The Church's Life (preaching resource for 4/30/23, Easter 4)
This post exegetes Acts 2:42-47, one of the RCL readings for 4/30/23. This exegesis draws on various sources, including commentary on this passage from John Stott.
|"Pentecost" (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)|
The second chapter of the book of Acts focuses on the Holy Spirit's work in forming the church both on and immediately following the day of Pentecost. The chapter has three sections, each one addressing the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the early church.
Chapter 2 begins with Luke's description of Pentecost (1-13), continues with the explanation of the events of that day which Peter gives in his sermon (14-41), and ends with the effects of Pentecost in the life of the Jerusalem church (42-47). This sermon addresses the third section, wherein Luke describes the effects of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost by giving us a beautiful synopsis of the Spirit-filled church. What evidence did the church give of the presence and power of the Holy Spirit? Luke tells us.
It was a learning church
The very first evidence Luke mentions of the Spirit's presence in the church is that *they devoted themselves to the apostle's teaching* (42). One might perhaps say that the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem that day; its teachers were the apostles whom Jesus had appointed; and there were 3,000 pupils in the kindergarten!
We note that those new converts were not enjoying a mystical experience which led them to despise their mind or disdain theology. Anti-intellectualism and the fullness of the Spirit are mutually incompatible, because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth. Nor did those early disciples imagine that, because they had received the Spirit, he was the only teacher they needed and they could dispense with human teachers. On the contrary, they sat at the apostles' feet, hungry to receive instruction, and they persevered in it. Moreover, the teaching authority of the apostles, to which they submitted, was authenticated by miracles: *many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles* (43). The two references to the apostles, in verse 42 (their teaching) and verse 43 (their miracles), can hardly be an accident (cf. 2 Cor.12:12; Heb. 2:1-4).
Since the teaching of the apostles has come down to us in its definitive form in the New Testament, contemporary devotion to the apostles' teaching will mean submission to the authority of the New Testament. A Spirit-filled church is a New Testament church, in the sense that it studies and submits to New Testament instruction. The Spirit of God leads the people of God to submit to the Word of God.
It was a loving church
*They devoted themselves... to the fellowship* (42). 'Fellowship' is koinonia (from *koinos*, 'common'), bearing witness to the common life of the church in two senses. First, it expresses what we share together. This is God himself, for 'our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ' (1 Jn.1:3), and there is 'the fellowship of the Holy Spirit' (2 Cor. 13:14). Thus *koinonia* is a Trinitarian experience; it is our common share in God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But secondly, *koinonia* also expresses what we share out together, what we give as well as what we receive.
*Koinonia* is the word Paul used for the collection he was organizing among the Greek churches (2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13), and *koinonikos* is the Greek word for 'generous'. It is to this that Luke is particularly referring here, because he goes on at once to describe the way in which these first Christians shared their possessions with one another: *all the believers were together and had everything in common (koina), selling their possessions and goods* (probably meaning their real estate and their valuables respectively), *they gave to anyone as he had need* (44-45). This sharing of property and possessions was voluntary. According to verse 46, *they broke bread in their homes*. So evidently many still had homes; not all had sold them. It is also noteworthy that the tense of both verbs in verse 45 is imperfect, which indicates that the selling and the giving were occasional, in response to particular needs, not once and for all.
Every Christian has to make conscientious decisions before God in this matter. We are all called to generosity, especially toward the poor and needy. The principle is stated twice in the Acts: *they gave to anyone as he had need* (45), and 'there were no needy persons among them...the money... was distributed to anyone as he had need' (Acts 4:34-35). As John was to write later, if we have material possessions and see a brother or sister in need, but do not share what we have with him or her, how can we claim that God's love dwells in us? (1 Jn. 3:17). Christian fellowship is Christian caring, and Christian caring is Christian sharing. It is part of the responsibility of Spirit-filled believers to alleviate need and abolish destitution in the new community of Jesus.
It was a worshipping church
*They devoted themselves... to the breaking of bread and to prayer* (42). That is, their fellowship was expressed not only in caring for each other, but in corporate worship too. Moreover, the definite article in both expressions (literally, 'the breaking of the bread and the prayers') suggests a reference to the Lord's Supper on the one hand and corporate prayer meetings (rather than private prayer) on the other.
These two aspects of the early church's worship exemplify its balance. First, it was both formal and informal, for it took place both *in the temple courts and in their homes* (46). They continued for a while in the temple—probably to attend the prayer services (cf. 3:1), though perhaps they went up to the temple to preach, rather than to pray. At the same time, they supplemented the temple services with more informal and spontaneous meetings (including communion) in their homes.
The second example of the balance of the early church's worship is that it was both joyful and reverent. There can be no doubt of their joy, for they are described as having *glad and sincere hearts* (46), which the NEB translates as ‘unaffected joy'. Since God had sent his Son into the world, and had now sent them his Spirit, they had plenty of reason to be joyful. Besides, 'the fruit of the Spirit is...joy' (Gal.5:22), and every worship service should be a joyful celebration of the mighty acts of God through Jesus Christ. At the same time, their joy was never irreverent. If joy in God is an authentic work of the Spirit, so is the fear of God. *Everyone was filled with awe* (43), which seems to include the Christians as well as the non-Christians. God had visited their city. He was in their midst and they knew it. They bowed down before him in humility and wonder. It is a mistake, therefore, to imagine that in public worship reverence and rejoicing are mutually exclusive. The combination of joy and awe, as of informality and formality, is a healthy balance in worship.
It was an evangelistic church
Not only did the Jerusalem Christians learn, share and worship—they reached out in witness: *And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved* (47b). The Holy Spirit created a missionary church. As one commentator put it: *Acts is governed by one dominant, overriding and all-controlling motif. This motif is the expansion of the faith through missionary witness in the power of the Spirit...The church is a missionary church*.
From these earliest believers in Jerusalem, we can learn three vital lessons about local church evangelism. First, the Lord himself (Jesus) did it: *the Lord added to their number*. Doubtless he did it through the preaching of the apostles, the witness of the church members, the impressive love of their common life, and their example as they were *praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people* (47a). Yet he did it, for he is the head of the church. Certainly we should bring to the task of evangelism all of the appropriate means at our disposal, but only in humble dependence on Jesus as the principal evangelist.
Secondly, what Jesus did was two things together: he *added to their number...those who were being saved.* He did not add them to the church without saving them, nor did he save them without adding them to the church. Salvation and church membership belong together.
Thirdly, the Lord added people *daily*. The verb is an imperfect ('kept adding'), and the adverb ('daily') puts the matter beyond question. The early church's evangelism was not an occasional or sporadic activity. Just as their worship was daily (46a), so was their witness. Praise and proclamation were both the natural overflow of hearts full of the Holy Spirit. And as their outreach was continuous, so continuously converts were being added.
There is no need for us to wait, as the one hundred and twenty had to wait, for the Spirit to come. For the Holy Spirit did come on the Day of Pentecost, and has never left his church. Our responsibility is to humble ourselves before his sovereign authority, to determine not to quench him, but to allow him his freedom. For then our churches will manifest those marks of the Spirit's presence, namely biblical teaching, loving fellowship, living worship, and an ongoing, outgoing evangelism.