As our family has been reading the Book of Acts together, we have asked the question – what was the early Church known for? We have also asked what is the Church known for today, and what are we known for?
I wish I could say that the answers to these questions were all the same.
When I think of church today, generally my thoughts go to modern churches which are struggling to make their buildings and their messages more relevant, more appealing and attractive to their audience. I think of the large churches with rock concert-like music and casually dressed pastors who share a message that is insightful or thought provoking, but not too challenging or invasive. I think of big impressive buildings with lots of cool amenities. And I also think of the multitude of smaller churches around them that are vying for the same audience and wondering how they will compete, or coming up with reasons why they shouldn’t (which often but not always are borne out of jealousy, though few would really admit it).
Then I think about randomly surveying our neighbors about church. I used to walk around asking people “what’s been your experience of church?” The responses I got were not surprising, and even mirrored my own sentiments at times during the past several decades. Some said boring or irrelevant (or at least their faces said it), but many had very strong reactions of how they had been mistreated or ignored at the hands of professing church goers, including members of their own families (harsh fathers being a big one). I also heard lots about the most common characteristic of church today: division. I live in a rural area that has maybe 9000 people in it. Yet a perusing of our local yellow pages (does anyone even really use them anymore?) reveals over 300 churches in our little rural community. That’s one new church – that largely doesn’t agree with all the others – for every 30 people. And that assumes that everybody actually attends church (which we all know they don’t). Not a very encouraging picture.
How about our church? Our church is known as a struggling country church that has been shrinking and aging, and that has its share of bad stories and reputation in the community. We’ve gone through a lot of preachers – some their fault and some ours – trying to find a good one. Overwhelmingly what people want are some good messages each week, with some good music, not too long, not too early, and in a format that is welcoming to new people. We have a good location and a nice building, although there always seems to be a floating idea that we might do more with the property. When a new preacher (yes, another one) came in recently suggesting some changes, it created a ripple of different reactions through the congregation that are still being felt. One of those ideas that generated controversy was that we should actually sit closer together and more toward the front during worship services.
So, what about The Church, whose beginning, history, and deeds are recorded for us in the book of Acts? What was it known for?
Our family is only five chapters in (actually we start chapter 5 today) but here are some of the very obvious themes we’ve seen so far:
The Early Church was all about the Holy Spirit.
Jesus promised Him in Acts 1 (He’s a he not an it). Jesus told His apostles to wait for the Holy Spirit and not to do anything until He came. In fact, before Jesus went to the cross, He promised His guys that He would send the Holy Spirit, and that it was actually better for them that Jesus go away, so that He could send the Spirit to them. Not surprisingly, you find the Holy Spirit all throughout the book of Acts, very conspicuously at the very beginning. He comes with the sound of a rushing wind that all Jerusalem could hear in Acts 2. When crowds gather asking what is going on, Peter refers back to Old Testament prophecies that God would send His Spirit to all people. He preaches a sermon about Jesus, in it saying that Jesus has sent the Holy Spirit whom they are all seeing the evidence of, and then concludes his sermon saying that the promise of the Holy Spirit is for everyone who responds to Christ. No longer would the dwelling place of God’s Spirit be in the holy of holies in the temple, but rather we would become the new holy of holies where God would dwell in us through His Spirit.
I had always thought of Peter’s message being about Jesus, and it is. But I had missed how he begins, ends, and fills in the middle with a message about the Holy Spirit. That God, through Christ, was coming to live not just with men, but in them. And that He would accomplish that through His Holy Spirit.
Three thousand people respond, repent and are baptized, and receive the promise, are filled with the Holy Spirit. What was the result? Contrary to what some might expect, you don’t find everyone speaking in ecstatic utterance (or even in intelligible earth languages) but rather you find a much more profound demonstration of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Everyone becomes devoted (literally “addicted”) to the fellowship (sharing their lives together), the Apostles’ teaching (God’s Word, the Bible), the breaking of bread (worship), and to prayer (this is a big one, mentioned in more detail later). Then you read five more verses about how much they sold for each other, sacrificed for each other, spent time daily together, and continued to grow in number.
Not exactly the picture of empty pews I’m used to fifteen minutes after “church” is over.
So, a big manifestation of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives was (and is) a very real devotion to the things the Holy Spirit cares about – the relationships in the church, the Bible, worship, and prayer. These become things that the earliest Christians couldn’t go a day without, that they had to have, that they couldn’t imagine not having, not participating in, every day.
Another big theme in those five short verses? Gladness. People were actually excited to be together at “church”, full of joy at the thought of more of it, not just getting their time in so they could move on to the rest of their important lives. In fact, the vast majority of these early 3000 were likely from very far away, having come to Jerusalem from all over the world to celebrate the Pentecost. But they didn’t go home. Ever. They sold lands and possessions, and re-arranged their lives, families, homes, careers, around being the church together in Jerusalem. Not because Peter and the other apostles challenged them to it – this was a fruit of the Holy Spirit living in them. Wow.
So, where do we next find the Holy Spirit? In Chapter 3. And Chapter 4. And Chapter 5. And what is the overwhelming manifestation of the Spirit in these chapters? Again, it’s not speaking in other languages. It’s not even other miraculous signs, though there were more miracles (interestingly noted as being done by the apostles and not by everyone). The overwhelming, and repeated, evidence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the early Christians was – are you ready for it – great boldness in continuing to speak about Jesus despite opposition.
Not speaking in tongues but speaking about Jesus, even when it got hard. Even when faced with threats of imprisonment and bodily harm. When the Church prays in response to being threatened by the Jewish religious elite (the same guys who crucified Jesus two months earlier), they don’t ask for comfort or deliverance, they ask for boldness to continue speaking about Jesus. And the Father answers their prayer how? By filling them all in even greater measure with the Holy Spirit.
So I’m forced to ask – does that describe “church” today? That everyone is speaking all the time with great confidence, great courage, great boldness about Jesus? Does that describe me? Does that even describe the guys who are paid to talk about Him on Sunday mornings, of how they spend the rest of their weeks?
What does that say about the presence of the Holy Spirit?
Which brings me to our second observation: (Continued in Part 2 of 4)