We worship the God who is sovereign over all things. He has all power. In Him we find peace and rest. He gives life. Yet, churches in our day seem to lack the power and peace and rest and life that we find in Christ.
Imagine waking up on Sunday morning, getting dressed, and making your way to church in time for Sunday School. You arrive, stop by the welcome center to pick up a bulletin and greet the person who is standing there to greet those coming in. Then, you continue on to your Sunday School classroom. There, your Sunday School teacher or small group leader takes prayer requests, prays, and conducts a Bible lesson. After Sunday School, you make your trek to the auditorium where the main worship service will be conducted. You greet others again, take your seat, listen to some announcements, sing a few songs, and listen to the preacher. You go home and nothing is different. The church isn’t growing from week-to-week. You still have the same struggles that you’ve always had. You feel a little better and maybe got some practical advice you needed, but you haven’t really learned anything new about our Lord and you don’t really see how He is working in and through the church.
Why do most church experiences in our day seem so fruitless when we know that God has all power and is the one producing fruit in and through His people? Why are people in most local churches not being stimulated to love and good deeds?
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.
Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone had a need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude, praising God and having favor with all the people. And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.
Our commitment (v. 42)
Before we think about our commitment as the church, we need to think about the faith that we have and about the one to whom we are committed. In Acts 2, we see Christ, through the expository teaching of His own word, turning His people in Jerusalem to Himself. When the people of God turned to God, we see that new relationship bloom in the form of the local church. Everything that we read in this passage, then, is the response of the people of God to God’s amazing work of salvation in Christ alone. It cannot be misconstrued as some sort of works-based righteousness. These are not imperatives that we will read. The text before us is descriptive, not prescriptive. This simply means that The text is describing the response of the first local Christian church. The specifics will not necessarily be normative. God will, however, produce within His church the desire to pursue Him and to model His gospel for His glory. Thus, similar patterns will develop in a people who are rightly pursuing God in response to His amazing grace and mercy. For instance, we read that those people who made up the first local church met daily and broke bread as they met. Though we won’t necessarily meet daily, our desire will be to meet together often and to break bread when we meet. God bless the person who brought scones last week. You are truly doing the Lord’s work! So, God first draws His people into His grace, then there is this amazing response to God- we call that response worship. Here, we see that this worship encompasses every aspect of our lives- what we are dedicated to, how we practice religion, and what we do day-to-day.
Let’s look to this passage of Scripture together, starting with verse 42:
They were continually devoting themselves…
There are a couple translation difficulties in this passage, so I want to mention them briefly because if you are reading a different version than the one I am teaching from, then words may be different. In this case, the word “continually” may or may not be present as you read your text (depending on your translation). The Greek (that’s the autographical language) here indicates that this thing is a thing of perseverance, that the people would be continuing all the time in one place. προσκαρτερουντες is a compound form of the words προς and καρτερεω, which means “constant to one.” Since it is used in the past tense, some translators included the word continually to clarify that this was a continuing, constant devotion, not an affair with the church or merely an emotional religious experience. The thing referred to here is devotion, which is a word that is present in everyone’s copy of the text no matter the translation being used. The idea is that devotion was something that was always a part of the life of believers. They were continually devoted. They persevered in their devotion to the things that follow in verse 42 particularly.
In response to the grace of God, the people of God become continually devoted. What do we become devoted to? What does the Gospel of salvation by grace alone through faith alone draw us into that we might be stimulated to love and good deeds measured by Christ’s stature?
… to the apostles’ teaching…
As we read over Peter’s sermon in the previous part of chapter 2, we notice something very important. He taught the Scriptures, expositing them and applying the truth of the Old Testament text to His audience. The apostle’s teaching consisted of what we refer to as expository teaching or preaching. The grace of God in salvation produced within the people of God a burning hunger to hear the words of God as He has given them. When we come to Christ, there is this continuing devotion to the apostles’ teaching in this way. There is something we get from expository teaching, whether we are walking through a book of the Bible or spending time on a topic, that we do not get in our personal devotionals or in our personal prayer time. Those things are good and I will always encourage daily quiet times, but that is not particularly what we are devoted to. When we come together for the purpose of stimulating one another to love and good deeds, God’s word is exposed and it exposes us for our good.
… and to fellowship…
Since we covered this last week, we don’t need to spend much time explaining what this means. They did not merely get together and talk. In response to God’s grace and mercy, God’s people were continually devoted to meeting together in order to stimulate one another, in Christ, to love and good deeds. There wasn’t the sort of shallowness that accompanies so many “fellowships” in our day.
… to the breaking of bread…
When believers came together in response to Christ saving work, they would break bread. This means that they would eat together. Every meeting would include a meal. Amen! We get to model this today! The breaking of bread meant more than merely having a meal. It was followed by the partaking of the Lord’s Supper. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 says this:
“The cup of blessing that we give thanks for, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for all of us share that one bread.”
The Lord’s supper is an ordinance. In partaking of the Lord’s supper every time they met together, they shared in the blood and the body of Christ. This became a regular part of their worship expression because they wanted not to simply share with other people, they wanted to share in Christ as one body. So, the physical meal was an expression of community and fellowship among the body. It was followed by the Lord’s Supper, an expression of community and fellowship of the body with Jesus Christ, who shed His blood and broke His body to deliver His people from their sin and clothe them in His righteousness alone. With every meeting, the Gospel was proclaimed through this expression.
… and to prayer.
This is where we find the other translation difficulty in this passage. Some translations will read “to the prayers,” and some simply, “to prayer.” It almost seems like in one sense there were certain prayers that might be recited and in another that prayer is simply a general term to refer to talking with God. In the Greek, there is a definite article and the word for prayer is plural. It should, then, read, “to the prayers.” There is also a definite article for the word “fellowship,” and so the text should read, “to the fellowship.” The fellowship that the people of God are devoted to in response to His amazing grace is not just any fellowship or group and not just any organization that would refer to itself as a church. It is the fellowship of genuine believers in Christ. The prayers that the people of God are devoted to are not just casual conversation with God. They are specific, targeted prayers. They are in the likeness of the example prayer that Jesus prayed in Matthew 6. He taught us how to pray. Our prayers do not glorify us. Because we have received the grace and mercy of God unto salvation, we ask God to continue carrying out His plan in our lives. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done. Please, Lord, forgive us of our trespasses.”
In response to grace, these are the things that the people of God were continually devoted to and these things glorify God and work to stimulate the community of faith to love and good works in Christ. I wonder, are we devoted to such things or have we fallen short? If we have fallen short, the Gospel bids us come before the throne of grace, repent, and continue to receive mercy from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Let this mercy draw us to desire and be continually devoted to these things for God’s glory alone.
Our assembly (v. 43-47)
Considering these things, I think that much of the organized church has not only neglected its purpose, which we talked about last week but has also maintained a methodology that glorifies people rather than God. The good news for us is that God is sanctifying His people and changing them so that they live in His righteousness rather than their unrighteousness. We get to see God at work when we change in response to His mercy, not according to the way we think things should be. We are learning more and more to deny self, to decrease as Christ increases.
Then fear came over everyone, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles.
In this sense, fear does refer to a sense of awe. There are many times in the text of Scripture that fear is synonymous with terrified or scared. In this case, both context and the Greek indicate an awe-inspiring wonder that overcame those in the local church during the church meetings. This is where the truth of the Gospel meets human religious experience. We often try and ignore our religious experience in favor of receiving truth or, worse, try to invent some sort of human-centered religious experience. Here, we learn that when we are devoted to the things of God, there is an awe that overcomes us. It isn’t adrenaline. It isn’t hype. It isn’t a warm feeling. Genuine religious experience yields an awestruck wonder for the God of the universe. When we go out to eat as a family, my son’s favorite thing on the table is a straw. He will take that straw and offer it me. I place the straw in my mouth and blow air through it that softly brushes his face. When I do this, his eyes get wide and he smiles with that wide open mouth kind of smile and kicks his legs. There is sheer joy and awe-inspiring wonder with each new thing that I get to show him. The same is true when God shows us something that is new for us. There is an unhealthy type of human-centered religious experience, but this awestruck wonder for who God is and what He does and the world that He creates is healthy and good.
Wonders and signs were also being performed through the apostles. There is much debate over the current use of signs and wonders. It will suffice, here, to state that God can do whatever He wants in and through His people. Remember that the specifics in this text are descriptive, not prescriptive. The point is that these signs were done through the apostles, not by some weird power that they had. So, the things that we do in the context of our gathering, should be understood as God’s work through His people- not a work of our own. Everything we do is a response to the amazing saving grace of our Lord.
Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as anyone might have need.
Remember, this is descriptive, not prescriptive. We don’t have to go sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor through the church. That expression isn’t as feasible in our economic environment as it might have been for first-century Jews living in territory occupied by Rome. We do find this Godly principle: We give generously because God has given generously to us. This is an act of praise in response to God’s grace. He has given us so much in the things that He has given us to steward. It all really belongs to Him anyway. That’s not all. He gave us everything in salvation. So, as we bring our financial offerings before our God in the context of the gathering, we declare again the Gospel and our praise to God for His generosity.
We miss the mark when we say that we give an offering merely to support the ministries of the church or so we can keep the doors open and the heat on. We give generously because God has given generously to us. The local church has a responsibility to steward the generosity of its members to the glory of God, not self.
Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple complex, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with a joyful and humble attitude…
These early believers would come together daily, and they would visit one another’s homes to eat together. Since this is descriptive, not prescriptive, it speaks to our desire to be with one another as a result of God’s grace in our own lives. We are a family. That truth gives us joy as we come together. It drives humility or sincerity of heart within us as we live alongside one another. There is no room for pride when we serve one another as a true family. There is no room for self-aggrandizement or for seeking to advance selfishly.
In response to God’s amazing grace, there was praise. Believers would come together, being devoted to solid biblical teaching, experiencing awestruck wonder at the God of the universe, then, seeing the glory of God, would praise Him for who He was and what He did in their midst. This means that there is a necessary place for expressions of praise- whether that is through music or some other medium. There is a right way to approach praise- always in response to God’s revelation of Himself in His word. We will often hear that music is meant to prepare our hearts for the sermon. Biblically, the word of God is what draws us into genuine praise of the Father. We are unable to prepare to hear from God- that’s works based righteousness. It is God who prepares our hearts to abide in His righteousness for His glory. So, we respond to the word with song.
…and having favor with all the people.
They also had favor with all people. This does not mean that everyone liked them. Two chapters from this one, Peter and John get arrested. Four chapters from this one and we read about the stoning of Stephen and the rise of Saul’s persecution, which forces the Christians to leave Jerusalem. So, what does it mean that the people of the church have favor with all people?
It simply means that we act with favor toward all people, even if they do not favor us. In doing this, we model the very grace of God by which we were saved. While we were enemies, God reconciled us to Himself. So, we proclaim this message. Even though we are despised by people, we have favor with all people. As far as it depends on us, we live at peace with everyone.
And every day the Lord added to them those who were being saved.
God’s power in and through His people
Our devotion, in response to the saving grace and mercy of God, then draws us to have certain components in the gathering- Biblical preaching and teaching, praise that expresses our awe-filled wonder in response to God’s grace, the presenting of our tithes and offerings as an expression of the Gospel and as an expression of praise, the breaking of bread with the Lord’s Supper, and prayer. We order these things in a way that communicates the Gospel and glorifies God (that’s called a liturgy or order of service).
Around the year 112 A.D, a Roman governor by the name of Pliny the Younger wrote a letter to Trajan asking for advice on how to deal with the growing number of Christians in his province (located in modern-day Turkey). I want you to see what this early church looked like and feel the power of its presence because of Christ. Pliny was not a Christian and had no reason to lie about his difficulties with the Christian people. In torchering some Christians, they told him about their worship meetings and Pliny described them in turn to Emporer Trajan. Close your eyes, unless you are reading this of course, and imagine the atmosphere of the early church:
“… they had met regularly before dawn on a fixed day to chant verses alternately amongst themselves in honour of Christ as if to a god, and also to bind themselves by oath, not for any criminal purpose, but to abstain from theft, robbery, and adultery, to commit no breach of trust and not to deny a deposit when called upon to restore it. After this ceremony it had ben their custom to disperse and reassemble later to take food of an ordinary, harmless kind; but they had in fact given up this practice since my edict, issued on your instructions, which banned all political societies. This made me decide it was all the more necessary to extract the truth by torture from two slave-women, whom they call deaconesses. I found nothing but a degenerate sort of cult carried to extravagant lengths.”
In this letter, the younger Pliny would go on to explain that Christians were becoming so numerous that his courts were overrun. People were coming to Christ in towns and villages and in rural districts. Pliny even referred to Christianity as an infection.
There is a forgotten power regarding the local church. In the case of the Apostles and of the Christians in the younger Pliny’s province, there was nothing that we would consider to be attractive. We expend much energy trying to make our worship services more attractive in any number of ways, thinking that somehow it is up to us and our skills to build the church.
In our day, we have every desirable thing. We have comfort. Our faith is legal. We have good music. We have charismatic leaders who write books and make cool videos. We have buildings and schools. We have great and expensive outreach events. Our suffering is little for the Gospel. Still, whatever we have been doing has not been working to accomplish the things of God (which applies to more than mere church attendance).
The reason we don’t experience the power of God in the local church is because we try to operate the local church by our own power. We are not powerful or even sufficient to accomplish the things of God. If we want to experience God’s power in and through the local church, we have to stop trying to get people to merely come to church. We are not the saviors of God’s church, God is the savior of humanity and is building His church for His glory.
Why does the church seem to be mediocre in our day? It is because, in large part, people who profess to be Christians don’t really hunger for the things of God. They hunger for much, much less. When we hunger for the things of God, the way we do church is different. The fruit produced is different.