The believers become the first church

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Acts 2:42-47

Our story continues with a description of the very first gathering of disciples as a "church" - and coming-together of Christ's "body" in a totally new way. They began to meet together in the temple at Jerusalem but they also met in homes where they "broke bread" - a way of remembering how Jesus had held a last supper with His disciples in what many churches now call a service of "communion" or "the Lord's Supper". They learned from the apostles what Jesus had said and done during His brief time as a wandering teacher and they celebrated His death and resurrection. They shared their possessions generously with each other, meeting whatever needs people had. Not surprisingly perhaps, this new "church" began to grow.

"They devoted themselves..."

This was an amazing time in the history of the Jewish people with so many changes happening, The whole of Jerusalem was buzzing with what had been happening: the triumphal procession of the "King of the Jews" as He entered the city through to His execution by the Romans as a traitor and blasphemer. For one brief moment, people dared to believe that their promised "messiah" had come at last but then, one week later, He was crucified. There had been some strange and unusual events, like the solar eclipse for several hours and reports of dead people coming back to life. Jesus' followers had promptly disappeared from view and been meeting in secret, for fear that they might be crucified as well when, suddenly at Pentecost, they emerged once again, mixing with the crowds and starting to preach that Jesus was alive again. He was indeed the "messiah" that people were expecting, but His kingdom was not what anyone had expected it to be.

Jesus had not come to change institutions and political systems but people. Those who were prepared to follow Jesus in living as He had done and, if necessary, dying for Him, were beginning to find that God's supernatural power could change people from the inside. Human needs, desires and dreams could be met and fulfilled, not by following some political or even religious doctrines, but by what the new disciples called "fellowship": love and care for each other. This "under-the-radar", supernatural power continues to operate in just the same way in our own day and age.

Circle of Influence

What were they devoted to?

Firstly, to the teaching of the apostles, who had so much to share with them the amazing things that Jesus had done and said. All their experiences of Him gave them lots to talk about. The apostle John says that "if every one of the things that Jesus had done was written down, the whole world would not have room for the books that could be written" (John 21:25).

The early churches had no structured programme. God simply had the freedom to work in peoples' hearts and minds - so much so that three thousand were added to their number in one day. They were not just devoted to the apostles' teaching, but they lived out what they were taught. They loved to serve each other, looking out for everyone's needs in what they called "fellowship". Nobody needed to be cajoled or persuaded to come along to meetings. They wanted to get together, wherever one of the apostles was teaching or disciples were meeting to "break bread" together. This response not only encouraged the apostles, but also released them to do their job: "many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles", records Luke (Acts 2:43).

Simlarly, today, one of the greatest gifts we can give our own leaders is to let them know that we are totally devoted to the teaching of God's word and will do our best to do what He says in faithful prayer and service. Wherever this happens, we find "fellowship" is happening and the Kingdom of God advancing.

They also shared their possessions together, selling whatever they had to provide for the needs of others. Everything they had was available for others to share, so everyone was on an equal footing with no hierachies or "inner circles". Those outside the church were suitably impressed by what they saw. Indeed, Luke says that they were "filled with awe" and the Spirit of God was able to use this witness to speak powerfully to peoples' hearts. Like us, these early disciples were mostly not rich or wealthy, but ordinary people. They simply shared what they had and we can do that too. We probably have a home, a car, food in the cupboards and fridge and some spare time when we don't have to be working for our living. All of these things we can share with others. This is a very effective way of "telling" people about Jesus. We may not even need to say anything until they start asking us why we live as we do.

Look at the example of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts, chapter five. They were willing to sell some property and give the money to the apostles. Unfortunately, they tried to keep some of the money back for themselves and lied about what they had done. Clearly, this couple weren't exactly whole-hearted in their devotion to Christ. What's interesting is that the new "church" must have been so highly thought of that Ananias & Sapphira considered it worth trying to pretend that they were members themselves, even though they weren't really prepared to give it their all. Nevertheless, it's a good example of what the majority of those early church members were doing to provide for all in need. The dire consequences for Ananias & Sapphira must also have given pause for thought to others who were thinking that a spot of "virtue-signalling" might enhance their reputation without actually costing them too much.

The church grew every day, not just on Sundays. It thrived on personal, individual devotion to God. Motivation sprang from an internal relationship with Jesus, rather than from a charismatic leader, great worship band or wide-ranging programme of social and community events. Initially, the church was well-regarded throughout the city of Jerusalem, but it would not be long before the religious authorities began to see them as a major threat to their own position.

Indeed, life was not going to be so rosy for ever! Jesus had already warned them of this when He was with them. (See John 15:18-19.)The foot

The people who responded to the apostles' teaching and joined that first church were not from any particular section of society. There were all sorts of people: rich and poor, slave and free, clean and dirty. Even today, churches in any given area are comprised of a cross-section of the whole population. The apostle Paul later compared a "church" with the human body. It contains a whole variety of different organs, each one playing a part in the overall life and growth. So, a church, like a human body, requires balance: not all businessmen, not all housewives, not all full-time church workers, not all unemployed, not all ex-offenders. The Lord will do His own recruiting, sending along all sorts of different people so that a church can work together, just like a healthy body does.

In his first book, Luke tells the story of Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector. Having managed to meet Jesus (by climbing a tree in order to stand out from the crowd), he finds his entire life thrown upside down. Luke writes: "Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, 'Sir, from now on I will give half my wealth to the poor and, if I find that I have overcharged anyone on his taxes, I will penalize myself by giving him back four times as much!' Jesus told him, 'This shows that salvation has come to this home today. This man was one of the lost sons of Abraham, and I, the Messiah, have come to search for and to save such souls as his.'" (Luke 19:8-10) The New International Version (NIV) translates verse ten as follows: "The Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost." That is a very good description of how the local church should be. When he was "born again", Zacchaeus did not need follow-up sessions or baptismal classes; he knew instinctively, from the Holy Spirit now within him, that he had to repay what he had stolen from people... and that's what he did.

The believers become the first church

There was such a dramatic change in Peter, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the realisation of all he had been forgiven, that nobody had to force him to stand up and preach to the crowds on the day of Pentecost. He now felt so passionately for Jesus that his natural response was to speak up, regardless of any risk to life. As a result, the original one hundred and twenty people became three thousand precious souls and the first church was born. There was no carefully designed follow-up programme available for this massive influx of new believers. Instead, they had on-the-job training, seeing the devotion of the apostles and original disciples and simply following their example. They learned all about Jesus just by walking in the power of the Holy Spirit. They saw wonderful signs and wonders and they knew that Jesus was all they needed; anything else was secondary.

In many churches today, there seem to be a great many members who are there purely for the social life, or to pay the annual premium for their "heavenly insurance policy" under which they are assured of their "ticket to heaven" but do not expect to have to change their chosen lifestyle in any significant way. There are those who have real needs, but are looking for treatment at a human level from the minister or other leader in the church, rather than seeking to renew their relationship with God Himself. Perhaps this is why so many pastors and church leaders are exhausted and "burned out"?

Only God is able to do this work in peoples' lives. He is the only one who can save us. But He can (and does) use all sorts of ordinary disciples to help Him in this work. The "fellowship" in the early church was about every member of the "body" looking out for every other member. The same should be true today. If we see a brother or sister in need, we need to think first of all about how we might meet that need. We may need help from others as well. This is why the early church members met informally in their homes as well as gathering together in the temple.

We need to keep this picture constantly before us. Some churches today set up rigid control structures and systems to attract new members and carefully encourage them to become followers and supporters, but often the greatest numedrical and spiritual growth takes place in countries where religious organisations are proscribed and churches are not allowed to have any formal, authorised existence. In such situations, the Holy Spirit is the only resource that believers have available. Strangely enough, this is often where the number of disciples grows at an incredible pace.

Why was the first church so successful?

  • There was general unity of purpose and vision.
  • There was a general willingness to sacrifice personal possessions - even life itself.
  • There was a commitment to take the good news about Jesus to the uttermost parts of the earth.
  • There was regular, daily use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
  • The authority of God's word through Scripture was recognised and accepted by everyone.
  • There were daily meetings for the "breaking of bread" and prayer.
  • The lifestyle of Jesus' followers stood out in the whole community.

We do not always see such things in churches today. If you are moving to a new area and wondering how to choose where to worship from amongst the variety of church congregations who call themselves "Christian", here are some good questions to ask yourself:

  • Does this church acknowledge the place of Scripture in all it does? (Isaiah 8:20)
  • Does it acknowledge Jesus as its highest authority? (John 3:30)
  • Do those who go there show love in the things they do and say? (Matthew 22:39)
  • Is this a church where people are continually becoming disciples? (John 15:8)

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