Posts Tagged 'Early Church'

Biblical Inclusion

peter_in_the_house_of_cornelius

The early church was growing in spite of – or perhaps, with the help of – some persecution at the hands of some Jewish religious leaders. One of those, Saul – or Paul – had been converted to Christ. The end of its first decade was nearing and the Christian church was gaining many, many members from the Jewish populations in Judea, Galilee and even some Samaritans had found Christ. Philip was busy preaching up and down the Mediterranean coast and winning more Jewish converts from that region.

But the Gospel is for everyone. It was time for it to be preached to people who were not Jewish or of Samaritan decent. The Gospel needed to be taken to the Gentiles.

Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19, 20 NIV)

We call Paul “the apostle to the Gentiles,” but it was Peter whom the Lord chose to break through the cultural and religious barrier with the Good News. This is what the Bible considers to be “inclusive.” The Gospel is for everybody, not just for some. The call of salvation goes out to all people without regard to their culture or color or anything else. Anybody is welcome to respond to Christ’s call.

Acts 10:1 – 23

At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. (Acts 10:1 NIV)

Dr Luke mentions Caesarea three times. The first time Ceasarea is mentioned, we learn that Philip settled there after he preached the Gospel. The next time, Paul was on the run for his life and his friends took him to Caesarea to hop on board a ship which would take him to Tarsus. And here we learn about a citizen of this great city.

Caesarea, originally known as Strato’s Tower, and was a bustling metropolis which Caesar Augustus gave to Herod in 30 AD. Herod, in turn, renamed it Caesarea to honor Caesar. It was a beautiful city by all accounts with a very diverse population that apparently all got along with each other. Greeks and Romans mixed their cultures and even though they were a minority in the city, the Jews exerted some powerful political influence.

Cornelius, serving the Italian Regiment there, was a centurion, a non-commissioned officer in command of a hundred soldiers. He was Roman – a Gentile – who was wealthy and had a good reputation among not only his peers but the general population of Caesarea.

He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (Acts 10:2 NIV)

He may have been a Gentile, but Cornelius was a devout one. He was a convert to Judaism and he believed in the God of Judaism. He was a generous man and a praying man, but was not yet a saved man. In other words, he was religious.

Two visions are recorded in the first 16 verses. Cornelius the Gentile had one and Peter the Jew had one. God was preparing each man to meet the other. God was working at both ends of the line.

In his vision, Cornelius is given very specific instructions by an angel:

“Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.” (Acts 10:5 NIV)

“Simon” was probably the most common name among Jews, and the important one, Peter, was staying at Simon, the tanner’s home. That’s why the angel’s instructions were so explicit.

Meanwhile, Peter had his vision:

He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” (Acts 10:10-13 NIV)

For a Jew, those instructions where hard to swallow. Everything Peter was taught, all the laws and practices of his Jewish upbringing and faith, were now being turned upside down.

The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (Acts 10:15 NIV)

Peter hadn’t been wrong his whole life; he had been observing the very laws God had given His people. But, as they say, the times they were a’changing. God would now cleanse the Gentiles with His Gospel and the Gentiles would now be brought into the fold on the same basis as Jewish believers. Verse 15 is not an insignificant verse for the church of today to remember. It has been called a “divine corrective.” It emphasizes the cleansing power of God’s saving grace. It’s not just a setting aside of religious food laws. It’s God’s great equalizing power at work. Gentiles, renewed by the grace of God, could now become part of God’s great family. John MacArthur:

The kingdom of God is for the spiritually sick who want to be healed, the spiritually corrupt who want to be cleansed, the spiritually poor who want to be rich, the spiritually hungry who want to be fed, the spiritually dead who want to be made alive.

Acts 10:34 – 43

Cornelius was a man who had a measure of faith. When Peter and Cornelius’ men finally reached their destination, Cornelius was waiting for them.

The following day he arrived in Caesarea. Cornelius was expecting them and had called together his relatives and close friends. (Acts 10:24 NIV)

The Greek wording indicates that this man had been “continuing to wait expectantly for them.” Think of this man’s faith. He knew Peter would come and he gathered his family together as his vision told him to do. Cornelius, not yet a born again believer, not yet in possession of either saving faith, the Holy Spirit, nor the Word of God, had exhibited more faith than many Christians today. God was definitely working on this Gentile’s heart, and this Gentile was co-operating with Him at every step.

Peter’s opening comments to his host show how far he had come in his spiritual journey:

He said to them: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:23 NIV)

How far this one-time apostle had come in a such a short span of time! Here was the man who denied his Lord three times; who had contradicted the Word of the Lord, now obeying without question God’s instructions! God was asking Peter to completely change his religious orientation, and he was doing just that.

He then preached a sermon specifically tailored for his audience. This was a transformed man, for sure. Once a fisherman who spoke his mind without thinking, he was now preaching with great skill and sensitivity. He spoke in such a way as to virtually eliminate the possibility of his audience misunderstanding his message. His sermon had three main points:

First, Peter dealt with the current situation. Verse 34:

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…”

All people, Jew or Gentile, are in need of salvation because all people are equally lost and God wants all people to be saved.

Secondly, Peter deals with the personal career of Jesus. His audience apparently was acquainted with this Jesus of Nazareth and the apostle makes these points:

He was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. God equipped Jesus with power to carry out His mission of preaching and healing. The word “power” indicates that what Jesus did He did through the indwelling Spirit. No human being could do what Jesus did without the power of God operating in his life: Jesus stood up to Satan, cast out demons, healed the lame and the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and He proclaimed the Word of God like no one before Him.

He went around doing good and healing people. Jesus set people free from sin, sickness, and Satan. Everywhere He went He changed lives, one way or the other. He spoiled the devil’s plans for man.

God was with Jesus. Everything Jesus did He did according to God’s plan. He didn’t speak anything God didn’t want Him to say. He didn’t go anywhere God didn’t want Him to go. He didn’t do anything God didn’t want Him to do. Jesus lived a life of absolutely perfect obedience.

Lastly, Peter makes it clear that Jesus was no mere man. Up till now, Jesus’ divinity hadn’t been discussed. But Jesus was the Son of God and these Gentiles needed to know it. He died and rose again, by the power of God.

This Savior then gave His followers a mission:

He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. (Acts 10:42 NIV)

What Peter was doing was evangelizing!

To “evangelize” is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that as the reigning Lord He now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gift of the Holy Spirit to all who repend and believe. — John Stott

Acts 10:44 – 48

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles. (Acts 10:44, 45 NIV)

This great evangelistic sermon didn’t have an ending; it didn’t need one. The Holy Spirit fell on this group of Gentiles while Peter was preaching and they had their own mini-Pentecost! In fact, at the Jerusalem Council, some time later, Peter compared this so-called Gentile Pentecost with the original Pentecost.

God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. (Acts 15:8, 9 NIV)

God had cleansed the hearts of the 120 gathered in the Upper Room when they were filled with Spirit in Acts 2, and He did the same thing with Cornelius’ household in Acts 10.

This, naturally, astonished the Jewish brothers Peter had with him. And it was a good thing he had witnesses! The importance of what happened to these Gentiles cannot be overstated. Here God had received them into the fellowship not only on an equal basis with the Jews but without the laying on of hands. Receiving the Holy Spirit at the very moment of salvation is the normal pattern, and the gift of tongues was a sign to the Jews present that this event was of God.

This is inclusion, Biblical style. Salvation is for everyone, anywhere.

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.

STUDIES IN ACTS, PART 4

 

MARKS OF A DYNAMIC CHURCH

Acts 2:37—47

In some senses, the Church of Jesus Christ has never had it so good. We, as Americans, are fortunate to be living in a country that, for the most part, does not stop us from engaging in many different forms of evangelism. Given our freedom to do the work of the Lord, why are so many churches struggling to survive? With three hundred million citizens in the country, why isn’t every church in America flourishing and growing?

The answer to that question comes to us when we study what made the early Church tick. Many churches today use various “business” models to promote growth, but Peter and the apostles didn’t have any “business” models to emulate. All they could do was simply trust in the Lord and use the only resource they had: the Word of God empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Luke, chronicler of the early Church, gives us a kind of check list of what that Church did, and what they did caused them to experience incredible success. Before looking at the good doctor’s check list, it should be noted that everything the budding Christian congregation did in the first few days after the Day of Pentecost they did in response to Peter’s sermon. It wasn’t the Holy Spirit alone that caused the early Church to grow, it was a combination of the power inherent to the Word of God and the Holy Spirit.

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37)

This was the initial response to Peter’s sermon, the listeners were “cut to the heart.” That phrase comes from a long Greek word katanysomai, and it’s a very strong verb seen only here in the New Testament. It means “to pierce, to sting sharply, to stun, to smite.” This is the most vivid description of the Holy Spirit’s work of convicting the human heart of sin in the entire Bible. So deep was the anguish of the people that they cried out, “What shall we do?” Peter’s inspired answer gives us the marks of a dynamic church.

1. Repentance: “Repent…” (verse 38)

The essence of the people’s question was,  “How can we receive forgiveness of sins and find salvation?” Peter answers their question simply and to-the-point. The very first thing they needed to do was repent. The Greek word Peter used is metaneo, which means “to change your mind,” or we might say “change your way of thinking.” Peter urged his listeners to change their minds and attitudes with regard to Jesus Christ. Instead of rejecting Him, they needed to accept Him as Lord.

The fact that mataneo is written in the imperative, shows just how important it is. It is very first step any sinner must take in becoming a Christian. Repentance signifies that a person’s mind has been changed completely so that now he consciously and actively turns away from sin and to Christ as his Lord and Savior. But repentance isn’t just a first step, although it is that, it must be a continual state of being for the believer; he must live in repentance. Repentance causes a person to literally think and act in complete harmony with the teachings of Jesus Christ. This has to be done daily, as is suggested by Paul’s wonderful admonition in Romans 12:2a—

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

2. Baptism: “Repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus Christ…” (verse 38)

Peter continues with the next mark of a dynamic church: water baptism. As a public testimony of their repentance and new faith in Jesus Christ, Peter urged the people to be baptized in water. This was to follow repentance in the life of the Church just as it did in the ministry of John the Baptist:

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:4)

Of course, water baptism was a very familiar religious exercise to the Jews; whenever a Gentile wished to convert to Judaism, he had be baptized in water. This showed to all that he was now in complete agreement with the tenets of his new religion. But this baptism was different; different even from John the Baptist’s baptism, for he never baptized anybody “in the name of Jesus Christ.” The word “name” is of vital importance in understanding what it means “to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” That term, “name,” includes the full revelation concerning Jesus Christ. In other words, when a new believer is baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ,” he is, among other things, showing that he is now in agreement with everything Jesus taught and stands for.

Not only does water baptism identify a believer with the Person and teachings of Jesus Christ, it also demonstrates to all two things: (1) That a spiritual work was taken place inside the person. That spiritual work can’t be seen from the outside, so water baptism is a dramatic way to show everybody on the outside what has happened on the inside. (2) That this new believer is beginning his walk with Jesus Christ by being obedient to Him. It was Jesus’ wish that all of His followers be baptized in water, so by being baptized in water shows that we are being obedient to Him.

3. Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (verse 38b)

The third point of Peter’s sermon is also the third mark of a dynamic church. Notice that Peter calls the Holy Spirit here a “gift.” Peter is not talking about “the Gifts of the Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:1; 14:1). The “gift of the Holy Spirit” (singular) is another way of describing what happened to the 120 believers on the Day of Pentecost. “The gift” is simply the Holy Spirit Himself given to individual believers to minister salvation and the benefits of grace and mercy of Christ’s redemption to those believers.

Being a gift, you don’t ask for it or pray for it; the gift of the Holy Spirit is given to you when you fulfill the prerequisite of being in a state of repentance. The “Gifts of the Holy Spirit” are something else altogether. While the gift (singular) of the Holy Spirit is given to the believer to work within him and to make the benefits of salvation real to him, the Gifts (plural) of the Holy Spirit are given to believers “for the common good” and these gifts are given sovereignly, “just as he (the Spirit) determines.”

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

All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines. (1 Corinthians 12:11)

Paul, after listing all the Gifts (plural) of the Holy Spirit, urged his readers to pray that they would receive some of them—

But eagerly desire the greater gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:31)

So, while the gift (singular) of the Holy Spirit is a gift we get without asking for it, the Gifts (plural) of the Holy Spirit may be asked for and desired, and the Spirit in His wisdom will give His various gifts to the ones who will use them as He sees fit.

Further more, this indwelling of the Holy Spirit is considered by Peter to be, not only a gift, but also a promise. In what sense is the gift of the Holy Spirit a promise? Peter probably had in mind what Paul would later teach his Ephesian friends—

And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:12—14)

4. Devoted to teaching, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…” (verse 42a)

This begins what distinguished the early Church from all other religious groups of the day. The members of this new faith were fervent about their new-found faith and that fervor was manifested in several different ways, first off by a serious study of “the apostle’s teaching.” That phrase means simply that these new believers turned continually to the apostles for instruction in the teachings of Christ. The fact that this is listed first among many distinguishing features of the early Church seems to indicate that learning the teachings of Jesus Christ was not only the focus of the Church but its whole reason for being. In other words, where the Word of God is not regularly taught and preached, no matter how many members or adherents a so-called church may have, it is not a church by New Testament standards.

5. Devoted to fellowship, “They devoted themselves to…fellowship…” (verse 42b)

It is significant that Luke places fellowship right after learning as something that distinguished the early Church. This idea of enthusiasm among believers for their faith was demonstrated in a common bond at worship, at meals, and in sharing their resources with each other. Christians then, as they should now, visibly showed their unity in Christ by being unified with each other.

6. Devoted to Communion, “They devoted themselves to…the breaking of bread… (verse 42c)

To say that is phrase “the breaking of bread” has been debated over the years among Bible scholars would be an understatement. On the one hand, some scholars think Luke was referring to an ordinary meal, either eaten at a central location (ie, a church potluck dinner) or meals eaten in various member’s home. These scholars see a link with fellowship; the idea being eating together in any location was part of the fellowship these early Christians practised.

On the other hand, there are scholars who think Luke is referring to a memorial meal, like our Communion service, where believers gather together to remember and commemorate Christ’s sacrifice. This seems to be the more logical choice, especially as it is followed by “prayer.” Also, in the Greek the definite article, “the,” precedes “bread,” making it “the bread,” which suggests that the early Christians partook of the bread, or special bread which had been set aside for a special purpose.

7. Devoted to prayer, “The devoted themselves to…prayer.” (verse 42d)

The text literally reads, “the prayers.” This probably refers to corporate praying, not private praying. In other words, these prayers would have been formal prayers. This makes complete sense. Most of these new believers came out of Judaism, a religion full of formal prayers. In their enthusiasm for their new faith, the new Christians took their old forms and reshaped them to fit their new beliefs. This again fits well with the notion of fellowship. Whenever the new Body of Christ met, they prayed together.

This, of course, does not mean these believers didn’t pray at home, but it does mean that the early Church was distinguished by their praying corporately.

8. Wonders and signs, “Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.” verse 43)

There is some debate as to whether “everyone” refers to members of the Christian community or to those who had not come to follow Christ. It probably refers to both believers and non-believers. When God’s Word was preached it was confirmed by signs and wonders, and these things were seen by both those who already believed and those who did not believe. Notice that these signs and wonders were performed by “the apostles.” This is in line with what happened in Mark 16:20,

Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.

When modern Christians read things like this, we wonder what’s wrong with the Church today? Why are there no “signs and wonders” accompanying our preaching? No matter how charismatic/pentecostal leaning you may be, it honestly seems that the signs and wonders of the early Church were unique to them, not to us. That is not to say that God has stopped answering prayers or that miracles of healing don’t happen today. But these early years of the Church were unique in God’s timetable, and they have never been repeated since. The infant Church needed special, divine help in those early days. Remember, they had no Bibles, no set doctrines they could turn to, no history to fall back on, no seminaries or minister training schools, they didn’t even have an infrastructure through which to evangelize. Everything the early Church did was “off the cuff,” they had to “learn by doing.” To help them, God gave authority to His Word through the manifestation of the miraculous. People would stop, listen, and many times heed the Word, not because they recognized it as coming from a holy book, but because the man preaching it was also healing the sick.

Today, the Church has the full revelation of the mind of God: the Holy Bible. The Church also has over 2,000 years of Church history to point to. When a preacher preaches from the Word, the Word is its own authority; the Word is its own confirmation; it needs no sign or wonder to verify it. In fact, Jesus talked about people who looked only for signs and wonders as a basis for faith:

Unless you people see signs and wonders,” Jesus told him, “you will never believe.” (John 4:48)

As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” (Luke 11:29)

Furthermore, it seems as the apostolic church wound down, there were fewer and fewer miraculous signs. As the Church grew in numbers and became established, it seems as though the ministry of the Word was preeminent with no signs or wonders. The second-generation of pastors and teachers relied more on the exposition of God’s Word, the Old Testament and the new writings of Paul and the others, than on the miraculous. If signs and wonders were to continue indefinitely, then we have to wonder why, for example, Timothy was never healed of his stomach ailment and why Epaphroditus, a church worker and possibly a pastor, was deathly ill, and of course, Paul was never in the best of health, apparently, since he had his own personal physician traveling with him most of the time, Dr. Luke. If signs and wonders were to continue, there would be sick Christians today.

9. Generosity, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (verse 45)

Luke is not teaching a kind of “Christian communism” here, or even “Christian socialism.” This sharing of resources was not a divestment of wealth; it was a willingness on the part of all believers to place their possessions at the disposal of all those believers who were in need. The aim of the early Christians was to abolish poverty so that the needy were no longer among them, and it seems as though they actually reached that goal:

With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. (Acts 4:33, 34)

It’s interesting that this is totally different from how the Lord met the needs of the Israelites. When the Israelites traveled through the desert for 40 years, it was God who provided for them. They were all on the same economic level; there were no rich and no poor. Not so with the Church; from its earliest days, there were both extremes of the economic scale represented, and it was up to the members of the Church to look after each other. We learn later on that there are Gifts of the Spirit given to believers to help with that.

Luke does not say that the rich sold all their possessions, merely that from time to time, those with wealth willingly gave some of it into a kind of general fund, out of which those who had need could be helped.

10. Corporate worship, “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” (verse 46)

Here, Luke shows that the early believers in Jerusalem expressed their new faith through daily observance of the customs associated with their Jewish heritage. This gives us a glimpse into how these early believers thought of themselves: they had seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures in Jesus Christ. They met in the Temple courts, prayed, praised, and studied Scripture. For now, their lives were exemplary in every way and these new, enthusiastic believers didn’t pose a threat to the religious leaders.

Key is noticing that the early Church not only fellowshipped and worshiped at home, but also in public, regularly. This public, corporate worship provided a powerful witnessing tool. Their new faith could be seen by all. It would seem that this fact alone would drive a death knell in the modern “home church movement.”

11. Glad meal times, “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God…” (verses 46b—47a)

This new faith caused love to grow among the members of the Church; it was as though they couldn’t get enough fellowship. Fellowship is important for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the idea of accountability. When we fellowship with other believers, we will be apt to watch our behavior so we don’t have lots “explaining to do” when we meet with our Christian friends for dinner. Also, we human beings tend to become like the people we spend time with. It’s important that your closest friends be of the same faith as you, so that there can be a mutual encouragement experienced during times of fellowship.

12. Favor with other people, “…enjoying the favor of all the people.” (verse 47b)

Here is one mark of a dynamic church that doesn’t necessarily last all the time. It certainly didn’t for the church in Jerusalem, which would eventually be persecuted and driven out of town. Jesus Himself indicated that following Him could result in difficult times:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:10)

However, just because we may encounter “persecution” on account of our faith, that doesn’t mean we should expect it or do things to curry it. In fact, local churches should strive to have sterling reputations in their communities, while understanding that we can, in no way, control what anybody thinks of us.

13. Growth, “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (verse 47c)

Here is a verse that is often misunderstood. It does not mean that a dynamic church is big church. It does not mean a dynamic church is always a church that is growing in numbers. All Luke is saying here is that those who were being saved were joining the church. Whether or not your congregation is growing is not necessarily an indication that your church is doing anything right or wrong. Today, the Lord is still adding souls to His Church and is still calling sinners to become citizens of the Great City called Zion. It is t the Lord who does the adding, not the pastor or the evangelist.

Having said that, if modern Christians were as committed to their faith as these early believers were, we no doubt would experience church growth similar to what they experienced in Acts. There are many “carnal Christians” in the Church today, and a “carnal Christian” isn’t just a person who thinks dirty thoughts all day long or engages in bad behavior. A carnal Christian could simply be somebody whose priorities are “out of whack.” It is the carnal Christian who seldom thinks about personal evangelism. It is the carnal Christian who can engage in a conversation on just about any topic but gets tongue-tied when it comes to talking about Jesus. Let’s take stock of ourselves to see if the witness of our faith measures up to the confession of our faith!

(c)  2011 Witzend

FORCEFULLY ADVANCING: The Church in Acts, Part 2

414050

For Everyone, No Strings

Acts 15

As we approach Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey has ended.  Thanks to the work of these two great missionaries, Christian churches were now flourishing all over Galatia.  In the face of opposition from people and the elements, the church of Jesus Christ was forging ahead into new territory thanks to this dynamic duo of Christ’s disciples.  You would think that the mother church back in Jerusalem would be thrilled to see this happening.  Yet the opposite was true:  all these Gentile converts in Galatia caused a controversy in Jerusalem.  Many of the converts in Jerusalem were Jews, and some were Pharisees who believed that Gentiles needed to convert to Judaism before they could become Christians.  In other words, to them, salvation included faith in Christ and observance of the Mosaic Law.   Today such thinking seems ridiculous, but in the very early years of the church, this controversy could have torn it apart.

The convening of the first church council occurred sometime around 49 AD, and although since then there have been many, many church councils that decided things like the inspiration of Scripture, the nature of God, and other doctrinal issues, the Jerusalem Council was one of the most important events for the early Church.  It was of vital importance to answer this question:  “Are Gentile Christians required to keep the Jewish Law?  The fate of the Church depended on a correct answer, for if the answer was “Yes,” then Christianity would have forever been viewed as just another sect of Judaism; if the answer was “No,” then the Church would be able to advance it’s Great Commission, free from any encumbrance.

1.  Troublemakers cause trouble, 15:1—12

(a)  The problem, verse 1

Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.”

This is the crux of the issue and the reason behind the Jerusalem Council.  Of course, the question really had nothing to do with circumcision but rather what was involved with salvation.   The troublemakers were identified merely as “some men.”  They were Jewish Christians, probably Pharisees, who went to Antioch with no apostolic authority to impose their own style of Christianity on the believers there.

While these men clearly had a grasp on the teachings of Jesus, they clung to their old religion.  What they did, in addition to adding to the Word of God, was to dismantle what Paul and Barnabas had achieved in the Gentile world.  They had preached the Gospel faithfully and all of a sudden for some unknown men to march into a church and begin to contradict the Word must have been confusing, given the fact that believers did not possess a written Bible yet!

(b)  The delegation, verses 2—5

This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question….Then some of the believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees stood up and said, “The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses.”  (verses 2, 5)

The phrase “sharp dispute” is probably Luke’s polite way of describing Paul and Barnabas’ attitude to these men and their destructive teaching!  In fact, to be demanding that Gentile believers adhere to and fulfill the Law of Moses in order to be saved showed that they while they believed Christ to be the Messiah, they viewed the Law from a Jewish, not a Christian viewpoint.  Really, these Judaizers were practicing a form of racial discrimination within the Church.

The Antiochean believers showed great wisdom by appointing the apostles to go to Jerusalem to seek advice about this.  Decades before Paul would write his “Pastoral Epistles,” the leaders or overseers of this church were practicing Paul’s brand of pastoral theology—

[Qualification of elders]…not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  (1 Timothy 3:3)

And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.  (2 Timothy 2:24)

Jerusalem was the center of the early Church; those who had lived and worked with Jesus personally were there and they had ultimate authority.  Jerusalem would remain the headquarters of the Christian church until 70 AD, when the base of power and operation shifted from the east (Jerusalem) to the west (Rome).  One always either “came down from” or “went up to” Jerusalem.

Luke does not tell us who the “other believers” were who made up the Antiochean delegation.   In Galatians 2:1, we have a clue, though, as to the identity of one of them—

Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also.

Since Luke never mentions Titus’ name in Acts, some scholars have thought Titus was Luke’s brother, and out of modesty the physician-historian-author refrains from mentioning him by name.  As they traveled “up to Jerusalem,” the group continued to the work of the Lord by testifying everywhere what God had done.  The result:  This news made all the brothers very glad. Obviously the only people who had a problem with the work of Paul and Barnabas were the Judaizers.

(c)  The debate, verses 6—12

A group of Christians had accused other Christians of adding something to the Gospel, and so the elders and apostles came together to discuss this divisive issue.  The “discussion” was likely hot and furious and Peter was the first to rise up and address it.  Considering the subject matter, it was obvious Peter should be the one to talk about it.  We cannot be sure how it had been since Peter’s experience in Caesarea, but it could have been over a decade since his experiences with Cornelius and his family.

Still, Peter was not the central figure of the Jerusalem church at this time; James had assumed a much larger role in leadership, but Peter’s word carried some weight among the Jewish converts.  Peter’s argument was that the conversion of Cornelius (though he doesn’t name him by name) had been a precedent established by God of His decision to reach out to the Gentiles.  Because of this, Paul and Barnabas’ approach was exactly according to God’s will.   In fact, in regards to the Judaizers teaching, Peter makes the amazing statement—

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?  (verse 10)

That sounds a lot like something Paul would write, but it was Peter recognizing that God was doing a radical thing.  Furthermore, he reaches a conclusion that seems obvious to us but it was new to them; all people are the same before God, their Creator.

2.  Wise counsel, swift resolution, verses 13—21

(a)  Prophecy fulfilled, verses 13—18

James, our Lord’s brother, presided over the Jerusalem Council was the next to speak.   Down through church history, James was known as “James the Just” because of his piety and because of the fact that, though a follower of Jesus Christ, he carefully observed the Law.   Naturally, the Judaizers thought they could depend on him to support their cause.  What they found was that James, far from having a narrow view of things, was broadminded enough to realize that what Peter said was true; God does accept repentant man for who they are, and in fact, He always has.

He quotes from the book of Amos, applying the text to the conversion and acceptance of the Gentile Cornelius, affirming to all the Gospel includes all—

“In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name,” declares the LORD, who will do these things. (Amos 9:11—12)

As James interpreted the passage, the first part refers to the death and resurrection of Jesus and verse 16 of Acts 15 relates Christ’s death to the phrases “David’s fallen tent” and “it’s ruins.”  His resurrection is illustrated in the phrases “I will rebuild” and “I will restore.”

Clearly in James’ mind, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the singular event that changed the direction of humanity; Christ was lifted up to draw all people unto Himself—

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.  (John 3:14)

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.”  (John 12:32)

The “all men” included Gentiles, which James indicated was part of God’s plan from then very beginning, verse 18.

(b)  Agreement, verses 19—21

Despite James’ devotion to the Jewish Law, he did not side with the Judaizers.  Verse 19 literally reads:  “Therefore I, for my part, judge…”   James’ words carried weight and authority in the early Church.  His decision was wise and simple:  the Gentile believers were to be free from keeping the Jewish Law.  In his decision, James uses a very rare verb translated “not make it difficult” which means literally, “stop annoying.”   The false teachers were pestering and bothering genuine Christians with their ideas.

Charles Erdman writes that James’s decision included three key points:

  • Liberty, verse 19
  • Purity, verse 20
  • Co-operation between Jews and Gentiles, verse 21

It is interesting that James said, “We should write to them…” That is exactly what Paul did.

3.  Affirming the Gospel, verses 22—35

Curiously, Luke does not describe the Council’s reaction to James’ proposals, but given the context and the collection of Paul’s letters, it seems clear that they agreed with and supported his ideas.

(a)  Letter of reconciliation, verses 22—29

In the letter sent to Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia, some new men are mentioned by name;  Silas would become Paul’s partner in his next missionary journey.   Of this letter, some 200 years later Clement of Alexandria remarked that is was “the Catholic epistle of all the Apostles” and that is was conveyed by the faithful hands of Paul himself.”  What we read in these verses is most likely an exact, verbatim copy made by Luke, incorporated in his history.

This phrase is significant—

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…(verse 28)

This shows us two important aspects of church leadership.  First, there must be co-operation between God and man in the decision-making process.   Even though the Council was made up of human leaders, the true Head of the Council was Jesus Christ and He guided the men by His Holy Spirit.  Second, these human leaders set aside their own ambitions and agendas and spoke with one voice of solidarity:  it seemed good to US.  They were able speak in unity because they all paid attention to the Holy Spirit.

God sees all people as the same in Christ Jesus; and these men exemplified this desired unity be acting in unity.

(b)  The wonder of unity, verses 30—35

The entire congregation at Antioch, and maybe many of the outlying assemblies, gathered together to hear the letter read.  One can only imagine the scene of joy as the people heard confirmation of what they already knew, yet began to doubt because of the meddling of false teachers.  They must have also been relieved to know that they did not need to learn a whole new set of rules to live by.

There is freedom in the Gospel.  There is encouragement in the Gospel.  The Gospel is never a burden to anyone.  But the Law, and the rules of man, bring only confusion and condemnation.

The two new men, Judas and Silas, were preachers who jumped in to encourage the believers in Antioch.  Obviously, Paul and Silas worked well together, and some time later the two men would work even closer together.

It’s amazing how the Lord uses circumstances to lead people in and out of our lives to accomplish His eternal purposes.

Conclusion

There are many lessons to be learned here.  From the importance to discerning and obeying the leading of the Holy Spirit to discerning and overcoming our prejudices; may we all learn to see other people as God sees us.

(c)  2009 WitzEnd

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