ACTS4v32to36: NATURE OF THE EARLY CHURCH.
(A) Introduction (Read the references.) It is important to read all three references to see what the early church was like and to realise that it is not necessarily a model for us to follow today in all its characteristics. I will deal with those features of the early church that all spirit filled fellowships should aspire to and then examine the features unique to that first gathering of believers because of its special circumstances.
(B) The features of the early church that are common to all spirit filled churches.
There is no doubt that all Christians should be united. Jesus last prayer for all believers included these words: May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John17v23. Division occurred in the church primarily because Christian leaders could not bear to admit that they were wrong and needed to change. Divisions persist because Christians cannot admit that they are mistaken. Tragically there is no longer a oneness of heart amongst brothers. If we loved one another more we might arrive at oneness of mind.
There is not even unity within many local churches. Divisions exist because of pride, jealousy, envy, covetousness, self-love, prejudice and bias. The hallmark of a genuine Christian church is love. John writes: This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. ...... We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. 1John3v11,14.
(2) Meet frequently. Acts2v46: Everyday they continued to meet together in the temple courts.
It is amazing just how little time many Christians spend with other believers. Most are quite content with one hour a week - one hour in 168! Those first Christians met together every day. One of the characteristics of spiritual decline in my own church is that the number of times we meet together is steadily dropping. When I was a boy there were on average four services a week - now it is two. It is a bad, bad, sign.
I have indicated elsewhere in this web site that I greatly enjoyed a fortnight's holiday in Japan. It was organised by my friend, Tommy, who is not a Christian. He put in all the work and so I felt obliged to follow his itinerary. This meant that we travelled on Sunday so I did not attend church. I would not agree to this again. The first Sunday I was standing on the platform of Koriyame station waiting to catch the bullet train for Morioka when a very pretty lady came up to us and asked us where we were from. She was pleased that we came from England because here English was very good. The lady pointed to her daughter standing nearby and said, "We are Christians. We are travelling to Fukushima to go to church." I was very happy to meet a Christian that Sunday and to have a little fellowship with her before our train drew in.
(3) Key activities. Acts2v42: They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. The members of a spirit filled church will value, above all else, four essential means of grace. They will be hungry for sound teaching. Many Christians in Britain have a poor appetite for God's word and only attend one teaching service a week - if that. I take fellowship to mean talking over what has been learned with other Christians in the church. Recently, after an absence of over 40 years, I met up with a boyhood friend. Although I corresponded with him every Christmas I had quite forgotten why we were friends. I remembered - as soon as he began, at our reunion, to talk about his research into atmospheric gases. We used to get excited about Science and discuss with great animation all the new things we were covering in our lessons. It is a pity Christians do not show the same enthusiasm over the new truths they learn from godly teachers. Thirdly, Christians should meet regularly for communion or the Lord's Supper. We should be glad of the opportunity to remember all that Jesus has done for us and to look forward to the day he is coming again. Finally, genuine Christians love to meet together for prayer. The prayer meeting is a simple service. It only needs two or three to make it worthwhile. No church should ever abandon collective prayer. No Christian should ever stop away from the prayer meeting.
(4) Collective leadership. Twelve apostles were in charge of the early church. They exercised a joint leadership. All of them taught the new converts to Christianity. Peter and John were not the only ministers of the word. Indeed, a little later, deacons like Stephen and Philip also had a teaching role. Most English Christians seem to want one man in charge. This is especially true of those fellowships that believe in a congregational order of churches. The honourable exception is the Brethren movement. We ape the world when we appoint one man to lead the church - whether at a local or denominational level. The apostles worked together as a team and made collective decisions. This is by far the best way to procede.
(5) Hospitality and a sharing spirit. Acts2v46: They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. Hospitality is a feature of a spirit filled church. Christians enjoy entertaining one another. Last weekend I was invited to give an epilogue at a barbeque organised by a young couple of a neighbouring church. It was a lovely evening and it was very pleasant sitting under a mature copper beech in their large old garden. It took the young couple a lot of effort to entertain 30 or so guests but it was of great benefit to the small fellowship they attend.
Whenever I am on holiday I attend a local Anglican church. It is a delight to go out into the countryside on a lovely summer evening and attend evensong in one of our picturesque ancient churches. The service is very intimate because of its familiarity and the few who attend. However, I have to say that I have never been invited home for supper by anyone attending an Anglican church. They do not seem impressed with the writer to the Hebrews advice: Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Heb13v2. AV. I am critical of Grace Baptists from time to time in these expositions but I must admit that they have shown me hospitality whilst on holiday. An old man who attended Leiston Grace Baptist church took me home after the evening service for a meal and a chat. It did me good. I was in need of fellowship and encouragement because I was finding it hard work to look after my father at the time. We never know how much a little kindness may be of help to a Christian in trying circumstances.
(6) No need unmet. Acts4v34: There was no needy person among them. This is a wonderful testimony to the quality of the early church. Those first Christians would never have sung:
The poor man at his gate;
He made them high and lowly,
And ordered their estate.
The wealthy believers in Jerusalem sold land and possessions to help the poor. It was sacrificial giving. They brought money and laid it at the apostles' feet. This ensured all the needy could be helped from the common fund. This was a much better policy than individuals adopting a poor person and seeing after him or her. It prevented some of the unlovely poor being overlooked. All churches should have a fund for assisting the needy which is impartially administered by deacons or their equivalent.
(7) Continuous growth. Acts2v47: And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. It seems likely that where the members of a church are filled with the spirit others will be attracted in. This was certainly the case in Jerusalem after the day of Pentecost. Sadly few churches in Britain today can claim to be growing rapidly through conversions.
(C) Aspects of the situation that were unique to the early church.
It was unique:
The Jews needed dramatic signs to break with Judaism. It was very hard for them to do so. Moses said in Deut12v32: See that you do all I command you, do not add to it or take away from it. Jesus in fulfilling the law did change its significance. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said over and over again: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago...... . But I tell you that...." Mt5v21and22. It was difficult for orthodox Jews to accept teaching of this sort.
So when the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost it came in tongues of living flame and the place of meeting was shaken. It was impressive and this helped to confirm the believers in their faith. The apostles did wonders and miraculous signs in the name of Jesus to convince unbelievers that he was, indeed, the Christ and still alive and active. Miracles like the healing of the man crippled from birth rarely happen now because circumstances have changed. A famous person, such as David Blunket, the Home Secretary, is not instantaneously healed of his blindness at a word and in the name of Jesus. The ministry of Jesus and his followers is no longer in need of this sort of authentication. The last 2000 years of history are all the authentication we need.
(2) In its composition.
In order to keep everyone together and fund what was a prolonged teach-in it was necessary for Christians to pool their resources. That is why the believers had everything in common. Acts2v44. The policy of the early church was linked to the peculiar and untypical situation in which it found itself.
It is obvious that church life where all believers have everything in common and sell their possessions to fund what amounts to a continuous series of meetings for teaching, prayer and worship is unsustainable. If no one is working then eventually the church runs out of money. There is also a tendency for some Christians to abuse the system. Paul makes it quite clear when writing to the Thessalonians that: If a man will not work, he shall not eat. 2Thes3v6. (See the references.)
Eventually the church in Jerusalem did become impoverished and Paul had to organise collections to help it out.
The early church is not necessarily a good model for church organisation today - any more than Pioneer Camp is. The nature of that first church was unique and never to be repeated. However it does illustrate the sort of spirit that should exist in all genuine Christian fellowships. We do need to be united, to meet together for sound teaching, discussion and prayer and to care about and love each other. If this was the case then it could be said of us: All the believers in ??????? are one in heart and mind, much grace is upon them all. There are no needy persons among them. They meet together with glad and sincere hearts and enjoy the favour of all the people roundabout.