Church: The People of God: Acts 2-5 (Jon Fryer)
ONE:The Birth of the Church
Read Acts 2;1-15 and Acts 2;36-41.
Traditionally we see this event at Pentecost as the birth of ‘the church’. But what is ‘the church’? The church is simply people, the people Jesus died to save. On this Pentecost three thousand people are saved and ‘the church’ is begun – the church is the harvest of lives that results from the seeds that Jesus sowed with his own life. Jesus died and was buried on the Day of Preparation and spent the day of Passover in the tomb. In the Jewish calendar the next day is the Festival of Firstfruits. On this day the priest goes early to the fields to find the first of the green shoots, picks a few, and places them on the altar as an offering to god. It is on this day that Jesus was resurrected, which is why the Bible also calls him the firstfruits of God’s harvest – breadhe is the first to be raised to new life through God’s saving plan that was carried out on the cross. Fifty days after this festival the Jews celebrate Shavuot, the harvest festival. In the early hours the priest again returns to the grain field and harvests enough grain to make two loaves. Back in the Temple he makes the grain into dough and places it in the fire to cook. By about 8.45 am the bread is ready to be offered up to god so that the harvest can begin. We call this day Pentecost, meaning ‘Fifty days’. On this particular Pentecost, at the same time the bread is cooked in the flames, fire came down from heaven upon the disciples and the real harvest began, the harvest of lives that is the church. By continually describing the Kingdom of God as a harvest in Jesus’ parables, by building the life of the church into the harvest calendar, God built the idea of gathering in and gathering together into the heart of His idea of what church should be.
Suddenly the original group of believers had grown from 120 men from Jerusalem (see Acts 1;15) to 3,120! The Bible understates it, but let’s think about this for a while. Verses 9-11 tell us that these men were Jews from all over the world in town for the festival. In short, they were tourists! Like most tourists they had brought with them just enough money for the holiday. These 3000 men and women were basically foreigners with no money, no jobs and no homes. What could the disciples do with them all? Fortunately there was somewhere to go. Behind the Temple was a courtyard called Solomon’s Porch; true, it was open aired on three sides, and everyone would have to sit on the ground, but it was traditionally a place where anyone could go to meet or shelter, and it appears that this is where the disciples took their new Christians. It was probably at this first meeting that the apostles decided to stay in Jerusalem, and furthermore they felt that all 3000 new converts should stay too! Working out all of the practical details would be difficult, if not downright impossible, but for that moment it was simply a spur of the moment, simple, fantastic, insane plan riding on the excitement caused by the coming of the Holy Spirit. Partly the decision must also have come from the fact that the New Testament Greek never uses the word ‘Christian’ or ‘believers’ or ‘converts’ in Acts – it always uses the word ‘brothers’. The apostles saw all of the believers as family, and family is very important in Jewish culture – they couldn’t possibly send away these new family members – they wanted to spend time with them and get to know them! Nowadays we spend a lot of time trying to avoid people in church, but church as we know it was created simply because these first Christians wanted to spend time together!
So what happened next? Read Acts 2;42-47 and Acts 4;32-37. In Acts 2;42-43 we find that the first church was fundamentally Jesus based. From looking at Peter’s first sermon it is a safe bet that the apostles’ teaching was all about Jesus – I doubt you could have got them to talk about anything else after all they had seen! Without homes, without beds, without shelter, money or food over 3,000 people had decided to drop everything to get to know the risen Jesus. How they would do it without starving no-one knew – and they probably didn’t even care! They wanted to get to know Jesus! Every day they met together and ate together and lived together. From the first thing in the morning until they went to bed the church was meeting! Like the twelve disciples sitting around talking to Jesus, this now became the way the whole church met, all together all of the time! All day long at Solomon’s Porch the scene must have been one of Christians coming and going – some would have had jobs and returned in the evening, others would have stayed all day. Not one of them knew what would happen next – they had given all security over to this shaky new enterprise called ‘church’. They believed, in faith, that Jesus’ life was powerful enough for them to live it instead of their own.
It appears that a few of the 3000 actually did live in Jerusalem. These few volunteered to open up their homes to the rest. This was like when the 120 came together in Jerusalem they just rented a building and all piled in together… only this time it was 3000 people crowding into about 50 homes! It appears that someone who owned a house came up with the next idea – ‘My house is paid for. I can sell it, take the money, rent three homes and buy food with what’s left.’ Soon all of the Jerusalem Christians were selling everything to help provide for each other. They took any job available. The church grew by being radical – it began by meeting practical needs and the desire to be together with each other and with God, and completely ignored all of the conventional ways of doing things. ‘Church’ started out when a bunch of believers, half delirious with joy gave up all they owned, crowded into a few houses and started living together.
‘Together’ is the key word about the church – God never intended Christianity to be a solo experience. The passages from Acts 2 and Acts 4 are also very big on the practicalities of this togetherness, especially where money is concerned. Acts 2;44 tells us that the believers ‘were together and held all things in common’. The word ‘common’ in Greek is koinos or koinonia, which we translate as ‘fellowship’ – the Bible defines church ‘fellowship’ not as meeting together for a prayer and a sing-song, but rather in making sure that each others needs are met – see 1 John 3;16-17. It is obscene when a church has people struggling to make ends meet when it also has people earning tens of thousands of pounds per year, and it is an offence before God. Sometimes, as an excuse, rich people in rich churches argue that this early church living together was a one off thing that didn’t last very long, but they obviously don’t know their church history. The Christian historian Tertullian, writing in AD190, says ‘ We have all things in common (koinos) … except our wives!’ this means that 160 years after Pentecost Christians were still living in the same way as the Jerusalem church… throughout the entire Roman Empire. This is how God meant it to be!
In Acts 4;32 it says that ‘All the believers were together in one heart and mind’. The Greek word for ‘together’ there is homothumadon. It means a very special kind of togetherness. It means a total unity of thought, will, action and desire. It means everyone wanting the same thing, in the same way, at the same time. It is a word that comes up a lot in the early chapters of Acts, and when Christians come together in this sort of unity then the power of God is seen:
Christian togetherness is linked in these passages with the coming of the Holy Spirit, with miracles, and with people becoming Christians on a daily basis. I suggest that lack of unity is why we so rarely see these things today. Jesus said ‘Where two of you are gathered together (same word) in my Name, there I will be also.’ When Christians come together in this way then prayers are answered and souls are saved. Solomon’s Colonnade is a picture of church togetherness in itself – the porch, like the rest of the Temple, was carved from great stone blocks, but carved so well that they fitted together so closely that the joins could not be seen. When the church is closely joined together it stands tall and can not be shaken. When it is disjointed as it is today, then as Jesus said ‘a house divided against itself can not stand.’
FOUR: Ordinary People!
Another excuse used by the church today is that the early church was made up of ‘super-Christians’, and that is why it all worked, but this is also untrue. After healing a crippled man outside the Temple Peter and John were dragged up before the Sanhedrin, the religious court of the day, and Peter gave a short sermon – read Acts 4;12-14. Even the disciples were simple, ordinary, uneducated men. The important difference is given in verse 13 – ‘these men had been with Jesus’. The disciples were ordinary men, but companions of Jesus – the qualification of their discipleship was spending time with him. If you asked Peter what an apostle was or did, he probably couldn’t have told you! The label, the name, was there to describe what these men already were – they were men who had lived in the presence of Jesus. They had developed a habit over the last three years, the habit of always being in Jesus’ presence, and they kept this habit even after he had ascended into heaven. Even decades after Pentecost these men were still living in the presence of Jesus, and this is the only thing about them that was not ‘ordinary’; there were no ‘super-Christians’ with any special ability in the first church. The Acts church, as we have seen, had no leader, no organisation, no rules, no building, no official support… and therefore had everything they needed – they had the Holy Spirit, and they had each other.
As far as we can tell, there weren’t even any ‘full time Christian workers’ – even the missionary apostles worked for their living – see Acts 18;1-4. Think about that – St. Paul served the Lord in his spare time! He raised up churches and evangelised the world… all on his day off and in his coffee break! His service to the Lord, which fills fifteen books of the Bible, was given in the few hours he had left over from a hard days work.
The church doesn’t need super-Christians, or more workers, or new leadership, or any other miracle cure – all the church needs today is people who are willing to live their lives for Jesus, to spend every moment in his presence working for the good of each other. In the 1st century that was enough to change the world, and in the 21st century it is still enough.
Pentecost was not the beginning of a drive to evangelise the world – that is just modern church propaganda designed to fund mission societies. Their first responsibility, as we have seen, was to simply, daily, experience the life of Christ with their brothers and sisters. Nothing more, and nothing less. Not one of these 3000 went anywhere for the next eight years! The early church was not really into evangelism as we know it – instead they simply got on with living their lives as Christians and let God get on with doing His thing as He saw fit. Read Acts 3;1-13 – Peter and John did not set out with any plan other than to pray in the Temple as usual. When approached by someone in need however they acted with the power of God, because to them that was what church was all about – reaching out to touch people and help them, just as Jesus did. Surprising to our buzzword driven church however, they did not seek to capitalise on god’s miracle, and instead went on their way. The beggar however did a great deal of advertising, after all, God had healed him! The two disciples continued to the Temple; so did the beggar, only with a lot more noise, and with a couple of hundred amazed onlookers in tow! Only when chased back to the Christian home base by the crowd do Peter and John actually preach to the crowds – they seem to have thought that the miracle should speak for itself.
Read Acts 5;12-16. News of the church reached the nearby towns, and soon people from those cities began flocking into Jerusalem, bringing their sick to be healed. Perhaps they saw something they didn’t want to miss out on? As in everything else the Acts church used Jesus as their model for evangelism – if we live the Christian life properly then our life together as a church should be so different from the world that we attract attention wherever we go – if you read the gospels carefully you find that Jesus actually spent far more time trying to escape from the crowds than he did looking for them! The Christian life, the church life, should be so radical as to make the world want to come to us! This is true evangelism – as an ‘ism’, evangelism is something you are, not something you do! Currently the church’s attitude to mission is slightly dangerous – at University we often (read ‘occasionally’) went to a great deal of trouble and spent an awful lot of money to have a ‘mission week’ where an extremely arrogant gospel was rammed down people’s throats, and when it was all over we kidded ourselves that we had ‘done our bit’ to evangelise the world and that we didn’t need to even talk to another non-Christian for another twelve months! Guess what? That’s not evangelism. Rarely did we ever connect with a single person that way. However, when the world sees the way a true church acts and lives together in community, loving each other and reaching out to touch people, then that’s when people start to come to Christ. Simply living the church life, loving one another, is the most efficient form of evangelism that there is! It is estimated that another 2000 people joined the church from the towns surrounding Jerusalem without a single sermon ever being preached – actions speak far louder than words.
Read Acts 5;17-42. The church may be made up of ordinary people, but it is also made up of radical, different people. This makes the world sit up and take notice, but it also makes the devil sit up and take notice. Whenever the church is truly active and truly bringing in God’s Kingdom then it is threatening and dangerous to the powers that be, and persecution follows. Jesus didn’t say life would be he easy, he said ‘If they hated me then they will hate you also’. He never said life would be a bed of roses, he said ‘Take up your cross and follow me’. Let’s look at the early church’s attitude to persecution. In verse 40 is says that the apostles were flogged. The punishment of thirty nine lashes was a punishment just short of stoning, and in those days a Jew would have done almost anything to escape the physical agony and social humiliation of flogging. The whip had four strips of leather, each about four foot long and weighted with barbs. The victim was stripped and the whip was brought down not on his back but rather on the tops of his shoulders, its strips beating down on his chest leaving welts and bruises. After thirteen lashes the victim’s front was nothing more than a mass of cuts and he was probably in shock and near unconscious. The next thirteen lashes did the same to his back and right side, and the final thirteen were aimed at his left. If the victim survived (and he occasionally did not) then he was scarred for life across his chest, stomach, back, shoulders and sides. After this treatment the disciples left ‘rejoicing that they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name of Christ.’ (Verse 41). They saw persecution as proof that they were serving God effectively and rejoiced that they were worthy of the enemy’s attention. Satan isn’t worried about naff Christians, he only really bothers with effective ones. In fact you could argue that if a church (or individual Christian) is not being persecuted in some way then it isn’t living the Christian life properly. If you aren’t attracting hostile attention then how different are you really being? It may be a cliché, but if Christianity were a crime, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
It is no good to dismiss the early church and say that modern methods are needed to reach a modern world. Modern methods have left us with millions locked in illness, isolation, loneliness and despair, and the church with nothing relevant to say to them. Today we need more than ever the miraculous power and ministry of Jesus which is brought about by a spirit filled, faithful church. I may have sounded somewhat dismissive of our efforts of formal evangelisation (I won’t dignify them by calling them evangelism) in section five, but don’t get me wrong – evangelism is vital, and the world needs more missionaries. What I am saying is that every Acts missionary learnt a vital lesson first. The Jerusalem church just sat there for eight years. After his conversion Paul did not immediately set off on his missionary journeys, contrary to popular belief – if you read Acts carefully he spent three years in the desert getting to know Jesus, then a further three years in the church at Tarsus, and then another year helping Barnabus in Antioch. Every Acts evangelist/missionary spent many years simply living the church life, learning to love his brothers and sisters – how can you possibly hope to reach out to a community foreign to you if you don’t learn how to live in your own community first? To reach the world, we first have to learn to live together, and this is the most important thing that we can learn from the Acts church. Our lifestyle should demonstrate our love for each other and for Jesus in a way that makes other people jealous, and we can only do it together.
‘As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit - just as you were called to one hope when you were called - one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it… It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking… Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body. "In your anger do not sin": Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you… Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person--such a man is an idolater--has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said: "Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you." Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
What was Jesus like?
The Character of God
How do we know what God is like?
The Authority of Scripture
How should we obey what the Bible teaches us?
The Wise Mans Tragedy
What can we learn from Solomon?
What can we learn from the mother of Jesus?
Cain and Abel
What can we learn from the first murderer?
Who is Aslan? Who is Jesus?
When the Fire Burns Low
How do we cope when we have grown tired of God's way?
Fix Your Eyes
How do we look for God?
Why should we look after the world God has given us?
How do we know who we are in God?
Lent - Pride, Doubt and Jealousy
What is the period of Lent all about?
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the House of God than dwell in the tents of the wicked...
How do get to have intimacy with God?
Can we feel the breath of God?
Hearing From God
How can I hear what God wants to say to me?
The Story We Find Ourselves In
The Bible tells the story of all creation - what is my part in that story?
What does Passover mean to us as Christians?
What does it mean to say that Jesus is alive?
What is the Fruit of the Holy Spirit?
Teaching for Christmas Eve...
What does it mean to have authority?
What can we do when it all seems like too much?
I Will Be With You
What does it mean to say "God is with us"?
What are angels, and what can we learn from what the Bible says about them?
A contemplative service for Pentecost
A creative/contemplative baptism service
How do we know what we should do?
A creative prayer/worship service
The Holy Spirit
Who is the Holy Spirit, and what does (s)he do?
A Relationship With Jesus
What does it mean to have a 'relationship' with the Son of God?
The Pilgrim's Progress
If we keep our eyes on the prize, what a journey it could be!
Heroes, Promises and Trust
How does our relationship with Jesus realy work?
A liturgy for masculine prayer
Living Life to the Full
How do we get the most out of life?
What is so speacial about the faith of Abraham?
The Presence of God
What does it mean to say God is present?
How Do I Know My Faith is Real?
We all wrestle with doubt, so how can we cope?
Who is Jesus?
...and what does he want from you?
To Act Justly Every Day...
What does the Lord your God require of you?
Sex and Self Image
Don't you know how beautiful you are?
Will you let Jesus be in charge?
Would you know him if he met you on the road?
The Person of the Holy Spirit
Who is the Holy Spirit, and what does (s)he do?
The Passion of the King
What does Jesus really want?
How can we really 'count it all joy'?
More Than Words
"... but words can never hurt me"?
The Armour of God
What tools does God give us to protect us from the Enemy?
The Heart of the Gospel
The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near to you, therefore...
Do you really want to follow him?
How should I prepare to give a sermon?
The gift of healing comes from the Holy Spirit, but how does it work?
The People of God
What does it mean when we say that the Bible is the Word of God?
Jesus Part 2: The Deity of Christ
How can Jesus be God and Man at the same time?
Jesus Part 1: Who Do You Say I Am?
Who is Jesus, and why does He matter?
How do we resist?
What is holiness and how do we try to achieve it?
The Art of Spiritual Warfare
We're in a constant battle, so how do we try and prepare to fight?
Forgiveness Part Two: Forgiving Others
What is forgiveness and why do we need to forgive others?
Forgiveness Part One: Forgiven by God
Why does it seem so often that God is a million miles away?
Prayer Part Two: Receiving From God
Why does it seem so often that God is a million miles away?
Prayer Part One: The Lords Prayer
We look in detail at the Lords Prayer
It's one of the spiritual gifts, but what exactly is it, how does it happen?
Becoming a Christian
What is a Christian, how do you become one?
Basics of Christianity
Here we delve into the Nicene Creed