In Acts 2 we see Peter give the very first Christian sermon, and three thousand people were saved. This group of three thousand then becomes the very first local Christian church body. In this blog we will follow them through the beginnings of a regular church and see how they handled some of the very same situations we still face today as the Christian church.
It would be good to pause here and talk a little about what we are really reading in Acts. One of the big themes in Acts is how the Christian church was started, and how they handled the various problems that a new church body would face. The tendency in our modern day is when we are faced with questions on how to do things is to look back to the early church and see how they did it. It is supposed that if the early church practiced it, it must be right. The danger in this line of thinking comes from the fact that the early church was filled with its own problems. Indeed much of the content of the letters that we have recorded in the Bible are addressing issues with the early churches. So while we can learn a lot from asking how the early church handled things, we must be careful to separate those passages that are prescriptive from those that are merely descriptive.
Because Acts is written as an historical narrative, all of its passages will be descriptive of what actually occurred. Thus, some passages will be describing things that we done correctly, and some will not. We as modern day Christians studying the Word must be careful to let the Spirit lead us through and keep us from the pitfall of setting up the early church as a perfect idol.
The description of the church starts off by telling us that they continued steadfastly in prayer, breaking of bread, and in the Apostles teaching (Acts 2:42). Commentators disagree over the question if the “breaking of bread” here and later in Acts 4:46, is referring to simply having meals together, or the observance of the Lord’s Supper. To me when you read the section in its entirety, it becomes apparent that the context of the passage is talking about the community or family like atmosphere of the early church, and that leads to the simple interpretation that they shared meals together. Today it is common for churches to have “covered dishes” or “pot lucks” where members bring different dishes of food to be shared at a church wide meal. We may not call it “breaking bread”, but I believe this is very similar to what happened here.
There is a family nature to this first church, while I am sure they were not with out their problems, it is recorded that they stayed in fellowship. This is a very unusual thing compared to modern day churches, or even the early churches that followed this one. At this point in the life of the church there are no denominations, there are no people competing for power, just a community of new believers who are steadfastly following the teachings of the Apostles and daily staying in prayer and fellowship. The group is moving around form house to house, probably because no one of them had a house that could support the entire group, so the workload was shared. They also continued to meet in the Temple and as far as we can tell until its destruction around seventy A.D.
When reading this section it is easy to get the idea that this first church body practice Communism. After all it says that they “had all things in common” and sold their possessions to give to all that had need. That certainly sounds like communism on a fast read, and if the early church practiced it, should we? Well, first thing we need to ask when deciding that is, is this really communism, or is something else being spoken of here?
To answer that we need to look at the context of what just happened, and who is there. This is the a group of Jews that came to town for Pentecost, and were just saved. Since many of them did not live in Jerusalem, they would have no place to live, and no means of making a living. In that day, for these large feasts it was common for the Jews to open their homes to help handle the overflow of travelers since the local inns could never hope to host so many. Think of any town in your country, no matter how big, if the entire nation showed up one day for a party, where would you put them? It is the same problem here, and the Jews would face this problem several times a year. This tells us it is probable that many of these original three thousand had no place to live, no jobs and only the possessions they could carry on their backs. Taking that as our backdrop it is easy to see that they would have had to pool their meager resources, along with the resources of the ones that did live in town, in order to even survive.
Later in Acts we read of Paul taking up collections in the local church bodies to support the poor, these collections show that the practice of everyone pooling all their funds was not what was done as a normal event, but that the general church membership came together when there was a need. This is the same thing we are reading about here. Although it is not recorded we can safely assume that some of this number stayed in town, found jobs and became productive, while some would eventually leave and head back home.
What we do see here is a model for a church that will be repeated many times over, and is still in use today. First we have teachers, in this case the Apostles, that instruct the group. In our modern day churches Pastors, Sunday School Teachers, and other members of leadership fill this role. Second we have them meeting in the Temple and in homes. Our modern day equivalent to this is our Sunday services, and mid-week home groups. Third we read about them continuing in prayer, and most churches today have prayer as an integral part of their normal routine. Fourth we read about them sharing meals, and having times of fellowship, which is something we all enjoy today.
Two points that we read in this section that do seem to be missing at large from today’s churches is that the original members were happy and held the worship of God in awe. When my family travels on vacation, we try to visit different churches, and through this we get to experience different styles of worship. I would have to say it is a rare thing indeed to find any church where the overall membership appears to have “gladness of heart”, and almost unheard of to find a congregation that holds the worship in awe. As my prior Sunday school teacher is fond of saying, many Christians look like they had been sucking on dill pickles. What happened to the simple joy of serving the Lord?
Through out the Bible, when we read of men approaching God, or even merely things of God, they approach with much fear and trembling. Even at the very end of the Bible when John sees God he “falls at his feet as dead” (Revelation 1:17). When was the last time you approached the things of God with the fear and reverence they deserve? Have we forgotten the one who we worship is the creator himself? This early church body experienced the power of God directly, and continuously, and they held it in awe. Perhaps there is a lesson here for us; perhaps we do not see this in our churches because we have become too comfortable with God?