For much of 2015 my Sunday morning sermons were in a study entitled “First Things First: What We Can Learn from the Church in its Beginning.” Our purpose was to look to the example of the early church as a model in guiding us in what the church should be and do in this present day. I felt compelled to do the study, and thought it to be very profitable for our church. I was also able to some of things that we learned with our fellow pastors in Uganda.
It would be impossible in this article like this to review all of that which we covered. But here are some of the main points:
The early church was Spirit-led and empowered. Jesus spoke five times in His Farewell Discourse of the pending ministry of the Holy Spirit. And in Acts 1:4 He commanded His apostles to “wait for what the Father had promised.”
And in Acts chapter 2 we read of how the Apostles were filled with the Spirit–Just like Jesus had promised. The fact that they spoke in tongues gets a lot of attention by folks. But the Spirit’s ministry in the lives of those people was about far more than just speaking in tongues. Jesus had spoken to His disciples of the ministry of the Spirit (Cf. John chapters 14-16). How they would be forever indwelt by Him. How He would teach them and bring to their remembrance the things that Jesus had taught them. How He would bear witness of Jesus and empower them to do the same. How He would be in the world convicting of sin and righteousness and judgment. How the Spirit would glorify Jesus Christ.
According to Acts 1:8, one of His chief ministries would be to empower them to bear witness of Jesus. And we find evidence of that in Acts chapter 2. Not many weeks prior Peter had failed to bear witness of Christ. He had affirmed His allegiance to Jesus and said that he was prepared even to die with Him. But he failed. He denied Jesus three times. He denied ever knowing Jesus. He denied Jesus even to a slave girl.
But in Acts chapter 2 we read of how cowardly Peter was made courageous by the power of the Holy Spirit. He stood before that great crowd of people and forthrightly proclaimed the truth about Jesus Christ.
But the Spirit was also at work in the hearts of those who were listening to Peter’s sermon. They were Jews and proselytes. The crucifixion had taken place mere weeks before. Some of Peter’s listeners had likely been there, crying out with the multitude “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” But Peter affirms to them the truth about Jesus, that He is the Christ. And how He died and rose again as their Savior-Messiah. Under conviction of the Spirit those previously hard-hearted listeners were “pierced to the heart” (Acts 2:37). And 3000 people believed unto salvation. Salvation was the result when Spirit-empowered preaching met with Spirit-prepared hearts.
Note the promise made by Peter to them. “And you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And they did. “They were born of the Spirit with life from above into God’s family divine.” And the things that they did subsequent to that day were things that they were Spirit-led and empowered to do. The Spirit not only caused them to be born again but worked an incredible transformation in them.
Now every born-again believer had shared in that same experience. They too have been filled with the Spirit (Romans 8:9; Titus 3:5-6; John 7:37-39).
The great work that took place in the beginning of the Church was a work of the Spirit. In fact, the book of Acts would be better entitled, “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The words “of the Apostles” is not a part of the inspired text. The Spirit is referred to repeatedly throughout the book.
We need to realize this about our lives and ministries. God does not call upon us to do the things He calls upon us to do in the power of the flesh, “the flesh profits nothing” (John 6:63; Cf. Philippians 3:3). Human wisdom, strength and self-effort are all inadequate.
We do well to appreciate this dynamic. We are tempted to try to do things in our own strength. But to endeavor to try is foolhardy. The Apostle Paul condemned the church in Galatia, saying: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh” (Galatians 3:3)?
The life and ministry of the believer in Christ lies in the realm of the miraculous. By the Spirit we are born again and by the Spirit we grow and serve God. It is impossible and foolhardy to try to do the things that God has given us to do according to human wisdom or self-effort. That is why we are commanded to be “filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18) and to “walk by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16).
The early church was Christ-centered in its ministry. Acts 1:8, “You shall be My witnesses.” There are two main parts to Peter’s first sermon. Acts 2:14-21 is an introduction. Peter says “this is that” in explaining why it was that the disciples were speaking in tongues. The heart of the sermon is Acts 2:22-36. Note this about that part of the sermon. It begins and ends with Jesus. The first important word uttered is “Jesus” (Acts 2:22). The last phrase in the sermon? “This Jesus whom you crucified.” So we have in this sermon the great theme which is the great theme of all of the Scriptures—the person and work of Jesus Christ.
The Apostle Paul summed up the concern of His ministry in these same terms. 1 Corinthians 2:2, “For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.”
D. L. Moody once said that the “main thing is keeping the main thing the main thing.” And here we find here, in Peter’s first sermon, the main thing. The main thing is bearing witness of Christ.
And note also how Peter elaborates on these truths. His message was to Jews and proselytes. His chief concern was to affirm to them that Jesus is the Christ. So he speaks of how this truth was affirmed in the life of Jesus—in the miracles that He performed (Acts 2:22). One of the questions that would have puzzled those folks was how could the Messiah die. So Peter spoke of the death of Jesus being by “the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Then he proved the resurrection of Christ both by prophecy and his own witness (Acts 2:24-32). And finally spoke of the ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God (Acts 2:33-36).
His message? The life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ.
And this Christ-centeredness continued on in the ministry of the early church. This is a test for us. The ministry of the Spirit of God is to glorify the Son of God. There is something wrong with a church when it is diverted or distracted from its ministry of bearing witness to Jesus. To be sure, the Spirit of God is not at work if there is a failure in this regard. And, on the other side of the coin, there is nothing of more importance or of greater need that for the church to bear witness of Him. Salvation is bound up in Christ alone. That is why Peter and John later said to their persecutors: “And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). And why they said, “We cannot stop speaking of what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).
The early church was preaching the gospel. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I have also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
We find here that the gospel is a matter of “first importance.” It has always been that to the church—from its beginning.
- The message of Christ’s death and resurrection are there in Peter’s first sermon (Acts 2:23-24).
- In his second sermon (Acts 3:15).
- In the response of Peter and John to the religious leaders (Acts 4:10).
- In the ongoing ministry of the church (Acts 4:33).
- When Peter responded to the religious leaders on a second occasion (Acts 5:30).
- In the preaching of Philip in Samaria (Acts 8:12).
- In Peter’s message to Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:40).
- In Paul’s messages to the Gentiles (Acts 13:30-32).
So the church was preaching the gospel. And that is the legacy of the truth church through the ages—preaching the message of Christ’s death for sins and resurrection from the dead.
The gospel is the message by which we are being saved (1 Corinthians 15:2). So we ourselves have a constant need to be reminded of it.
It is the “glorious gospel of the blessed God” (1 Timothy 1:11). God is glorified in the preaching of the gospel.
It is “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). We preach the gospel so that souls might be saved.
That’s what the early church was doing. That’s what we need to do. We need to work together for that purpose. Both living out and proclaiming the truth of the gospel: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ; so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27).
The early church loved the truth. They were “continually devoting themselves to the Apostle’s teaching” (Acts 2:42). These folks were Jews and Jewish proselytes. They knew something of the Scriptures. They had been taught in the synagogues from what we now call the Old Testament. But they didn’t own their own copies of the Scriptures. And as they were born again to constitute this new church they had need for instruction.
And that ministry of instruction was given to the Apostles. They received revelation from God. They were sent forth to declare the truth. And as these folks gathered they listened intently to the instruction they were given.
Now this is the way that God has designed things. Those that are born again by the Spirit are born again to a love for the truth.
The Apostle Peter used the analogy of a newborn babe in describing that ought to be the attitude of the believer towards the truth of God’s Word. “Like newborn babes,” he said, “long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation” (1 Peter 2:2).
Newborn babes love mama’s milk. They instinctively know that they need to drink much of it if they are to grow. And by the Spirit believers in Christ love the Word. And in loving the Word and partaking of the Word they grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is something very wrong if there is no love for truth in the life of a believer in Christ. Paul chided the believers in Corinth because they had no appetite for his teaching. What was the cause? They were not spiritual, but fleshly, and because they were fleshly they had no appetite for truth. So where the Spirit, the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17), is at work there will be a corresponding love for the truth.
Paul warned Timothy of a day to come in which “they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). That’s the spirit of the day in which we live. We need to deliberately determine to think and live differently. Love of the truth characterized the lives of those early believers. We do well to follow their example.
The early church was devoted to fellowship. Acts 2:42, “And they were continually devoted to…fellowship.” The term translated “fellowship” means “communion, fellowship, sharing in common.”
What did these believers share in common? Everything. But the basis for their fellowship was their shared relationship in Christ. Having been Spirit baptized into the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13), they were literally “members of one another” (Romans 12:5).
They were spiritually and supernaturally united to God and therefore to one another. 1 John 1:3, “What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.”
So fellowship is not just something we do, it is something we are. We don’t go to church, we are the church. And we are Spirit-led and drawn to be with and minister together with our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
This was the experience of those early believers. They were steadfast in their fellowship. They experienced a great unity in Christ:
- They were together (Acts 2:44).
- They had all things in common (Acts 2:44).
- They were sharing what they had (Acts 2:45).
- They were of one mind (Acts 2:46).
- They were meeting day by day (Acts 2:46).
- They were breaking bread together (Acts 2:46).
- They were eating their meals together (Acts 2:46).
There was oneness to the church. A oneness that was exemplified in their love for one another and their desire to be together.
Now this is the way God has designed things. And if you look both to the beginning of the church and also to its consummation when it is ushered into heaven you see something of this. Revelation 5:9 speaks of that great heavenly gathering when people from every tribe and tongue and people of nation will be heavenly united to sing praise to the Lamb who was slain.
But the in-between time is a challenge to us. The visible church is divided into countless and various denominations and factions.
There is that little ditty that says, “To dwell above with saints we love, Oh, that will be glory; to dwell below with saints we know, Well, that’s another story.”
And for countless reasons and with a myriad of excuses people don’t fellowship together with fellow believers as those first believers did. But the Spirit would have us to. He would lift our sights higher to view the church as God does. The church triumphant is a beautiful thing. The Church of the living God, the pillar and support of the truth, is glorious because it’s Savior and Lord is glorious. And no matter how people view it, the truth is that it will prevail. God’s purposes for His people in His church will not be thwarted.
By the Spirit we need to recapture something of what those early believers had. Hebrews 10:24-25, “Let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near.”
The early church was devoted to the breaking of bread. Acts 2:42, “And they were continually devoted to…the breaking of bread.”
The reference to “breaking of bread” is a reference to what we also refer to as “communion” (1 Corinthians 10:16) or the “Lord’s Supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20).
The book of Acts was authored by Luke who also wrote the gospel of Luke. He used the same language in speaking of what Jesus did in the last supper (Cf. Luke 22:19; 24:35). Later in the book of Acts he used similar terminology (Acts 20:7).
They were devoted to the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
The observance of the Lord’s Supper is not a religious ritual. No one can be saved by doing it (Cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no religious advantage gained by its practice. But there is a good reason to observe it purposefully on a regular basis…
- We are instructed to (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:23-24).
- We are Spirit-led to (Acts 2:42).
- It is an act of worship (Philippians 3:3; Galatians 6:14).
- It serves as a reminder of what God had done for us (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24; Exodus 12:14, 17, 25-27).
- It bears witness concerning Christ and His death for sins (Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 11:26).
- It helps to remind us to keep the matter of first importance a matter of first importance to us (1 Corinthians 15:3; 2:2).
- It reminds us, by way of Christ’s example, of the command He has given that we should love one another and forgive each other (John 13:34-35; Ephesians 5:1).
- It is something the Spirit can use to kindle afresh our love for Jesus (Revelation 2:4-5).
In the Lord’s Supper God has condescended to our need. He has given to us simple emblems which speak to the great truths of Christ’s sacrifice and our salvation through His shed blood. We are privileged to observe it, looking to the Spirit to bear witness through the observance to our hearts so that a Spirit-borne love for Christ might be enlivened and refreshed in an ongoing manner.
The early church was devoted to prayer. Acts 2:42, “And they were continually devoted to…prayer.”
They were steadfast in their prayers. If you had been there at the time you would have seen them praying. They were always praying. That doesn’t mean that they only prayed and never did anything else. It means that prayer was a consistent part of their experience.
They were Spirit-led to do that. And we see something of that when a person is newly born again of the Spirit. They have such a heart with respect to prayer.
When confronted with various problems, they prayed. In Acts 3 we read of the miracle of the healing of the lame beggar. That miracle led to a sermon by Peter. And that sermon was met by an amazing response. 5000 people believed unto salvation. This upset the religious leaders. So they arrested and interrogated Peter and John. Peter and John were not dissuaded at all from their objective of preaching Christ. They were given a mandate (Acts 1:8). They knew the truth that salvation cannot be found in anyone else (Acts 4:9-12). So when the religious leaders commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus Christ, they said no (Acts 4:18-20). And when Peter and John were released, do you know that they did? They went back to their companions and had a prayer meeting (Acts 4:23-31).
Another example is given to us in Acts 12. King Herod had James the brother of John put to death. He did this to please the Jews. This religious persecution against Christians goes on to this day. King Herod saw how this pleased the Jews and he had Peter arrested and put in jail. So what did the church do? The people prayed (Acts 12:5). They were fervently praying for Peter.
A third example of corporate prayer in the book of Acts is found in Acts 13. The Spirit called upon the church in Antioch to send forth Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey. This was according to the church’s mandate in Acts 1:8. So the church sent them off. But note the manner in which they sent them off. They understood something about the work that they would be involved in. It was a work that would be fully dependent upon God and His grace. They needed to be strengthened by God to do the work. And so the church “fasted and prayed and laid hands on them” before they sent them on their way.
J. Hudson Tayler, founder of the China Inland Mission, once said, “Brother, if you are to enter that province by must go forward on your knees.” And so it is with all missionary endeavor.
A healthy church is a praying church. Charles Spurgeon, “If God be near a church, it must pray. And if he be not there, one of the first tokens of his absence will be a slothfulness in prayer.” The early church was a praying church. And we’ve been called to follow in their example (Colossians 1:9, 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).