The Lord's Day Evening
June 11, 2006
To the End of
How They Love One Another!
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me in the New Testament to The Acts of the Apostles. We began to look at the Book of Acts about a month ago, and we come now this evening to the closing section of chapter 2, and beginning at verse 42 and reading to the end of the chapter.
Before we read the passage, let's pray together.
Our Father in heaven, again it is our joy and delight and privilege to come into Your presence to acknowledge this gift of the word of God, of the Bible, of Scripture. We thank You that holy men of old wrote as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit. We thank You that every word, every jot and tittle, is Your word; that what Scripture says, You say. And we pray tonight as we glimpse something of the character and nature of the fledgling church of the New Testament, we ask, O Lord, that You would shape and mold us as a church, as a community of Your people, to reflect these characteristics. So grant Your blessing now on the reading of Your word. Come, Holy Spirit, help us to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Acts 2, beginning at verse 42:
“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
“Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe, and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Amen. And may God add His blessing to the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
There's a sense, isn't there, as we read a passage like this one–this is a very well known passage, and perhaps a favorite passage–giving us this cameo, this little glimpse of the fledgling New Testament church in the days immediately after Pentecost: meeting in circumstances and in an environment that was certainly different from ours, with none of the New Testament yet written, of course; having glimpsed and heard and seen astonishing things on the Day of Pentecost — the cloven tongues as of fire, the rushing, mighty wind; the fact that the men and women in Jerusalem were speaking foreign languages, that the diaspora Jews on the Day of Pentecost understood in their own native language the things that were being said; a little glimpse of the breakdown of that curse that had come as a consequence of the Towel of Babel, when God confused the languages and brought ethnicities and division into the world that we're so very familiar with.
But there's something about this little cameo that makes you want to say, “I want to belong to a church like that.” Some of you have just joined the church in a formal way this evening. The elders met with some folks, as they do about six times a year, and there are always folk there. And we heard testimonies on behalf of some as to the reasons why you chose to find this particular fellowship. But I want to join a church like this one! I love this church — don't misunderstand me! — but I want to belong to a church like this one. There's something about this church and the description of it that Luke gives us that I think is meant to draw from our hearts that very thought and expression: “I want to belong to a church like that.”
There's something about its simplicity - it's a very uncomplicated church; something about its zeal, something about its enthusiasm, something about its vision; certainly something about the blessing that was attending, the fact that day by day the Lord was adding to their number such as were being saved. It's as though these people in Jerusalem — the members now, of this little community — it's as though they have found the secret that has eluded mankind since the fall: the secret of true joy; the secret of true gladness of heart; the secret of happiness. And if you went to one of these Christians in Jerusalem and asked them, “What's the secret of your gladness, of your joy?” you know the answer: They have found the Lord. They’d experienced sins forgiven, a slate wiped clean...that though their sins be red like crimson, in Jesus Christ they were as white as snow.
It's interesting that Luke begins his Gospel in the same way that he begins The Acts of the Apostles. In the Gospel, Luke tells us that when Mary went to visit Elizabeth, John the Baptist leapt for joy in Elizabeth's womb — the same word that's used here about gladness, by the way, in verse 46. It's interesting...I can't prove it...it looks as though Luke is saying ‘Here's the secret of happiness: it's about this announcement that's been made to Mary. Jesus: that's the secret of joy.’
“I've found the pearl of greatest price;
My heart doth sing for joy...”
We haven't sung that in ages!
“I've found the pearl of greatest price;
My heart doth sing for joy.”
It's what Newton says, isn't it, in Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken:
“Fading is the worldling's pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasures,
None but Zion's children know.”
And you get the sense that these are Zion's children here, because they have found the secret of what it means to be happy, and it doesn't...and oh! what a word this is for us...it doesn't consist in the acquisition of things. It doesn't consist in the acquisition of material things.
When you get a sense that this world isn't your home, you don't spend your entire life trying to gather toys, but rather, expressing your joys.
This church grew — like a weed, I was about to say, but that's not a good metaphor! Let me change it! — This church grew rapidly. It's hard to know how many there were now. We’re told that there were 120, and then 3,000 were added on the Day of Pentecost. Perhaps many of those who were added on the Day of Pentecost were part of the diaspora community that had come for Pentecost and had now perhaps gone back again; and perhaps the numbers who remain in Jerusalem...who knows? We’re guessing 200, 300, 400, 500 perhaps, but a relatively - by British standards an enormously large church, by the comparison of the number 75 - but something like what's here this evening, perhaps. Estimates vary as to the population of Jerusalem at this time — 60,000...some, 100,000. That means that the percentage of the church of the New Testament in comparison to the population of Jerusalem is perhaps a quarter percent, perhaps a third percent, but no more than that as yet. They are just a small little fraction, a small little community, and no doubt the people of Jerusalem are inquisitive as to what's happening. They certainly would have been aware of them in the temple, because when they went to the temple, as we shall see in a minute, they made their presence felt, especially in the times of prayer in the temple. And no doubt word was going around Jerusalem that these men and women were meeting together in each other's homes — several homes, some of the larger homes, perhaps, in Jerusalem. Eventually some difficulties and innuendoes will emerge because of that, but not yet.
They’re called brothers several times now. At least four occasions in these opening two chapters, Luke has had someone, Peter or someone else, refer to them as brothers. They’re not yet called Christians, you understand. That will be in Antioch, in Acts 11, when they were first called Christians, and it was not a description meant to be a praiseworthy one. It was meant to be a slander: they were little Christ's. Now they’re brothers...a band [Brad's favorite movie]...a band of brothers. A band of brothers and sisters; a family, you understand.
And Luke is giving us here, in the cameo picture of the church, what looks like four marks of the church.
Now, in later centuries (in the fourth century, the fifth century), this will actually become an issue of theological debate: What are the marks of the church? In The Nicene Creed and partly later in The Apostles’ Creed, we're all familiar with the marks of the church. You are familiar with them even if you don't think that you’re familiar with them: One holy catholic and apostolic church...the oneness, the holiness, the catholicity [or the universality] of the church, and the apostolic nature of the church [that the church is built on the foundation of the prophets and the apostles].
But those are not the marks that Luke singles out here, and I want to look at these four marks. You see them there alluded to in verse 42. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.
The apostles’ teaching, first of all.
Luke is using a very distinctive word here. I’ll give it to you. I’ll explain it immediately when I give it to you, but it's called The Didache. In 1873, an archbishop, a man by the name of Philotheos Bryennioshe was rummaging through in the library of the Jerusalem Monastery of the Most Holy Sepulchre at Constantinople and he discovered a manuscript, a manuscript which we now believe goes all the way back to the first century, and maybe — maybe — the scholars debate this thing, but maybe as early as 60 or 70 A.D., possibly. Some others think it might be in the second century. And it summarizes a whole lot of things: things about baptism, things about the Lord's Supper, and things about preaching and the reading of Scripture, and a whole lot of other things about worship in the early, early church. It's a very, very important document.
These early Christians didn't have the New Testament, they didn't have Calvin's Institutes, they didn't have John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, they didn't have The Westminster Confession, or the Catechism, or The Child's Catechism. They are wholly dependent on the answer to the question: What are we supposed to believe in addition to what is found in the Old Testament canon of Scripture? What is it that we're meant to believe about Jesus? They’re wholly dependent on the teaching of the apostles, and they give their entire allegiance to the teaching of the apostles. The teaching, the truth, the doctrine...they continued steadfastly in the theology of the apostles, the doctrine of the apostles, the teaching of the apostles. It's what Jesus had said, it's what He had prayed for in the high priestly prayer, that they should be “sanctified in Your word; Your word is truth.” On several occasions in the upper room Jesus had spoken of the Holy Spirit: that He would come and He would be called the Spirit of truth; He would lead them into all truth. And for these disciples, that means they were devoting themselves to the teaching and the preaching, and the exposition and the explanation of the apostles.
We've already seen a little bit of it in the first and second chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. We've seen a little bit of it in the sermon that Peter has just preached — this wonderful, astonishing sermon where Peter is explaining now the significance of Pentecost, explaining the significance of the outpouring of the Spirit as a consequence of the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God the Father; that as a consequence of the ascension of Jesus, He's poured forth His Holy Spirit.
In the sermon, do you notice back in verse 31, he speaks of Jesus as “the Christ”, that is to say, the Messiah; that is to say the anointed One, the promised One, the seed of promise, of the seed of David, he says. And then in verse 36 he speaks of Him as “the Lord’: “God has made Him both Lord and Christ–this Jesus whom you crucified.” He is Christ, He is the Messiah, He is a human being. He is born of the seed of David. He is born of the virgin Mary. He was flesh and blood. He spoke, had ears, eyes, a nose. Even in His resurrection He was bodily present with them, and yet, He's Lord of all. And yet, He is the only God there is. He's not the only One who is that God, and that's where the questions now begin to form. As they hear Peter beginning to preach, they’re beginning to ask these questions about Jesus, about His humanity, about His deity, and how are these two related to each other? And so the church will grow as they commit themselves to the preaching and the teaching of the apostles, first of all about Jesus; and later in the Acts of the Apostles, further teaching not only about the identity of Jesus and the humanity of Jesus, and the deity of Jesus, but the nature of His work on the cross, the nature of the atonement. What does it mean that Jesus died on the cross? It needs to be interpreted.
I haven't seen The Passion — that's not the issue we're relating to now, but if you saw the movie The Passion, that in itself, the sight — however horrific, and I imagine it is horrific — however horrific the sight of someone being crucified is, that in itself is insufficient to explain to us how our sins are forgiven. That death needs to be interpreted, and so these disciples are committing themselves to the teaching of the apostles. Paul will expand on the resurrection and the significance of the resurrection, and the physical nature of the resurrection, and the resurrection of the body, especially in light of the fact that there were many who believed that true spirituality was immaterial. And he has to teach and preach about that. He’ll teach about the Second Coming of Jesus, he’ll teach about this world being burnt up and the new heavens and the new earth being formed. He’ll teach about a myriad of things — things to do, as we were hearing this morning, about sexual ethics. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to love the Lord? What does it mean to have the Holy Spirit indwelling our hearts? What does it mean in my home? What does that mean in my family? What does that mean in my place of work? They will begin to ask questions about — hands up, those who had pork for lunch! Not me! But they’ll begin to ask that question: is it OK to eat pork? It's not a big question for you, I understand that...the question for the folks that you’re ministering to...but an enormously important question for some of these early Christians who are converted Jews who have never eaten pork in their lives, nor would they ever think or dream of doing so. God will come to Peter and show him that the difference between clean and unclean animals is now done away with. It's OK now to eat pork. But it's not always OK, because there are going to be situations where you’re going to have certain Christians and certain weaker brothers who may well be offended, and you will have to use wisdom and discernment. And Paul will teach about that in various places in the New Testament. They devoted themselves to the preaching and teaching of the apostles.
You know, that's why, as a church, we emphasize the Bible. That's why we emphasize preaching. That's why we emphasize Sunday School. That's why we love it when we hear of Christians who like to read, and read good books, Christian books, classic Christian books; it thrills our hearts when we hear of Christians learning the Catechism, because that was a mark of the early church. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.
What is it that we're meant to know? What is it that we're meant to understand, amid all of the clarion voices out there? It was to the apostles they went.
But then, secondly, not only the teaching, but fellowship.
Now here's a word that's been abused. We think of fellowship and we think of, oh, coffee and doughnuts...and I love coffee and doughnuts! But it's not fellowship in the New Testament sense of the word. You know, you think of...what do you think of when you think of fellowship? You think of a campfire, and “s’mores”, and 39 renditions of Cumbayah or something. But that's not fellowship!
Fellowship in the New Testament is a very technical word. It's a word that literally means to share in common with. You remember, at one point in Philippians Paul will talk about “the fellowship of Christ's sufferings.” He's trying to prepare those beloved Philippian believers for times of suffering and difficulty, and he's saying to them that's what it means to be in union with Jesus Christ. You share in His sufferings. And these early Christians were very conscious, I think, that they shared together something that was new and fresh.
And Luke explains what it means. He explains in the words that follow in verse 44, that
“All who had 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 we’ll see this happening again in chapter 4 of The Acts of the Apostles.
Now, this isn't communism. This is a voluntary thing. They retained the right of private ownership. We’ll see that as Acts develops. They are still in possession and they have the right to possess. These are not confiscated from them by force. It wasn't something that they had to do as rite of passage for entry into the community of God's people, like at Qumran, that strict ascetic sect of the Essenes down by the Dead Sea which arose after the Maccabean revolt in the first and second century BC, and was still around at this point in time. To become a member of that Essene community in Qumran, you had to forsake all of your possessions. That's not what's happening here. This was a voluntary sense of distribution to those who were in need, because they were family, because they were brothers and sisters.
There was a man (and he's not more than 500 yards from here) who has been commenting over the last week on the numbers of you who have been visiting someone in hospital, and he cannot for the life of him understand it. It has been, I think, one of the most powerful witnesses in this man's life: your concern for a sister. And here is this early, early church, and they’re continuing in fellowship with each other, because they share these things in common. They have a common identify. They have a common purpose, they have a common goal. It's what you do, what you folk do again and again and again, in the astonishing way that you give to this church, and in stories that we hear again and again that are meant to be the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing (that's difficult in Jackson, you understand!), but acts of mercy and acts of kindness to brothers and sisters, because we're family...because we're family.
And then, thirdly, the breaking of bread.
This expression — if you've got your Bible, take a look at this — this expression occurs first of all in verse 42, and it occurs in the original with a definite article: the breaking of bread. And then it occurs again in verse 46: “And day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes.” And in that second instance, it's without the definite article. So there's the breaking of bread, and there's breaking bread. And there are three different views.
One view says that in verse 42 what's being referred to is the Lord's Supper; that when they met together they celebrated the Lord's Supper. And there are many interpretations that want to see verse 42 as referring to the Lord's Supper, because if that is indeed a reference to the Lord's Supper, it helps answer a whole lot of other questions about the nature of the Lord's Supper, and the frequency with which we should be celebrating the Lord's Supper.
And then they say (that same group thinks) that in verse 46 what we have is a common meal. So there's the Lord's Supper in verse 42, and there's a common meal in verse 46.
Then there's another group, and they think that both verse 42 and verse 46 refer to the common meal, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Lord's Supper at all. In fact, some of them will go on to say that the Lord's Supper initially wasn't celebrated but once a year at the time of Passover.
And then there's a third group, and it's like having your cake and eating it, because [and this is where I am!] it's a view that says first and foremost this is a reference to the common meal. But you understand, you remember from Corinthians 10 and 11, in the early church in Corinth, for example, there was a confusion about the relationship of the agape feast, the common meal that they celebrated together, and the Lord's Supper, and Paul has to come and make some very strict — it sounds very strict — remarks about the nature of one and the nature of the other, and the separation between the two, and that it was inappropriate for them to be doing certain things when in fact what they were doing was celebrating the Lord's Supper.
So I think first of all Luke is saying this is a reference to the common meal. They met together, and they met together in each other's homes, and they ate together and they shared together, and they talked together, and they planned together, and they dreamt together. And you can imagine in this early church, in those first few weeks and few months, that with all the newness and the freshness of it, asking a thousand questions: What is the nature of what we've come to understand about Jesus and Judaism? And what does it mean when we go now to the temple to worship, and what does it mean for others who will go to the synagogue to worship? And according to the Talmud there were 390 synagogues in Jerusalem at this time. And when they met together in each other's homes and they met together to eat, and they met together for food, that sounds to me like a wonderful interpretation and a wonderful thing to do. It emphasizes their unity and it emphasizes the communal nature of their gatherings.
And then, fourthly, prayers. And it's the prayers...not just prayers, but the prayers. And Luke may be saying first of all, as he goes on to say that they met in the temple — day by day [verse 46] they were attending the temple together. They were still Jews, you understand. Now they were Jewish Christians...they didn't call themselves Christians, they’d come to understand that Jesus was the Messiah, the Christ, so they still had allegiance to the temple. They didn't abandon the Old Testament. They didn't abandon initially the temple...I don't think they were attending the sacrifices of the temple, and there must have been periods initially when there was a great deal of questioning and instruction needed about that. But when they went to the temple, and especially the set times of prayer in the temple, these Christians, indwelt now by the fullness of the Spirit, made sure that they were in the temple at those times of prayer. They loved to meet together for prayer. They loved to meet together in the temple to pray and to sing, and to rejoice and to be glad in their hearts.
And then, in their homes, in the breaking bread in the homes when they gathered together for meals, when they invited some of their friends along...and no doubt they sang, and no doubt they prayed.
You know, for Luke, when he describes the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, and folks were skeptical that this persecutor was now a true Christian...do you remember what Luke has about ‘How can you know? How can you be certain that Saul of Tarsus has been genuinely converted?’ Well, I'm going to quote you the King James Version: “Behold, he prayeth.” Behold, he prays. That was the distinctive mark of what it means to be a true believer in Jesus Christ.
You notice in verse 42 they devoted themselves — and the same word, although it doesn't come out in English, but the same word again occurs in verse 46. There was a devotion, there was a sense of definite purpose about these early Christians. And what happens? What happens to a community like this, a community that loves the word and wants to know and understand the word? And a community that loves fellowship, the sense of common identity that they have in Jesus Christ? A community that loves to meet together as brothers and sisters in the Lord? A community that loves prayer? God adds His blessing. There's a sense in which what is happening here is associated with Pentecost, and there's a sense in which that is unique. But there is a sense also in which this is the template of outpourings of the Spirit that we see on the pages of church history, and God adds to this church daily such as are being saved. It's like Jonah 2:9, isn't it? You know Jonah 2:9 — it's what Jonah says in the belly of the whale: “Salvation is of the Lord.” (You know, Spurgeon says that that whale was an Arminian, because as soon as he heard that salvation was of the Lord, he spit him out!)
And Luke is saying something similar here: this is God's doing, this is God's blessing.
So let's sum up some of the elements of this early church life. They focused on the teaching of the apostles, which we have in the New Testament. They experienced wonders and signs. They lived in a state of wonder and awe as they saw day by day the stark reality of God working in their midst. They spent time in big groups in the temple. They spent time together in their own homes. And they loved to pray...they loved to pray. What's the key? What's the key?
I think you see it there in verse 43: “Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe....” of fear. They were in awe of God. That's the key. And you know, folks, I sometimes think that we don't have that. We want to think of God as a buddy and a friend, but we don't want to think of Him as a consuming fire. We don't want to think of him in terms of the motivation that we were being forced to think about this morning: that unless we behave in this way which is reflective of the great God in us, He will damn us to hell. They were in awe of God — His greatness, His glory. Every day they were conscious of how great a God they were worshiping, and I think that's the key: that here was a community that worshiped a great God.
And may God give us that sense of awe.
Let's pray together.
Father, we come to You again. We thank You for the intimacy that we have in coming into Your presence, that we may call You Father, Abba. But You are the creator of the heavens and the earth. You are of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. You are a God who shows grace, but You are also a God who judges and damns. So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom, and grant that we as You people may walk before You in awe, in holy wonder at Your greatness. And grant Your blessing for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Let's stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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