You only have to look at the news to see ways in which society is broken.
There are deep levels of mistrust, hatred, resentment and racism. People are lost, unsure of their purpose in life. Many are angry. Many are bored. Many are lonely.
Jesus did not just come to mend broken people. He came to mend broken society, to build a new society, one which functions in a healthy way, one which is deeply attractive, one which we’d all like to be a part of.
It’s true: Christian churches aren’t always desperately attractive. But Jesus hasn’t finished with his church yet. One day, a new, restored society will be built. It will be wonderful, and you won’t want to miss out. But in the meantime, there are moments when we get a glimmer of what’s to come. A glimmer of what God’s building.
And one of those moments occurs right at the beginning, just after God’s poured out his Spirit on all his people for the very first time. People weren’t just becoming Christians in their droves; they were joining the fledgling church.
So, just look down at verse 41: “Those who accepted his message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.” Not just 3000 converts. 3000 added to their number. And the same in verse 47: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The two together.
Two statements that God was adding people to the early church. And in between, a little picture of the church. What was this group that people were being added to? God’s just poured out his Spirit on his church. What does a Spirit-filled church look like?
It’s a beautiful picture. We’ll meet the early church’s problems in the next few chapters of Acts. But today Luke is painting a picture that is deliberately ideal. It’s to show us what the church can look like at its very best. It’s to show us where history is heading, the kind of new society that Jesus is in the business of creating.
These verses are meant to make us want to be that kind of church. They’re meant to make us want to join that kind of church. They’re meant to make us want to be a part of the new society that God is creating, not to miss out on something this beautiful.
Verse 42 lays out an overview of this ideal church, and then verses 44 to 47 colour in the picture.
4 features of the Spirit-filled church.
Number 1, they were taught. Or more accurately, they were being taught.
Verse 42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”
Verse 46: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts”, which we know from the next few chapters is where the apostles were teaching.
The apostles, remember, were the 12 disciples that were with Jesus from beginning to end. He trained them up specifically to bear witness to him. We met that in chapter 1.
People were listening to the apostles and becoming Christians. But they weren’t then cut loose. Abandoned by the apostles, to go no deeper, to learn nothing beyond the most basic truths about Jesus, simply to guess how he wants them to live.
No, far from it. They continued to be taught. The apostles helped them to get to know Christ better and better. They allowed Jesus to shape their lives in an ongoing way, because they continued to be taught by the apostles.
And so today. The mark of a healthy church is that we continue to be devoted to the apostles’ teaching in an ongoing way. No matter how much we know Jesus, he’s infinitely deep and rich; compared to him, all of our understanding is shallow. We don’t settle for a relatively shallow grasp of Jesus: We go deeper.
And we don’t guess how he might want us to live. We listen to him. We let him tell us what pleases him and what doesn’t. He leads. We follow him, and not our own hunches or preferences. Even if he asks us to do things we don’t want to do.
You watch the trailer for Planet Earth. You’re struck at the beautiful planet we live on, fascinated. You don’t stop there – you watch the rest of the series, eager to see more, know more. You’re driving up the motorway and see a stunning mountain range off to the left. There’s no time to stop today. But the little you have seen is enough to make you want to come back and stay a week, come and see it properly, discover it more deeply.
You hear about the Lord Jesus. You become a Christian. You know enough to know you want to follow him. You’ve glimpsed his beauty. But you don’t stop. The reverse. You want to discover more of him, know him more deeply.
And that means open Bibles. Some people don’t like the sound of that because they want to follow the living Jesus, not a dead book. But one of the joys of becoming a Christian is that you discover that the Bible is very much a living book. It understands you, it speaks deeply into your soul, it knows you. That’s because these are the writings of Jesus’ apostles and prophets. The Bible is not dead, because Jesus himself speaks to you through it.
If we’re going to be devoted to the apostles teaching, we need to be a church with Bibles open. We need sermons that seek to unpack and apply the Bible to today. We need to be meeting in small groups – there are a number that meet every week, which you’ll find in the Pilgrim News. Meeting in small groups to open the Bible together, so we can work together to understand, to apply, and to live the apostles’ teaching.
Devoted to the apostles’ teaching. They were taught.
Number 2, they shared. Verse 42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship”, which literally means sharing.
That then gets some colour in verses 44 and 45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
There are two mistakes we can make with this. We can overdo it, and we can underdo it.
Some people have misread this, and far overstated what happened. We’re sometimes told that this was an early form of communism. The new Christians pooled all their possessions. They no longer had any concept of private property. Everything was communal. Some people want to promote Communism, so point here to its biblical pedigree. Others want to trash Communism, and point to how quickly the early church gave up on this failed experiment.
Either way, it’s misreading the text. It overstates what happened. This wasn’t an early form of communism. They still had homes to meet in. When needs arose, people were selling houses, land and possessions. Which means they still had those things to sell.
But neither must we underdo it. These early Christians realised that following Jesus bound them together in a church family. This was now their tightest relationship, their closest loyalty. They were in fellowship.
The church is a body. If one member of the church is suffering, the body is hurting, and we all feel the pain. If one member of the church is rejoicing, the body is full of joy, and we all share in their joy. Our lives are intricately bound up with one another.
Which is why if one member of the church is in urgent need, we all want to do what we can to help. And it’s why we do help if we have the means to do so.
It would be quite possible to underdo this. Probably not because we’re scared of being accused of being communists, but because we’re scared of putting this into practice. We aren’t sure if we want the deep and radical fellowship, the sharing, that these early Christians had.
Yet what an attractive community. Just turn over to chapter 4, verse 32. “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” And here’s what this led to, the second half of verse 33: “And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all 34 that there was no needy person among them.”
There’s something beautiful about fellowship to that kind of depth. Today, it’s each person for themselves. This is real community, and it answers some of the ways we long to live.
That’s number 2. They shared.
Number 3, they ate. Verse 42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread”.
What does that mean? Breaking of bread?
Some people think he’s talking about Communion. Jesus told us to remember him with a meal of bread and wine. Sometimes we call this “breaking bread”. But not in Luke’s day, so it isn’t what he means.
Let’s let Luke tell us. The second half of verse 46: “They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.”
It means they were in and out of each other’s homes. They ate together. They drank together. They enjoyed each other’s company.
In Jewish culture, you’d share a meal with friends by taking a big loaf of bread, breaking it into pieces, and passing it round. Think: “cheese and tomato tear and share” loaf. Number 1, you’re now hungry. Number 2, you’ve got the picture. He’s just saying that they ate together. In each other houses. Enjoying each other’s company. Enjoying food and drink with each other.
When I was at university, the Christians loved to be with each other. Students used to have lots of time on their hands, and the company of fellow Christians was fun. It was good to be together. So much so that sometimes our church leaders had to encourage us to mix a little. Spend time with those who don’t yet know the Lord Jesus. Share the good news around a little.
When the realities of work, family life, mortgages and everything else kicks in, perhaps we need the reverse encouragement. There are so many calls on our time, that if we’re not careful relaxed time with other Christians gets squeezed out. We’re all just too busy to eat and drink together, to welcome people into our homes. On which note, don’t miss the barbeque on the 9th.
Yet again, is this kind of community not exceedingly attractive? Many people today are exceedingly lonely. Or we live with others, but not like this. Meals are totally functional, or we stare at a screen rather than share with each other.
Many people are lonely. One reason why I’m such a fan of our lunch club is that many of those who come live on their own, and for some it’s the only meal of the week that they get to eat in the company of others.
Whether it’s in church premises or in people’s homes, eating together is another mark of a healthy church.
That’s number 3. They ate.
And then number 4: They prayed. Verse 42: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
The other 3 features in verse 42 have all appeared in more detail in verses 44 to 47. But where is prayer? As we read on in Acts, we find the early Christians prayed together in public and in private.
In public, they met in the temple. Jesus’ disciples were Jewish. Before they got kicked out of the Jewish synagogues, they were free to worship with their Jewish neighbours, and they did so. The temple was a place of prayer. The people gathered daily and weekly to pray. And Jesus’ disciples joined them.
In private, they met in their homes. They prayed for boldness to keep preaching when the authorities tried to shut them down. They prayed for Peter’s safe release from Herod’s prison.
So when our passage paints the disciples in the temple courts and in each other’s homes, both of those would have been chances to pray. The point is that they were devoted to praying. Bringing their needs before their God and heavenly Father was the heartbeat of their life together.
It’s too easy for a church to become little more than a social club. We have a common interest in religion, so we meet together to practice our religion and other things we enjoy doing. As one person put it to me, it sometimes feels that we’re about man’s business. The early church was about God’s business. It was Godward focussed. Not only did they listen to God as the apostles taught them, they prayed to God.
All Christians can pray. It’s not a burdensome duty, it’s a wonderful privilege. Just find your own words to say to God the things that are on your heart. To say sorry, to say thank you, to say please. We can do this on our own, but part of being a church is that we also do it together. On a Sunday. In midweek groups. At our prayer meeting. But pray together we must. It’s one of the things that sets the church apart from all the other clubs that exist.
Lots of people like to go to their local pub for an evening. Often a group of friends will meet on an agreed night. When it gets interesting is if a celebrity lives nearby and also drinks there from time to time. I bet you get a few extra hangers on at that pub, who come out in the hope of a glimpse. But what if the celebrity joins in the social life, and a night at the pub is a night with them. Suddenly, you’re not just a group of friends meeting for a chat. You look forward to going because there’s someone special you get to talk to, spend time with.
How attractive is this! We’re not just a group of people, but a group of people who truly meet with their God. Who can speak to him, and know he hears.
Number 4. They prayed.
This is the new society that Jesus is building. One that is taught together, that shares together, that eats together, that prays together.
Wouldn’t you love to belong to a community like that.
If you’re still looking into the claims of Jesus, that’s the community he invites you to join. We here won’t be perfectly like this. Not yet. He’s still working on us. But come and be a part of it, join us on the road to becoming a church like this.
For those of us who do belong to this church, this is what the risen Jesus calls us to be. This is what a Spirit-filled church looks like. Which of those 4 needs the most work? In which area do you find it hardest to work towards us being like this? Being taught? Sharing? Eating? Praying? Think of one thing to do, one habit to launch, towards the life of the church in that area.
Above all, we need to focus more clearly on the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what the church looks like when it’s filled with his Spirit, which means it’s full of him.
At the end of the day, we won’t become like this by trying ever so hard to become like this. We’ll become like this as the Lord Jesus takes control in renewed ways, and makes us into the society he died and rose to build.