The marks of the church - Acts 2:42-47
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
A few years ago I was given a brochure inviting me to a huge conference called the Gathering of Champions. Naturally, I was intrigued. I was told that at this conference thousands of people would gather together to hear some of the most powerful speakers in the world. One pastor was an exemplary lyricist and composer, and his songs would reach and touch the soul and they had earned him a Grammy award. He was also Senior Pastor of the Perfecting Church that consists of 2,900 members. There would also be another powerful speaker there whose church is 18,000 strong, along with a pastor who runs a church called the Winners Chapel claiming to attract 40,000. The ministries of these men, I was told, are concerned with challenging people to live lives that lead to success and prosperity. I could be given financial breakthrough, I was assured. A further pastor had written over 5000 songs and 57 books. Melvin is a long way behind! Well it sounds great doesnt it? Churches of thousands, success and prosperity! St. Johns seems paltry in comparison doesnt it?
And it raises the question, just what are the marks of an authentic church. Is it all about numbers and success, or is it something else? I remembering talking with a friend who is a pastor of a church in Washington DC in America, and he was saying the size of your church car park is the mark of success in America. He was slightly worried because he didnt have one! But when we come to the New Testament we discover that Gods criteria for success are entirely different. Success is measured in terms of faithfulness, doctrinal orthodoxy, obedience to Jesus commands and love for one another. They cannot be measured in numbers and figures, but they tell the true story about the health of a church. And that is the question we are concerned with today. What are the marks of the true church of God?
And to answer that question we are going to look at the earliest Christian church, that gathering of people in Jerusalem who met in the days after Jesus had ascended to heaven. And in this passage from Acts 2 Luke is explaining just what that church did. If you like, it is a little cameo of those first gatherings. But before we look in greater detail at the marks of that church, we need to pause and see just who was in it. If you were here last week you will remember that we discovered that church in the Bible is simply another way of saying a gathering of believers. Church equals people, not buildings. The church building is simply a rain-shelter under which the real church, the people of God meet. And Luke tells us what kind of people they were in verses 38-41. Peter is giving his first sermon all about Jesus, and it is not a bad effort. The effects of this sermon are that 3000 people repent of their sins, accept the message about Jesus and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. They are new believers. And in the next verses Luke tells us that these are the folk who met together daily.
Now you may think that is blatantly obvious. Of course a church is made up of believers. But it is important as we begin that we recognise that a church is not just a club for people with a common interest, like badminton or Tupperware. It is a gathering of people who believe and trust that Jesus is the Christ and who have been born again by the Holy Spirit. So what was this church like? What were the things that characterised this newly Spirit filled people of God?
1) A Learning Church
2) A Caring Church
3) A Committed Church
4) A Growing Church
1) A Learning Church
And the first mark of this church that we discover in verse 42 is that it was a learning church. They were devoted, says Luke, to the apostles teaching. The teaching of the apostles was something that captivated them. They were like new born babies desperate to get at the food that their spiritual fathers were giving them. And what was this teaching of the apostles? Well judging by their letters in the NT, it was teaching about Jesus, who he was, what he came to do, how to obey him, his second coming. In other words the whole Christian faith. And these first Christians were devoted to that teaching. The word Luke uses is a very strong word. They had a hunger for the Word of God as taught by the apostles. And it was the apostles teaching because they were the divinely accredited witnesses of Jesus. Thats why Luke records that the apostles did many signs and wonders in the peoples midst. The miracles were divine sign posts that something amazing was happening, and that these men should be listened to. So this church was a learning church. As the writer John Stott says: "The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God."
And the great thing is that we are in exactly the same position. God in his goodness has left us with copies of those first amazing adult Bible classes. And of course it is called the NT. We have in our hands, freely and available the teaching of the apostles, Jesus spokesmen. And a church which is a healthy church will want to make the teaching of the Bible one of its primary tasks. Any church which does not do that, and is not built on the teaching of the Bible will be a sick church. Christians will not be fed, non Christians will not hear the gospel, and that church will die. And sadly that is happening all over our country. Where the word of God is not taught, the people of God starve. And that is why here at St. Johns we make no apologies for making the teaching of the Bible a priority in every area, right from the pulpit all the way through to the scramblers and toddlers groups.
But, of course, the danger is that we could easily say, "Well weve got the first box ticked. Lets move on to the next. Lets pat ourselves on the back and say well done. We do devote ourselves to scripture." But there is a further application to ourselves. Because it was the individuals who made up that first gathering who were devoted to the teaching of the apostles. And it requires each of us to ask ourselves personally, am I similarly devoted? Ok, we may go to the Home Groups, or Tuesday group, and hear the sermons every week, but what about the rest of the week? Am I devoted to the Word of God, do I hunger for it like these first Christians. And that is much more challenging isnt? Statistics about the decline in personal daily Bible reading are horrifying. A good test is to tot up honestly how much TV you watch each week, and then compare it with your Bible reading. It may be a eye opening exercise. Its not that TV is bad in itself, but we must ask ourselves, "Whose message are we receiving more, the worlds or Gods?" Who is shaping our moral decisions? Kilroy or God? Its not surprising when Biblical morality and doctrine gets pushed to the side even among Christians when Gods Word is sidelined.
It was said of John Bunyan that if you cut him open anywhere you would discover that his blood was bibline. He devoted himself to reading scripture. And that devotion is to be ours as well. I know a number of people have found the Explore notes very useful, available through the bookstore. All they do is set a small passage of the Bible each day and then explain it and then get you to think about the application to daily life. All it would take is just a few minutes each day, and you would be feeding yourself with Gods Word. If theres room for Coronation Street theres room for the Bible. Why not try it and get into the habit of devoting yourself to Gods Word. For then you would be displaying the first mark of a healthy church. It is a learning church.
2) A Caring Church
But then secondly, Luke tells us that the second mark of this church was that it was a caring church. They had a desire to love others. In verse 42, Luke tells us that they devoted themselves to the fellowship. Now this is perhaps one of the most misunderstood words in Bible vocabulary. If you invite a non Christian friend round for a cup of tea at your house, you are doing evangelism, were told. But if you invite a Christian friend round for tea, then its fellowship. But the word fellowship actually means far more than that. At its root it simply means partnership or sharing, so Luke is able to use a related word to describe the fishing business that Andrew and John had with Peter. They were partners in "Zebedee and Sons Fishing Company Ltd". John uses the same word in his first letter to describe the relationship between the Christian and God. It is fellowship, a deep personal commitment which is a loving relationship and spiritual union. But it also means something intensely practical. That is why Paul can talk about the Macedonian churchs willingness to give to the famine stricken Jerusalem church as fellowship in 2 Corinthians 8. So fellowship is much more than supping tea. It is a deep, personal commitment which is intensely practical. And that is what this first church in Acts 2 demonstrated.
Have a look at verses 44-45. "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as they had need." Now of course the big question that is always raised is should we do the same. Should all of us sell everything and all live together in the vicarage in one large commune? It would certainly solve the security problems. But Im not sure that it would be a fair application of the passage. For a start it is clear that not everyone sold everything. They clearly still had homes to meet in where they broke bread, and in Acts 4 we discover that Barnabas still had a field to sell. There in verse 34, Luke tells us that "from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and laid it at the apostles feet. It is pretty clear that the selling of property was a continuous thing as and when the need arose. They didnt just sell everything and live together. It would have been impractical with over 3000 of them. Furthermore, in Acts 5 when we read the story of Ananias and Sapphira, we see that their sin was not greed, but deceit. Peter himself says to them that they are free to do what they want with their property. Their sin was to lie to God.
So what becomes clear is that this churchs fellowship was seen in their willingness not to have any needy persons among them. They were so generous that they willingly gave up their own things for the sake of others. They treated their own possessions as if they were others. There was no selfish accumulation of goods whilst a fellow brother or sister was in need. The Spirit of God led them to be intensely generous and caring for one another.
Now even if we can explain away some interpretations of this passage, we must be very careful not to water down the force of the challenge. Their generosity and costly love for one another often puts us to shame when we western 21st century Christians are so individualistic and materialistic. It certainly makes us ask big questions about our attitudes to possessions and money. And I doubt many of them were very wealthy. I guess many of us are on very normal salaries with no end of pressure on us financially. And yet they were willing to say "What is mine is yours." "I dont need my car this weekend, why not take it for a day out with the family. Ill pay the insurance." "Your husband is in hospital, why not come round for a meal and well take you to see him." Or take our regular giving. Barnabas was able to sell a field, a valuable asset for the sake of the church fellowship. What about selling something for the sake of Project Newland, so that the gospel can be spread further abroad. When you bank with heaven, the returns are excellent. Now not all of us will be able to give vast amounts financially. Generosity is seen in other ways as well: in time, care, concern. The point here is to take the challenge of these first Christians. They genuinely cared for one another. It was a mark of the Spirit of God among them that they loved one another.
Some of you will have heard of Chuck Colson. He was one of President Nixons top advisors in the USA in the 1970s. And as a result of the Watergate Crisis, Chuck Colson was put in prison for deceit. And during that time, Colson became a Christian. It was a very difficult time for him- his wife did not understand, his son was charged for drugs offences and he was getting depressed. But one old senator, a man called Senator Quie, who was also a Christian, discovered an old law which said that someone could step into the shoes of the criminal and take their place in jail. So Senator Quie offered to take Colsons place in jail and serve the rest of the sentence. Senator Quie put his love into action. He was willing to go to jail for his Christian brother. Thats the sort of love which these Christians were showing. And if we are to be a healthy church, then we will too. They were a caring church.
3) A Committed Church
Then thirdly we find that this church was a committed church. Have a look at verse 46: "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, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people." This was a committed church. They met together daily in those early days. And their meetings were both formal and informal. They were formal in the sense that they continued to meet together at the Temple. They would use the daily meetings there as a focus for their own meetings, even though as time went on the Christians would see the radical break with Judaism that was needed. Jesus was the fulfilment of all that had gone before. It was also informal as they met together in their homes. There we are told they broke bread, probably a reference to an early form of the Lords supper. It is likely that they would share a meal together and it would naturally move on to a time of remembering Jesus work on the cross and rejoicing in the good things that Christ had done for them. It was a time of both joy and sincerity and they found that they were attractive to the outside world. A church which is committed to the gospel and to one another will be attractive to outsiders. The reason being that it will be clear that there is something different about these folk. And Luke also tells us in verse 42 that a vital ingredient of these meetings was prayer. They were devoted to prayer.
Now what was not in doubt was their commitment. You cant imagine them having a debate about whether to meet with their fellow brother sand sisters or to stay in and to watch Gladiators on TV. They were 100% committed. And again in an age when commitment is itself seen to be a bit passť this comes as a big challenge. Our commitment to meet together and to pray together is to be wholehearted. And when we see that the church is a gathering of fellow believers who need our support and encouragement week by week, then well see just how important it is to keep meeting together. Because we need their support too. Even your very presence is an
encouragement to the rest of the body. So lets never come to St. Johns and think whats the point. For we all have a job to do, and we need it. These early Christians saw that, and they met joyfully and gladly.
I was watching a nature programme about Emperor penguins recently. Emperor penguins live in the Antarctic and the temperature there gets as low as -40 degrees Celsius, and for much of the year the sun doesnt shine. So how do Emperor penguins survive? Well what they do is very clever. During the dark season, which lasts for several months, they all stand in a huge circle close together. The penguins on the edge of the circle get very cold, so they keep moving round, so when you have done your stint on the outer ring, you move to the warmth of the inner circle. And they do this for months on end, living off their fat reserves until the sun shines again. Now imagine if you were a rather rebellious Emperor penguin and didnt want to spend time with these other penguins. So you came and went as you pleased and decided to try and make it through the winter on your own. The trouble is of course you would eventually die without the support and warmth of the other penguins. And its the same for the Christian. We need the encouragement of one another to keep going. We need to be committed for our own sakes and for sake of fellow Christians in the church. And that was how this first church was. They were a committed church.
4) A Growing Church
But then finally they were a growing church. Verse 47: "And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." And notice who does the growing. It is the Lord. He is the one who is building his church, and he is the one who will bring people into it. But it is also clear from Acts that this first church were actively involved in mission. They didnt just sit back and expect God to save people. Mission was at the very heart of this first church. These people had a passion for the lost. And it was not an added extra, something that they were forced to do by a manipulative pastor. Rather it was natural part of their new found delight in being saved by God. In Jesus they had met the Saviour and King and they longed for others to hear that same message.
And in any healthy church, the spreading of the gospel will be at the heart, shaping its activities, its prayers and its priorities. Thats why we should always be thinking of ways to tell others, and thats why we should always be thinking of expanding. Not because we are in the numbers game, but because we are prayerfully expecting God to increase our number as more people are saved. Thats why church planting should not be for the special big churches, but something every church can be doing at the right time and in the right ways. Well be always looking around us to see what areas of our community need special input, where it may be good to start some evangelistic initiative. Well be praying for opportunities ourselves and playing our part however small. Someone has said that the church is the only group that exists for the benefit of its non members. And its absolutely right. They were a growing church.
So what are the marks of a healthy church? Is it large congregations of thousands, is it huge car parks, and impressive buildings, is it slick pastors who churn out books and hymns at a fast rate of knots? Well when we look at the NT, the answer is no. Rather a healthy church is a learning church, where the people hunger for the Word of God, a caring church, where our desire is to love others, a committed church, where our commitment is to meet together, and a growing church, where we have a passion for the lost. Do you want to belong to a church like that? I do. So lets pray that here at St. Johns we would reflect those qualities more and more in our own lives and as a body together.
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