Date: 08 Oct 2017
Text: Acts 2:42-47
As I’ve spent time thinking about the future of this church the verses that I have chosen to speak on this morning have been on my mind a great deal. As has been said before, here at the Baptist Free Church we have tried a number of initiatives to reach out to the community in an effort to bring new people in to join us and hear about Jesus Christ. Sadly all our efforts have so far failed and although we’ve had a few people visit once they have yet to visit regularly. As the Leadership Team discussed where we had gone wrong and why people weren’t coming in, we realised that we had been going about things in the wrong way; we had been trying our ideas and had not truly sought God’s leading on how to move forward. We did that with the finest of motives and very obviously did not intend to cut God out of our plans but we didn’t really seek His leading in the way that we should have done.
When you look around the country today you will generally see that church attendance is, in the main, falling. The only churches that do seem to be growing are the Black Majority Churches which are generally Pentecostal in their theology. It ought to be very obvious that churches everywhere need to grow and bring new people into the kingdom of heaven; after all, that is the Great Commission that Jesus gave us. Churches recognise this and so set up programmes and courses and events to try and attract new people. The problem as I see it though is that they use the world’s techniques to try and win people for Christ; in fact some churches and church organisations try to achieve growth by moving the church towards society rather than bringing society closer to the church.
I believe that these verses in Acts 2:42-47 make it very clear where we are going wrong. The early church didn’t try and grow by doing things their way; they did them God’s way. We need to be like them and seek God’s face on this vital aspect of church life; we then need to follow God’s leading and not the world’s. His techniques will always succeed whereas those of the world will always fail in the long run; we cannot run churches as glorified social clubs!
The opening verse really says it all. Firstly: ”They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching”. The “they” being referred to are all those who came to faith on the Day of Pentecost and it could be said that they were fortunate in that they had the Apostles with them. Remember that at that time whilst they had what we know as the Old Testament, there were no written scriptures that we know as the New Testament. That meant they had to rely on word of mouth and the personal witness of the Apostles. That wasn’t a problem as we know from Jesus Himself that the Apostles were to be trusted since the Lord Himself said in John 16:13-14, “But when he, the Spirit of Truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.” The Apostles had been empowered by the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and so were able to do exactly what Jesus said they would do. That word “devoted” intrigues me since it implies that they lapped up everything that the Apostles had to say to them; they must have listened intently and meditated on every word. We have the Bible, the written word of God, and even though we no longer have the Apostles we do have that written word that we can read and re-read whenever we feel moved to. However, I have to ask, just how many of us do read God’s word regularly? How many read it every day? I know that there are people who attend this church who only read it on a Sunday morning when they attend a morning service. That is not what the word “devoted” means and it does not reflect what these 1st century believers did.
Secondly, they devoted themselves to “fellowship”. That is a little word with a big meaning. From my observations there are a large number of one day a week Christians. They attend church once a week on a Sunday morning and think that that is enough; although for some even that may be too much! Yes, it is right that we should gather together on a Sunday morning to sing God’s praises, bring Him our prayers and hear His Word expounded in a sermon of reasonable length. However, what these people did was that and far more. They seem to have met together very, very regularly. In 2:46 Luke tells us that “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts.” To me that means that they got together to worship God in a variety of ways every day of the week, not just on the Sabbath! Do we do that? Could we do that? I know that the staff at Birmingham City Mission get together every morning before starting work to share in a short time of worship and on a Friday they have what you might call a full-blown service. That may go some way to explain how and why they are so successful. Churches don’t do that do they, although I do acknowledge that with the pressures that modern life brings such an activity may be difficult. This thought of fellowship also means that they developed close relationships with one another and as we shall see shortly, they helped one another in a variety of ways.
Thirdly, they devoted themselves “to the breaking of bread”, in other words they had Communion together. I can’t quite make out if that means that they shared bread and wine together every day or if it was at frequent intervals during the week. To me, and I suspect I’m not alone in this, Communion is the absolute highlight of any service; it is the time when we can quietly meditate on what Jesus did for us on the cross of Calvary. Jesus gave His body and His blood so that all those who believed in Him as Lord and Saviour could have eternal life spent with Him in paradise. It is only right and proper that we should remember and commemorate regularly what Jesus did for us although in many churches a Communion Service is only held twice a month. Why is that? Many, although not all, Anglican churches do hold a daily Communion service although I’m not sure that they are very well attended. I have very occasionally attended Communion on a Saturday morning at Birmingham Cathedral when the service has been attended by about 8 people! Notice in 2:46 that Luke says “They broke bread in their homes”. They didn’t necessarily gather at a central meeting place but went to the homes of the various believers, in that way spreading the load of providing for the meal. We tend to think that we can only have Communion in a church but there should be nothing to stop us getting together to share bread and wine in other places.
Finally in 2:42, we read that they devoted themselves “to prayer”. That is something else that I believe is sadly lacking in far too many churches. At this church we hold a monthly Prayer Brunch on a Saturday morning an event which is generally attended by about ten people. Is that good? I don’t think so; such an event should be attended by the whole church and if not the entire membership then at least a fair percentage. It is only when everyone prays together that things really start to happen. A whole church united in prayer is a remarkable thing. That is not to say that our own personal prayers are a waste of time, they very definitely and very obviously aren’t. However, what I am saying is that if the church came together as a family of believers to be united in prayer it really would have a major effect. Remember though that whilst God will always answer our prayers, and no is an answer, those answers will come in His time, when He is good and ready, and so we need patience and perseverance in our prayers.
As part of this new community of believers Luke also tells us that, “All the believers were together and had everything in common” (2:44). What do you suppose that means? A Bible translation by the Bible Society puts it this way, which may be easier to understand, “They shared what they had with one another”. That seems a bit clearer and gives much better insight as how close this fellowship truly was. Reading further in 2:45 Luke tells us that, “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone in need.” That sounds fairly clear to me although my Bible Society version adds that they went as far as selling property “in order to ensure that no one went short of anything.” Remember that this was long before the UK dreamt up the welfare state where the state becomes the port of last resort when help is needed. These early believers appear to have been quite happy to sell possessions and put the proceeds into a kitty to help those who were less fortunate. That is quite some fellowship! Now please believe me when I say that I’m not expecting everyone to go home and have a car boot or garage sale to raise funds to help the less fortunate in the Christian community because I’m not. However, when you look at some of the recent world events it is amazing just how much people do do to help those in distress. It is only relatively recently that we heard about the dreadful and devastating fire at Grenfell Tower in London. That single event triggered a huge response as money and goods came flooding in, all to help those who had suffered such great losses. I admit that I’ve lost count of how much money has been donated or how many useful items and clothes have been donated although I seem to recall that the various household items donated could fill a number of sports halls or football pitches. Such a response is the essence of what Luke is talking about in 2:45.
I mentioned earlier that these new believers gathered together in each others’ homes to share bread and wine. We learn from 2:46b that they also “ate together with glad and sincere hearts”. I think it is safe to assume from earlier in the verse that these meals were also shared in one another’s homes. Whenever we have a church meal at this church one of the Deacons always mentions that he loves it because a family eats together and we are a family in Jesus Christ. That’s quite a thought and worth pondering on.
Now very obviously few of us are able to provide a meal for the entire church membership in our own homes. However, we are surely able to occasionally provide hospitality to fellow believers. It has happened to me in various places in the past when I have visited other churches; and I’m sure that it is something that could be done very easily. Both Paul and Peter suggested that we should offer hospitality. Paul wrote to the Romans and said, “Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practise hospitality.” (Romans 12:13); whilst Peter simply said “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1 Peter 4:9). Good advice and well worth heeding.
It’s interesting to read 2:47 and see not only how they went about all these activities but also the reaction of the people who saw what they were doing and how they were behaving. Firstly, whilst doing all these wonderful things they were “praising God”. How often do we do something and praise God while we are doing it? Does some of what we do become a chore or a bit of a pain? We all do some things for the church or for other people when we wish we could be elsewhere perhaps enjoying ourselves. Perhaps if we went about all these activities in an attitude of praise things would be easier. Perhaps when we help others in any way we should remember that it is God we are serving and not ourselves, consequently surely it would help if we praised God as we do things to serve Him?
We also see from 2:47 that they had “the favour of all the people”. When we do things to help others such as those who are less fortunate, then perhaps people around us will look and notice and wonder. They may think positively and not critically and wonder why it is that we can help others whilst praising God as we do it. It is also possible that they may want to join us to learn more about how and why we are able to do such things.
Finally we read in the latter part of 2:47 that “... the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”. Everything that they did helped this fledgling fellowship to grow as more and more joined them in faith in Jesus Christ. Remember that this fellowship came out of the events of the Day of Pentecost when “about three thousand were added to their number that day” (2:41). That wasn’t a one-off event, they continued to grow and it all came about because “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer”. We can learn from that.
The good news of Jesus Christ and what He did for us at Calvary will never die, of that we can be assured. The church however will undoubtedly experience periods of dwindling numbers and lack of interest from non-believers and those who prefer to live in the modern world with all that it offers. If we are all earnest in our wish to fulfil the Great Commission and go out and make disciples then we most certainly need to re-think how we go about sharing the gospel with others.
Some ‘programmes’ will work but if we truly and sincerely want to see growth in the church then we can do worse than to follow the pattern established on the Day of Pentecost and the days following. We need to devote ourselves to God’s Word, to sharing fellowship with fellow believers, to the regular sharing of bread and wine, and to regular corporate prayer. It’s God’s plan and so cannot fail.