FOUR CHARACTERISTICS OF THE EARLY CHURCH

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Fellowship (love in action) does not always come easily to the church, and perhaps it did not come easily even for the very first group of believers. Even so, this was something they persisted in and stuck with, in spite of difficulty at times.

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Experiencing Life Together #3

FOUR THINGS TO WHICH THE EARLY CHURCH WAS DEVOTED. Acts 2:42

As we come together to experience the Power, Presence and Purpose of Jesus, it may be useful to consider any Biblical patterns that exist for the Church. Biblically speaking, a lot of freedom is given to believers in how they structure local congregations. However there is a pretty clear Biblical pattern for the values that ought to drive local churches, and the practical results that those values ought to show. Perhaps one of the most useful and descriptive passages in discovering God’s pattern for the church is found in acts Chapter 2:42-47. This is a descriptive passage, not a prescriptive one; even so, we can learn from the example presented here and it seems wise to consider carefully the characteristics of that first growing Christian congregation.

“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he 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.”

In this passage, we find four things that the early church was devoted to and three things that resulted from such devotion. We will examine each of the seven characteristics one by one . This week, we will consider the four things the church was devoted to. Next week, we will focus especially on one of those four things — prayer. And after that, we will consider the three things their resulted from their devotion.

First, I want to mention this word, “devoted.” The idea behind the Greek term, is a that a group of people are together earnest, persevering, diligent and devoted to something. In other words, they didn’t just “say a prayer.” They were earnest and diligent about praying; they persisted and persevered in their prayers, even when they did not receive immediate answers. They didn’t just “listen to a sermon.” They diligently persevered in learning what Jesus said and did, and what it meant. They persisted in applying it to their lives, even when at first it didn’t feel like it made anything better.

I think this idea is very important. What we really believe as Christians is that spiritual reality is more real and important than what we call “physical” reality. I don’t mean the physical isn’t real, or that it doesn’t matter; but Christians believe the spiritual is the more powerful of the two. That means we persist in our devotion to these things, even when the physical reality is whispering to us that we are stupid and silly to do so. We persist in them because they make a difference in spiritual reality Eventually, that difference will also affect the physical realm, but even if it does not do so during our lifetimes, we trust in what we don’t see. That is what faith is: “the reality of what is hoped for; the certainty of what is not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

1. They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching. The early church was founded on the testimony of the apostles. They listened as Peter, James and John and others repeated to them the teachings of Jesus. They heard these great leaders expounding upon those teachings and explaining the meaning of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The apostles also taught the early church the meaning of the Old Testament and how Jesus fulfilled its promises and prophecies. Unfortunately, today we no longer have the apostles. But we do still have their teachings — they are found in the New Testament. The New Testament is in fact the written form of the teaching of the apostles. It is not much of a leap to say that when we see that the first characteristic of the early church was that they were devoted to the apostles teaching, the parallel characteristic for the present-day church should be that we are devoted to the Bible. How can we do this practically in our church, and specifically in the house-church?

a. We ought to commit to the authority of the scriptures. The church was founded on the teaching of the Bible, and so also should our lives be founded on the teachings of the Bible. The Bible is the final authority in all things for all believers. Practically speaking, the house-church should have an understanding that scripture is the basis for everything we do and say in our group. This doesn’t mean we never talk about football scores, but it does mean that as we encourage one another and share with one another, we do so with a sense that we are all together under the authority of scripture.

b. We study scripture. To some of you, “study” may sound like a dirty word. It doesn’t have to be that way however. Try setting aside a special time each week (like Sunday nights) to study the Bible. As a starting point, read the scripture passage that goes with that week’s sermon notes, think about it, and then read the sermon notes over. The “Word” time during the house-church meeting is supposed to be mainly for application, rather than study. If you come to house-church and you haven’t read the sermon notes or the passage, you will probably not get much out of the word time, and the other people in the house-church will miss out on the insight and thoughts you might have had for them, if you had taken just a bit of time to read. I don’t think reading them on the way to house-church gives God’s Word the respect such a remarkable book deserves.

c. Apply the scripture to your life. After you have studied scripture, you should ask “what does it mean to me? How should I live differently or what comfort should I take from this?” Although God’s word is supposed to inform our thinking, the great value of it is that it not only transforms our minds, but our very lives as well. God’s word illuminates our path – what we are to do, how we are to live.

2. The second characteristic of the early church is that they were devoted to fellowship. The Greek word used in Acts 2:42 for “fellowship” is Koinonia. A helpful way to translate this word might be “community.” Now it is obvious from the context that the word does not mean “town” or “locality” so we might clarify things by saying it means Christian community. In other words, these first Christians devoted themselves to each other. In fact, this was their way of living out in a practically what Jesus said in John 13:24-25:

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.

Fellowship is just Christian love in action. It is the “nuts and bolts” of people in the body of Christ (the church) loving each other. In this context, It is helpful to remember that when they devoted themselves to the fellowship, the word “devoted” implies that this was something they worked on and stuck with, “in spite of resistance or struggle.” Fellowship (love in action) does not always come easily to the church, and perhaps it did not come easily even for the very first group of believers. Even so, this was something they persisted in and stuck with, in spite of difficulty at times.

3. The third characteristic of the early church is that they were devoted to the “breaking of bread.” This phrase (“the breaking of the bread”) refers to the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Paul uses it in 1 Corinthians to describe Holy Communion, and the language parallels that of the gospels as well. It took some years before it was called anything but “the breaking of the bread.” How can this be made a practical characteristic of house-church life? First, I believe it meant that the message of human sin and God’s sacrifice to forgive that sin, was central to their lives. The Lord’s Supper tells this basic message of Christianity every time it is celebrated. Second, I believe their devotion to the Lord’s Supper was evidence of an ongoing hunger and thirst for more of God in their lives. The central meaning of the Lord’s Supper is the Presence of Jesus. So in house-church, we can be intentional about the core Christian message of man’s sin and God’s loving forgiveness, and we can be intentional about nurturing a hunger for Jesus.

4. The fourth thing that the early church was devoted to is prayer. Prayer, both together and alone, was central to their experience of church. Because prayer is so important to the life of any house-church, we will devote a week entirely to that subject (next week).

As you consider this passage of scripture, allow yourself to dream. What would your house-church look like if you were devoted to the Bible, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer? Does this vision excite you at all? How would your life be different if you are a part of such a dynamic group? And, how will you be a part of making this happen?

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