Just imagine for a moment that we were launching a new church from scratch. If you want to earth your imaginings, you can think of this new church as being in Gateshead. What would we want it to be like? What character would we want it to have? One thing’s for sure: there is much that’s tremendously encouraging about this church, JPC – but we’re a long way from what God wants us to be. Of that I’m sure.
What is more, we need to be clear that the launching of a church is God’s work. His children have the challenge and privilege of being involved. We have our part to play. But the church is the creation of the Holy Spirit.
This evening in our series in the Book of Acts we come to 2.42-47. Make sure please that’s open in front of you. It’s on p 1094 in the pew Bibles. Where have we got to so far? The risen Jesus has commissioned the disciples with the words:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
He’s been taken up to heaven to rule all things at the right hand of his Father. He has poured out his Spirit on the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. Peter, full of the Holy Spirit, has stood up and proclaimed Christ to the crowd. Many of them were cut to the heart and responded with repentance and faith. So, 1.41 (just before our passage starts) :
Those who accepted [Peter’s] message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
They had started the day with 120. Now suddenly there’s a church of over 3000 and growing. That is our prayer for this church. My faith isn’t up to seeing that happen in a day. But we are praying that over the next generation this church will grow to 5000, with a further 5000 in churches launched by JPC regionally, nationally and internationally. Let’s be absolutely clear: we cannot make that happen. That, or anything like it, can only happen through a profound and widespread work of the Holy Spirit, and through a church that is evidently full of the Holy Spirit, as this new church was in Acts 2.
There is in this passage a pattern of church life that we need to see among us as well. This is not a blueprint. Some of the detail is specific to that time and place and not relevant to us. But there are four key characteristics of this early church that we want to be true of us and of any church we launch. I’ve summed them up on my outline that you can see on the back of the service sheet. We’ll look at each in turn.
First, WE WANT TO BE A CHURCH THAT LOVES THE BIBLE, WHOLEHEARTEDLY LEARNING FROM AND LIVING OUT ITS TEACHING
Look at the start of v 42:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.
How do I get from that to the Bible as a whole? The New Testament – the post-coming-of-Jesus part of the Bible – was either written by or directly reflects the teaching of the apostles. Both the apostles and also Jesus himself teach us to love the Old Testament as God’s very word. So if we devote ourselves to the apostle’s teaching, we inevitably devote ourselves to the teaching of the whole Bible.
The teaching of the apostles, remember, was unique. They were not like any other Christian teachers. Why? Because they were divinely commissioned eyewitnesses and interpreters of what they saw and heard. That is why, to help us get the message, God attested specifically to the ministry of the apostles with great miracles. Verse 43 says:
… many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles.
There’s an example in the next chapter when God dramatically and instantaneously heals a man crippled from birth. 3.7:
Taking him by the hand, [Peter] helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk. Then he went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God.
That is by no means normal Christian experience. Can God still do that? Of course he can. But as a rule he doesn’t choose to. He did choose to in the ministry of the apostles, because he wanted us to understand their unique teaching authority. This early church got the point. The apostles had seen and heard Jesus. Jesus is God made flesh. Through the testimony of the apostles we are able to encounter God in Christ. There is no other way to do that than through the Bible’s teaching.
That teaching might come to us in the first instance through the words of someone else – just as you are now listening to me talking about what the Bible says. But everything a Christian teacher says must be checked constantly against the Bible itself. Somebody told me the other day that one of reasons he loves to spend a good deal of time reading the Bible is that he “can make sure that what you guys tell us is true”. To my mind, that’s great. If what I teach is not in line with the Bible, I want to know about it, because if it isn’t, it’s utterly powerless.
What’s meant by saying that the church was ‘devoted’ to the apostles teaching? Two things, I think. First, self-motivation. They weren’t coerced from the outside to pay attention to the apostles. They didn’t just do it out of duty. They did it out of desire. They wanted to learn from them. You can imagine them saying: “Tell us again. Tell us more. What did Jesus say? What did he do? Why did that happen?” A Spirit-filled church is marked by that self-motivated hunger for the Bible’s teaching.
Secondly, that devotion meant not just self-motivation but continuation. Perseverance. Endurance. It wasn’t there for a day or two and then gone. The hunger never left them. The nature of an individual Christian’s hunger for the Bible inevitably changes. In the early years you’re often hearing and learning totally new things. After a while, you may be going over old ground. And yet it is always new, because the Spirit of God who is speaking it is living and active, and because the circumstances of our lives in which we hear it are always changing. We need to hear old truths in new ways. But as for an individual, so for a church – it is all too easy for the central place of the Bible to slip or be lost entirely. In JPC’s history there was a long period in the last century when that was sadly so. We need to be vigilant all the time.
The Bible is like food for the church. If we don’t get enough of it, and digest it – internalise it – properly, then we starve spiritually and ultimately we die. The Bible is like light in the darkness. If we don’t use it and pay attention to what it shows us, we lose our way and go wrong. The Bible is like seed. Without it, we can have the most wonderfully prepared farm full of beautifully weeded, ploughed and fertilised fields. But not a thing of worth will come up. There will be no life and no growth.
Dig under the surface of every ministry of JPC or the new Gateshead church, and we must find Bible input at the core of it. And that Bible teaching must not just be for learning. It must be for living.
We want to be a church that loves the Bible, wholeheartedly learning from and living out its teaching.
Secondly, WE WANT TO BE A CHURCH OF CLOSE FELLOWSHIP, SHOWING THROUGH WARM HOSPITALITY AND GENEROUS PRACTICAL HELP.
I’m referring here first of all to the the middle part of verse 42:
They devoted themselves … to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread…
And also to verses 44-46:
All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, 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 with glad and sincere hearts..
What is this fellowship they were devoted to? For a start, it was grounded in their fellowship with God himself – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So the apostle John says in 1 John 1.3:
We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
And in 2 Corinthians 13.14 the apostle Paul prays:
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
So what creates the bonds of fellowship between believers is that we’re all united with God through faith in Christ. And I think we can understand the nature of fellowship better, too, if we think about some of the language that the Bible uses to describe how we relate to one another.
We are members of one family – the family of God, with God as our Father. So we are brothers and sisters. We can’t and don’t choose one another. And the link we have isn’t created by friendship or working together or however else we get to know one another. We are closely related to one another in Christ. Nothing can change that. If we’re not getting on, that doesn’t change the fact that we’re brothers and sisters.
Put another way, as the Bible does, we are members of ond body – the body of Christ. Some of us are feet, some hands, some no doubt internal organs – though I would hesitate to say who. But we belong together, and if we’re all playing our part in a healthy way, we function well together. God combines us just as we need to be combined so he can use us to do what he wants us to do.
Put yet another way, we are fellow soldiers in an army – God’s army. At their best, a close-knit military unit displays great cohesion and mutual commitment. I’ve been reading recently about the battle for the island of Iwo Jima in the Pacific during the Second World War. One battle-hardened 25 year old Marine sergeant called Mike Strank was the leader of a unit that was to be on the front line of the planned lethally dangerous amphibious landing. He was noticed by his superior officers and was offered a promotion that would have taken him out of the front line to relative safety. He refused the promotion, saying that he’d promised to his men that he would be alongside them during the landings and he wasn’t going to let them down. He did land with them, and later in the battle he was killed. He had predicted he would be. What Mike Strank demonstrated is an illustration of the kind of devotion to fellowship that the Holy Spirit creates in his church. We need to pray for that. We want a church that exhibits the same kind of devotion to fellowship.
As with the church’s love of the Bible, it will be a self-motivated and enduring devotion. Perseverance is needed because devoted fellowship isn’t always easy, any more than devotion to the members of your family is always easy. We can be hard work, can’t we? But there can be no giving up. We want to be a church marked by unfailing love.
One important element of the fellowship of the early church was what Luke calls ‘the breaking of bread’. That points to two things. First, the importance of food – of hospitality centred around the sharing of food. And secondly, the importance of the Lord’s Supper. There is almost certainly some reference to that here. The apostle Paul says about the Lord’s Supper (or Holy Communion as we also call it) – this is 1 Corinthians 11.26:
… whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
In other words, a regular sharing in the Lord’s Supper, according to Jesus’ command before he died, is something the Holy Spirit uses to make sure that we keep the Gospel right at the heart of our fellowship. We won’t be able to forget the cross and the second coming of Christ.
Those early Christians ‘had everything in common’. The bigger the task, the more committed to one another the members of a team need to be. Their task was to turn the world upside down and to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. But what’s also clear here is the key role of giving money in the Christian fellowship. Holy Spirit inspired generosity releases financial resources to meet needs. Note that this was voluntary; it was continuing and not once for all; and it was accepting of the principle of private property. This was no totalitarian proto-communism.
That kind of generous massive release of financial resources does two things. For one thing, it meets the needs of the poor. And as we begin to meet the physical and practical needs of those in the church, that overflows too to helping to meet the needs of those beyond the church. Galatians 6.9-10 urges us:
… as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
Massive generosity also enables ministry through the support of full-time workers. That’s not mentioned here but it’s a principle spelled out elsewhere in the New Testament. When the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, it’s a fairly straightforward matter for 20 givers to support one full time gospel worker.
Notice also that they were meeting together every day. Their fellowship wasn’t once on a Sunday, but daily. There’s no need for any slavish copying here – after all, they were meeting in the Jerusalem Temple and that doesn’t even exist any more, of course. But we need to know that a Holy Spirit inspired fellowship is a seven-day-a-week church, not a weekend only church.
So, in the church we want, there will vital roles for: one, small groups; two, ministry teams; three, food; four, sacrificial giving of money; and five, the Lord’s Supper. We want to be a church marked by close fellowship, showing through warm hospitality and generous practical help.
Thirdly, WE WANT TO BE A CHURCH IN AWE OF GOD, EVIDENT IN HEARTFELT REJOICING, PRAISE AND PRAYER
There are various references in my mind when I say that. There’s v 43:
Everyone was filled with awe…
There’s Luke’s description of them at the end of v 46 as having:
… glad and sincere hearts, praising God.
And there’s v 42 again, where he says:
They devoted themselves to … prayer.
When he says everyone was filled with awe, he may well be referring not just to the church but also to the wider community. And that raises the question: what is this ‘awe’? It’s fair to say that it’s closely related to fear. But whether awe is a kind of positive and loving fear or a negative, frightened fear really depends on whose side you’re on.
The invasion of Iwo Jima was effected by an expeditionary fleet of massive proportions – of awesome size. The American sailors and marines saw it with awe. So did the Japanese soldiers defending the island. But the nature of their awe was different, depending on whether they knew the awesome power they were seeing was arrayed on their side, or against them. The word ‘awesome’ has been degraded by overuse. It’s possible now, it seems, to have an ‘awesome’ cup of tea. That’s a shame, because it’s a good word, properly understood. When believers are awed by their vision of God in majesty and power, that is the kind of awe that knows that by his grace he has brought us on to his side, and his power is being deployed on our behalf, because he loves us.
This awe is a profound awareness of the reality of God. It’s the result of the impact on the church’s life of the Bible, the Holy Spirit and our experience of God at work among us. Revelation 1 tells how when John saw the risen Jesus, he fell at his feet as though dead – such was the overwhelming awe that he felt. In a church that knows God like that, there will never be any trivialisation of God, or of his word, or of the gospel. There’s plenty of scope for us not to take ourselves too seriously. We’re often ridiculous. But not God. Awe is an awareness of his power, his holy hatred of sin, his love, his grace, his sacrifice, his saving purpose, his sovereign rule, his presence, his call. This knowledge of the reality of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is right at the heart of what a church needs to be.
And what is the effect of this awe? First, sincerity. They had ‘sincere’ hearts – or simple, humble hearts. There’s an awareness of what we’re really like as we stand in God’s presence by his grace with no pretence, with all our pride stripped away, with what you might call authenticity.
Secondly, awe produces joy. They had ‘glad’ hearts’. And that doesn’t mean slightly happy. That’s a strong word. There’s no escaping from joy in a Holy Spirit launched church. Even in the depths of suffering, which if not present is never far away, there’s rejoicing, because in the final analysis we know that God is for us and will never let us go. Nothing can separate us from his love now.
Thirdly, awe produces praise. They were ‘praising God’. Spirit-filled believers cannot keep in what they have seen of the reality of God in Jesus. Inevitably they tell other people. And inevitably, what is more, they sing. The style of the singing is not the point. That’s why at JPC – as will be the case at the Gateshead church – we go for the best of the old and the best of the new. The point is what’s going on in our hearts. And we want to be a church in which our rejoicing overflows in praise.
Fourthly, awe produces prayer. ‘They devoted themselves to … prayer’. Proper awe of God gives rise not just to distant gawping but to constant communication in the throne room. Do we need something? Then we know that God is the one who provides, so we go to him with our request. And we don’t let up until either we have what we need, or God has changed our understanding of what we really do need.
Now it would be easy to go at these things from the wrong direction. It would be easy to think that if we work hard at sincerity, joy, praise and prayer, then we’ll see God. But it’s the other way round. The vision of God comes first. Look at Jesus. Be God-focused. And then we’ll be what we want to be – a church in awe of God, evident in heartfelt rejoicing, praise and prayer.
Fourthly, WE WANT TO BE A CHURCH USED BY GOD, BRINGING MORE AND MORE PEOPLE TO A SAVING KNOWLEDGE OF JESUS
Verse 47 – they were…
… praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
A church like this will ‘enjoy the favour of all the people’. Not literally all the people. Not everyone without exception. That’s clear from their experience. In 4.21-22, Peter and the others are threatened by the authorities, but released. In 5.40 they’re flogged and then released. In 12.1-2 James is executed and Peter is imprisoned. They don’t enjoy the favour of every one of the people. The gospel is bound to generate hostility. But it will also generate widespread favour outside the boundaries of the church. A bunch of people who love one another, and whose love and care overflows to the surrounding community and who persevere with that loving care in word and deed, so that it’s not just a flash in the pan, will be attractive to many. Jesus said, remember (this is John 13.34-35):
Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Notice too, crucially, that it is the Lord who is the primary evangelist – in one sense the only evangelist. ‘The Lord added their number…’ Only God can open the eyes of the blind to see the truth about Jesus and soften hard hearts to respond to him in repentance and faith. But that’s what he’s promised to do. And that’s what he does through a church launched by his Spirit.
How did God add those new believers to the church? That’s not spelled out but it’s easy to read between the lines. People watched the believers, and talked to them, and heard for themselves the teaching of the apostles (by which time they’re already half in the church community), and believed the message and joined their number. That is, God did it – but he used the church. We have a vital role to play. As Peter later urged:
… in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…
Daily they were being saved! Isn’t that what we want? Isn’t that what we need? Keep crying to God that he’ll do this among us, and in our region, nation and world. It is happening. There’s an organisation called Christian Research to which I belong. On their website they have a counter registering the approximate number of Christians in the world. It’s continually ticking over. Up and up goes the number. Today, worldwide, God is adding believers to his church every minute, never mind every day. But we want and need more here. Praise God that people are becoming Christians. I keep hearing about that happening, and it’s very exciting to see God at work. Pray for Gateshead. We want to be a church used by God, bringing more and more people to a saving knowledge of Jesus.
So there is a vision and a pattern of the church we want to be – the church God wants us to be. Remember, as I finish, that there’s no place for what we might call ‘ecclesiastical sinless perfectionism’. In other words, there never was and there never will be a perfect church. What happens in Acts 5 with Ananias and Sapphira makes it crystal clear that this early church was far from perfect. But there is a direction that we need to go in. And let’s be crying to God that he’ll take us in that direction faster and faster. We need to ask God to make these things more and more true of us. We need to do all we can with God’s help to make these things true of us – both at the new Gateshead church and at JPC. And we need to praise him and thank him as we experience these things happening among us.