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
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