Elon, North Carolina
Last week we began to look at the biblical doctrine of the church (what theologians call “ecclesiology”). We looked at some detail at the universal or invisible church. We looked at one metaphor for the universal church – the Body of Christ. We talked about what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. That is just one picture of the universal church. There are other pictures in the NT. The universal church is also described as a bride.
Today, I want to look at the local church, the visible church. What constitutes a local church? What elements do you have to have to have a local church? The typical answers are prayer, preaching of the Word, fellowship and worship. Are para-church organizations, like Campus Crusade, Navigators, InterVarsity, churches? They have bible study, fellowship, worship, prayer and evangelism. Para-church organizations have many similarities to church but there are some differences.
For example, in a para-church organization, there is no accountability. There are no are usually no elders or deacons found in a local church. There is no church discipline, although unfortunately many churches do not practice church discipline either. You also usually do not see the sacraments or ordinances (Baptism, Lord’s Supper) in a para-church organization.
What I would like to do this morning is to take a look at the first church in the book of Acts. Luke gives us a picture of the first church on planet earth. It was located in Israel. It lasted about forty years. It is just a snapshot. It’s a summary. The description is not exhaustive but it is very interesting to see what the first church looked like. Turn to Acts 2:41-47.
Many churches today have problems with declining attendance. They are lucky if they get a few more members each year. The very first church added 3000 people in one day. How’s that for church growth? They went from 120 members to 3120 members. In today’s terminology, we would call this a mega-church (any church over about 2000 people). Mega churches didn’t begin in the 1950s or 60s. The first one started 2000 years ago.
How did these 3000 people become Christians? It was all a response to one sermon. The first gospel sermon ever preached led to the first church. It must have been a pretty powerful sermon by the Apostle Peter. That by itself is pretty amazing. Just one month or so earlier, Peter had denied Jesus. After saying at Gethsemane, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” (Matthew 26:35). After Jesus was arrested, he was asked if he spent time with Jesus and he denied it repeatedly with an oath and even swore that he did not know Jesus (Matthew 26:69-74).
After acting like a coward a month earlier, Peter boldly preaches Jesus as Messiah to Jews and The Holy Spirit used it to convict 3000 Jews and then all 3000 were baptized on the same day. I guess the lesson here is that you can blow it and blow it big time and still by God’s grace be used by God. Three thousand Jews were saved and baptized after that sermon by Peter. Jerusalem was a city of 50,000 people at this time. If you do the math and divide 3000 by 12, that means that each Apostle has 250 people to baptize that day.
So let’s look at the first church. I believe that we at Westside could learn some things from the first church. It wasn’t a perfect church. In Acts 5, two of the members of this church dropped dead, because they were judged by God but this is the model church. What were some characteristics of the first church? Let me list seven.
It was a Church that Emphasized Doctrine
As many of you know, Jim Cymbala is the pastor of a famous church in downtown Brooklyn called the Brooklyn Tabernacle. I have heard him preach in person. I highly recommend that you read his books, if you haven’t. I agree with about 99% of what they say. In Fresh Wind Fresh Fire, Pastor Cymbala says one thing which I strongly disagree with. He says, “The Christian religion is not predominately a teaching religion”. That’s bad news for educators. If you notice here in Acts 2, what was first on the list? It is doctrine, teaching, theology. That was the first thing that Luke mentioned about this church. Acts 2:42 says:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’
TEACHING and to the fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
 Jim Cymbala, Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire, p. 150.
The first church continued in the Apostles doctrine. Paul said that “All Scripture is inspired and profitable for doctrine or teaching (II Timothy 3:16). Jesus said that those who worship the Father must worship Him in Spirit and in truth (John 4:24) and Paul said that the church was to be “the pillar and ground of the truth” (I Timothy 3:15) Doctrine is the first thing that was mentioned and it fits perfectly with the Great Commission. The Great Commission has three parts, not one. Teaching, intense discipleship was to follow evangelism (Matthew 28:19-20). It was a teaching church (cf. II Timothy 2:2). What did they teach? They did not teach their own doctrine. They taught the apostles’ doctrine.
Now the apostles are no longer alive but we do have their writings in the NT. The NT contains the teachings of the apostles. We have the faith that was “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and what was delivered to the saints was the doctrine of the apostles. The application is that the local church should be a place where the Bible is taught. The local church should be a place devoted to the study and application of Scripture. Don’t all churches do this?
One of the biggest problems in the church today is the problem of biblical illiteracy. Many Christians simply do not know what the Bible teaches and some of those Christians have been in churches for twenty years. The fact is that there are some churches that believe and teach the Bible and there are churches that don’t. Here were 3000 baby Christians. What do you do with newborn babies? You feed them. What are churches that do not feed their sheep? They are full of spiritually malnourished Christians. If you are not fed properly, you don’t grow properly.
It was a Church that Emphasized Fellowship
The second characteristic of this church was fellowship. The first church didn’t just devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching, they devoted themselves to fellowship. What exactly is fellowship? Is fellowship the same thing as just hanging out? Are you fellowshipping if you are eating a pizza and watching a football game? Is fellowship just a social time? Is it just socializing with Christians? Is it limited to a small group of Christians? Some people only fellowship with people from their own denomination. Is fellowship the same thing as gathering together? Are we fellowshipping if we simply come to church, hear a sermon, say two words to other Christians and leave? I want to summarize five things which are true of biblical fellowship.
Fellowship Facts for Dummies
1) There are two kinds of fellowship in the Bible.
There is vertical fellowship with God and horizontal fellowship with one another and the two are related.
2) Fellowship is primarily spiritual, not social.
True fellowship is what two Christians have in common spiritually, not the fact that they both are white or both are Americans or both like sports. Both are saved. Both are forgiven. Both are going to heaven. Both have the Holy Spirit. Both are children of God. Both are part of the body of Christ
3) Horizontal fellowship is for all Christians, but not just Christians from your denomination.
Christians cannot fellowship with non-Christians in the biblical sense. As Paul asked, What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? (II Corinthians 6:15) and the implied answer is NOTHING. We have no more in common with an unbeliever than light has with darkness, righteousness has with wickedness or Christ has with the devil (II Corinthians 6:14).
4) The best place would be in a home setting
While fellowship it is not limited to a home setting, that is one of the best places to do it. It is how is was done in the early church. You also cannot have real fellowship but just coming to church, hearing a sermon and leaving. That is the advantage of being in a small group. It is much easier to have fellowship in that setting.
5) There are some professing Christians you should not fellowship with
The Bible actually says that there are some people that we should NOT fellowship with (cf. I Corinthians 5:9-11; II Thessalonians 3:6-10). It is not unloving but is an act of biblical “tough love”. It seems like a harsh act on the surface but its ultimate goal is restoration.
It was a Church that Emphasized Ordinances
The first church observed the ordinances or sacraments of the church. They practiced water baptism (Acts 2:41) and communion. There are many different names for communion – Lord’s Supper, Eucharist and the Breaking of Bread (Acts 2:42, 46). Now the word for “breaking bread” in Greek can simply mean a mean (Luke 24:35) or it can mean the Lord’s Supper but here it is talking about the Lord’s Supper. It wouldn’t make any sense to say that the early Christians devoted themselves to eating and drinking. It wouldn’t make any sense to put an ordinary meal in a list that includes Bible study and prayer.
Also notice that these things took place right after salvation. Right after the 3000 were saved they were immediately baptized and immediately began taking communion. I want to be honest here? All for honesty at church, as Pastor James MacDonald says. At our church, we do a great job in the area of water baptism. One area that we could improve on as a church, in my opinion, is in the area of communion.
We believe in the Lord’s Supper but I wouldn’t say that we are devoted to it like the early church was. This is a command. Yet some believers neglect this ordinance. Jesus said, “This do in remembrance of me” and in the Greek the word “do” is in the present tense, which indicates something that is to be continually done. A church that does not observe the ordinances is a church that doesn’t obey the Great Commission.
It was a Church that is Characterized by Power
We see this in Acts 2:43. The Apostles performed incredible miracles in this church (Acts 2:43; 5:12). Are signs and wonders for today? Some say that we should see them (charismatics). Some say that we shouldn’t see them today (non-charismatics or cessationists). These were done by Apostles and we do not have any Apostles today but these signs were not limited to the Apostles. Some of the deacons of this church also performed miracles – Stephen (Acts 6:8) and Philip (Acts 8:6). While there were signs of an Apostle (II Corinthians 12:12), the gifts of miracles working and healing were distinguished from the gifts of Apostles (I Corinthians 12:7-11, 28-30)
Even if you believe that signs and wonders are not for today, our church should be a place where you can clearly see the power of God at work in people’s lives. Jesus said, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” (Acts 1:8). God worked powerfully in the first church and He should work powerfully in our church as well. There are some churches where you can clearly see God working, while others are dead as a door knob.
The Apostle Paul said that when an unbeliever enters a church service, he or she should be able to see God at work (I Corinthians 14:24-25). What did Paul say about false teachers in the last days? They have a form of godliness but deny the power. Some churches are great outwardly (great building, sing songs, take communion, baptize some people, have a minister who delivers some kind of message each week) but there’s no power in them. Lives aren’t changed; attendance is declining, nothings happening in these churches.
It was a Church that Emphasized Prayer
This first church was a praying church. That is how the church began. It was birthed in a prayer meeting (Acts 1:12-14). These 3000 Christians continued in prayer and the thought in the original is not just of individual prayer but corporate prayer (cf. 3:1). They made prayer a priority in the church. In some churches prayer is more a priority than in other churches. 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.
Put yourselves in the shoes of these people. If you were a member of this church, what do you think would be praying for? What were some of the needs of the first church?
- They had 3000 baby Christians who needed to grow and be discipled (growth).
- How to pastor 3000 people (leadership – an administrative nightmare with no phones, email or cell phones)
- Homes to meet in (space)
- The salvation of the rest of the nation (salvation)
- Faithfulness in the midst of persecution (In chapter four all of the Apostles were put in prison, a member of the church was stoned in chapter seven)
- There were financial needs in this church (communal living).
It was a Church that Met Regularly
This group 3000 Christians didn’t try to be Christians on their own. They didn’t just say, “I can read the Bible, pray and worship God on my own. I don’t need to go anywhere to do this”. Hebrews 10:25 says, “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching”. That’s what the first Christians did. They got together. They met together daily (Acts 2:46; Luke 24:53).
Where did they meet? They met in two places. First, they met in the Temple. That is very significant. Why did they meet there? They were Jews. When they became Christians, they didn’t cease to be Jews. They could have said, “We are Christians now, we can forget about the Temple” but they didn’t do that. Remember this very temple (Herod’s), Jesus called “my Father’s house” (John 2:16). There was a special place in the temple where the Jewish Christians met (Acts 5:12).
There is something else here. They didn’t just meet in the Temple once a week. They met every day, not just on the Sabbath (Acts 2:46). Why did they do this? Who goes to church every day? The Jews in the first century had daily worship in the Temple. The priests in the Temple offered two sacrifices. They had three different times of prayer – morning (9:00), noon (12:00) and evening (sunset). They had a morning sacrifice and an evening sacrifice.
Not only did they meet in the Temple, they also met in people’s (Acts 2:46). That sounds very much like meeting at church and in small groups at people’s homes. They met in a large group at the Temple and in small groups in people’s homes. Three thousand people could not meet in one home. They met in different people’s homes (from house to house).
It was a Church Characterized by Unity
They were united in heart and mind (Acts 4:32). They were close. There were no divisions in this church and there should be no divisions in our church (I Corinthians 1:10). God can’t bless a divided church. There was not any fighting or arguing in this church. Does that mean we have to agree on everything? Unity is not the same thing as uniformity. It is impossible for everyone to thing exactly alike. There is diversity in the church, like there is diversity in a family. You can have differences in a church (gifts, personalities, opinions) without fighting and quarreling.
It was a Church Characterized by Generosity
This was a giving church (Acts 2:44-45). They weren’t 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 sold their possessions and goods (Acts 2:45). A better translation is “property and possessions’’ (NLT). They shared everything they had (Acts 4:32). This leads us to two questions. Why did they do this? Should we do this today?
Why did they do this? The Bible doesn’t say. It just says there were some needs in this church (Acts 2:45; Acts 4:35). This was a special situation and we do not know what it was. It may be because the visitors to the city who accepted Christ wanted to stay longer to get discipled before going back to their homes.
An even bigger question is, Do we have to do this today? Were the early Christians communists? They practiced wealth redistribution. They even liquidated assets and sold houses and possessions.
Is Christian Communism a Biblical Concept?
1) There’s no command in the Bible to do this.
2) No other church in the NT ever did this.
All of the other churches mention the rich and the poor in them (e.g., James 2:1-7; I John 3:16-18). So it was not a law or command. Nor was it a universal custom in the early church.
3) This was completely voluntary.
In communism, it is mandatory. Communism says, “What’s yours is mine”. The early church said, “What’s mine is yours”. Communism says, “Give all that you have”. The early Christians said, “Take all that I have”. It was completely voluntary. We know this from Acts 5:4. Peter said that Ananias didn’t have to sell his house and when he did, he did not have to give all of his money away. He could have given just some of it away. He did not die because he failed to share all of his wealth but because he lied.
4) The early Christians did not do this because they had to or because there was anything wrong with private property.
They also did not do this to encourage class warfare. This was not done because of hatred of the rich but because of a love for the poor. The Bible does not condemn private property (cf. Eighth Commandment) and it does not condemn people for being rich. The Bible does not teach that private property is a sin. It teaches that covetousness is a sin (Tenth Commandment).
What are lessons can we learn as a church from this practice? This wasn’t a stingy church. It was a generous church. They took care of the needs of the members of the church.