We are now close to the end of our sermon series: Back to the Basics: Knowing why you believe what you believe. These are the points we are trying to unpack:
10. That the church, consisting of all true believers, being Christ's own and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, is the Body of Christ, the invisible church; that the church is holy, universal and one in Christ; that the invisible church manifests itself in the visible church, the local congregations consisting all who profess to believe in Christ and are baptized; that as the people of God and a kingdom of priests, the church is called to grow unto the stature of the fullness of Christ and to fulfill her missionary work through the exercise of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in worship, ordinances, fellowship, discipline, and services.
11. In the priesthood of all believers, and the parity of the ministers and the laity.
Last week we did an overview of ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church. We saw that the church universal is the church as God sees it, the invisible body of all believers in Jesus Christ. This invisible body is manifested in the visible body in any given locality. This is the local church, as Christians see it. We were reminded that the church is not some place we went to, but something that we were.
We also looked at several images of what the church is like. This included the church as a family (God gave us something better than just friends!), a bride, branches, a new priesthood and as God’s temple. The church is at the heart of God and His purposes. The church is the gospel made visible and we are to love the church because Christ loved the church and that we must give ourselves to the church because Christ gave Himself for the church.
Today I want to look a little closer at the first church. Interesting how God providentially organized this message right at the Pentecost Sunday, where the church was born. Like I said last week, though there was something amazing going on early on in the church, the early church was by no means a perfect church. We can learn from them, but we must not try to teach their experience, but seek more to experience their teaching. We will see more of that today as we look at “Being a church that honors God.” More than anything I want Living Hope to honor God as a church. And I believe that if we are grounded on certain foundational truths, we will experience all that God has for us. Initially I titled this sermon, “How to build a dynamic, God-honoring community.” But the more I studied and prayed, the Lord kept saying, “Stop trying to do, learn to be first.” So here’s the first thing:
I. Be Word-focused (v.42)
Jesus, before He ascended, told the disciples to wait in the Upper Room where the Holy Spirit would come (Acts 1:5). And they did along with thousands of Jews who came to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. And God came, as promised, with tongues of fire and through Peter’s sermon, 3,000 people came to Christ (Acts 2:41). Man, 3,000 people saved through one sermon? That’s every pastor’s dream, but soon this became the disciples’ nightmare.
How was this community going to grow inwardly and outwardly? Jesus had told them not to make converts, but disciples (Matt. 28:19). From Acts 2:42 to 6:7, Luke gives us the highlights of what happened from over several years. Acts 1:1 to 2:41 he spends a lot of time to detail the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church. However, if he kept going at that rate, we would have books and books of the Acts of the Apostles (which would have been nice), but he moves forward in giving us snapshots of some of the highlights of the early church. When we don’t understand that this took place over several years, we begin to mistakenly think that every day was like every chapter in Acts. Not the case. So though I think the apostles regularly had power encounters, I am sure they had days where they were simply loving the Lord and being faithful without any major fireworks. Also, there have been days of ordinary struggle that Luke did not feel the need to include. 3,000 people get saved and you think all of them were walking in perfect victory right away? Absolutely not. So what you see here are some of the major highlights, the highlight reel, if you will, of the early Christian community according to Dr. Luke.
Let’s look at how Luke shares some of the best things about this church. Notice the word devoted in Acts 2:42. This word literally means to “hold fast to, endure in, stand perpetually ready or persevere in.”  In other words, “to occupy oneself diligently with something,” or “to pay persistent attention to.” There are 10 occurrences in the NT, six of them in Acts (Acts 2:42, 2:46, 6:4, 8:13, 10:7). Out of ten uses of the verb and one use of the noun in the New Testament, six are connected with prayer and two with the ministry of the Word. This is not surprising that Acts is full of this word. These early disciples were fired up and totally committed to the Word and prayer. They were consumed. It was continual and it was persistent. Well, what were they fired up about? The grammar seems to indicate that they were devoted to two things: the apostle’s teaching and the fellowship. The last two items, namely, the breaking of bread and prayers seem to elaborate on what the fellowship means.
So notice first of all: they were Word-focused. Notice that they were devoted “to the apostle’s teaching.” They were devoted to God’s Word. Certainly they did not have the New Testament as we have it or even the Gospels, but they taught from Jesus’ earthly ministry and things they learned from the Old Testament in light of Christ and probably what Jesus taught them the 40 days He was with them before He ascended.
Right away, we see what should be important in the life of the church. Notice that they are not all caught up in experience. They were Spirit-filled, but that meant they were Word-hungry. John Stott says, “A Spirit-filled church is a New Testament church, in the sense that it studies and submits to New Testament instruction. The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.”
Remember that the early church did not MAKE God’s Word the authority for them. They recognized it as authority. If we do believe God’s Word to be our authority and if it is God-breathed, it must be true then that God’s primary vehicle of communicating and getting to us all that we need for life and godliness will come through His Word. Right away we see they weren’t seeking some experience, but they wanted to be grounded in truth.
We have all gotten gift cards. But a gift card is worth nothing unless you make that transaction. Actually lots of companies make tons of money on unused gift cards. For example, did you know that Best Buy reported a $43 million dollar gain in fiscal year 2006 because of gift cards that were expired and weren't used within the two year limit?
And God wants us to cash in with Him so He can get to us His resources. And thankfully God and His resources never expire. Again, it’s not the quantity but the quality of God’s Word in your heart. Let it be a verse or a paragraph or a chapter you are chewing on every day. Think of a bad day, a wasted day as a day you weren’t able to draw near to God in His Word. God told the Israelites to go get the manna. He wasn’t going to magically ingest it into their stomach or lay it on their pillow. He provided they, they took it and applied it. As you honor God by putting His Word central, He will get to you all the power you need to live the Christian life and to be the best student or spouse or employee or sibling or friend or servant you are to be. But if His Word is not our central focus, something else will be central and you plug up the flow of God trying to reach your heart. And we are going to be a church that honors God, the best place to start is to have its members who are devoted to God’s Word.
We need to be a church devoted to God’s Word, making it the central focus. Let’s also be devoted to downloading and distributing God’s Word as we serve here. Sometimes people ask me how my Sunday sermon went. I actually don’t know how to answer that. Truly only eternity will reveal “how it went.” But just remember that the only thing that matters is what happens with the Word between your lips and your heart to the hearts of the people you are ministering to! Secondly,
II. Be inter-connected (v.42b)
Notice that fellowship is mentioned next. This word means “association, communion…close relationship.” Pastor Stephen Cole remarks, “We cannot be devoted to the Head, who is Christ, and at the same time cut ourselves off from the body, His church. That would be like a young man saying to his date, ‘I like your face, but your body is gross!’ That would be his last date with her!” Being connected to the Head means being connected with the body. Pastor James Macdonald defines “fellowship” as a “relationship between individuals through active participation in a common mission.” It’s more than togetherness or warm feelings when you have coffee together. As Pastor Tony Evans says, “Authentic biblical fellowship means the mutual sharing of the life of Christ between His family members.” It is this deep down devotion to one another and intimacy created as a by-product of one’s devotion to the Lord.
It is interesting that fellowship is mentioned after the Word. I think they are closely connected. Fellowship will always be a natural by-product of walking with God and putting His Word central in your life. Think about it. As we put God’s Word central in our own life, walk with Him, He fills us with power to do His will. And that natural overflow is always not just to bless us, but to be a blessing to others. The heart of God is always other-centered. You will be a channel for others and not a reservoir for yourself when you are putting His authority first.
If fellowship is a by-product, then our goal must be to walk with God better so that we can improve our fellowship. A.W. Tozer, using the analogy of a tuning fork and pianos, observes, “Has it ever occurred to you that one hundred pianos all tuned to the same [tuning] fork are automatically tuned to each other? They are of one accord by being tuned, not to each other, but to another standard to which each one must individually bow. So one hundred worshippers met together, each one looking away to Christ, are in heart nearer to each other than they could possibly be were they to become "unity" conscious and turn their eyes away from God to strive for closer fellowship. Social religion is perfected when private religion is purified. The body becomes stronger as its members become healthier. The whole church of God gains when the members that compose it begin to seek a better and a higher life.” 1 John 1:7 puts it this way: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another.” So if we want to work on our church’s fellowship, focus first on the Lordship of our lives. Your greatest need of me is my personal holiness and walk with God and vice versa.
I sense that God is growing us in fellowship as we seek to have the common mission of putting God first in our individual lives. Over time, as a family, let us pray that God deepens that fellowship deeper and deeper. My prayer is that as our love for Him and His Word grows deeper, our fellowship with one another moves from surface level to personal to intimate. Look down at Acts 2:44. Notice the words “together” twice (also in Acts 2:46). One commentator notes that this word “’together’ occurring five times in Acts (1:15; 2:1, 44, 47; 4:26). It seems to depict the gathered community, with a strong emphasis on their unity.” So fellowship is not so much togetherness but pressing through into a level of connectedness, as a result of being connected to the Lord. Are we simply together, doing things together or are we a deeply connected community?
III. Be Christ-centered (v.42c)
Notice how their fellowship played itself out: breaking of bread and prayers. The phrase “breaking of bread” refers to meals they had together which would end in having Communion together. In fact, “this remembrance would have been a time of quiet reflection, as well as an occasion for expressing thanks to the risen Jesus and praising him for what he had accomplished.” It was a time to experience Christ’s presence. Everything was about enjoying Him and His presence. That is worship—being preoccupied and enjoying Christ.
Let’s talk briefly about Communion. It is not a ritual. There are three major views. First, the literal view. Catholic and Orthodox churches believe that the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ. In a sense, you are re-sacrificing Christ again and again (see Heb. 9:28; 10:12). As a result, they believe when you take it, it has power within itself to forgive you of your sins. I grew up in a church that believed it. So some Sundays I would think, “Man, I was really bad this week. I need two or three pieces.” The Bible does not teach this.
Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, taught something differently, which the Lutherans hold to this day. This is the "presence" view. He rejected the Catholic view. Wayne Grudem attests, “His conclusion was not that the bread actually becomes the physical body of Christ, but that the physical body of Christ is present ‘in, with, and under’ the bread of the Lord’s Supper. The example sometimes given is to say that Christ’s body is present in the bread as water is present in a sponge—the water is not the sponge, but is present “in, with, and under” a sponge, and is present wherever the sponge is present.” However, other Protestants had issues with this, arguing how can Christ’s physical body be everywhere present?
So then John Calvin and other Reformers taught that the body and blood represented by the bread and the wine were just symbols of the reality and Christ was spiritually present in His Holy Spirit. This is the "symbol" view. They said Jesus also taught He was the vine and the bread and a door, which were not literal, but symbolic. We here at Living Hope believe this view to be what Jesus intended when He said, “this is my body broken for you and this is my blood shed for you.”
One writer says, “Suppose a man has a picture or a photograph of his wife. One day he shows it to a friend and says, "Look, this is my wife." What does he mean? Obviously he does not mean that this small piece of photographic paper is actually his wife. He is merely using a common figure of speech called a metaphor. What he really means is: "This represents my wife. This is a picture of my wife. When you look at this picture you will think of my wife." This is exactly what Jesus meant. Jesus said, "This is My Body" and the meaning of these words is: "This bread represents My body. This bread is a picture (symbol) of My body. When you look at this bread you will think of My body and what I did for you when I died on the cross." When Jesus said, "This is My body," it had to be symbolic because His body was right there and separate from the bread.” It is a symbol, though He is very much present with us as we take it.
Why do we celebrate Communion? We celebrate not only because 1) Jesus commanded it (1 Cor. 11:25), but because it is a 2) reminder of the gospel. Jesus died for me. I want to live for Him. It was ours sins that put Christ there. It is a remembrance of Christ’s death on our behalf. So Paul says do it with self-examination. Some of the Corinthians were getting drunk during it. Paul essentially warns them not to mess around with Communion. In fact, he says some of you have gotten sick and passed away because of it (1 Cor. 11:30). Interestingly, Paul in the context of 1 Corinthians seem to say that the Corinthians were not unified as body as took Communion. Selfishness and individualism caused disunity in the body and he says self-examine yourself to see if you are causing disunity in the body or sin in your heart as the church comes together to remember how Christ died for us as a community.
At the same time, it is also 3) a time of rejoicing. It reminds me that as He welcomes me to His table, it is a foretaste that one day He will welcome me to the great banquet, of the marriage feast of the Lamb. We remind ourselves that one day we will fellowship with Him in deep devotion together where He will be with us forever.
Now who should take Communion? Well first of all, definitely those who are true believers. There is also the question of whether one should be baptized first and then only take communion. I want to say more here, but will do so in conjunction with baptism, which we will look at, at another time. Also, Scriptures do not tell us the frequency of taking Communion. Some churches do it once a week. Others do it once or twice a month. And still others like us, do it a few times a year. I think each church should decide how often it should be taken. Though I personally think we should do it more often than less, the Scriptures focus more on how we are taking it than how often we should take it.
For the early church, breaking of bread was to meet with the presence of Christ in a special way. That was their concern. Notice also the prayers. Notice the word the in front of “prayers.” This indicates that they had regular written out prayers. There is nothing wrong with that (sometimes you wish you had prayed a spontaneous prayer better). But the point is not how they prayed, but that they prayed.
They could not be a church God wanted them to be without prayer. A Christ-honoring Church is a praying church. A prayerless church is a Christless church. Do you know that every great work of God in His church can be traced back to people who were people of prayer? Let us be known as a praying church.
The disciples never asked Jesus (that was recorded in Scripture) how to preach, but how to pray. D.L. Moody once said of this that they would all know how to preach if they first knew how to pray. Paul Billheimer adds, “The western church has lost the prayer stamina of the mission churches in Asia, Africa, South America, Indonesia, and those of the underground church in many parts of the world. Yes, we are great organizers, but poor pray-ers.”
Three years ago, I think would pray a lot for our church to grow in number. Now not so much. Not that I don’t believe we should, but I am starting to see that numbers do not impress God. How can an infinite being as big as God be impressed by any “big” thing? No, my goal is not a big church. My goal is a church full of people whose hearts are so big that they cannot get enough of Him. And that is a church that is a praying church. I want to be such a church where we are bothered not by all that we don’t have or our reputation or appearances or standing, but a church whose major concern is losing the nearness of Jesus Christ and whose major concern is being near to Christ always. Unfortunately, most of the time, I am consumed with everything else and not the nearness of Christ in our church. Loved ones, I don’t think we are fulfilling our mission as a church and ministry if we are not laying hold of the power and presence of God through prayer! Our call as a church is not primarily to DO MORE for God, but to BELIEVE GOD MORE. And as we grow in that, we will see that God will DO MORE with us.
Do we pray for our church? Do we pray for the people sitting around us this morning? Do you pray for the unbelievers who come and in our lives and in this church? That is the most loving thing we can do for them. I think it was Moody who also said that, “Next to the wonder of seeing my Savior will be, I think, the wonder that I made so little use of the power of prayer.”
IV. Be open-handed (vv.44-45)
Notice that when the Spirit fills our hearts, He also opens our hands. What is going on here with these people selling their possessions? Was this Communism? No, this was entirely voluntary and not coerced by the Apostles. I like what Pastor Jon Courson says: “They were “commonists.” And there’s a big difference. Communism says: What’s yours is mine. “Commonism” says: What’s mine is yours.” This is a good verse for us to see that the book of Acts describe what the early church was like, not prescribe how all churches should copy them. Narrative literature is descriptive not prescriptive. We should only seek to experience what they taught, not try to teach what they experienced. After Acts 5, there does not seem to be any more mention of this. So it was a unique response of the early Christians to help their brothers and sisters in need.
Cole observes, “The situation in Jerusalem was somewhat unique. Thousands of pilgrims had traveled there for the Feast of Pentecost. Many had been saved after Peter’s message, and they wanted to stay longer to get grounded in their new faith. They needed hospitality and financial help to do this. To meet these needs, the church opened their homes and their pocketbooks to help the needy.” So the point is not that we should sell all that we have and give it to the needy (certainly God may call some to do that). Out of love, if they sensed they were brothers and sisters in great need, some voluntarily gave of their resources to bless others. So their goods were not evenly distributed, but given according to need.
The point is an others-centered, open-handed generosity characterized the early church. They valued people over their possessions. Do we? Are you more concerned about your stuff than unsaved loved ones? About how many people unfriended you on facebook or how many friends lost without God today? I pray we will constantly be finding ways to the let the Spirit of God fill our hearts. Because once He fills our hearts, our hands will open to serve. It is the natural by-product. Fifthly and lastly,
V. Be God-blessed (vv.43, 46-47)
What happens to a church community committed, devoted, consumed with making the Word its focus, inter-connected with each other, Christ-centered and open-handed to others’ needs? God blesses them. God honors them. The outcomes or results belong to Him. We are often so obsessed with the results that we want instantly, where God calls us to focus on honoring Him and trust Him with the results.
Notice here a few ways God blessed them. First, a) An awe of God in Acts 2:43. John Macarthur says, “Phobos (awe) refers to fear or holy terror related to the sense of divine presence, to the attitude of reverence. It describes the feeling produced when one realizes God is at hand.” It is a sense that, “Wow! God is here.” Notice it wasn’t that people were awed by buildings or programs. It was an awe of God. God was there. He was alive and moving and working in their midst. Is there anything more awesome than that? Would we even know if God left our church? Would we sense it? Do we want God to do something in Living Hope where He alone gets the glory? Let’s honor Him and do our part and trust Him with this.
Secondly, b) Power of God. Notice that many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. I don’t have time to get into all of this here. However, let me just say that it seems to me that what the apostles had was a unique ability to heal and do miracles ON DEMAND. By Acts 15, we don’t even see much more of it. The Epistles rarely talk about it. So it seems like in the beginning of the church, to authenticate the message and the messengers, to start and build the church (Eph. 2:20), God worked through the apostles to have this power ministry. I think this ability died with the apostles. However, I do believe God does miracles today and physically heals today, but His primary focus is the miracle of salvation and healing of spiritual disease of sin. Even Paul had a thorn in the flesh he could not get removed and had to depend on Christ’s grace (2 Cor. 12:7-9). But I don’t want to argue with you about it, so if you believe differently, you can still stay in this service.
However, I do think we suffer from a power outage in our churches. We love authenticity and brokenness these days, but the resurrection power to help us live victorious lives over sins that have power over us is not often heard of. I am not saying that we should live perfect lives without sin, but experiencing His power to live a lot more than we do currently. As Tozer says, “The Church is like a poor old withered hag, rather than the beautiful, full-blooded bride of the Lamb we are intended to be.” We have become powerless.
Notice even Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1:11. He prays for power for God’s people. Power to do what? Miracles? Healing? Signs and wonders? What is the power for Paul? Notice: For endurance. For patience. For joy. For gratitude. To walk by the Spirit. To live in victory. You want to see power working at Living Hope? God will get that to us if we get our part right.
Thirdly, c) the Joy of the Lord. Notice down in v.46: “…they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God….” I see joy. What is joy? It is a supernatural delight in the person, plan and purposes of God. We saw they had financial difficulty. We know some were persecuted. We know others I’m sure struggled with how to be a Christian leaving their old background of Judaism behind. However, deep inside, despite their circumstances, they had His joy. Macarthur adds, “Those who glorify themselves and seek the preeminence will never know lasting joy. Joy comes to those who give God glory.”
Lastly, d) Fruitful Impact Notice in v.47: “having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” The idea is that their lives shone brightly. They didn’t need to make a lot of noise. Like the sun in midday, they just shone brightly and everyone knew. Luke realizes that it was the Lord who added, not the people. Healthy things grow. Again, numbers don’t impress God, but I believe if we do our part to honor the Lord, He doesn’t sit by passively. He will, in His time, prove Himself strong on behalf of those who simply cannot get enough of Him.
As I close, look over again what Christ calls us to be. Are you more obsessed with the outcomes that you want to come or asking God to help you be one who focuses on the Word wanting to get it downloaded in your heart and distributed to others. One who wants to be connected with people at Living Hope more than simply being together. One who craves Christ to be central through prayer and all activities in the church. And lastly, one who hands are open to give time, talents and treasure for the body of Christ. Loved ones, if these things are not our priority individually, we cannot expect to experience Him in the ways the early church did corporately. Our God cannot resist those who are cannot get enough of Him.
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