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It happens. That once-in-a-lifetime moment when millions of people are able to witness your faith because you had prayed for boldness.
Of course, you do it in small ways every day by not only the things you choose not to do; but, also, by the things that you do.
A word with this person.
Another word with someone else.
Little by little your story becomes more a part of who you are as you strive to follow Christ.
And then, your wife and the child she carries is suddenly murdered while you are doing one of those things that you do because of who you are: a Christian leader. Words cannot describe the horror, the depth of pain nor the chasm of loss that has enveloped your life suddenly, mercilessly crushing the love of your life and your un-born child.
And then, a week later, the brief window in time opens…and…although you feel the urge to collapse in sobbing loss, God needs you to speak with conviction:
Well done, brother.
So, the first church establishes a cluster of characteristics that provide guidelines for the spread of the gospel. Over a short period of time it is logical to assume that thousands of these new Christians from all over the world and all walks of life would have grown comfortable with the apostles’ presence, power, and healing. Additionally, listening to people’s eyewitness testimonies and teaching coupled with the frequent meetings with people who genuinely cared for each other would create a binding through relationships. With all of these elements and so much more, it would be difficult for the out-of-towners to leave to go home. But leave they must because of the persecution that broke out after the death of Stephen and the ascendance of a man named Saul who was determined to crush this heretical movement.
In anticipation of the coming forced exodus, it only makes sense that Luke would describe for us the core elements of church planting. Consequently, I place great value upon these six chapters as they lay out the activities of the early church just after Jesus’ ascension up until the time that they would be pressed out of the city, running to all parts of the Roman/Greco world for safety, armed with the good news of Jesus Christ as the Messiah.
To review, they devoted themselves to four things. First, the teaching of the apostles as eyewitnesses to everything Jesus did for those three years as His disciples. Especially important to them would be the connections Jesus made with ancient prophecies all under the direct will of God. No other books of our New Testament would have yet been written. Their only scripture would have been the Old Testament.
Second was the fellowship. The logarithmic growth of the church from 11 to 12 to 120 to 3,000 to 5,000 men along with, at the conclusion of this section, a large number of priests (Acts 6:7) necessitated the integration and accommodation of people, many of whom would have been foreigners whose language skills may have been limited in an Aramaic-speaking culture. Making relationships would be both important for their spiritual growth but also out of necessity.
Third was the Lord’s Supper. A necessary part of any gathering of Christians who would strive to remind each other of the price that had been paid for their spiritual freedom, attendant Holy Spirit, and the promise of life eternal. And fourth, they were devoted to prayer. It is likely they met in the temple at the traditional hours of prayer in the morning and evening, even though they realized that much of what they had grown accustomed to in their upbringing was now rendered unnecessary by way of God’s favor through His Son.
Luke also tells us of their sacrificial, above-and-beyond giving for each other to the point that no one had any significant needs. The powerful, healing activity of the apostles would further extend their mutual care and adoration for the One who empowered them. We see that they congregated regularly in large, medium and small groups, enjoying nightly meals in one another’s homes, perhaps sharing the bread and wine with each meal to remember the sacrifice made for them. How the streets would echo with their heart-felt songs of praise and devotion. Praying for boldness, a sense of unity would descend upon everyone to cement their bonds as they ventured out to speak to everyone about their Lord and Savior, the Messiah.
When Conflict that threatened Unity arose the apostles began by identifying their role, identifying the problem. allowing the congregation to participate in forming and executing a solution–choosing the 7–and blessing the one’s chosen and releasing them to accomplish the task at hand. Stated more clearly, when it came to internal conflict in the early church the apostles set the stage for future conflict resolution as they bring the congregation together, address the problem of the neglect of the Hellenistic Jewish widows and offer a solution to the congregation. Immediately the congregation chooses the seven, the apostles bless them, lay hands on them, pray for them and let them go. Meanwhile they returned to their work of prayer and ministry of the word.
Of course, the conclusion is obvious. As the disciples established these important dynamics of church functioning, “…the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7). I believe one of the keys to the success of this simple template is found in Luke’s first description: they were devoted to the apostle’s teaching. Peter tells us the content of their teaching in 2 Peter 1:16-21:
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”[b] 18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
In brief, the simple content was 1) Jesus and 2) the prophecies about Him. Indeed, it was Jesus Himself who said:
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32)
In our study of the giving of the early church in Acts 2:44-45, 5:32, 34-37 there appeared to be two levels of giving. On the first level was the sharing of property, making regular contributions to a general fund that took care of the exploding needs for the food and lodging of the new mega-church. Having all things in common everyone chipped in to take care of each other. What had been represented by the tithe throughout the history of God’s people was now exceeded by those early Christians so that what was “mine” is now, voluntarily, “ours”.
This principle of tithing to care for God’s people reaches back to the earliest records we have in the story of Cain and Able. Embedded in that story is the idea of first fruits versus giving in faith in contrast to giving from fruits already received.
The second level of giving was the over-and-above, uber-contributions. With the explosive increase of new disciples pioneering in following Christ the ebb and flow of contributions and distributions for housing these foreigners and feeding them the likelihood of oversights and shortages would be practically guaranteed to happen. As Acts 6:1-7 illustrates, immediate action would be required to keep murmuring from exploding into factions and divisive rumors and innuendos. As noted above, twice Luke mentions that there were times when people would realize a shortage or oversight, they would quickly sell property or possessions and give beyond their tithe to make sure the need was met immediately. These were not secret, backdoor dealings. It was done openly with confidence that others would also be inspired to follow their example so that everyone’s needs would be met and God would be glorified.
THAT’S OLD TESTAMENT!
A question I have frequently encountered among our people over many years of ministry comes down to an Old Testament question. Somehow we have convinced a large portion of our members that the Old Testament is good for stories and illustrations but we are not supposed to follow the Old Testament. The Old Testament is our tutor (cf., Galatians 3:24-25); therefore, its significance is marginal to the New Testament Christian. Frequently, the title “Old Testament” is misunderstood to be “The Law” without any distinction between the two. What Scripture reveals is that tithing was a practice of the people of God at least 500 years before the Law was delivered to Moses. One of the earliest examples includes Abraham who tithed (Genesis 14:18-20) even before the rite of circumcision was established in Genesis 17.
The Old Testament is more than The Law; it is still the word of God (2 Timothy 2:15). In Romans 4 Paul makes it clear that we live by the faith of Abraham, not by obedience to the Law. The tithe is not only a principle of the Law to be observed; it is a timeless truth of God’s people rooted in gratitude and faith which, of course, also happened to be specified in the Law (Leviticus 27:30). What the early church exemplifies for us is a people who gladly went beyond the simple tithe to make sure that there were no needy among them.