What did the New Testament church in Jerusalem or Ephesus or Philippi look like? What went on in their “services”? How did people become Christians? What was it that attracted others to this group of people who lived quite differently from their neighbors and were sometimes persecuted?
We know one thing: Thousands of people, whether rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, became part of a group of people called the church. We also know that by the end of the third century, it was formidable enough to be commissioned as the official religion of the Empire.
Hundreds of books have been written and careers made by discussing what did and did not take place in the early New Testament church. If you are looking for another book in that series, this is not it. I believe that the vitality and wisdom of Christ’s early church was not its complexity, but its simplicity. It was not its pursuit of power, but its seeking the lost. It succeeded because devout people aimed to please God and not to serve themselves.
The openness and purity of their devotion is described by the writer of the book of Acts. Luke, also the author of one of the gospels, wrote an account of what the early church did and how it functioned. Yes, the book could indeed be called “the Acts of the Holy Spirit.” But remember what Jesus said: It would be the church that would take the message of reconciliation to the world. As the Father sent Me, Jesus declared, I am sending you into the world.
So for a few pages, we will look over the shoulders of those in the New Testament church to see what it was that made them glow and grow in the power of the Holy Spirit. To form the basis of our preview, if you will, we will explore together a couple of verses in Acts chapter two. These two verses, I believe, gave direction to the entire church as it spread across the Roman Empire.
Peter’s Announcement to the Lost
The Apostle Peter had been preaching in Jerusalem. This was the man who had used a sword to try to protect his Master. He had discovered another sword which was far more powerful: The Sword of the Spirit. When asked for advice as to what to do, Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” With many other words he warned them, and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Luke reports to us that about 3,000 people heeded Peter’s warning and bowed the knee to the resurrected Savior. (Acts 2:38-41).
The Message to the Saved
These new believers then asked another question: “Now what do we do?” One thing for certain, they were not to look around to see what others in their neighborhoods or religious circles were doing. Peter set them straight on that. But they did do something. The next few verses tell us what it was: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42). So we can absorb what this verse says, let’s arrange it differently:
“They devoted themselves:
(1) to the apostles’ teaching
(2) to the fellowship
(3) to the breaking of bread
(4) to prayer.” (Acts 2:42)
Being devoted to these four things set them apart from everyone else in their society. For starters, the multitudes were not listening to these apostles.
I can hear someone saying, “How about the rest of the verses in chapter 2?” Yes, read them carefully. What follows in the chapter is the result of the four items in verse 42. Verses 43-47 happened because of verse 42. We can’t accomplish verses 43-47 if we ignore verse 42. I don’t know what God will do in our time if we follow verse 42. He may or may not do now what He did then. But I am convinced that God’s hand in our lives and in our churches is hindered when we disregard verse 42.
May I be so bold to point out another problem which stems from these verses? Luke, in observing these early Christians, did not say, “They devoted themselves to teaching, to fellowship and to having a meal.” Yes, there would be teaching and fellowship and having a good time. However, these are side issues and when these side issues become the focus of our energy and resources and time, we are operating under a false world view. Peter already warned us to stay away from that. In a culture that venerates diversity, we should also point out that verse 42 is not a multiple choice option. These early Christians understood the meaning of full and total commitment.
That covers some of the things verse 42 does not say. How about the positive side? Let’s consider what Luke noticed in this church and others he visited that is so important for us today.
Devoted . . .
. . . to the apostles’ teaching
The first thing we need to do is identify which apostles Luke is writing about. Who was in and around Jerusalem? For example, we know that at Pentecost, at the inauguration of the Spirit’s presence in the life of the believer, the twelve apostles were there. Soon after that, two of our Lord’s brothers joined them. James (one of the two) became the president of that large and growing fellowship. Can we name some more of them? Matthew, John, James, Peter and Jude (the second brother of Jesus). As time went on, Mark and Luke, who were associated with the apostles, moved in and out of the Jerusalem church. The Apostle Paul also made several visits there during his journeys around the Mediterranean world.
Yes, some of the apostles are left out (on purpose). Those that are highlighted, however, are the human authors of the New Testament. It’s critical that we see that. The apostles’ teaching mentioned in the book of Acts is probably very similar to the book you hold in your hand when you go to “church”. And Luke reports that these new believers devoted themselves to what we now call the New Testament.
You can imagine many things about being devoted. Surely it means they were eager to hear, ready to listen and prepared to apply what these apostles were teaching. Often, it is a far different story today. The Bible, it’s been said, is the most purchased and the least read of all books. Yet, for these new believers in the Jerusalem fellowship, right on top of their list of important things was what the apostles had to say about Jesus and His heavenly Father. We, too, have the same opportunity available to us, seeking out God’s will for our daily living.
. . . to the fellowship
Jesus had promised that the world would know “you are my disciples because of the love you have for each other.” That is another way of saying they were devoted to the fellowship. They had true affection and love for each other in the best sense of the word. These believers had been accepted into God’s family forever. God was their heavenly Father; Jesus was their brother. They came into that relationship with God in a way which opened their heart’s door to genuine fellowship with others.
One of the results of their devotion to the fellowship is that they shared of this world’s goods with each other. Those in need were provided for by those who had an abundance. That provision is expressed in verse 45, “Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” There is nothing that tests our relationship with a friend as when we see them in true need. There is an old saying that goes, “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” We have the opportunity to do something tangible about that need. That holds true even beyond the physical and material level.
More importantly was their concern for common spiritual needs. They encouraged each other to worship and praise God, and to good works towards others. As you read on in chapter two, they practiced hospitality. There was an exuberance to support and facilitate spiritual growth. They were eager to spend time together.
Their devotion to each other sprang from their growing knowledge of God’s word. As the teaching of Jesus was proclaimed and the voice of the prophets was heard with fresh application, these believers grew into each others’ lives. In the process of interaction with each other, they came face to face with their Savior. As the apostles reminded them, Jesus had stated that great truth on many occasions: “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick and in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ” (Matthew 25:34-46).
As you read the entire passage in Matthew 25 you will understand what these Christians were taught and were experiencing in this new fellowship. There was no compulsion except the compelling love of Christ. They were overwhelmed by the love that Jesus had for them. The only appropriate expression to the others in their fellowship was to let that love flow over into their lives as well.
. . . to the breaking of bread
These believers were devoted to adoring their Lord and Savior through the service of communion. Or, we could say, they focused their attention on Jesus in His death and resurrection, and on giving Him praise and glory. It was the broken body and the poured out blood of Jesus that made possible everything of value that they possessed. Because He gave so freely of Himself, it was not difficult for them to pass on their possessions to others in need.
The phrase, “breaking of bread” might be interpreted as the sharing of meals together. Two things would bring that interpretation into question. First, the sharing of meals together is stated clearly in the following verses. That would suggest that something different was meant here by the breaking of bread. Second, it says “they devoted themselves . . . to the breaking of bread.” If that means “devoted . . . to eating,” it would make eating a priority for them. That would be an unworthy application of the text.
To concentrate, to focus, to meditate, to reflect, to commune with God about the death of His Son and all it implies–that is worthy of our fullest attention and time. Think of the richness and depth of their devotion to the breaking of bread as you read through the words of the song by Isaac Watts:
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.
See, from His head, His hands, His feet,
sorrow and love flow mingled down,
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
or thorns compose so rich a crown!
Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.
Out of the communion which these simple believers had with God flowed a love and compassion for others that transcended all their societal and genetic differences. They had a genuine interest to reach the lost and to bring them into fellowship with their Savior. How could they be in communion with the heavenly Father and His glorious Son and not be offended by discrimination of those who were created differently or who had a different plan for their lives? How incompatible with Jesus’ announcement that “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son for us.”
The death and resurrection of the Lord had transformed a group of discouraged and defeated disciples into men and woman of astounding courage. They faced torture, the loss of reputations and possessions, and death itself because they were devoted to communion with their God and Savior.
When they met together to “break bread” in communion with their Lord, they were following Jesus’ instructions. The Apostle Paul wrote what the Lord revealed to him: “For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” (I Corinthians 11:23-26).These Christians in Jerusalem and across the Empire were devoted to their Savior and to the remembrance of His sacrifice for them. They wanted others to see and have their great joy.
. . . to prayer
Beside instituting what we call the Lord’s Supper, there were a number of other things that Jesus did to set an example for His followers. In John, chapter 13, Jesus put a towel around Himself and washed His disciples’ feet. The text reads, “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:12-15). I don’t want to open a debate with anyone who believes this means we should have “foot washing ceremonies” in our fellowships. However, if that is all that is going on to conform to Jesus’ example, we have missed the very heart of what Jesus did and taught. The principle He was teaching was service, not foot washing.
Jesus said I am setting an example for you to follow. Just as He did, those who believe themselves to be leaders are to be the servants of others in the fellowship. As a matter of fact, they, too, should set the same example of service in their fellowship. As Jesus implied, Don’t just talk and preach about it; do it.
Jesus had another habit which set a permanent example for His followers: He spent hours and entire nights in prayer. In His personal life before His disciples, Jesus “devoted Himself to prayer.” He encouraged His disciples to join Him as well (See John 17; Luke 22:39-46; Matthew 6:5-13; Mark 1:35-37). Like Jesus, they were “devoted to prayer.”
I must confess that this aspect of the New Testament fellowship is the one I find most difficult. It is much easier, more exciting and generates more recognition to be “doing” things for God. That’s something we can talk about. The business of prayer is all too easy to overlook in our American culture. I am afraid that most of our praying nowadays falls into the category which Jesus condemned so strongly. We like to pray in public. We have learned to do it well. But going to a solitary place while it is still dark in the morning or praying all night is not part of our Christian lifestyle.
If you want to see the dynamic nature of their prayer, read through Acts chapter 12. In verse 5 we read, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” They prayed through the night. I cannot remember the last time I prayed into the night. However, these early believers were devoted to that kind of praying. And they are the ones who turned the world upside-down and evangelized the known world in their generation.
Getting back to the example of Jesus and of the New Testament fellowship, we desperately need to end our talking and planning and doing. Prayer is not wasting time. To “open” in prayer, and “close” in prayer and spend the entire evening or session in discussing our strategic plans is a waste of time. Those early believers had seen and heard Jesus correctly. He was devoted to prayer and so were they.
Finally, let’s return to the original statement. Theirs was a full devotion. It centered around the Person and Power of the Son of God as they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Seems like a simple formula. And it was. It is what Jesus intended the church to look like and how it was to function.
The questions needing answers at this time are, Where are we today? Do we even give Christians the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the First Century Church? What has gotten in the way?
But rather than answering those kinds of questions, the purpose of this book is to identify how we can restore Christian living and worship in our fellowships. What must we do as we enter the Twenty-first Century? My desire is that we will become those who are devoted to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. That was true of the First Century church. That is worthy of our commitment.
Don Parker Decker
San Gabriel, California