Posts Tagged 'early christians'

Life in the Early Church

St.-Peter-Preaching-in-Jerusalem-Poerson-1642-e1365780433925

Considering how the church was born and what God intended the church to become, it’s remarkable so many Christians either ignore it altogether, having no relationship with it or those who actually attend church just don’t take it seriously enough. The church was born on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit supernaturally filled 120 waiting believers.

And everyone present was filled with the Holy Spirit and began speaking in languages they didn’t know, for the Holy Spirit gave them this ability. (Acts 2:4 TLB)

Pentecost was an event prophesied in Leviticus 23. It was one of several feast days for Israel, divinely planned and appointed. The first feast day was Passover, which celebrated a new beginning for the people of Israel. This feast was a type, a foreshadow, of Christ our passover sacrifice for us:

Christ, God’s Lamb, has been slain for us. (1 Corinthians 5:7b TLB)

The second feast was the feast of Unleavened Bread. It lasted an entire week and foreshadowed the separated life of the believer; a life lived for God, apart from the world. The feast of Firstfruits was the third feast, and it typified the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Fifty days after this feast came Pentecost, also known as the Feast of Weeks. Similarly, fifty days after the resurrection of our Lord the events of Acts 2 occurred.

The church was born by the power of a Person: the Holy Spirit. The so-called “Pentecostal power” is really just the unfettered working of the Holy Spirit in anybody’s life, anytime. When the Holy Spirit fell on those 120 believers, He baptized them into the Body of Christ, literally uniting them as a unit with the risen Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. This is an experience every believer has at his conversion. At conversion, each believer is baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ. On the Day of Pentecost, each believer was also filled with the Holy Spirit individually. This “infilling” is something that all believers may experience repeatedly.

It may be said the Pentecost began the “age of the Spirit.”

Acts 2:42 – 47

They joined with the other believers in regular attendance at the apostles’ teaching sessions and at the Communion services and prayer meetings.

A deep sense of awe was on them all, and the apostles did many miracles.

And all the believers met together constantly and shared everything with each other, selling their possessions and dividing with those in need. They worshiped together regularly at the Temple each day, met in small groups in homes for Communion, and shared their meals with great joy and thankfulness, praising God. The whole city was favorable to them, and each day God added to them all who were being saved.

This handful of verses gives us the dynamics of a healthy church. The word “church” doesn’t appear in Acts until chapter 5, but the initially small community of believers formed at Pentecost was the first Christian church. In all, four things characterized it:

The teaching of the apostles. These men were eyewitnesses; they walked with Jesus and listened to His teachings for three years. The teachings or sermons of the apostles were probably teachings or sermons that Jesus gave. They probably talked about their Lord’s life and ministry. This was something Jesus wanted them to do:

“Therefore go and make disciples in all the nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and then teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you; and be sure of this—that I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” (Matthew 28:19, 20 TLB)

Fellowship. The first congregation fellowshipped together, often. They gathered together to share their spiritual blessings and their material blessings.

Communion. The early believers gathered together to hear the apostle’s teaching, to fellowship with each other, and also to have communion. They “broke bread.” We know from Jewish tradition that this group of believers also ate meals together.

Prayer and praise. There were two other things the believers in Jerusalem did whenever they met together, which was often. God and the Lord Jesus were central to their meetings. All the other activities they engaged in revolved around prayer and praise.

This is a church that was healthy. They cared for and about each other as individuals but also as a whole. No doubt they fellowshipped with each other out in the community, but they never neglected meeting together as a congregation that had somethings in common. They held a common experience, a common belief, and a common goal.

The results of this kind of healthy fellowship are obvious:

The people were in awe. That is, the members of the group – the church – worshipped and fellowshipped with reverence for God and the things of God. Apparently this sense of “awe” was bolstered by the signs and wonders performed by the apostle.

They shared what they had with each other. Contrary to what some socialist Christians may think, sharing of possessions had little to do with a regular or customary practice within the early church but had a very practical purpose. During this time – Pentecost – Jerusalem was full of travelers and visitors who were miles away from home, and very often they needed daily necessities. Fact is, after chapter 5, we have no record of this kind “sharing in common” taking place.

Good reputation in town. At least very on in the church age, the congregation in Jerusalem enjoyed a very good reputation among the people. Mind you, this didn’t last too long, but for now, this first congregation was in a very good place.

Growth. Lastly, this church grew. The Lord was moving in Jerusalem, people were getting converted and joining the church.

The church of Jesus Christ is now some 2000 years past this Day of Pentecost. We don’t need another Pentecost; the same Holy Spirit that was at work in this first church is at work in the church today. The overriding needs of the Church today are for its members to be steadfastly dedicated to the teaching of Jesus as revealed in the Bible, committed to fellowshipping together, breaking bread together, and praising God together.

Acts 4:23 – 31

As soon as they were freed, Peter and John found the other disciples and told them what the Council had said. Then all the believers united in this prayer… (Acts 4:23, 24 TLB)

Well, as I mentioned earlier, the early church enjoyed a good reputation in Jerusalem but those feelings of good will didn’t last very long. The first persecution of the apostles took place, which wasn’t too surprising. Jesus did warn His followers to expect it. However, what happened following that persecution was a little unexpected. Instead of hunkering down and going underground, the believers all got together for a prayer meeting! Prayer is always the best way to meet any kind of opposition.

That first sentence is very telling. Here it is from the KJV:

And being let go, they went to their own company...

This is not only a statement of fact, but also of a basic Christian principle. When all outward restraints are gone, what kind of company do you seek?

The prayer which begins at verse 24 and concludes at verse 30 is the longest one Luke ever recorded. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of the prayers found in 2 Kings 19:15 – 19 or Isaiah 37:15 – 20. This great prayer is definitely worthy of not only study but of imitation.

First, notice how they recognized God: He was the God who is the absolute sovereign over His subjects. They used the unusual word despotes, not the more common kyrios. Despotes in English is “despot,” and is sort of a negative word but it does serve to describe their attitude about God: He is the absolute authority and has absolute authority over their lives. They also saw God as the creator; the One who created the universe. In that sense He is the absolute Sovereign.

Then they submitted themselves to the will or plan of God. As they prayed, they quoted from Psalm 2, applying it to Jesus and the Crucifixion. This more than affirms the divine inspiration of what David wrote. Who was responsible for the crucifixion? According to those who prayed this prayer, Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel all conspired to do our Lord in. But that human responsibility is mixed in with God’s predetermined plan.

They won’t stop at anything that you in your wise power will let them do. (Acts 4:28 TLB)

God’s plan may not always be sunshine and butterflies, but believers need to learn how to submit to it. The persecution the apostles experienced wasn’t pleasant, nor was it the last time they would be persecuted like this, but it was part of His plan.

And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and grant to your servants great boldness in their preaching, and send your healing power, and may miracles and wonders be done by the name of your holy servant Jesus. (Acts 4:29, 30 TLB)

These two verses represent the believer’s petitions – their prayer requests. What they don’t ask for is almost as interesting as what do ask for. Their petition is filled with a sense of praise and glory to God, but they for boldness in preaching the Word of God. In essence, following the persecution, the people were praying for the strength – the boldness – to carry on. Human nature would be to ease off the preaching for a while. But these people wanted God to help them to keep going. It’s not insignificant that what is missing from this prayer is a request for divine protection! These courageous Christians didn’t want protection, they wanted power.

It didn’t take long, but their prayer was answered:

After this prayer, the building where they were meeting shook, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and boldly preached God’s message. (Acts 4:31 TLB)

God’s answer to their request for boldness was another infilling (not baptism) of the Holy Spirit which was accompanied by the shaking of their meeting place. As happened during the Day of Pentecost, when they were filled again with the Spirit the went out boldly proclaiming the Word of God. Duncan Campbell’s observation is priceless:

The Kingdom of God is not going to be advanced by our churches becoming filled with men, but by men in our churches becoming filled with God.

Indeed. Life in the early church was marked by a healthy, vibrant, highly spiritual and therefore, functional congregation, vitally connected to each other and to the head of the church, Jesus Christ. The early Christians seemed to be more concerned with the mission God gave them than with their own comfort and safety. No wonder that early church walked in, not only the grace of God, but the power of God, as well.

INTRODUCTION TO SPIRITUAL GIFTS

The church as we know it has been around for some two thousand years. Most people have gone to church at least once. A lot of people go to church at least twice a year—at Christmas and Easter—or several times a year. Many of us go to church regularly every week, sometimes twice a week, and barring something out of the ordinary, we know pretty much what to expect when we go to church. We sing hymns and worship choruses, take up an offering and listen to a sermon. Every so often we celebrate Communion and have baptismal services. And, thankfully, most churches have their times of fellowship where members get to eat and socialize in the church hall. That’s the church-going experience for most of us in America.

But when you read the New Testament, particularly the book of Acts which gives us a brief history of the early years of the church, you can’t help but notice the church-going experience of those early Christians was different. Without regard to anything else, the early church seemed to experience some powerful manifestations of the supernatural. For example, it seemed common in those early days to see the sick healed, to see demons cast out of people, and even the dead raised back to life. When we read about the adventures of Paul, the great apostle-missionary who founded so many churches, we are amazed at the things that happened to him and how the Lord used him to work so many miracles. Miracles seemed to be the norm, not the exception, as Paul and the other preachers went about their work. There is a curious verse in Acts 19:11 that seems to indicate this:

And God wrought special miracles by the hands of Paul… (KJV)

“Special” miracles, as opposed to the everyday miracles, accompanied Paul as he traveled around preaching and evangelizing. So, it certainly seems that demonstrations of the supernatural were common in those days.

There was nothing particularly noteworthy about Paul, Peter, and the apostles. They were ordinary men. The men and women who were charter members of the very first church were no different from you and me. They had all the same weaknesses we have today. In fact, if anything, we have the advantage over them in that we have the full revelation of God, the Bible, in our hands. They did not; all they had were the Old Testament scriptures, and even at that, personal copies of the Old Testament were non-existent.

So what made church services so different back then? They prayed, they sung hymns, they took up offerings, they baptized converts and celebrated Communion, and they listened to sermons. And yet, something was different. When they prayed, they prayed “in the Spirit,” sometimes they even prayed “in tongues.” When the sermon was preached, it went forth with power and authority. Sometimes there were even prophecies given from the congregation! Even church”business meetings” were not so much concerned with business than with being directed by the Holy Spirit.

1. The gift of the Holy Spirit

So then, what made the early church so different from the church today? It was the gift of the Holy Spirit. Today, we all understand the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. We all know that we are filled with the Holy Spirit at the moment of our salvation. But while we intellectually grasp the idea of the Holy Spirit, the members of the early church not only grasped the Holy Spirit with their minds, but they did so with their hearts. In other words, the Holy Spirit to them was not so much a doctrine as an experience. They knew when they were filled with Spirit, they could tell when the Spirit was moving in them, and they coveted those experiences; there was a common expectation in the early church that the Holy Spirit could be experienced by any believer. Consider the question of Acts 19:2

Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

What followed that exchange was nothing less than another, smaller pentecost in Ephesus, like what happened on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem. When those Ephesian believers were made aware that there was something available to them beyond their salvation, they experienced the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the same way the believers did in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost.

When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:6, 7)

What this passage and other similar passages in Acts teach us is that when a person receives the fullness of the Holy Spirit, they begin to manifest the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In this case, the dozen men spoke in tongues, but there are other gifts of the Spirit that believers may manifest at the discretion of the Lord when they are filled. This display of the gifts must necessarily take place when one is “baptized in the Holy Spirit” because that’s what the Holy Spirit does! He makes His presence known:

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7)

Notice the word “manifestation.” The Greek word behind that English word is phanerosis, which means, “to shine forth.” That’s what the Holy Spirit does; He “shines forth” from the believer in the form of spiritual gifts.

As we will discover in our study of the gifts progresses, the gifts of the Spirit are meant to be used within the context of the community of faith: the local church. They were given to believers to help build up the church; to help make it strong; to make it a better church. That’s what Paul tried to teach the Corinthians, a church that needed to learn about the spiritual gifts. In this case, Paul used the example of the gift of prophecy:

…and the secrets of his heart will be laid bare. So he will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, “God is really among you!” (1 Corinthians 14:24)

We see here that, in Paul’s example of the gift of prophecy, when it is manifested it will “shine forth” so that people will know that God is moving in that congregation.

Thanks to the spiritual gifts, church services don’t have to become “boring,” repetitive exercises, even if the same “format” is used week after week. If we understand that the Spirit desires to work through us and we come to church expecting this to happen, it will, and a congregation will see the Spirit “shining forth” from its members. When that happens, regardless of what gifts are being manifested, members will exclaim just as Paul said, “God is really among you!”

2. Are spiritual gifts for today?

This is a very common question in non-pentecostal churches. The short answer is, Why not? Those who teach they are not for today have to prove why spiritual gifts are not for today. Among the arguments they cite are:

The gifts stopped at the end of the apostolic age.

Whenever somebody says this, they are really showing their ignorance. The New Testament clearly indicates the exact opposite is true, that:

God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29)

Just like the calling to salvation, the spiritual gifts God gave the church do not come with an expiration date! He gave them to the church initially on the Day of Pentecost two millennia ago and they are still with the Church today.

Now, it is true that Paul told the Corinthians this:

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. (1 Corinthians 13:8)

But, the key to understanding what Paul said is two verses down the page:

but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. (1 Corinthians 13:10)

The spiritual gifts will come to an end, but only when “perfection comes,” or when Jesus Christ returns to the Earth, and that hasn’t happened yet. When He returns, the Spiritual gifts will no longer be necessary because He who gave them in the first place will be here in Person!

It is true that the further on we get into Acts, we do witness an diminution of the gifts. However, this is not necessarily because the Spirit stopped manifesting Himself, but because of another reason cited by no less a scholar as John Wesley:

The cause of this [decline of spiritual gifts] was not, (as has been vulgarly supposed,) `because there was no more occasion for them,’ because all the world was become Christians. This is a miserable mistake; not a twentieth part of it was then nominally Christian. The real cause was, `the love of many,’ almost of all Christians, so called, was `waxed cold.’ The Christians had no more of the Spirit of Christ than the other Heathens.

So, if there seemed to be fewer supernatural manifestations of the Holy Spirit the further away we get from Pentecost, it has nothing to do with God, but everything to do with man.

The fact is, as we study church history, we see that the Gifts have never really stopped altogether. Early Church fathers, like Irenaeus, Tertullian, John Chrysostom, and Augustine write about their observations of the gifts of the Spirit. During the Middle Ages, different groups of Christians—the Waldeneses and the Quakers, for example—all write about their experiences with different spiritual gifts.

We have the complete revelation of God, the Bible, so the gifts are no longer necessary.

This is another one of those arguments that makes no sense. Never in the New Testament is any Spiritual Gift granted the same stature as the Word of God. Time and time again in Acts and the Epistles we read citations from the Old Testament given as authoritative sources, never is a word from Paul or Peter or a prophecy treated like the Word of God. It is clear that the apostolic leaders understood the gifts of the Spirit to be purely secondary to and in support of the Word of God. That is how we ought to view them today. While we do possess the complete Word of God, and God has told us everything we need to know in it, the gifts of the Spirit are for the purpose of making God’s Word real and for illuminating it our hearts. No gift of the Spirit is meant to replace the Word.

If the gifts are for today, why do so many church leaders discount them?

This is a question those church leaders need to be asked! The onus is on them to explain to the members of the church why they don’t believe in them. Sadly, too many church leaders are content with knowing the great doctrines of their churches but not with experiencing personally the manifestation of the power of God. Sometimes these church leaders are just ignorant of what the Word of God really teaches. Other times their minds are closed to these deeper experiences because of fear.

There is no good reason why every Bible believing church today should not be enjoying the fullness of the Holy Spirit through the exercising of His gifts.

3. The purpose of spiritual gifts

Not every believer will stand behind a pulpit and preach the Word of God to a congregation. But all believers are called to be witnesses for God:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:9)

To help believers do this more effectively, God has given us the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Paul called a spade a spade when he wrote this:

But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. (1 Corinthians 1:27)

Paul could have been describing us! We all need the supernatural empowering of the Holy Spirit if we are to be effective in our service for Him. Even Paul, as great, as educated, and as talented as he was, needed God’s help in accomplishing the work God had called him to:

When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power. (1 Corinthians 2:1—5)

All Christians are called, not only to be saved, but to minister for the Lord. All true ministry is motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit. No Christian is exempt from this great work:

Now to each one [each member of the church] the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12:7)

he [God] gives them [the spiritual gifts] to each one [each member of the church], just as he determines. (verse 11b)

With the exception of the gift of tongues, which is for private use, all the gifts of the Spirit are given to members of the church by God for “the common good” of the church. When members of the church learn to yield themselves to the Holy Spirit and begin in faith exercising the spiritual gifts God has given them, the whole church will be built up. What a precious, thoughtful gift God has given us! Too bad it is so neglected.

(c)  2012 WitzEnd

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