Elon, North Carolina
Last week we looked at three reasons Pentecost was important. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit indwelled believers for the first time, baptized believers into the body of Christ, and filled believers with spiritual power. Peter preaches the first Christian sermon and at the end of the chapter we have the first church. What I want to do today is to pick up right where I left off last week. What did the first church look like?
Luke gives us a picture of the first church on planet earth. It was located in Israel. Luke gives us only a snapshot, a summary. His description is not exhaustive but these five verses show us what the first church looked like. Many people say that they want to go to an Acts 2. This is what an Acts 2 church looked like. This section may revolutionize some of the views that we have about church.
I want to look at some marks of a healthy church from Acts 2. Some churches are healthy, vibrant and growing. The church in Acts 2 was ON FIRE. Other churches are unhealthy. They are stagnant, dying or even dead.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
We have people from four or five different churches in this small group. I am not here to judge your church. I do not even know what goes on in your particular church but I do want you to think today about what are some characteristics of a healthy church. There are eight in Acts 2 that are worth noting.
This church had good leadership. A church is only as good as its leaders. If you have poor leaders, you will have a poor church. If you have phenomenal leaders, you will most likely have a phenomenal church.
The first church had the Twelve Apostles in it. They all went to the same church. Ten didn’t go to one church, while the two renegade apostles went to the Methodist Church. It would be pretty cool to have all twelve apostles in your church.
Our churches do not have one apostle in them, to say nothing of having twelve in them but we can still have good leaders in our church. Many churches have leaders who are biblical. They are spirit-filled. They have spiritual integrity. They are humble. They are accountable to others. They do not try to be a one-man show. They encourage other people in the church to use their gifts.
Other churches have leaders that do not look like anything like the elders and deacons in the Bible. Some churches have preachers that put you right to sleep.
James MacDonald, my former pastor in Chicago, used to say that it is a sin to be boring. Some pastors function more like dictators than shepherds. They lord it over the flock (I Peter 5:3). They try to function like popes. How would you rate the leaders of your church?
Healthy things grow. Individuals should grow and churches should grow. Many churches all across America are shrinking. They are not growing. They are dying. This church grew astronomically. We said last week that this church grew from 120 to 3120 in one day by one sermon. Many people do not like big churches.
The first church was big. By modern standards, it was a mega church. It has over 3000 people in it. Even mega churches do not become mega churches in one day but this church did. Mega churches didn’t begin in the 1950s or 60s. The first one started 2000 years ago.
The church in Acts 2 had over 3000 people in it. By Acts 4, the church had grown to 5000 people (4:4). That number just includes the men (not the women and children). This was incredible church growth. Is your church growing? Is it stagnant or is it declining?
The big question is how do you measure church growth? Do you measure it by quantity or by quality? You can have a church that is growing in numbers but is not growing spiritually. A big church is not always a better church. On the other hand, you have a big problem when your attendance is not only declining, it has been declining for a number of years. Ideally, churches should be growing both in quantity and quality.
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’
TEACHING and to the fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Notice what was first on the list in Acts 2:42. It is doctrine. It is teaching. It is theology. They devoted themselves to the Word of God. A church that is not devoted to the Word of God is not a healthy church. The church is a community of truth.
The church is to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15). The first church not only continued in doctrine, they continued in continued in the apostles’ doctrine. That is interesting. They accepted what the apostles taught as the Word of God. It was considered binding and authoritative.
Now the apostles are no longer alive but we do have their writings in the NT. The NT contains the teachings of the apostles. The local church should be a place where the Bible is taught. It should be a place DEVOTED to the study and application of Scripture.
It should be a place that is passionate about truth. God’s Word is truth (John 17:17). We live in a world that doesn’t even believe in truth. Everything is relative. The world rejects moral absolutes.
Why is this important in the modern-day church? One of the biggest problems in the church today is the problem of biblical illiteracy. Woodrow Kroll (Back to the Bible) says that “biblical illiteracy is not a problem in the church today. It is the problem in the church today”.
Christians in church after church all across America simply do not know what the Bible teaches. It is a problem in every denomination. Some Christians have been in churches for twenty years and still do not know what the Bible teaches and some of them are leaders. They are elders. They are deacons. The sheep in many churches are starving spiritually. American Christians are malnourished.
Many pastors do not feed the sheep. Pastors give many reasons for not doing this. A pastor will say that it is not his gift or that he is a people person. Some pastors feed the sheep but they only feed them milk. Every week they only give them milk. They never give them any meat.
If Christians are never fed meat, they will never grow. They remain spiritual babies. It is okay to be a spiritual baby when you first become a Christian but there is something wrong if you have been saved for thirty years and you are still a spiritual baby.
Jesus told Peter three times, “If you love me feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). It is the only question in the Bible that he asked three times. Jesus did not tell Peter to entertain the sheep. He told him to feed them.
He did not say, “If you love me, evangelize goats” (although that is important as well). He said, “If you love me, feed my sheep”. The real reason that pastors do not feed the sheep today is that they do not love Jesus.
That is what He said “If you love me, feed my sheep”. If you have a dog or a cat and you love it, you will take care of it. You will feed it but notice what Jesus does not say here. He does not say, “If you love the sheep, you will fee them”. He says, “If you love ME, you will feed them”. They are his sheep. He bought them with his own blood.
Recently, I heard two provocative comments that I want you to share with you. You may have heard these quotes before. One person said, “We don’t need information. We need transformation”.
A pastor of a well-known mega-church said, “Christianity is not about knowing; it is about doing”. What do you think? Do you agree with these statements? The problem with this is that it is a false dichotomy. We do not need to know.
We just need to do. We need both. It is kind of like saying we need Jesus but we do not need the Bible. We need a personal relationship with Jesus but we do not need to know the Bible very well.
We need BOTH information and transformation. In fact, the way you get transformed is through Scripture. Jesus said, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:32). Truth sets people free. We need to know God and His Word. In fact, we cannot know God apart from His Word. Information and knowledge is not wrong. God said in the OT, “my people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (Hosea 4:6).
The Bible says that “fools hate knowledge” (Proverbs 1:22, 29). It also says that “wise men store up knowledge” (Proverbs 11:14). On the other hand, you can have all kinds of knowledge but not know God. Paul says that some are “always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (II Timothy 3:7).
The first church didn’t just devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching, they devoted themselves to fellowship. What exactly is fellowship? Is running into Christians at church and having surface conversations fellowship? Is socializing with Christians and eating pizza fellowship in the biblical sense? What exactly is fellowship?
- Fellowship is limited to believers.
You can’t have Christian fellowship with an unbeliever. Fellowship is that special bond that you have with another believer that you do not have with anyone else. It is the special bond that you have with members of your family, with other members of the body of Christ.
It is not limited to your own denomination. It is not limited to your own race or ethnic group. People that do not like to be other Christians are not devoted to fellowship, like the early church was.
- Fellowship is an intimate bond
Real fellowship also goes beyond surface conversation to much deeper conversation. It gets a little more personal and a little more intimate. You share major issues in your life.
- Fellowship is a spiritual bond
Christian fellowship also brings God and His Word into the conversation. If two people get together and talk about football, they are not really having Christian fellowship. They are having a conversation that any unbelievers could have. Is your church devoted to fellowship?
This church also devoted themselves to the ordinances. The Bible mentions two church ordinances – baptism and communion. Both are commanded and both are found in the very first church. Baptism was commanded in Acts 2.
Communion is also commanded. Jesus said, “This do in remembrance of me” (I Corinthians 11:24 KJV) and in Greek it is in the present tense which means it is something which is to be done continually.
When I was in graduate school, I had a professor who said that “breaking of bread” is not talking about communion. It is talking about a meal. The Greek word can mean simply a meal (Luke 24:35). Is this talking about a meal or a religious ritual? The answer is both.
There is no doubt that this is talking about communion. It wouldn’t make any sense to say that the early Christians devoted themselves to eating and drinking. It would be ridiculous to put an ordinary meal in a list on par with Bible study and prayer.
It is talking about communion but the early church celebrated in the context of a meal. They met church in homes. Church buildings did not exist in the early church. Communion was rooted in Passover.
Jesus gave the instructions to the apostles while he was celebrating Passover. Passover was a meal (seder). The early church did both. Eventually, the church dropped the meal and just served communion.
The early church not only observed communion, they were DEVOTED to it. Some churches are more devoted to it than others. In some churches, they do communion but they do it very rarely (one or twice a year). It is hard to call that devoted to the ordinance. Is your church devoted to communion?
“Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles” (Acts 2:43).
“As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by impure spirits, and all of them were healed.” (Acts 5:12, 13-15)
The first church was a charismatic church. It was a miracle working church. Signs and wonders were done in that church. They did not just heal some of the sick. They healed ALL of them (5:15). Luke says that MANY wonders and signs were performed by the apostles. Luke mentions healings by two apostles in the book of Acts – Peter and Paul. They do a lot of the same kinds of miracles.
- Peter cast out demons (5:16) and Paul cast out demons (16:18).
- Peter healed a crippled man (3:1-6) and Paul healed a crippled man (14:7-9).
- Peter raised a woman from the dead (9:36-42) and Paul raised a man from the dead (20:9-12). Peter raised Tabitha and Paul raised Eutychus.
- Peter healed people with his shadow (5:15). Paul healed people with his handkerchief (19:12).
Both of these seem very strange to us. Peter’s shadow had some kind of magical powers (shadow healing). You had all of these sick people lying on beds and mats in the middle of the street so that Peter’s shadow might fall of them as he passed.
Other people were healed by Paul’s dirty laundry, the apron he wore around his waist when he worked in his tent making shop or the sweaty bandanna which he wore around his head. This is one of proof-text for the Roman Catholic interest in relics. However, this is not quite the same thing as the veneration or worship of relics (which is a form of idolatry).
Many would point out that these signs were done by the apostles and there are no longer any apostles. That is true, but if you read the rest of the book you will see that signs and wonders were not just done by the apostles.
Some of the deacons of this church also performed miracles – Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Philip (Acts 8:6). Ananias also performed a miracle (9:10, 17) and as far as we know he was just an ordinary Christian. He laid hands on the Apostle Paul when he was blind and all of the sudden his sight was restored.
Let’s look at one of these miracles. In Acts 3, Peter heals a crippled beggar. Here was a man who was forty years old and he was crippled. He was crippled from birth. He had never been able to walk. Peter heals him.
Later in the book he healed another man who had been crippled but that man was not born crippled. He had only been crippled for the last eight years. He must have had some accident and became paralyzed. Let’s look at the first miracle in Acts 3:1-8
“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Now a man who was lame from birth was being carried to the temple gate called Beautiful, where he was put every day to beg from those going into the temple courts. When he saw Peter and John about to enter, he asked them for money. Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them.
Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.”
What is going on here? Here was a man who was crippled. Everyone in the community knew him. He had to be carried places because he could not walk. He could not work, so he begs for money. We walk by or drive by beggars all the time. Many people we encounter on the side of the road with “Need Money” signs are just scam artists. This man wasn’t. He could not work and had to beg for money.
He was dropped off at the temple, waiting for handouts from people. It was the ideal place to beg because there were so many people there and since it was the Temple, you would expect many people to open to helping the needy.
If you are religious, you might be more open to helping with charity, because the Bible talks about helping the poor and showing mercy to people. At 3:00 PM (the ninth hour), John and Peter stand before him and he asks them for money. We encounter beggars like this asking for money. Some people give money and some people walk right by the beggar like they did not even see him.
This man asked for a donation from Peter and John and they said no. They were not rude or insensitive. They just didn’t have anything to give him. Peter said, “silver and gold have I none” (3:6). He was a poor apostle. Peter was one of the top leaders in the very first church and he did not have a lot of money. John did not seem to have any either.
That is a little embarrassing. Peter reached in his pockets and had nothing to give this poor man. So much for the health and wealth gospel! In fact, far from being rich himself (even though he was an apostle), Peter did not even tell this beggar how he could become rich. He never promised him material wealth. That was not on his agenda.
This man was looking for silver or gold. When Peter said, “Silver and gold have I none”, the man must have been disappointed. He asked them for money and they offered him something far more valuable than a few coins. He gave him the ability to walk.
As someone pointed out, “This man asked for alms but got legs instead”. Peter gave him something far greater than he was asking for or could even imagine. This man had never walked a day in his life. He had never done this before. Peter said to the man, “Rise up and walk” and then helps him up.
Peter did not have the power to do this on his own. He was just a poor fisherman. He said “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk”. He did not say, “In my name” or “in the name of the apostles”. He said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth”.
When he healed Aeneas Peter said, “Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and roll up your mat.” (9:34). It may seem strange but notice that he does NOT say, “I heal you” but “Jesus Christ heals you” (cf. 3:12, 16). Peter did not heal him. Jesus did. Peter takes no credit for the healing.
He also did not say, “If it is God’s will, you can be healed” or “if you have enough faith, you can be healed”. Why? Peter did not just have the gift of healing, he had special apostolic authority that people do not have today.
There are people today with the gift of healing but Peter was also the official representative of Jesus and he had special authority that people do not have today. As an apostle, Peter had authority from Jesus over EVERY disease and EVERY sickness. He also had authority over demons (cf. Matthew 10:1).
Is your church a place where you can clearly see the power of God at work in the lives at people? You may not have any apostles in your church and you may not have anyone raised from the dead but you should see the power of God in your church. There is power is some churches. It is evident as soon as you walk in the door (cf. I Corinthians 14:24-25). Other churches have a lot of traditions but not a lot of power in them. That is the sign of a dead church. They have a form of godliness but deny the power (II Timothy 3:5).
Some churches have people who are outwardly religious but have no power in their lives. In the South, many people go to church. Church attendance is high compared to the godless North but many people live like the devil the rest of the week. There is no change in their life. They are religious on the outside. They are religious in form only.
Some go to church, go to Sunday school regularly, sing songs in church, participate in some rituals, listen to the sermon, give money to the church but their life is not really changed. They are no better after going to church than they were before and what they hear in church makes no difference in their life.
When they leave church, they go out and have an affair or a child out of wedlock. They are powerless. They have no power over addiction. They have no power to control their anger. They have no power to give up an immoral lifestyle. They have no power over their tongue. They are religious but not righteous.
This first church was a praying church. They made prayer a priority in the church. They prayed on their own and in large groups of people (3:1). Notice the two places that the early church met. In a large group (the Temple) and in small groups (house to house). When they got together, one of the things they did was prayed.
In some churches, prayer is more a priority than in other churches. Some churches do not even have a prayer meeting or they have it in the middle of the week and only a few people show up. Jesus said, “My house will be called a house a prayer” (Mark 11:17), not just a house of learning or a house of preaching or a house of worship but a house of prayer.
God can’t bless a church that doesn’t pray. A church that doesn’t pray doesn’t have any power. In South Korea, they get 12,000 people to a 4:30 prayer meeting in a Full Gospel Church.
When the church prays, things happen. In believers pray, things happen. In Acts 12, Peter was in prison and the church prayed for him and he was miraculously let out of prison. An angel lets him out. There is a difference between a church that prays and a church that is devoted to prayer.
What does it mean to be devoted to prayer? You believe in prayer. You believe it is important. You practice prayer. You pray often. You pray regularly. You pray fervently. That is why we have a time of prayer at the end of our small group.
This was a giving church (Acts 2:44-45). They were not just devoted to doctrine, prayer and worship. They were devoted to each other, so much so that there were no needy people among them (Acts 4:34-35). They took care of people’s needs. That is what the church should be doing today. Is your church generous? Does it take care of the needs of the body? This is where we will pick up next week.