Please note that this article is the third article derived from a five-part teaching series on the Nature of the Local Church given in Bermondsey Gospel Hall, the audio of which can be found here.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
Where do churches come from? Looking to the practice in Acts 2:41, and tracing the underlying principles throughout the rest of Scripture, we seen that a local church is created when individuals receive the message of the Word of God, are baptised in identification with the Son of God and come together as a local gathering of the people of God. Therefore, having clarified what a local church is, it is now necessary to understand what a local church does.
When Luke is searching for a word to sum up everything that the church does, he says that the church committed itself. Or stronger yet, devoted themselves. Devotion is a word we reserve for the highest level of commitment. We may say that a couple is devoted to one another, or that somebody is devoted to their work. By it we mean that they give themselves first and foremost to that particular person or activity. Longnecker defines devotion as a ‘steadfast and single-minded fidelity to a certain course of action’. Luke records that these new Christians had more than a passing interest or a comfortable concern in something. Instead of being a community of convenience, we see that the local church is a community of commitment.
This was the practice of the early church, and it should be our practice as well, not because it was their practice but for the same reason that it was there practice. For a principle of commitment is seen not only here, but runs like a river weaving its course through the whole of the Bible. The Christian life is a committed life. To be a disciple is to be devoted.
We were created to be committed. At creation Adam and Eve were made in the image of God, to reflect God’s likeness to a watching world. They were given a duty and were to devote themselves to it. However despite humanity being designed to be devoted, the Devil distracted Adam and Eve and their desires led them to disobedience.
Since that moment of calamity, God has been calling humanity back to commitment. Through the seed of Abraham God called a nation to commit themselves to him, and to him alone. Out of Egypt he would redeem this nation and on the slopes of Mount Sinai the voice of God would demand, in the very first of the ten commandments, devotion from this people. ‘I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me’ (Exodus 20:2-3). The commandments called for commitment, summed up by Moses declaring, ‘And what, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul…’ (Deuteronomy 11:18). While the people sought to do this for a while, generation after generation would fail to devote themselves to God. As God would later declare through Isaiah, ‘this people draw near with their mouth and honour me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me…’ (Isaiah 29:13). God sent the prophets to preach and plead with his people to devote themselves to him, Jeremiah cried out to Jerusalem ‘Thus says the Lord, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord…Return, faithless Israel…Return, O faithless children…’ (Jeremiah 2:2-3; 3:12,14). And yet Israel failed to devote themselves to God, so much so that when the son of God appeared they did not recognise him (John 8:20; 16:3).
However, as well as calling for commitment in their current day, prophets like Jeremiah predicted commitment in a coming day. In that marvellous vision of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34, Jeremiah records ‘“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”’ In looking back to the past people of God we may see failure, but in looking to the present people of God we should see fulfilment. The church is where the devotion demanded by God from the beginning is finally given. We are being made holy even as he is holy, and the heart of holiness, as explained by Sinclair Ferguson, is ‘perfect, pure devotion’. The new covenant community is a community of commitment.
The call for the church to be committed shouldn’t be surprising. If the predictions of the prophets aren’t enough, the New Testament makes it abundantly clear. Commitment is not only seen in the practice of the church, but in the preaching of Christ (Mark 8:34-35). To become a disciple of Christ did not involve casual association, but committed relationship. Disciples are by definition devoted.
How does our commitment to Christ relate to a commitment to his church? Christ made it clear that love for him leads to caring and serving his people (Matthew 25:40; John 21:15-17). If we do not love God’s people, we do not love God. That’s exactly what John says in 1 John 4:20-5:1, ‘If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.’ If we are not committed to the church, we show that we are not committed to Christ. The early church father Cyprian famously said, ‘You cannot have God for your father unless you have the church for your mother.’
If in verse 41 we seen the creation of the local church, in verse 42 we see the commitment of the local church. But if the local church is devoted, we must ask what is it devoted to? Luke identifies four objects of devotion for the early church. Some see these as four separate elements, while others see them as in two or three groups. However, more important than the layout is the use of the article before each activity. Rather than general activities, these are specific. The local church wasn’t just committed to teaching, fellowshipping, breaking bread and praying, but specific instances of each of these activities.
The local churches commitment to these four objects provides us with the next four principles in our constitution: The local church is devoted to the teaching, the fellowship, the gatherings and the prayers.
Teaching: Learning from the Word of God
We have already seen the importance of the word of God in the life of the church. The creation of the local church occurs when God’s word is opened, the gospel proclaimed and people respond. God’s church is created by God’s word. Therefore it should be little surprise that the first item of devotion for the early church that Luke records is the teaching of the apostles.
There were no shortage of teachers in Israel, with countless Pharisees and Sadducees centred in Jerusalem, it was not strange to find a group of people devoted to a certain teachings. Indeed, throughout the ancient world, from the Hellenistic Greek to Roman Latin, teaching was highly valued. However, there had never been a group like this before. Thousands were gathering together in Jerusalem not to hear from the mouths of the scholars and lawyers, those who occupied Moses’ seat (Matthew 23:2), but from a group led by uneducated fishermen.
What seemed to matter was the body of teaching rather than the bodies of the teachers. It was the content rather than the characters drawing the crowd. These former fishermen weren’t spreading their own ideas, but rather continuing to share the message of their master, one who had spoken with authority (Matthew 7:28-29; John 7:46). Not only were they continuing to spread the things that they had heard from the Son of God, but they were teaching those things revealed to them by the Spirit of God. Jesus had promised them, ‘the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ (John 14:26). Pentecost had seen the fulfilment of that promise and now they were teaching the church all that they had been and were being taught.
This was the teaching that the new Christians were devoting themselves to. It was the focus of their gatherings (Acts 4:33; 5:41-42) and the primary role of the apostles (Acts 6:4), the leaders in the early church. Is it any surprise then that the distinguishing characteristic of an elder, a recognised leader, in the church, over a deacon, a recognised servant, is being able to teach (1 Timothy 3:2). Just as the local church devoted themselves to receiving the ministry of the word, the leaders devoted themselves to providing the ministry of the word. A healthy church is one in which the congregation eagerly receive teaching and the teachers eagerly provide it.
Not only do we see this characteristic at the creation of the local church, but we see it near the end of the New Testament. In 2 Timothy, the last letter from Paul included in the canon, stresses over and over again the priority of teaching and preaching the word of God in the church of God (2 Timothy 2:2, 4:1-5). That is how Paul hoped to see the church mature and grow in the years to come after the apostles had gone.
We see the practice here in Acts 2:42, but the principle runs much deeper. Peter explains that not only are we born again and saved through the gospel, but like newborn babies we ‘grow up into salvation’ by drinking of the pure spiritual milk of the word (1 Peter 2:2). Paul tells Titus that truth leads to godliness (Titus 1:2) and states that Christ is sanctifying the church, making his bride pure and perfect, by washing her with the word (Ephesians 5:26-27). John records Christ praying to the Father for his church on the night before the cross, asking him to ‘sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth.’ (John 17:17). Growth, holiness, maturity godliness are achieved in us by the word of God. It is the word of God that does the work of God in the people of God. It is little wonder then that Jonathan Leeman summarises ‘One thing is necessary in our churches – hearing God’s Word through preaching, reading, singing and praying.’ (Leeman, Reverberation, p.22). That is why the fourth principle of our constitution is:
PRINCIPLE 4: The local church is devoted to the apostle’s teaching, learning from the word of God.
As a local church, we must devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching. Not their spoken words, but their written words. Just as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to teach the church in Jerusalem, they were inspired by the same Holy Spirit to write the New Testament, enabling them to teach local churches to the ends of the earth. The teachings of the apostles, building on the teachings of Jesus, are all recorded for us in the Bible. That is why we say that the Bible is the final and sufficient authority for all of Christian faith and practice. That is why it is central for life in the local church.
This means that we should take every opportunity in our life together to learn from the Bible. Every time we come together we should be opening our Bibles and wanting to learn from it. As Moses would tell Israel in relation to the law, ‘it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live…’ (Deuteronomy 32:47). Or Christ, ‘it is the Spirit who gives life the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.’ (John 6:63). We should never gather as a local church and not open our Bibles. If we want to see the work of God done among us, we must dive into the word of God. Jesus reminds us that while we need food to survive, ‘man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4:4). Just like we need physicals meals, we need spiritual meals.
We need to feed together. But we also need to feed each other. That means that those given as teachers of the word, gifted and given to the local church for this purpose, should take their responsibility seriously. Of all the good things such brothers and sisters can devote their time to in the local church, the ministry of the word must be their focus. Not only should they focus on devoting themselves to this task, but the rest of the community should focus on enabling them to do so. This may not require supporting them financially so that they can devote their full time and energy to the ministry of the word, although it may be a perfectly reasonable thing to do. However, it at the very least requires others within the local church to free them up from other responsibilities taking up their time. Indeed this is the very reason that servants were appointed in Acts 6.
Our primary outward priority is to declare the Word of God in the world, calling them to a confession of faith and repentance. However, our primary inward priority is to declare the Word of God in the church, calling each other to a life of faith and repentance. We too must devote ourselves to Christian teaching, for it is the truth that is sanctifying us, growing us up into our salvation and into the likeness of our Saviour.
Fellowship: Partnering with the People of God
Fellowship is the difference between a local church and localised Christians. The word is as easily translated as ‘partnership’, meaning ‘a connection to, between and for each other’ (Bock) or ‘the harmony that is created by a shared purpose and working together’ (Keener). I don’t need to hunt around for illustrations for this idea as I work in a law firm which is a partnership. It is made up of a group of hundreds of partners coming together to provide legal services around the world. They all contribute to the partnership, and they all benefit from it.
It is this economic image that is dominant when the word is used in the New Testament, which uses it for such a scenario in Luke 5:10. There Luke uses this word to describe the relationship between James, John and Peter as fishermen. They partnered together in fishing, all working hard alongside one another for mutual benefit. Each fishing partner had a stake in the business, a role to play and a reward to gain. The local church is no different. A local church is Christians partnering together in a location. The church is a partnership. These new Christians committed themselves to the partnership they had together. Just as I see partners at my law firm devoting themselves to the success of the partnership, sacrificing and stretching themselves in order to help the partnership succeed, here we see the early church devoting themselves to the shared purpose and work they engaged in together.
What were they partnering together for? What was is shared purpose and work? A local church is a group of Christians partnering together in a location to be a local church. There was likely a number of things causing these new Christians to partner together, including in order to spread the gospel in their locality, receive teaching, gather for the Lord’s Supper, meet physical needs, pray for one another or provide a community. However, all these separate purposes come together to describe what it means to be a local church.
PRINCIPLE 5: The local church is devoted to the fellowship, partnering with the people of God.
Should we be surprised that this was the case? Remember that we learnt that the local church is an expression (albeit a partial rather than a full expression) of the universal church. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 12:27 that the local church is the body of Christ. Just as the hands, feet, ears and nose all partner together to be a living human body, we all partner together to be a local church body. This reality has two implications for our life together:
Firstly, for a partnership to exist there has to be a mutual understanding of the shared work and goal. Using my workplace as an illustration, there will no longer be a partnership if some of the partners decide to open a hospital and only offer medical services, while others decide to solely build aeroplane and the remaining just want to keep offering legal services. The partnership will break down as a result of there being no shared purpose. They are no longer partnering with each other in a certain work. They might work on the same floor, but they are no longer working with each other. This is why to become a partner, member, enter into fellowship at BGH you need to commit to partnering with us in our purpose and work. We reflect this in the distinctive doctrines in our doctrinal statement. We are a group of Christians that believes the Bible teaches certain things about who we are and what we are to do as a local church: believer’s baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the nature, ministry, leadership and headship of the local church. These six things are what we are partnering together to teach and practice at BGH. If you come and want to practice church in a fundamentally different way, you are not entering into a partnership with us. Like the partner in a law firm that is trying to be a hospital, even if we were to let you into the partnership, you wouldn’t really be partnering with us. You might ask to become a member, but you aren’t offering to actually partner with us in what we are doing. And even if we were to call you a member, it wouldn’t actually make you one.
Secondly, we must arrive at the same conclusion Paul does. For the partnership to succeed, every partner must play their part. That’s what Paul draws out of the principle in 1 Corinthians 12, we all have a role to play in the local church. To stretch the law firm illustration, different partners in different specialisms are required in order to complete a deal. You need to have different people providing corporate, tax, employment, environmental, real estate and finance advice. It is only by coming together, by partners playing their part, that the firm succeeds. If one partner doesn’t do their job, the whole partnership suffers. In the local church, we need every partner to play their part. Every Christian has been given a spiritual gift to contribute to building up the body of Christ, a specialism where their input is required to make the partnership succeed.
Gathering: Remembering the Son of God
I want you to imagine that you are called Theophilus. Theophilus is who Luke wrote this account of the early church for. He was the recipient of both the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. I am asking you to imagine you are Theophilus, because I worry that we read this next object differently to how Theophilus would have.
When we read the breaking of bread, we often think of the Lord’s Supper. After all, many within the movement my church is a part of actually call their Lord’s Supper service ‘the breaking of bread’. While we may acknowledge the existence of a common meal in the gatherings of the early church, it receives little of our focus. We mainly think of the breaking of bread as the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with connotations of a common meal. I believe the emphasis in the New Testament is exactly the opposite, the breaking of bread refers to a common meal but has connotations of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, which we know often took place within that setting.
In order to see this it is necessary to review Luke’s use of the term throughout his writings. The first category of uses sees Luke using the term in contexts where a meal is shared between a group and there is no Lord’s Supper (Luke 24:30, 35; Acts 27:35). The second category of usages is when Luke refers to the breaking of bread in the context of the local church and there is no explicit mention of the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7). Where do we get the idea that it refers to the Lord’s Supper from? Luke uses the term on one occasion that draws in some connotations of the Lord’s Supper, when referring to the actions of Jesus at the Passover meal when instituting the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). The one usage in the context of the Lord’s Supper is the institution of it by Christ, not the practice of it by his followers. And this usage occurred in the middle of a meal, the general meaning of the word. Therefore, the clear evidence of the New Testament is that the breaking of bread refers to a meal, a meal that does not necessarily include the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the only reason that we can suggest that the early church sometimes celebrated the Lord’s Supper during a meal like this is from 1 Corinthians 11. The breaking of bread is not the celebration of the Lord’s Supper with a common meal in the background. The breaking of bread is a common meal which we know sometimes included the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Therefore, if the local church weren’t committing to celebrating the Lord’s Supper together, what were they committing to? They were committed to a meal, or rather gathering together to have an intentional time of fellowship (being partnership) over the course of a meal. The meal wasn’t the important part, that’s why we aren’t too concerned about having a meal toady when we gather. The meal was the context in which the gathering was set. For example, when Paul instructs believers not to associate with those who say they are Christians but live a life of sin, he instructs them not only to avoid association but not even to eat with them (1 Corinthians 5:11). It’s not that eating is some kind of special ritual, but rather that it involves spending a prolonged period of time gathered together with somebody. That was what lay at the heart of the Old Testament purity laws – by eating with the unclean, you would be associating and spending time with them and thereby become unclean yourself. When Luke records that these early Christians are committed to the breaking of bread, it means they are committed to turning up at that time when they intentionally gather together to be with each other. They are devoted to gathering. Verse 46 is not saying that they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper in each other’s homes throughout the week. It is recording the fact that there was a culture of gathering together as a church as much as possible.
Gathering is essential for any relationship. You can’t have a strong marriage, friendship or partnership if you don’t spend time with each other. Our partnership in the local church is created by a mutual understanding of purpose and work, but it is sustained, strengthened and stated by our gathering together. Intentionally gathering and spending time together, not just socially but spiritually. The writer of Hebrews urges his readers to ‘consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.’ (Hebrews 10:24-25). The opposite to not gathering is encouraging each other. Therefore, we encourage each other, build up the body of Christ, by gathering and spending time together. The early church didn’t neglect this and nor should we. They were in each other’s homes and lives, and if we are truly partnering together as a local church we will be as well.
Devotion to the partnership finds its expression in committing to the gatherings. And to draw in that connotation, we must understand the greatest and fullest expression of our partnership together. We have been given the Lord’s Supper to express this partnership when we gather together. Through the Lord’s Supper we have fellowship with Christ vertically, and with each other horizontally (1 Corinthians 10:16). The Lord’s Supper is the place where we declare together that we are one body, partnering together in the work of the local church as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:17).
PRINCIPLE 6: The local church is devoted to the gatherings, remembering the Son of God.
This means that we have at least two responsibilities. Individually we have a responsibility to gather together with the local church we are members off as regularly as possible. Indeed, the gatherings of the local church should be the first thing into our calendars each week. As one of the most important things in our lives, we should structure the majority of our life around it. Our job, our home, certainly our hobbies and even sometimes our family life should all adapt in order to ensure that we can gather together. To do otherwise would be to kid ourselves into thinking that we really are partnering together.
Corporately we have a responsibility to enable gatherings to happen. We should be mindful of the different circumstances and obstacles people face in gathering with us. After all failing to give consideration to circumstances of brothers and sisters was the problem so heavily condemned by Paul in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). We should gather together at times that are accessible and achievable to not only each other, but outsiders wanting to join our church. There is no insisting that an important aspect of our life together should take place at a time when only a handful from the church can attend.
Prayers: Addressing the Throne of God
The final aspect of their commitment is to the prayers. Not only is this the fourth object of devotion for the church, but it is also the second object of devotion for the leaders (Acts 6:2). Notice again that it wasn’t that they committed themselves to prayer, or prayers or praying, but the prayers. It was a specific and collective activity they all undertook together. They committed to praying together as a community.
The church has always been a praying community. Before Pentecost they were praying and fasting together (Acts 1:14). However, prayer was not only the prelude to Pentecost, but a prominent focus afterwards. They devoted themselves to prayers at Pentecost and continued to do so throughout the book of Acts (Acts 4:31; 13:3; 20:36). Prayer was an essential part of the life in the early church (1 Timothy 2:1; Colossians 4:2; Romans 12:12; 1 Thessalonians 5:17).
What underlying principle was it that drove the early church to their knees consistently and constantly in prayer? Surely it was an overwhelming sense of their helplessness to accomplish the task given to them in their own strength. A small band of disciples, poor and persecuted, were expected to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth. There was no worldly wisdom or human strength that was going to enable them to do that. They knew that if they were to accomplish anything, God would have to work. SO from the very beginning they relied on God, for their evangelism (Acts 4:23-31), their ministry (Acts 13:3), their protection (Acts 12:5) and for their preservation (Acts 20:36).
PRINCIPLE 7: The local church is devoted to the prayers, addressing the throne of God.
Prayer was all the early church had. But do we also realise that it is all we have? Despite the number of Christians in the world today, the relative wealth of us in the West, our ability to market and promote ideas like the world and in this country our freedom from persecution, prayer is all we have. Or rather, prayer and preaching is all we have. Of course the church is not a one trick pony, but it is a two trick pony. However those two tricks, Spirit empowered prayer and Spirit empowered preaching can change the world. ‘It is the Spirit who gives life the flesh is no help at all.’ (John 6:63). We are to take ‘the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication.’ (Ephesians 5:18) Whatever we face, whether we are faced with problems and difficulties or the task of evangelism, whether it is corporately or individually, there are only two things we can do – open the bible or bow our heads. The priorities of the church, just like the early apostles (Acts 6:4), can be summed up simply – preaching and prayer. We should cry out to God and communicate with man. It is through these two things that the Spirit of God works by the power of God to build the church of God. When we gather, as much as we should seek to learn from the word of God, we should seek to address the throne of God. Faced with the task that is set out before us, what else can we do?
A Committed Community
The church is a committed community. Disciples devoted to the apostle’s teaching, learning from the word of God, the fellowship, partnering with the people of God, the breaking of bread, gathering and remembering the Son of God and the prayers, addressing the throne of God. Such was the commitment of the early church, so should our commitment be. And such devotion, rather than being dull drudgery surely is a duty of delight.