Week of November 21, 2010
Bible Verses:† Acts 2:41-47; Hebrews 10:23-25.
Lesson Focus:† This lesson explains why it is vital for believers to connect to a church.
Identify with the Church:† Acts 2:41-42.
† So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. † And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.† [ESV]
Acts 2 finishes with a portrait of the first Christian church, suggesting that the gift of the Spirit brought about a community which realized the highest aspirations of human longing: unity, peace, joy and the praise of God. The narrative shifts from description of particular events on a particular day to a general description of the inner life of the Jerusalem church. Many of the same details are recorded in a different order and in an expanded form in 4:32-37 and 5:12-16. These summary passages have several functions in the narrative. First, they indicate how growth and development progressively took place through the preaching of the gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit. Secondly, they highlight the fact that God was building a new community and not simply dealing with individuals in isolation. Thirdly, they suggest that Luke was presenting something of a defense for this group, shaping the response of his readers from the beginning of Acts. While disarming any criticism that might rise from subsequent episodes, Luke was also commending the positive example of the earliest community of Christians to his readers. This was not a breakaway movement from Judaism, but the true Israel, where His Spirit was powerfully at work, fulfilling Godís end-time promises. With its unity and joyful sharing, it also fulfilled certain ideals of the Hellenistic world, which would have been appealing to Gentile readers. Luke does not hide its weaknesses, but he implies that the church in Jerusalem was a model of what could happen when people were bound together by a belief in the gospel, an understanding of its implications, and an enjoyment of its blessings. Elsewhere, he touches only on aspects of what believers did when they met together, or emphasizes historical events to which the activities of a gathering were something of a backdrop. Verse 41 begins a new section describing the response to Peterís preaching. Three thousand is extraordinary evidence of the convicting work of the Spirit, through the testimony of Christís witnesses that so many should have been brought to repentance and faith at one time. Presumably, mass baptisms took place over a period of days. There was an ample supply of water in Jerusalem, especially at the pools of Bethesda and Siloam, though some of these baptisms may have taken place elsewhere. In verse 42 Luke is giving a description of the ministry of these disciples to one another in a variety of contexts, not simply telling us what happened when they gathered for what we might call Ďchurchí. They first of all devoted themselves to the apostlesí teaching. Meeting together in the temple courts appears to have been for the express purpose of hearing the apostolic preaching, though doubtless there were also opportunities for teaching in the home context. We may surmise that these earliest converts desired to be encouraged in their faith but also to identify with the public preaching of the gospel to their fellow Israelites as an act of testimony to its truthfulness. Apostolic instruction continued to be at the center of church life later in Gentile contexts. Secondly, they devoted themselves to the fellowship. The word for fellowship in Greek normally means to share with someone in something above and beyond the relationship itself or to give someone a share in something. The sharing in this case could simply refer to material blessings, as described in verses 44-45, where we are told that the believers had everything in common. Yet this sharing was clearly a practical expression of the new relationship experienced together through a common faith in Christ. This is affirmed in 4:32, where a similar statement about having everything in common is prefaced by the words the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul. That relationship brought a certain sense of responsibility to one another. The sharing of goods came to include the distribution of food to the needy in their midst and was certainly not restricted to formal gatherings of the believers. It may be best, therefore, to give fellowship its widest interpretation in verse 42, including within its scope contributions, table fellowship, and the general friendship and unity which characterized the community. They also devoted themselves to the breaking of bread, which most obviously refers to the common meals shared by the earliest disciples in their homes . The term describes the initiation of an ordinary meal in the Jewish fashion of breaking a loaf with the hands and giving thanks to God. Thus to break bread was to eat together. The reality of Christian fellowship was expressed from the earliest times in the ordinary activity of eating together. But these meals were doubtless given a special character by the fact that they were associated with teaching, prayer, and praise. They ate together with glad and sincere hearts, and this gladness issued in praising God [46-47]. Perhaps as they gave thanks for their food they focused also on the person and work of the Lord Jesus, reminding one another of the basis of their fellowship in Him. Finally, they devoted themselves to the prayers. The plural form with the article in Greek suggests that the reference is to specific prayers rather than to prayer in general. In the context, this most obviously points to their continuing participation in the set times of prayer at the temple. However, since their eating together in households involved praising God, they doubtless also prayed together in these groups, petitioning God about their own needs and the needs of others. Prayer was certainly an important part of their community life and of apostolic leadership.
Experience the Church:† Acts 2:43-47.
† And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. † And all who believed were together and had all things in common. † And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. † And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, † praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.† [ESV]
[43-45] The apostolic preaching and the response it generated [41-42] had an ongoing effect in Jerusalem: awe came upon every soul. This clause, with its use of the imperfect tense, suggests an enduring sense of awe inspired by the consciousness that God was at work in their midst, so that they were witnesses of the final drama, and indeed participants in it. By means of many wonders and signs, God confirmed the teaching and the special status of the apostles in His plan and purpose. Such mighty works were signs of the approaching day of the Lord and were an indication of the close connection between these individuals and Jesus [see 2:22]. Signs and wonders were particularly performed by the apostles as Christís agents. A notable example follows in 3:1-10, where it is made clear that the healing was achieved in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth [3:6]. The unity of the believers is stressed in two ways in verses 44-45. First, we are told that they were together. They met together regularly in the ways defined by Luke, without actually living together. Second, we are told that they had everything in common. The imperfect tense is used with both verbs (selling and distributing), indicating the regular practice of the community. Their behavior appears to have been a response to the teaching of Jesus in passages such as Luke 12:33-34 and 18:22. It is important to note that this sharing of possessions was voluntary and occasional. Their needs were related to the physical and social environment in which they found themselves. Their progressive isolation from unbelieving Israel must have made the economic situation of many quite precarious. Here was no primitive form of communism, but a generous response to particular problems in their midst. The examples given in 4:37 and 5:4 show that people did not necessarily dispose of their whole estate but only certain portions of it. Believers continued to maintain their own homes and used them for the benefit of others in the church. What appeared to motivate such generosity was a sense of Godís grace towards them.
[46-47]† There are two aspects of the early churchís worship which exemplify its balance. First, it was both formal and informal, for it took place both in the temple courts and in their homes . It is perhaps surprising that the early believers continued for a while in the temple, but they did. They did not immediately abandon what might be called the institutional church. There is no evidence that they still participated in the sacrifices of the temple, for already they had begun to grasp that these had been fulfilled in the sacrifice of Christ, but they do seem to have attended the prayer services of the temple. At the same time, they supplemented the temple services with more informal and spontaneous meetings (including the breaking of bread) in their homes. The second example of the balance of the early churchís worship is that it was both joyful and reverent. There can be no doubt of their joy, for they are described as having glad and generous hearts. Since God had sent His Son into the world, and had now sent them His Spirit, they had plenty of reason to be joyful. Every worship service should be a joyful celebration of the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ. At the same time, their joy was never irreverent. If joy in God is an authentic work of the Spirit, so is the fear of God. Everyone was filled with awe , which seems to include the Christians as well as the non-Christians. God had visited their city. He was in their midst, and they knew it. They bowed down before Him in humility and wonder. It is a mistake, therefore, to imagine that in public worship reverence and rejoicing are mutually exclusive. The combination of joy and awe, as of formality and informality, is a healthy balance in worship. The Jerusalem church was also an evangelistic church: And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. These first Christians were not so preoccupied with learning, sharing and worshipping, that they forgot about witnessing. For the Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit who created a missionary church. From these earliest believers in Jerusalem, we can learn three vital lessons about local church evangelism. First, the Lord Himself did it: the Lord added to their number. Doubtless He did it through the preaching of the apostles, the witness of church members, the impressive love of their common life, and their example as they were praising God and having favor with all the people. Yet He did it. For He is the head of the church. He alone has the prerogative to admit people into its membership and to bestow salvation from His throne. This is a much needed emphasis, for many people talk about evangelism today with reprehensible self-confidence and even triumphalism, as if they think the evangelization of the world will be the ultimate triumph of human technology. We should harness to the evangelistic task all the technology God has given us, but only in humble dependence on Him as the principal evangelist. Secondly, what Jesus did was two things together: He added to their number Ö those who were being saved. He did not add them to the church without saving them, nor did He save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership belonged together; they still do. Thirdly, the Lord added people daily. The early churchís evangelism was not an occasional or sporadic activity. Just as their worship was daily, so was their witness. Praise and proclamation were both the natural overflow of hearts full of the Holy Spirit. And as their outreach was continuous, so continuously converts were being added. We need to recover this expectation of steady and uninterrupted church growth. Looking back over these marks of the first Spirit-filled community, it is evident that they all concerned the churchís relationships. First, they were related to the apostles (in submission). They were eager to receive the apostlesí instruction. A Spirit-filled church is an apostolic church, a New Testament church, anxious to believe and obey what Jesus and His apostles taught. Secondly, they were related to each other (in love). They persevered in the fellowship, supporting each other and relieving the needs of the poor. A Spirit-filled church is a loving, caring, sharing church. Thirdly, they were related to God (in worship). They worshipped Him in the temple and in the home, in the prayers, with joy and with reverence. A Spirit-filled church is a worshipping church. Fourthly, they were related to the world (in outreach). They were engaged in continuous evangelism. No self-centered, self-contained church (absorbed in its own parochial affairs) can claim to be filled with the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is a missionary Spirit. So a Spirit-filled church is a missionary church. Our responsibility today is to humble ourselves before the Spiritís sovereign authority, to determine not to quench Him, but to allow Him His freedom. For then our churches will again manifest those marks of the Spiritís presence, namely biblical teaching, loving fellowship, living worship, and an ongoing, outgoing evangelism.
Commit to the Church:† Hebrews 10:23-25.
† Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. † And let us 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.† [ESV]
The second exhortation found in verse 23 recalls the repeated summons to hold fast to what the listeners already have [see 3:6,14; 4:14]. Here they are urged to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering. The word rendered confession is probably not a technical term for an objective, traditional confession of faith [as in 4:14], but a more general profession of the hope that is set before us [see 6:18]. Hope in Hebrews describes the objective content of hope, and it relates to both present and future salvation. Hope can also comprehend the whole Christian life. In Hebrews 6:18 it relates to Jesusí entrance into the heavenly sanctuary as high priest; here in verse 23 it is connected with His provision of His peopleís access to the heavenly sanctuary [19-20]. The encouragement to hold fast is reinforced by the words without wavering, an expression that describes the manner in which we hold fast rather than portraying the firmness of the confession itself. The basis for maintaining this confession of hope without wavering is Godís faithfulness: He does what He has promised. His faithfulness is well attested in both Old and New Testaments. His complete reliability comes to expression here in the designation of Him as the one who promised, a description which reminds the listeners that His promises are the basis of their hope. These pledges are utterly reliable because it is impossible for God to lie [6:17-18]. The final exhortation in the series is a summons to the members of the community to focus their attention carefully on the need for conscious activities that encourage one another. This mutual activity is for the purpose of spurring one another to love and good works. With the mention of love our author has completed the triad of faith , hope  and love [24-25], and has developed it through the three connected exhortations of verses 22-25. The exhortation let us consider urges the listeners to focus their minds and energies on the needs of their fellow members in order to spur, even provoke, them to love and good deeds. For believers to fulfill this responsibility presupposes that they possess a care and practical concern for one another. Our author expresses this need with the phrase to stir up which is used to convey intense emotion. The listeners are to motivate one another to love that is expressed in good deeds. These tangible expressions of care had distinguished the congregation in the past [33-34]. Our author now wants this expression of love within their fellowship to be deepened and strengthened. Such a concern for the welfare of one another was all the more urgent in a community exposed to testing and disappointment. But this mutual care will not be sustained unless members of the community meet together regularly for fellowship, encouragement, and exhortation. Our authorís appeal in verse 24 is underscored by two contrasting expressions that explain how we can stir one another up to godly living: not neglecting to meet together Ö but encouraging one another. The first phrase is negative: they must not stop meeting together regularly. The admonition is put strongly. The failure of some to continue attending the gatherings of the community is cast not simply as neglect but as wrongful abandonment. The reasons why some were neglecting their responsibility to meet together are not spelled out here. Later chapters will hint at factors that may have been at work, such as persecution, indifference, or apathy. But whatever the precise reasons, the following warning about apostasy [26-31] implies that people who deliberately and persistently abandon the fellowship of Christian believers are in danger of repeating the sin of Israel and of abandoning the Lord Himself. Positively, they can provoke one another to love and good works by meeting to encourage one another. Our author recommends, as he had done earlier [3:13], that their mutual concern to stimulate loving service should be expressed in exhortation, which includes the notions of warning and reproof as well as encouragement. The best form of exhortation is based on Scripture, following our authorís own example in his word of exhortation [13:22]. The urgency for encouragement and reproof is underlined by the sober reminder that the Day of the Lord is drawing near.
Questions for Discussion:
1.†††††††† Describe the inner life of the Jerusalem church after Pentecost. What four things did they devote themselves to? How can we devote ourselves to the apostlesí teaching today? Why is it important to do this together?
2.†††††††† What three vital lessons about local church evangelism can we learn from these early believers? Describe the different relationships that existed in the early church (with the apostles, with each other, to God, and to the world).
3.†††††††† What is the basis of the Christianís hope that enables the believer to hope without wavering? According to Hebrews 10:24-25, how are we to stir up one another to love and good works?
Acts, Darrell Bock, Baker.
The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Eerdmans.
The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity Press.
A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Philip Hughes, Eerdmans.
The Letter to the Hebrews, Peter OíBrien, Eerdmans.