What set the first church apart? And what can today's churches implement in order to improve their community and authenticity?
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. — Acts 2:42-47
Hard on the heels of the events of Easter came Pentecost and the formation of the first church in Jerusalem. Jerusalem became the centre from which the gospel went out to the rest of the world.
In Acts 2:42-47, Luke provides an extensive summary of the life of that first church. I’ve been working through Eckhard Schnabel’s commentary on Acts. Here’s what he says about what we can learn and apply from Luke’s description, as we go out to make disciples and multiply communities of Jesus’ followers. Everywhere.
An authentic church is a church in which God is present.
- The teaching of the apostles focused on the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and Lord, and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.
- The breaking of bread, when it includes the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, reminds believers of God’s plan of salvation, who sent Jesus to the cross in order that sins might be forgiven and the promised new covenant might become a reality.
- The believers experienced the awe-inspiring presence of God in the miracles that happened through the apostles, which were direct manifestations of the merciful work of God in their midst.
- The believers experienced God’s presence and invoked prayers of praise in which they thanked God for his blessings through Jesus.
- They experienced God’s effective presence in new conversions and in the continued growth of the church.
An authentic church is a church whose priorities are set by the gospel.
- Teaching by the apostles. Its primary focus is on Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and Lord; on God’s salvation through Jesus’s death, resurrection and exaltation; on the integration into the community of God’s messianic people; and on the significance of the Scriptures that are read, explained and applied to the lives of believers.
- Fellowship. The community of believes are “one” because they have all accepted Jesus as Israel’s messianic Savior and because they have all received God’s transforming Spirit. The church is a fellowship in that believers meet at one place, listen to the teaching of the Word of God, praise God, share meals, love each other and share resources with fellow believers who are poor.
- The breaking of bread. This includes sharing meals as an expression of belonging to one family, the family of God’s people. And it includes the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus, Israel’s Messiah and Lord. When Christians break bread, they praise God and remember Jesus’ sacrifice and thus are reminded of the needs of the poor and are challenged to help sacrificially.
- Prayer. Constant and joyful prayer acknowledges the presence of God in the midst of his people. Personal transformation, which produces, for example, the willingness to sell property and give the proceeds to the poor, is possible only when God changes hearts and minds — and hand and feet that carry out the sale of possessions. Constant and joyful prayer acknowledges that only God can lead unbelievers to repentance.
An authentic church is a church that continues to grow.
- Churches grow when the gospel is proclaimed. The priority of the teaching of the apostles includes evangelistic outreach to unbelievers — this is the primary calling of the Twelve as witnesses of Jesus, commissioned to preach the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
- Churches grow when the church is a fellowship. Luke attributes the continued growth of the church to the believers meeting in the temple and in private homes, listening to teaching, sharing meals, sharing with those in need and praising God in prayer. These meetings attracted unbelievers, who became willing to repent, to commit themselves to faith in Jesus, the Messiah and Lord of Israel, to be immersed in water, and to join the fellowship of the followers of Jesus.
- Churches grow when they acknowledge the power of God. The continued and regular growth of a church is always the result of the work of God. It is possible for numerical growth to be nothing more than the attraction of popular entertainment. Numerical growth is authentic church growth only when people find faith in Jesus, the crucified, risen, and exalted Messiah and Savior, and when they receive the Holy Spirit of God, who visibly and powerfully transforms their lives.