"And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." (Acts 2:42)
I have heard recitations of Acts 2:42 my entire Christian life. Seems the circles I run in love it. Part of it has got to be the sweet outline -- "4 things, everyone. Teaching, fellowship, bread-breaking, and prayers." But another part of it has got to be the beauty. Who wouldn't want to be part of something as radical as the early days of the church? Jesus ascended. The Spirit fell. The crowd gathered. Peter preached, and 3,000 souls were added to the church. How did they respond? Acts 2:42.
The church in this passage is a manifestation of God's grace. The devotion to the word, fellowship, community, and prayer was what happened. Not our outline for what we must do today. I try not to treat Luke's descriptions of the church as "Dr. Luke's prescriptions for the church." Acts 2:42 is a description.
But the elements there are magnificent. The Spirit thrust the gospel forward. With force, the kingdom expanded, bursting onto Jerusalem. The way those early believers lived it out was intense. Let's consider a few elements of these early believers.
1. A Cool Church Proclaims the Good News
The first word to consider is the first word -- "and." This church which fellowshipped and studied and prayed had a start. Their start was rooted in gospel proclamation. The cross of Christ was central to their existence.
They would have had a keen consciousness they'd been created by the message of the cross. Jesus lived. They saw him. Jesus spoke. They heard him. Jesus died. They saw it happen. And when he rose, they became witnesses of his life. So when his Spirit was poured out on them, they went forward declaring Jesus. Unlike any subsequent generation of the church, those first believers knew their gathering was directly linked to the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The same is true of modern churches, of course, but we often forget it. Atrophy is a struggle the human body must combat, and so must a church body. Evangelism was at the core of the first church, not as a program but as a natural outflow of what Jesus had done. We don't gather together merely because we like one another or think it the best way to honor God. No, we gather because Jesus Christ created a new humanity with his blood. God's grace has saved wretches like me, so we gather. The first church was richly connected to this truth and proclaimed the gospel as a result.
I know various times and places make gospel proclamation difficult. I would encourage every pastor to receive Paul's exhortation to Timothy, "Do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry" (2 Timothy 4:5). And don't let anyone condemn and slow you with a statement like, "unless you regularly share the gospel personally, you have no business sharing it from the pulpit." We should all aim to share the gospel personally, all the time, but too many have been hindered in their pulpit work with such a yoke. For many of us, our lives follow the same routines and relationships for many years. Some pastors will go a week without any meaningful interaction one-on-one with a nonbeliever. We should fight to make sure it isn't so. But we also shouldn't wait until we have a steady stream of people finding Christ through our personal ministry before we proclaim the gospel publicly. Preach him!
2. A Cool Church Is Filled With Genuine Believers
"...they devoted themselves..."
What you had in the early church were Christians who took their new identity in Christ seriously. The stodginess of traditionalism had not yet invaded the church. Everything was new, fresh, and they pursued their new life wholeheartedly. They, Luke said, devoted themselves to it. Their relationship with Christ and his church was not optional equipment, but an all-consuming fire.
So they devoted themselves, continuing steadfastly in teaching, fellowship, bread-breaking, and prayer. They were committed. Unremittingly, they were all in.
All of us know what it's like to combat spiritual apathy. Sometimes in others, often in ourselves, the familiar lifelessness of religious dullness is a mortal enemy of God's people. And I believe many people are searching for places and people who are on fire for the living God. They crave an authentic and passionate and wholehearted demonstration of devotion to Christ.
Disingenuous believers hurt the church. When the soil of our hearts is hard, stony, or thorny, fruit from God's word is hindered. Instead, we must pray for hearts which are soft and ready, like the fourth soil Jesus spoke of (Mark 4:20). Ready, undistracted, open hearts receive the word and bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. Fruit comes from genuine believers.
Last Easter, our church met in a public setting. I told people to feel free to invite others. If they wanted, I would pray for those they wanted to bring, if they gave me their names. So they did. And I did. One day, while praying, I sensed the Spirit leading me to change the way I was praying. I had been asking God to help people, through spiritual breakthroughs, actually get there that day. But I began to pray for what I wanted them to experience once they were there. And for what did I ask? What did I want them to experience? The love of God.
It was all fundamental, but up to that point, I think I was going through the motions. Once I began praying for them to know God's love, a genuineness entered my heart. When the Easter service started with a welcome from one of our leaders, I was ready. She said, "If you've never been with us, we are so glad you're here!" A thought rushed into my body like a bolt of lightning - "I believe you! I am also glad! God loves them!" Alone, in the front row, I began to cry with joy for any lost person who'd be present that day. It was one small way God has, as he's done a million times, shifted me closer into a genuine Christianity.
3. A Cool Church Teaches the Truth
"...to the apostles' teaching..."
Another element of the new church found in Acts 2 is the way they gave themselves to study. They learned the word of God. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching. They got into the word, man.
And what were the apostles teaching? First, they would have dug into the pages of the Old Testament. With the fresh understanding that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, the seed from Abraham who would bless the nations, they unrolled the scrolls and learned. Second, they taught the life of Christ. The apostles were those who'd lived and breathed and walked and talked with Jesus, so they would've been a great source of joy as they told others what Jesus did. Third, they would have taught the words of Christ. The Spirit, Jesus said, would "bring to remembrance all that I have said" to them (John 14:26). As the apostles' taught, they were able to recall the lessons Jesus had shared when walking with them. Fourth, they would have taught lessons of the Spirit, for he would not only remind them of Jesus' teachings, but Jesus said he would "teach you all things" (John 14:26). As the church rolled on, so did the teachings the Spirit gave the apostles to pass down to us.
The church devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. I'm sure this meant study, but also activity. Obediently, they poured over the word, applying it to their lives. Discussion groups happened, but so did obedience.
We live in a truth-starved world. To speak of absolute truth is thought by many an arrogant stance. But it isn't arrogant to believe something, and believers believe God intervened in broken humanity by sending his Son to die on our behalf, raising him from the grave three days later. Thankful for this glorious gospel, we proclaim it to others, knowing it is the source of life.
But in our modern times, it seems fashionable to be uncertain regarding truth claims. To "always be learning, never able to arrive at the knowledge of the truth" is promoted by many (2 Timothy 3:7). People, though, are craving some certainty. Cool churches tell the truth. They ask hard questions of the text. They use Scripture to answer the objections of the day. With Bibles in hand, they confront the lies their society holds onto. They equip their members in the word and show how the Bible has the answers.
I love the men and women walking the earth today who have a high and unwavering view of Scripture, telling others the truth. To me, they are like those the Hebrews spoke of, "of whom the world was not worthy" (Hebrews 11:38).
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4. A Cool Church Lives In Community With One Another
"...and the fellowship..."
"Fellowship" is a bit of a lost word. Too many think it means handshakes and mingling. But, for this original church, fellowship meant so much more. They shared, contributed to one another, and participated in each others' lives. For this original church, fellowship was social intercourse.
For them, fellowship turned into physical generosity. They sold their goods and lands and, for a time, lived communally. Again, not every description in Acts is a prescription from God, but the self-sacrificial service found here is beautiful. For a time, as the Spirit broke out amongst them, humanity was at its pinnacle.
I think this fellowship is what the great cities of the world are trying to produce today. Humanity is attracted to the idea of a loving community, one who selflessly cares for and engages with others. But, alas, we cannot figure it out. Without the blood of Christ, the nations still rage. But this early church figured out what philosophers of our modern era cannot. The cross of Christ drew these people together, and the Spirit within them produced a radical love for one another.
Jesus said, "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15:12). The Lord knows who and what he's building. He has his heart set on a wonderfully loving community. He isn't searching for barely alive small groups with a little discussion time. He wants the sharing of life. He wants a people who lay down time and treasure and life and limb for the others.
People are looking for this kind of community, this level of love. To be in a non-judgemental, accepting, loving community is radical. In our modern world, the "tolerant" communities are actually some of the most Pharisaical -- agree or get out. And, to be fair, every community has a standard of belief and conduct. But for Christians to come together in love for one another is a radical element of the church.
5. A Cool Church Is Relationally Warm
"...to the breaking of bread..."
They gave themselves wholeheartedly to the breaking of bread. Scholars debate the meaning. Some think this was mere relational engagement. After all, to eat a meal with someone is a big deal today, but in the first century, it was a sign of love, a real connecting of lives. Other think this a reference to partaking of communion. As they ate the bread of Christ and drank the cup of Christ, the Lord met them. And others think this reference to "the breaking of bread" speaks of a blending of both, a sort of communion service followed by a common meal. The church in Corinth seems to have adopted this practice (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). Perhaps its earliest manifestation is found here.
Whatever the meaning, it is clear this was a facet of their fellowship, their love for one another. They shared life, but also sat down and broke bread. This took time, they made sure their schedules allowed it.
Modern churches should think about being a relationally warm environment for others. Pastors are told to be hospitable, and we must discern what this means for our community (1 Timothy 3:2). When we are warm, we are a salve for many. All too often, life is a war for people. Families are often unsafe, and sometimes belief in Christ ostracises the believer from their old community. To find a warm and loving environment in the church is essential, and many are searching for it.
How people define relational warmth varies from person to person. For many, it's subjective. I have been told how loving I am right after being told how unloving I am. But, in general, churches should long to have people who are warm, and who build an atmosphere of warmth. This can be accomplished through prayer, but also through general kindness and efforts to prioritize community in the church.
6. A Cool Church Breaks Into the Spiritual Dimension
"....and the prayers..."
This early church was a praying one. They began, after all, with a ten-day prayer meeting. Jesus had told them to wait for the Spirit, so for a week and a half 120 of them spent time in prayer together. Jesus had ascended. They needed him to pour out his Spirit on the group.
And once the Spirit came, the gifts flowed, and thousands were saved. But they kept on praying. Daily and from house to house, they interceded for their community and asked God to expand his kingdom.
Peter and John give us a clue about those early days. At the hour of prayer in the temple, they went (Acts 3:1). This first church was committed to spending the public prayer times -- 9 am, 12 noon, and 3 pm -- lifting up their cares to God.
And all through the book of Acts, the church prayed. Their leadership, especially, was noted for the prayer, making it a priority of their ministry and work. When a complaint arose, and the apostles' were asked to task themselves with financial management, they had no problem telling the congregation God had called them to the word and prayer (Acts 6:4). Peter prayed on the rooftop of Simon's in Joppa, and God used the moment to lead him to preach to the Gentile world. The Antiochan church leaders prayed, and God used the moment to lead them to send Paul and Barnabas out as the world's first official missionaries. Time and time again, the leaders of the church in Acts spent time in prayer together. From there, God launched beautiful works in their world.
In a million ways, the early church prayed. To the father with the demonically dominated son, Jesus said, "This kind comes out by prayer" (Mark 9:29). And this early church had God's power, partly because they prayed.
A cool church is a praying one. People are thirsting for the spiritual dimension. I know, I know, your church has great programming. But people tire of programs. They aren't thirsting for our organizations, but God.
And the spiritual realm is certainly what they need. In a world distracted with the flesh, with substance, physique, and status, it is essential for believers to depart. But how does one effectively get out of the world system? I find prayer often gets you out. In prayer, one is taken from the longings of sinful humanity into the longings of God. How can you look your neighbor in the eye and not long for their salvation when in prayer? Outside prayer, you might just want whatever is parked in his driveway.
Young people, especially, are thirsty for entrance into the spiritual world and dimension. Many believers imagine a church cannot be growing, organized, filled with great leadership decisions, and also spiritual, prayerful, and sensitive to the leadership fo the Spirit. A cool church shows them how wrong they are.
7. A Cool Church Has Good Leadership
This brings me to my final point. The apostles were in the first church. They lived and walked and talked. They weren't yet studied and read and remembered. Alive, serving, and teaching the early church, the apostles helped lead the congregation towards Christlikeness. Jesus' mission was theirs, and they spread it to the world.
Leadership is hard, yet important. I, for one, am often a reluctant leader. My greatest ministry trials and pressures have come from the tidal rhythms of church leadership, and all that comes with it. The job is never done. Often, I feel the fatigue of setting my mind and heart on the millions of ways leadership decisions and interaction feels necessary in the church. And countless interactions with other pastors and leaders have done nothing to dissuade me of the idea leadership is vital in the local church.
You see, this first church prayed, and the Spirit fell. With that, the mission was ignited. I know many see it happening the same way over and over again. You know, don't do anything, just pray and let the Spirit organically do stuff. But this is an erroneous reading of Acts. They prayed, the Spirit fell, and the job began. Yes, they still prayed, but they were now a moving and alive organism, rather than a corpse awaiting breath.
And leaders are often the way a church gets after it. Deborah and Barak sang, "O, when the leaders lead" (Judges 5:2). Because sometimes leaders don't.
I love the church Jesus created. It is like me: flawed, growing, and loved. And I am thankful for the thousands of ways I've grown just by being part of the greatest organism the world has ever known. We are Jesus' people, and it is a joy to be part of the coolest thing ever.