(April14, 2021) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, continues his teaching on this important aspect of genuine church life…
As I mentioned last month, this past year has been a challenging time for churches throughout the world as each local church has attempted to redefine how to perform and how to survive as a church.
I’d written about two of five principles to which those first Christians – the early church – were committed… Engaging in Evangelism and Church Growth and Commitment to God’s Word and Prayer.
Here I continue with the other three…
3. Develop Authentic Relationships
Act 2:42 recalls that the early church, those first Christians ‘… devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’
There are a further two things this verse teaches us.
This is a word that is widely used in church circles today, but the way fellowship is expressed often falls far short of what the New Testament means by the word. Christianity is a relational thing!
But if the church family is going to work effectively, relationships must be made and deepened and nourished. We need strongly to embrace this concept of belonging to each other because the word ‘fellowship’ describes community, that is, the great quality of togetherness.
One of the things that deeply impresses me about this passage is the sense of oneness in the Jerusalem church in those days. Clearly those many new Christians were effectively integrated into the fellowship of the church that began with an easy-to-manage 120 people and grew to a mammoth 3000 plus in the days and weeks that followed.
I am sure there were problems in that first church, but they were not highlighted! The problems were not what characterised the church! Instead, ringing through this passage is the spirit of oneness and joy. In those early days, the focus of those Christians was on Jesus, his gospel, authentic fellowship and the presence of the living God in their midst.
Once we take our focus off that and allow personal grievances or greed or disagreements or resentments or anything else that falls into the category of ‘personal interest’ to snake their way into the life of the church, great damage is done to the gospel and to the integrity of our profession. In chapter 5 of Acts we see some of those consequences. So we need regularly to examine ourselves both personally and as a church.
(ii) Breaking of bread
The phrase ‘breaking of bread’ is used in the New Testament to refer to two things.
First it can refer to the memorial meal, the symbolic act, introduced by Jesus to his disciples on the night he was betrayed and arrested. At that fellowship meal Jesus took the bread and wine which he then associated with his body and blood. He told his disciples to eat and drink in memory of him and of his sacrifice on the cross to secure their salvation.
This was a precious ongoing reminder of the wondrous love of Christ and the early church families celebrated it often. It was a simple fellowship meal that helped to bond them to Jesus.
But the phrase, ‘breaking of bread’ also referred to ordinary meals when people got together in homes and shared a meal. There is something bonding when people meet around a table for a meal and relax together. It was one of the ways the early church members reached out to each other and developed fellowship and got to know one another better. It was a meal that helped to bond them to one another. And they did this frequently.
Those early Christians often shared the Lord’s Supper and a fellowship meal when they met together. The purpose of both types of meal was bonding and fellowship. Verse 46 reinforces this: ‘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.’
The Greek word translated ‘together’ expresses a spirit of oneness and acceptance among the people. This early church principle challenges us with this question — Do we truly practice the social embrace of the gospel? Does the sense of ‘togetherness’ infuse the church to which we belong?
A friend of mine once said that most churches seem to practise ‘billiard ball Christianity.’ By that he meant that when we meet, we often just bounce off each other like billiard balls, without taking the time or making the effort really to get to know each other.
Here are some personal questions…
- How embracing are we of each other?
- Do we generally just limit our relationships to a small circle of friends?
- And when people visit our church, do they truly sense that they are accepted and welcome?
In God’s family, everyone is precious. Everyone should be valued. Everyone should be included in the life of the church. Everyone should sense that they are cherished. That is what koinonia, fellowship, is about.
I have been in so many churches over the years where authentic fellowship has been sadly lacking. The preaching may be challenging and instructive. The music may be wonderful. The administration may be exemplary. But real biblical ‘fellowship’ needs to be worked on! We must always play our part to ensure that the koinonia principle is practised in the church as a lifestyle.
4. Expecting to experience of God’s awesomeness
Acts 2:43 speaks of the early church’s expectation… ‘Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.’
We must take note of this this – the Christians of that first church experienced a profound awareness of their awesome God! That clearly was related to and encouraged by the wonders and signs that God was working through the apostles.
They knew that God was in their midst. They knew that the God whom Moses described in Deuteronomy 10:17 as ‘theLord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome …’ was present among them. (How we have devalued the word ‘awesome’ in common speech today!)
We need to grasp that reality that ‘our God is an awesome God’ because it is a faith-elevating truth. We have often so formalised the way we ‘do’ church that we have largely lost that sense of awe. We are willing to declare that our God is an awesome God but…
- Do we really ‘stand in awe’ of him?
- Do we really anticipate his manifesting his awesome presence among us?
- Do we really expect him to move among us in awesome ways?
- Do we really have any heightened expectation that our great and awesome God will do great things among us?
William Carey, the respected Baptist missionary to India, preached a sermon in 1790 in which he tried to get his hearers to move from the comfort of their Christian groove and to realign their perspective of the kind of God they worshipped.
Carey declared the memorable words, ‘Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.’ Do we have any real expectation that God will do anything of an awesome nature in our midst? Carey was right – only when we expect great things from God will we attempt great things for God.
The Bible scholar and translator, J.B. Phillips wrote a book of which the title says it all – Your God is too Small. Well, that certainly wasn’t true of the first Christians. They did not just believe in an awesome God; Luke wrote, ‘Everyone was filled with awe.’
We need to grasp this fundamental principle about God about whom Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:20, ‘To him, who by the power at work within us, is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, his incomparably great power for us who believe.’
‘Nothing is impossible with God,’ Jesus said! (See Matthew 19:26, Mark 10:27, Luke 1:37, 18:27). Do we truly believe that? Do we live in that sense of awe that those first Christians had? And if we don’t, why don’t we?
5. Share in practical acts of support and care
Acts 2:44-45 is our fifth church enduring principle: ‘All the believers were together (united) and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.’
Those believers took the idea of being a family very seriously. One of the impressive things we see in the early church was its spirit of generosity, compassion and care which was expressed in very practical ways. Their bonding was more than just having the same confession of faith. No, they took to heart their ‘togetherness’ and sought to implement ways by which their care would be tangibly expressed.
Luke wrote, ‘Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.’They were not required to do that, but they had a generous spirit and their commitment to helping those who had practical needs was exemplary. But that decision, to sell all their possessions and put the proceeds into a kind of common fund, was not required of them by God and clearly it was flawed because it was not well thought out – as we discover in Acts 5 when Ananias and Sapphira withheld a part of the price received from the property they sold and lied about it!
So what principle can we learn from Acts 2:44-45 that we can apply to our lives as a community of believers? Simply this – those Christians shared what they had to those who were in need because they were generous and because they wanted to help is very practical ways. They did not just do the ‘spiritual’ thing and say, ‘God bless you. I’ll pray for you.’ That is a cop out!
James, the brother of Jesus, also raised this issue. In James 2:15-17 he wrote, ‘Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, “Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.’
The point being made by both Luke and James is this – a truly authentic faith is demonstrated through practical acts of loving support and care for those who need it. This principle challenges the church regularly to examine its life, to reflect agape love and to practise genuine care for one another.
Luke’s ‘window’ into the first church in Acts 2:40-47 does not give the church a pattern to follow but it does give us challenging, life-transforming and enduring principles to embrace and practice – individually and collectively – if we want truly to reflect God’s love in his church and accomplish his goals through his church.
This article is dependent on one fact that we celebrate at the beginning of this month – the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ.
If Jesus had not risen from the tomb, the church would never have been established and the principles outlined in Acts 2:40-47 would be irrelevant.
But Jesus has risen! He is among us and we, the church, can demonstrate the reality of that truth to others through those same principles we see being worked out in the early church.
We serve a risen Saviour. Hallelujah!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited andBible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Offered free, all of Dr Jim’s writings are highly recommended – such as Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments, Interpreting the Letter of James, and Faith Works – A Commentary on the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and. Link for orders and questions: OnlinerConnect@gmail.com