “the breaking of bread” This may refer to the Lord’s Supper, or it may mean they liked to eat together. Either way, it signifies a physical sharing. They looked for ways to share lives in community.
They were passionate about prayer. What do you pray about? It doesn’t matter. Prayer is spending time with God. It doesn’t have to be about anything.
Not only were they passionate about God—God was equally passionate about them! Here is how we know this.
“Awe came upon every soul” They lived together in a continual sense of “Oh, wow!”
“Many wonders and signs were being done.” Miracles were happening in the shadow of the Spirit. People were saved, healed, and delivered of evil spirits, not just a once in a while occurrence, but continually through God’s miraculous power. These were not the biggest miracles, though. That came afterwards.
“All who believed were together and had all things in common.” Which is greater—to heal a leper or to heal a whole community of material anxiety so they willingly give up all they own without complaint or regret? When we love somebody, we aren’t thinking about our property. When we are obsessed with protecting our wealth, we have not sufficiently learned to trust.
“The Lord added to their number day by day.” Flowing from all of this is growth. It was a natural outgrowth of what God did. They had no strategy for evangelism, but to be filled with the Spirit.
Jesus told us to be fishers of men, but we aren’t catching any. Maybe that’s because we are using old, stale bait. We show the world an insincere love that quits when it gets too hard, shallow spirituality that doesn’t change our lives, a superficial acquaintance to God which doesn’t include His personal presence, and an artificial grace that declares God’s love, but only if we straighten up. Then we wonder why people aren’t biting!
The first church was alive with the Spirit, so people were drawn to it. People who hungered for a God encounter were drawn into the fellowship of believers.
Our second snapshot of the early church is in Acts 4: 32-34, following the arrest of the apostles. When they returned from questioning by the authorities, it was to a church like this:
“The full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all.34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”
1. The church had one heart and soul. They had been knitted into one body. It took time to grow together, but when it happened, they were truly a family. The love that began at Pentecost had not diminished, but had matured into unity.
Unity is the chief visible sign of the presence of the Spirit in a church—not miracles, finances, emotion, or growth, but oneness. They grew and gave because they were of one heart. Love for God and each other held them together, not the leadership or a mission.
2. Jesus was the head. The apostles are not called leaders in the church. They were teachers of Christ. It is surprising how unimportant leadership is in the New Testament. Though there are two or three passages that describe how leaders are supposed to act, the actual words leader or leadership are rare in the Church. Christ is the leader, we are just servants.
Most church divisions center around who gets to be the leader of the church. Catholics split from the Orthodox over which bishop was the most important. Protestants split from the Catholics over the leadership of Rome. The earliest denominations took their names from who governed them. Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Episcopalians are all names meaning who was their leaders. The early church had just one leader---Jesus Christ. Jesus was not their dead leader. He is alive, through the teachings of the Apostles and the living presence of the Spirit. When the church submitted to the leadership of the Spirit, they summited to Christ, the church submits to Christ. Instead of trusting God, we are always trying to lay down strategies for the future. Strategic thinking is reserved for the leader and our leader is Jesus.
3. They treated each other with grace. Our church leaders love to talk about the “doctrines of grace.” Grace is not a doctrine, it is unconditional acceptance and love. We preach grace as a quality God has, but we don’t have. We know Christ died for our sins, so whoever believes in Him can have eternal life. But if we get offended by someone we hold it against them forever.
Grace isn’t something we believe, it’s something we do. If we hold ourselves aloof from others or do not forgive those who have offended us, then we don’t know grace. If you know what Grace is, but don’t have it, it will do you no more good than knowing that smoking, drinking, or overeating are bad for you, even when you are still doing it. You must put grace to work in your life to have it do you any good. Doctrinal knowledge cannot do you any good if you don’t have a personal relationship with God.
So, what do we learn from these two snapshots about what made the early church great? Four things
1. They stayed connected to Jesus. Nothing interfered with their worship time in church. We must put prayer to God and worship of God in a class by itself.
2. They stayed connected to each other. There was no agenda other than love. Never should business come in the way of grace. We can’t just fellowship with the back of people’s heads. Every member should be involved with at least a few other members in small groups, where they can love and support each other. It is my goal to see no member forgotten.
3. Jesus was the real leader. God, though the Holy Spirit, leads the church. He is the strategic thinker for the church in every sense of the word. It’s our job to follow Him.
4. God responded with Spiritual blessings. They didn’t work as hard as we do today, for one simple reason. God was working with and through them. It wasn’t theoretical, but real.
When we look at these pictures of the early church, do we see our own image? Or do we see how far we have strayed from our models? God help us to get back to their submission and dependence on the Holy Spirit, to seek His help and support in all we do.