The Apostles had four priorities for the emerging, growing church - teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.
The Apostles had four priorities for the emerging, growing church - teaching, fellowship, breaking bread and prayer.
Hello and welcome back to Word Online, ‘The Spreading Flame’, our story of the book of Acts. If you haven’t been with us in the episodes so far, we’ve been in Acts 1 and we’re now in Acts 2.
Introduction and Background
You may have heard the previous episodes but if you haven’t, I will tell you quickly one or two of the key things that have happened. Luke is telling us the story of what happens from the moment that Jesus departs this world, through the Ascension, which he records in the first part of Acts 1, and what happens as the Apostles prepare for the Day of Pentecost in prayer, which is described also in Acts 1. He goes on to talk about the Day of Pentecost. What an incredible day! The birthday of the Church, as it’s often called, the coming of the Holy Spirit, an astonishing miracle of salvation! Surely this must have exceeded the expectations of the Apostles.
On the very first day of the Church’s ministry 3000 people joined the church. This is recorded in verse 41, immediately before the passage we’re going to look at today. We are going to look at the priorities of church community life. Something incredible has happened. Peter’s message had a dramatic effect on this gathered group of people at the feast of Pentecost, right there in the heart of the city of Jerusalem, which is the context within which we are going to look at the priorities of church community life. Christianity is not just about the moment you believe; it’s not the story of just a past event - it’s the story of your whole life. What happens after we become believers? How do we grow? How do we develop? These are key questions.
This passage begins to look at the sort of foundations that the Apostles laid, their priorities with this community of people who were brand-new believers with no experience, no understanding of the overall framework of Christian faith. Many of them had never met Jesus because many of those who were converted on the Day of Pentecost didn’t live in the land of Israel; they were visitors; they had not seen Jesus in his three-year ministry. There was so much to learn in order to be an effective Christian community. What has happened is that these 3000 people had been through a fourfold process of truly becoming a Christian. They had turned away from their past way of life. We call this repentance. The very first thing Peter said when they asked, “What should we do?” was that they needed to repent, turn away from the way they used to live, verse 38. He invited them to believe the key facts and realities of the Christian message concerning Jesus’ death and resurrection; faith, that’s the second thing. Active, trusting faith in the reality of the fact that Jesus can save them from their sins. The third thing that happened to them was that they were baptised in the name of Jesus Christ. This was water baptism by immersion and 3000 people were baptised at that time. This sign of baptism is so vivid, isn’t it? It’s a sign of being cleansed, being cleaned. It’s a sign of an old life disappearing, and as you come up from the waters, a new life starts. It’s a visible sign of the inner spiritual reality of repentance and faith. 3000 people have gone through this experience on the Day of Pentecost. Then Peter invited them to be open to the fact that this reality would involve the Holy Spirit of God. God himself, by his Spirit, coming to live inside them and fill their lives with power and with a sense of his presence. Four aspects of becoming a Christian, repentance, faith, being baptised as a sign of your faith, and receiving the Holy Spirit, actively welcoming him into your life, to come and fill you with power. This had happened to 3000 people.
But what next? What happens next? The Apostles were ready and they created a culture for these people, a community culture which took them from being individual converts, from different ethnic backgrounds, different nationalities amongst the Jewish people, into a really strong community that grew and grew. This is what we’re going to talk about in this passage. Let’s read it. It’s a short passage this time. Last time we read the very long story of the day of Pentecost. This time, just in a few short verses. We have some very powerful themes for us to think about.
42 ‘They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the Apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 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, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’Acts 2: 42 - 47 NIV
Let’s think about the wider context of what is actually happening here. First of all, the location. We are in the city of Jerusalem. We have a large number of people, many of whom are visitors, and we see two different locations described here for the events of church life. First of all, they met in the Temple courts and secondly, they met in private homes.
The Jewish Temple was a huge building that totally dominated the city of Jerusalem. It was built on a plateau in the middle of the city, with a very large Temple building right in the middle of the compound. A very impressive building. Within the Temple building itself, the priests conducted the Jewish worship ceremonies. But the area around the Temple is very important for our story. There were huge courtyards and open areas around all four sides of the Temple; open areas where people could socialise; could eat food; could conduct teachings; could bring their families; could wait and talk before they went to a ceremony in the Temple, or once they had come out. It was by far the largest area for meeting people in the whole city and was surrounded by a wall. There are just a few gates where you could come in and out of the Temple compound. So, the Temple courts were an ideal place for the Apostles to operate. They had lots of people to deal with - thousands of people and no buildings. They had generally good weather in Jerusalem so you could meet outside. They went every day into the Temple courts. This was a great place for holding public meetings and because there were so many other people there, others would join in and find out what was going on. People kept joining round the fringes of the crowd as the Apostles were speaking and then they would start believing. So, the numbers increased. That’s why we have this daily increase in numbers; the momentum was so great and they had a space where they could meet in large numbers.
Secondly, they met in their homes. Here we have an interesting fact. The church community grows strongest when there’s something dynamic happening in people’s homes; as they have fellowship, teaching and prayer, and they’re able to gather together in public in some context. In some countries in the world, even some countries represented by people listening to this material, then there are difficulties with public buildings; they’re not available at all, or it’s banned to meet in that way. Here they had the freedom and that freedom was a great blessing to them.
There is another interesting thing about the context here. Why did people sell their property and possessions to support people? Why was there a need to do that? There’s a very good reason - most of the people in this first church were not residents in the city. They were visitors because on the Day of Pentecost, most of the people who were converted were people who were visiting the city from other countries, or other regions in Israel, in order to attend this very important religious feast, the feast of Pentecost. Then they were converted. They became Christians, so they are in the city without a home, without a job, or a business, or a source of income. If you have a church of 3000 from day one, and we can imagine, for example, that maybe 2000 plus of those people don’t have a home, don’t have an income - there are immediate needs: accommodation; financial support. They might be going home at some point in the future, but they’re staying on for a time as the church is building. This explains the urgent need to share possessions at this particular point.
Another interesting thing about the context is how fast the numbers are growing. Luke’s account, from the beginning of the book of Acts, moves from eleven Apostles, which become twelve when Matthias is added, to a group of one hundred and twenty meeting together for ten days to pray before the Day of Pentecost, to a church of three thousand on the Day of Pentecost and now we are seeing people added every single day. The numbers are going up quickly. The Apostles are busy, aren’t they? They’re teaching and they’re also performing miraculous signs. We’re going to see one of those miraculous signs in our next episode. The miraculous powers of Jesus are now transferred, as it were, through the work of the Holy Spirit, particularly, but not exclusively, to the Apostles. All the way through the book of Acts, we will see the Apostles performing miracles that are as remarkable as the miracles of Jesus himself, including, resurrections from the dead; healing of people who were completely incurable in a variety of different situations. This was the other thing that attracted interest. Many of those signs and miracles would have taken place in the Temple courts, in those meetings they had, with hundreds of their own people gathered around starting to pray for the sick. There’s a big crowd of others around; they look in; they’re impressed; they respond. The Gospel is preached. Can you imagine the situation? It’s very dynamic in these early days.
There are four priorities that form the themes of this talk. Four things that mattered very much in the formation of the very first church. Number one, teaching. There is so much to learn when you first become a Christian. If that’s happened to you relatively recently, you’ll know exactly what I mean. So many things to understand. Most of the people had not encountered Jesus face-to-face because they didn’t live in the country. They hadn’t heard him teach; he hadn’t written any books. How were they going to learn about the Christian way of life? - through the Apostles’ teaching. Now in the ‘Life of Jesus’, I’ve taken 184 episodes to describe the Gospel story and quite a number of those episodes are going through the teachings of Jesus. When I think of this, what the Apostles were doing, I also think of my own study of the Life of Jesus, and I think that’s very interesting. There are many of Jesus’ teachings which need explaining and applying. For example, in Series 4 of the Life of Jesus on Word Online, we looked at the Sermon on the Mount, and I took eighteen sessions, of half an hour each, to give a basic, clear explanation of Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount. I can imagine the Apostles, who were very familiar with that material, giving that teaching to these early Christians and there is a lot more teaching of Jesus than that. You can imagine twenty, thirty, forty, fifty different talks that they might have given, applying Jesus’ teaching about all sorts of aspects of life, to those three thousand plus early Christians.
Also, they would be teaching them how to use the Old Testament, or the Hebrew Scriptures because most of these people would be familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, or Old Testament, because of their Jewish background. But how would they understand those books and those prophecies now that the Messiah had come? That’s a whole other topic of teaching for the Apostles.
The third thing they would do, I’m sure, is to constantly reinforce the Gospel message itself and remind people, ‘What is the significance of the death of Jesus?’ - you don’t have to achieve salvation on your own merit; he died for you; he died as a sacrifice; he died as a substitute, and that substitute’s similar to the substitutes in the Old Testament; there’s a connection there. He rose again from the dead, and that resurrection means that we’ll experience a resurrection; he’s gone and ascended to heaven, which means he has authority and so on. They were teaching Jesus’ teachings; they were teaching about the Old Testament; and they were teaching about Gospel foundations. Now that’s plenty! The early Christians lapped it up. They loved it because it says they devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. They spent time learning.
The second thing that they committed themselves to was, what we translate into English as, fellowship. This basically means committed community - not just a casual, social connection with someone or the occasional attendance at a church event. Fellowship was more intentional than that, in this context. Fellowship was based on the idea that you had joined a new family. Often in the book of Acts, and also in the letters, Christians are described as ‘brothers and sisters’: Acts 1: 16, Acts 6: 3. The Apostles taught them that they were in a new family relationship. They were intrinsically connected to others who believe, even though, in this case, they came from very different cultures, had very different first languages, because many of them had travelled to Israel, had believed and stayed in Jerusalem, but they didn’t come from that area. They were a new family. Fellowship implies a very strong commitment to the local church community, and they devoted themselves to it. They realised at an early stage that it was God’s will that Christians should live in a committed community, and that’s what we see happening here. We are looking at the very first example of an early church to see what we can learn.
The third thing they were committed to is described as the ‘breaking of bread’. This is an interesting expression that has the primary meaning of sharing in communion, or the Lord’s Supper, or what some Christians call the Eucharist. It also has a secondary meaning of sharing in a common meal. It appears in the Early Church, very commonly, that people would gather together, share a meal and, in the course of sharing a meal, there would be a moment, or a time when they stopped and took some bread and wine, and formally stated that ‘as we share and partake in this, we are remembering the Lord’s death’. This remembering of Jesus dying in community, in the breaking of bread, was part of their way of living that cemented the community; strengthened the faith; reminded them of the foundations of their faith and is something that Jesus himself commanded his followers to do. It is not surprising that the Apostles, who were at the Last Supper, where this was instituted, very quickly instituted it in the Early Church, right at the beginning. This is what they taught them to do.
The fourth thing that they shared in was prayer. Probably this was mostly prayer meetings in the Temple courts, gathered together in large community. There were set times of prayer designated by the Jewish authorities during the day. The early Christian community probably said, ‘We’ll go at three o’clock in the afternoon to that period of time for prayer. We’ll have our prayer meeting in this part of the courts, and other people will be meeting there, and the priests will be praying in the Temple itself with a few people watching,’ (because there was only limited access) ‘and we’ll just have a great prayer meeting over here’. Probably there was a gathered prayer meeting in the Temple courts. We see evidence of that in chapter 3, when Peter and John were going to the Temple at the time of prayer, Acts 3: 1, which indicates they had that in their minds. They gathered together to pray. Praying together has power. It is clearly what the Apostles wanted the church to do.
Let’s think about one or two of the implications of these things. First of all, there’s the sharing in community. They committed themselves to fellowship. But that fellowship involved helping each other practically. We’ve explained the reason for that - the economic needs.. The Early Church had people making voluntary personal decisions to sell property; no one forced them to do it - no rules, no regulations. They just did it out of their own discipleship and good wishes for their fellow believers. But later in Acts 6, we find when there is a more fundamental problem with poverty, particularly with a group of widows in this case; they actually organised a food sharing project. Some things were organised and some things were spontaneous. But this is not early Communism. This is not something like the State saying, ‘everybody has got to be equal’ and reorganising things. This is something that arises through the activity of the Holy Spirit motivating people to care for each other.
Notice also here in verse 43, the atmosphere of awe, wonder, amazement, the sense of God being on the move. There’s nothing that motivates Christians more than a sense of God being on the move. There was always something happening; always something developing; always something changing; always a new person becoming a believer; always some kind of a miracle taking place; always an amazing transaction of people sharing together; always exciting prayer meetings; always new teaching coming from the Apostles, because they were learning everything from scratch. It’s a very exciting environment in which the Holy Spirit was the number one dynamic. The Apostles were filled with the Spirit, filled with power, and basically sharing that with this growing church community. I wish I’d been there. Maybe you feel the same after you’re hearing this recounting of the story. It really was remarkable! Many people wanted to be there for the Day of Pentecost. Christians often say to me, ‘I wish I was there for the Day of Pentecost!’ But I’d like to have been in their meetings, week by week, and find out what was going on and what made it so dynamic. What did it feel like to be in a church that is moving so fast in a forward direction and constantly growing? Maybe you’re in a church like that. Maybe you’re not. Maybe you’re hoping to be. This passage is for you. It’s to encourage you to aim high and to commit yourself to the things that can make it happen.
There are some reflections to share with you; some things that have come to mind as I’ve been pondering this passage and preparing to speak on it. First of all, we cannot escape the foundational fact that it is the Holy Spirit that’s the dynamic power. For us, one key thing to keep in mind is, if we want this lifestyle, we have to be as open to the Holy Spirit and ask him to fill us, on a daily basis, with his power, in a very conscious way, as I’m sure the Apostles did.
The second reflection I have is that, in any church community there’s a key role for inspired and gifted teachers and leaders, of which the Apostles are the supreme example. If you are a leader and you’re listening to this, can I encourage you to have faith that your ministry might grow and develop? If you’re a church member and you’re listening to this, can I encourage you to pray for your leaders? They need the grace of God to move in power, and to incorporate some of these dynamics in the church that you’re in. The best thing you can do to help them, is to pray for them and play your part in the church.
My third reflection is the fact that this story tells us that, in God’s purposes, the local church is the key. The Apostles didn’t disperse these three thousand and say, ‘Just go back home to your countries and your towns and cities and just tell a few other people along the way and let’s hope for the best’. They gathered them very strategically. They built a committed community. They knew that many of those people would go after a period of time, but they wanted them to be strengthened first, so that they could reproduce those churches in other countries and other locations. The local church is the key reality that advances the Kingdom, and that is as true today as it was in these days. The Apostles gave their energy, not just to preaching the Gospel but to building committed and effective local churches everywhere they went. That’s what they did and we see some dramatic examples of that in Paul’s ministry as we study the book of Acts.
My final reflection, and I’m going to leave you with this one is - out of these four priorities, which ones are you focused on? Teaching? Are you focused on learning more and more from the word of God? Fellowship? Are you actually committed to a local church in a way that can easily be seen? Are you engaged in committed relationships with other believers in your local church? If not, can I challenge you and encourage you? It’s God’s will for you to find a community and join it, and engage with it, in order that you may become fruitful and productive. Thirdly, Breaking of Bread? Are we neglecting the breaking of bread, the Lord’s Supper in our lives, or in our churches? It’s very important not to do that. It has power. Finally, prayer? How focused are you on prayer? Praying together is vital and should be a key to our Christian life.
There are lots of challenges in this passage. I hope you’ve enjoyed going through it and learning from it. Even though for many people who are familiar with the Bible, this is a very well-known passage, the depths of it are very significant and there’s much we can learn from it. Thanks for joining us for this episode, and I hope we’ll see you for the next one, and further along in the series as we go through the book of Acts.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Which part of Early Church life would you like to have experienced?
- In your community, which of the 4 parts of life are most important to you? (teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayer) Why?
- How would you describe your church life?
- Look at each part of Early Church life. How did it work then and could you do the same?