Four things about the church that should never change
Acts 2: 42 - 47
In the New Testament, church means "people," not "buildings." The church lies at the very heart of God's eternal purpose. God's purpose is not merely to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness. God's purpose is to build a church, to build a redeemed people for his own glory. We're concerned about the renewal of the church, and we're concerned about the vision of what the church is intended to be. So I want to ask this question this morning: What are the chief distinguishing marks of the church? It would be interesting, if we had time, to sit down alongside one another and answer that question. What are the chief distinguishing marks of the Christian community?
One of the best ways to answer the question is to take a fresh look at the first Christian community as it came into being in Jerusalem on and after the day of Pentecost. As we do that this morning it's important to be realistic. There is a tendency to idealise or romanticise the early church, to look back through tinted glasses, to speak of it with bated breath as if it had no blemishes. Then we miss the heresies, the hypocrisies, the rivalries and the immoralities that troubled the early church, just as they trouble the church today. Nevertheless, one thing is certain: the early church was radically moved and renewed by the Holy Spirit.
So let me rephrase my question. What does a Spirit-filled church look like? What evidence did that 1st century church give of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit? If we can answer that question we're well on the way to asking what the marks of a renewed church should be today. - "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching, and the fellowship, and the breaking of the bread, and the prayers" and so on.
1. A Learning Church
The first mark that Luke gives us of that early renewed and Spirit-filled church is that it was a learning church. It was a studying church. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. That's exceedingly significant. One might say that the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem that day. Jesus had appointed the apostles as the teachers in the school, and there were no fewer than 3000 pupils in grade 1. It was a remarkable situation. These Spirit-filled converts were not enjoying some mystical experience which led them to neglect their intellect or to despise theology or to stop thinking. On the contrary, they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. Moreover they didn't imagine that the Holy Spirit was the only teacher they needed and could dispense with human teachers. Not at all. They sat at the apostles' feet. They acknowledged that Jesus had appointed the apostles as the teachers of the church, and they submitted to their authority, authenticated to them by miracles.
What is the application of this to us today? How is it possible for us to devote ourselves to the apostles' teaching and to submit to their authority? There are no real apostles today. There may be apostolic ministries. There are bishops and church leaders and church planters and pioneer missionaries, and you could say that they're engaged in apostolic ministries.
So how can we submit to the apostles' authority? Well, we submit to the authority of the apostles as their teaching comes to us in the pages of the New Testament. When the church settled on the New Testament canon about the middle of the 3rd century, the test was apostolic authority. Was each book written by an apostle? But Mark wasn't an apostle. Luke wasn't an apostle. These books come from the circle of the apostle. They contain the teaching of the apostles. So the teaching of the apostles has come to us in its definitive form in the pages of the New Testament.
So the first mark of a Spirit-filled church is that it's a studying church, an apostolic church, a church that takes seriously the authority of the New Testament and seeks to submit to it today. Its pastors will expound the Bible from the pulpit. Its parents will teach their children out of the Scriptures. Its members will read and reflect upon the Scriptures every day in order to grow into maturity in Christ. The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.
2. A Caring Church
A renewed church is a caring church, a loving church, a supportive church. Its members love and care for one another. If the first mark of a renewed church is study, the second is fellowship. "They devoted themselves to … the fellowship." Koinonia bears witness to what we have in common and what we share as Christian men and women and young people. It bears witness to 2 complementary truths -
A. Koinonia expresses what we share in together - what we have received together, what we participate in together. That is the grace of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So the apostle John, at the beginning of his first letter, says, "Our fellowship [koinonia] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ." The apostle Paul adds the phrase "the fellowship of the Spirit." So authentic fellowship is our common participation in the grace and the mercy of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We come from different nations, denominations and cultures, but we are unified by our sharing in the grace of God.
B. Koinonia expresses what we share outward together - not only what we receive together, but what we give together. Koinonia is the word that Paul uses of the collection that he was organizing from the Greek churches for the benefit of the poverty-stricken churches in Judea. Koinonikos, the adjective, means "generous." So it is on this that Luke lays his emphasis in our text – v. 44.
That's a very disturbing verse. It's the kind of verse we jump over rather quickly in our hurry to get to the next verse, avoiding its challenge. But we need to look at it together. What does it mean? Does it mean that every Spirit-filled believer will follow their example literally? Does it mean that we should all sell everything we own and give the proceeds to the poor? Some Christians throughout church history have believed so, and some have done so. The rich young ruler was called by Jesus to do that: "Go. Sell all your possessions. Give to the poor. Come and follow me." Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages followed this call, as did Mother Teresa and her sisters of charity. Some are called to total voluntary poverty. This is meant to bear witness to the rest of us, as Jesus put it, "that a human life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions." There are more important things in life than what we own.
Not everybody in Jerusalem sold and gave away everything. v.46 - they met in one another's homes. But I thought they'd all sold their homes and their furniture and their possessions! Apparently not. The giving and selling were voluntary—as it should be today. I hear sighs of relief in the church. You were afraid I was going to tell you to go and sell everything. No, that's not the calling of every Christian. Nevertheless, we should not avoid the challenge of these verses. Those early Christians loved one another—hardly surprising, since the fruit of the Spirit is love. They cared for their poor sisters and brothers who were less fortunate than themselves. They shared their goods. They shared their homes.
That principle of voluntary and generous sharing with one another is permanent and universal. I believe the church was the first community in which poverty was actually abolished. The number of people who are destitute in the world today, who lack the necessities for survival, is about 100 million. The average number of people who die from starvation every day is 10000. How can we live with these statistics? Surely the Holy Spirit gives his people a tender social conscience. Surely those of us who live in affluent circumstances, as you and I do, must simplify our economic lifestyle. Not because we think that it will solve the macroeconomic problems of the world, but as a solidarity with the poor and because the New Testament calls us to simplicity, contentment and generosity.
We mustn't make rules and regulations for one another about simplicity and generosity. We mustn't lay down where we should set our economic lifestyle. But we are called to simplify in order to be more generous in our care for poorer people and in our giving to Christian causes. That is all of our calling, because our God is a generous God. Grace is another word for generosity. If our God is a generous God we must be generous, too. We would like to see more generosity, more simplicity and more contentment in the Christian community. It would be a great witness to the rest of the world.
3. A Worshiping Church
A renewed church worships together. v. 42: "They devoted themselves to the breaking of the bread and the prayers." The breaking of the bread is evidently the Lord's Supper with a fellowship meal thrown in as well. "The prayers" means prayer meetings and services. Both phrases refer to Christian worship. What impresses me about the worship of the early church is its balance in 2 respects.
A. Formal and informal - it took place in the temple and in their homes. They continued to attend the prayer services of the temple. I'm sure they wanted to reform them according to the gospel. I'm convinced they didn't continue in the sacrifices of the temple, because they knew they'd been fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ. But they did continue in the prayer services of the temple. They supplemented the services in the temple with their own simple, informal, unstructured, spontaneous meetings at home.
B. Joyful and reverent - at the same time. There's no doubt of their joy. End of v. 46 uses a word that means exaltation, an exalted form of joy. God sent his Son into the world. He'd sent his Spirit into their hearts. How could they not be joyful over the mighty acts of God in Christ and by the Spirit? The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace. Where the Holy Spirit is, joy should be, too. Christianity is a joyful religion, and we need to have a note of joy in our worship.
But it also should be reverent. v. 43 - fear—awe and wonder—came upon everyone. In some church circles there seems to be little sense of the greatness and the glory and the majesty of Almighty God, before whom we should bow down in that combination of awe and wonder and humility which we call worship. We must worship in joy and reverence together, not one without the other.
4. An Evangelizing Church
A renewed church is an evangelizing church. So far we've covered the domestic life of the congregation: study, worship and fellowship. If that's all a church possesses, it's like an ingrown toenail. What about the world outside? Are we not concerned about the pain and grief and its lostness and its loneliness? Are Christians so absorbed with themselves that they have no mission to the outside world? Of course not. The church's mission isn't addressed until we come to v. 47 - "The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved." There are 3 very important lessons about evangelism we can learn here.
A. The Lord Jesus did it Himself - "The Lord added to their number." He did it through the preaching of the apostles and through the witness of the ordinary members and through their common life of love, but he did it. And only he can. He delegates to pastors the responsibility of adding people to the visible church by baptism. But only one Person can add people to the invisible church: the head of the church, Jesus Christ. Through the Holy Spirit, he can give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, life to the spiritually dead, adding them to his church. I wish we could humbly put our trust and confidence for evangelistic success in him and not in ourselves.
B. He did 2 things together - "He added to their number those who were being saved." He didn't save them without adding them to the church, and he didn't add them to the church without saving them. He did the two together, because salvation and church membership always belong together.
C. He did it every day - I wish we could get back to that expectation. Evangelism is continuous outreach into the community seeking to bring people into Christ and his community. Expect converts. Expect growth.
These 4 marks of a renewed church all concern our relationships. What should we be looking for in our church. We are looking for a biblical preaching ministry that relates the Word of God to the modern world. We are looking for a loving, supportive, caring fellowship. We are looking for worship with the living God, where the people bow down before him. We are looking for compassionate outreach into the community. May God enable our church to come much closer to this beautiful biblical ideal.
We don't need to wait for the Holy Spirit to come. The Holy Spirit did come on the day of Pentecost, and he's never left the church. Pentecost was one of those unique events, the final event in the saving career of Jesus. He was born once, died once, rose once, ascended once and sent the Holy Spirit once. Our responsibility is to seek the power, the direction and the fullness of the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit is given his rightful place of freedom in the Christian community, then our churches will show these clear marks - biblical faith, loving fellowship, living worship, ongoing evangelism. God, make our church like that.
“Lord Jesus Christ, head of the church, we bow down in humility before you. We thank you that it is your loving purpose to build a church, a people. We thank you that you've given us the great privilege of being members of it. We thank you that it's a worldwide, multicultural, multiracial, multinational community. We thank you that one day we shall stand before the throne of God in heaven, a great company that nobody can number from every nation, people, tribe, and language, and will worship you throughout eternity. Meanwhile, we pray for our church on earth. Bless our study. Bless our fellowship. Bless our worship. Bless our evangelism. We humbly pray not only for the good of the church and the world, but for the glory of your great and worthy name. Amen.”