We're on to the next in our series on 'Knowing the Truth', based on the 39 Articles of Religion that are part of the doctrinal foundation of the Church of England, our denomination. And today we've come to Article 19: 'Of The Church'. It says this:
"The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men [which includes women], in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith."
So the issue here is the nature of the church, and at the heart of that is the preaching of what the Article calls 'the pure Word of God'. So the Word of God – the Bible – is the best place to go see the nature of the church in action. And I want us to look this morning at Acts 2.42-47. Please have that open in front of you. 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 should also be true of us. We'll look at each in turn.
1. God wants a church that loves the Bible, wholeheartedly learning from and living out its teaching
Look at the start of verse 42:
"And 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 signs were being done through the apostles."
There's an example in the next chapter when God dramatically and instantaneously heals a man crippled from birth. Acts 3.7-8:
"And [Peter] took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping 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.
What's meant by saying that the church was 'devoted' to the apostles' teaching? Two things, I think. First, self-motivation. Nobody forced them to pay attention to the apostles. And 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. 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. 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 suface of every ministry of JPC, 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.
2. God wants a church of close fellowship, showing through warm hospitality and generous practical help
Article 19 calls the church "a congregation of faithful men" – a local gathering, a coming together of men and women united by their shared faith in Christ, a fellowship. So look at Acts 2.42:
"…they devoted themselves to … the fellowship, to the breaking of bread…"
And also verses 44-46:
"And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts..."
What is this fellowship they were devoted to? We can understand the nature of fellowship better if we think about some of the language that the Bible uses to describe how we relate to one another.
- We're members of one family – the family of God, with God as our Father. So we're brothers and sisters.
- Put another way, as the Bible does, we are members of one 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. It is a 'band of brothers'. We need to pray for that. We want a church that exhibits the same kind of devotion to fellowship.
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:
"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the 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.
Hence the reference in Article 19 to the fact that the Church is a congregation in which "the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance". The reference is to what are called 'the dominical sacraments', that is, the two physical signs established and commanded by Christ himself, baptism and the Lord's supper. Baptism is the sign of the beginning of the Christian life, by grace through faith in Christ. The Lord's supper is the sign of the continuing of it, which is also by grace through faith.
Then those early Christians 'had everything in common'. What's clear here is the key role of giving money in the Christian fellowship. Holy Spirit inspired generosity releases financial resources to meet needs. That kind of generous massive release of financial resources does two things. For one thing, it meets the needs of the poor. Then massive generosity also enables ministry through the support of full-time workers. When the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, it's a fairly straightforward matter, for example, 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 anymore, 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 be 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.
3. God wants a church in awe of him, evident in heartfelt rejoicing, praise and prayer
There are various references in my mind when I say that. There's verse 43:
"And awe came upon every soul …"
There's Luke's description of them at the end of verse 46 as having:
"…glad and generous hearts, praising God..."
And there's verse 42 again, where he says:
"And they devoted themselves to… the prayers."
When he says awe came upon everyone, he may well be referring not just to the church but also to the wider community. So 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 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 filled church. It's true that suffering, if it's not present, is never far away. But even in the depths of suffering 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 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.
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 a church in awe of God, evident in heartfelt rejoicing, praise and prayer.
4. God wants a church useful to him, bringing more and more people to a saving knowledge of Jesus
Verse 47 – they were…
"…praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved."
A church like this will enjoy "favour with all the people". Not literally all the people. Not everyone without exception. That's clear from their experience. In Acts 4.21-22, Peter and the others are threatened by the authorities, but released. In Acts 5.40 they're flogged and then released. In Acts 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.
Notice too, crucially, that it is the Lord who is the primary evangelist – in one sense the only evangelist. "…the Lord added to 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. God did it – but he used the church. We have a vital role to play.
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. Today, worldwide, God is adding believers to his church every minute, never mind every day. So pray for this church. 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. But in practice the church is not as God wants it to be. Article 19 spells out that the Churches of the East as well as the Church of Rome have 'erred'. They've gone wrong in various ways at different times, sometimes extremely seriously, both in their teaching and in their practice, though the article is also clear that they remain 'churches' of God. We can certainly add the Church of England to that list of denominations that have erred. How these various churches have erred in particular we don't have time to pursue now.
But remember, as I finish, that 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, for ourselves, we need to do all we can to be as close as possible to this vision of the church that God has given us. We can see where we should be headed. 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. And we need to praise him and thank him as we experience these things happening among us.