Jesus - Yes! Church – No! So read a placard when I was a student here in Newcastle. And it’s a view that is still around today. Some people tell me, “I’m a Christian but I don’t go to church.” They treat the church as an optional extra. Their faith is something very individualistic. "It’s between me and God," they say. But that bears no relationship to New Testament Christianity at all. It was John Wesley who said: “The New Testament knows nothing of solitary religion.” To be a New Testament Christian meant being in the Church and belonging to an actual Christian fellowship. Look at Acts 2:42:
“They [the 3120 believers in Jerusalem] devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Yes we do become Christians individually even when we do so as part of a large crowd who respond to the gospel. Look at v36-38 of Acts 2. After hearing Peter’s sermon about Jesus Christ – the people:
’37…..were cut to the heart [i.e. they were convicted of their sin] and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied 38 “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
So turning to Jesus as Lord and trusting him as Saviour is an individual matter. But what then? Well have a look at v41&42:
“Those who accepted his message [individually] were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They [corporately] devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
After individually accepting Peter’s gospel message and then being baptized, notice that from then on in v42-47 Luke writes ‘They, they, they.’ There was real church growth – about three thousand were added to their number and ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…All the believers were together…they gave to anyone as he had need…every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together…and the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ We turn to Jesus individually to live for Jesus corporately - ie, together, as God’s family. As we all said to those who were baptized this evening: ‘We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We are members together of the body of Christ; we are children of the same heavenly Father; we are inheritors together of the kingdom of God…’ Being a Christian is not just about ‘my personal relationship with Jesus’. According to the Bible, there’s no such thing as a Christian who doesn’t belong to a church. As 1 Corinthians 12:27 puts it for all believers here tonight:
“You are the body of Christ and each one of you is a part of it.”
And let’s not forget that God planned the church. Christ gave himself for the church (Ephesians 5:25). The Holy Spirit is building us together in the church (1 Cor 12:13). We are to be ready to give our lives for the building of God’s church, whether here at JPC, in Gateshead or across the world. Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18) He is building his church. And we are to play our part, equipped with at least one gift given by the Holy Spirit for the building up of the body (1 Cor 12:7). You see what is the aim of all missionary work and indeed all Christian work? It’s not merely to harvest the un-harvested field, but also to build the uncompleted building. So to have nothing to do with the Lord’s church is to reject God’s plan, mission and building project.
And as we see here in Acts and as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians makes clear the church is not a third class waiting room where we twiddle our thumbs while we wait for first class accommodation in heaven. It is meant to be a dynamic new community, winsome and attractive, and with an eternal significance in the purpose of God.
So what does God’s new society look like in action? What does it mean for you and me? Why the church? Well
First, THE CHURCH IS FOR TEACHING THE BIBLE and you need that teaching. Look at verse 42:
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching.
You see a Spirit-filled church, is where you can devote yourself to, and receive, the apostles' teaching. The first thing they did was to devote themselves to the apostle's teaching. Devote is a strong word. It meant they spent time doing it. They were eager to learn and discover God's truth. They wanted to learn from the apostles. That is a mark of being Spirit-filled. But why be devoted to the apostles' teaching in 2006? Well, one reason is given here, in verse 43:
“many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.”
God confirmed the teaching of the apostles by miracles. The apostles raised the dead and were involved in remarkable instantaneous healings. Paul in 2 Cor 12:12 speaks of...
“... the things that mark an apostle - signs, wonders and miracles.”
If they were ‘marks’ of an apostle, they set the apostles apart. What they did was not what other Christians did. And that was a way God authenticated their teaching. Also, of course, the apostles were commissioned by Jesus himself and had met him, risen from the dead. Today their teaching, in its authentic form, is in the New Testament. And the New Testament endorses the Old Testament. So you get the apostles' teaching today in the Bible, in the Old and New Testaments. And so a Spirit-filled church is a biblical church – it’s where the Bible is taught. That is why you need to belong to a church that teaches the Bible.
Secondly, THE CHURCH IS FOR FELLOWSHIP and you need Christian fellowship. Look at v 42, 44&45:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship ... (v 44) All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.”
They also devoted themselves to the fellowship. They were as committed to each other as they were to Jesus Christ. How did they show that according to these verses? Well the church is where practical needs are met. In the early days of the church meeting members financial needs was high on the agenda. But this is not primitive communism. V44 in the original says that "they were selling, they were giving." What happened was that as needs became known someone who had an asset and wanted to help others financially, sold it and used the proceeds to meet the need. Later on in Acts you hear how someone sold a field. It was private stewardship but with a recognition that material goods should be for the common good of the church. That still should be the case. And this generosity of the early church was (and still is) a mark of the Spirit filled church. Their love for each other was shown as practical service and often by helping materially as we want to do in our mission gift week – for the Browns house in Papua New Guinea & for the Navajeevana Health Care Centre in Sri Lanka. As a result what did the outsiders say of the early believers, according to one early Christian leader and writer called Tertullian? They said: "see how these Christians love one another."
However there are other needs too. There is the need for mutual care and support. I once saw this sign on a church notice board: WE CARE ABOUT YOU - Sundays 10am only! But a true church should care for one another even when it’s inconvenient. Genuine Christian fellowship can supply those needs of mutual care and support. In Jesmond today and wherever you live there are many lonely people. And it’s true of many of the increasing number who are living in residential care homes. There is a human as well as a spiritual value in the small groups and activities of the church. According to scientific studies carried out in the USA church services are actually good for the health. But fellowship is not only about how you yourself can benefit. If you’re going to be faithful to the apostles' teaching, you need to serve as well as be served. You need an environment where you can exercise gifts of service. That is what the church provides. Paul says in Galatians 5:13: “serve one another in love.” Often that will be humbly and behind the scenes.
Are we devoted to the fellowship here on a Sunday and in our small groups and to the apostles teaching in those groups? Are we here every week? Do we make our small group a priority come what may? Some believers in the Arab world are crying out for fellowship. Some of us can take it too much for granted and too lightly. They won’t miss me if I don’t go, we say. But how can we put God’s Word from tonight into practice if we don’t go? How can we love one another more and more, to take last week’s Home Group passage from 1 Thessalonians 4, if we don’t commit to go? Church is not an optional extra. And as Ephesians 4:16 makes clear this church “grows and builds itself up in love, [listen] as each part does its work.” If you have to miss sometimes then catch up through the website or get the CD.
Thirdly, THE CHURCH IS FOR CORPORATE WORSHIP AND PRAYER and you need to praise God together with others and to pray together with others.
They also devoted themselves (verse 42) "to the breaking of bread and to prayer." It seems this is a reference to the Lord's Supper (or Holy Communion) as we call it and prayer services or meetings - not just private prayer. And it looks as though they had both more formal and less formal times for meeting. Look at v46:
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God.”
They met both in the ‘temple courts’ and ‘in their homes.’ They had large gatherings in the temple courts. But they also met informally in their homes. ‘They broke bread in their homes and ate together’ - you can't do that on your own. And they were ‘praising God.’ And they prayed together. Are you devoted to prayer - not just private prayer but corporate prayer with others? If you are a true Christian you will be praying with others. And this week there’s a great opportunity to pray both privately and corporately at the Day of Prayer on Wednesday here in this building. So can I challenge you to devote yourselves to prayer that day? Normally there are about 130 who come to the day of prayer. There could be many more. So come if you possibly can – not for me – but for the Lord and his church here. And if you can’t make it on Wednesday, either take time to pray on your own wherever you are or if you’re a man there’s also a Men’s Prayer Breakfast on Thursday morning. And can I say the breakfast is wonderful – and of course so is the fellowship, teaching and prayer!
Fourthly and finally THE CHURCH IS FOR EVANGELISM and you need to be involved in evangelism. It was a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who said that the church is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of non members! Look at verse 47:
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Jesus commands his disciples to evangelise. But, according to this verse, the Church is necessary for that evangelism. You see, evangelism is not just about people making decisions, it’s about making disciples – as Jesus commanded in Matthew 28:19. So when people profess faith they need to be nurtured in the Church. They need to be added to the church. So a healthy church is also a growing church, because it is an evangelising church. How did evangelism work in the early church? Well the witness of the church’s life together was powerful (v47) but essentially the Christians preached the gospel as Peter had done in v22-41 of acts 2. And that is still the great way the Holy Spirit brings people to faith in Christ. 1 Corinthians 1:21 says this:
“God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.”
So what did Peter preach? Have a look back at Acts 2:22-41. He preached about Jesus, his death, resurrection and ascension. Regarding the resurrection Peter asserted in Acts 2:32:
“we are all witnesses to this fact."
Is anyone here tonight still struggling to believe in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead? For Peter, an eye witness, the resurrection of Jesus and therefore his death on the cross were absolute certainties. He’d seen the empty tomb and the grave clothes lying there. He’d seen the risen Jesus appear to him and others many times. He’d seen Thomas put his finger in the holes in Jesus’ hands. He’d been personally commissioned by Jesus to feed his sheep. He was prepared to die for Jesus (John 21:18&19). Why would he be prepared to die if he knew that Jesus’ resurrection was a lie? He’d also witnessed Jesus’ ascension and now the crowd had also seen and heard the effect of Jesus pouring out the Holy Spirit. V33:
“Exalted to the right hand of God, Jesus has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear…Therefore [v36] let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
He is God. He is the Messiah. He came to save his people from their sins (Mt 1:21). All this wasn’t just out of the blue. It had been foretold by the Prophets (v16f&25f). It was all part of God's plan for the world. V23:
“This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross."
This preaching of the good news of Jesus wasn’t just to be listened to. It demanded a response. People knew it then. And people know it today when they hear Gospel preaching. Look again at v37&38:
When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."
Perhaps someone is cut to the heart here tonight – you’ve witnessed the baptisms, heard the testimonies and the Word of God. Inwardly you need to repent - that is, you need to turn from going your own way and ignoring God, ie from your sin. And you need to turn to Christ who died for you, in your place, bearing your sin. You do that inwardly by faith. But then you need an outward step - you need the outward profession of baptism (or if you've already been baptised you need to renew publicly your vows) as the four have done this evening. And the promise here is that you will be forgiven and you will receive the Holy Spirit who gives you new life. Who needs to turn to Christ tonight in repentance and faith? If that is you then call on the name of the Lord and you will be saved (v21). Ask Jesus to be your Saviour and Lord. Turn away from your old way of life and turn to him. And then see Jonathan Pryke about baptism or about publicly renewing your vows. And get stuck in to the church fellowship.
So we are to play our part as a church by preaching the gospel. But it was ‘the Lord’ (v47), who ‘added to their number daily those who were being saved.’ That is why they needed to pray and why we need to pray today. That’s why we need to come to the Day of Prayer this Wednesday for it is God, the Holy Spirit, who brings men and women to faith in Christ, not us. And these early Christians knew that when the Holy Spirit worked in someone's life he brought them to ‘belong’ to the church. They were ‘added to their number.’ And notice this happened ‘daily’. Do we see evangelism as a daily activity? Are we making the most of daily opportunities to witness to Christ? Who are we inviting to Advent Carols in two weeks time? If you’re in CYFA who are you inviting to Warehouse this Thursday? If you’re free on a Thursday who are you going to invite to the Invitation Lunch on 30 November?
Why the church? The church is for teaching the Bible and we need that teaching. The church is also partly where we put that teaching into practice. The church is for fellowship and we need Christian fellowship. The church is for corporate worship and prayer and we need to praise God together and pray with others. And the church is for evangelism and we need to be involved in evangelism together. So devote yourselves to the apostles teaching and to the fellowship, to corporate worship and prayer and to evangelism for the glory of God.