THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES | PART 1: ACTS 2:42-47
A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin
The Acts of the Apostles may be read for many reasons, and we shall focus principally on one: for applications we can make from Luke’s account of apostolic church life to church life today.[i] That is, can we identify Scriptural principles of church life that are normative, which give us a model of the correct way of ordering church life? By church life, we mean not only worship, but fellowship, service, evangelism, teaching, and our relationship with those outside our community. We will also consider whether some elements of church life are called out in The Acts as commanded or prohibited, remembering that the authority of Scripture is the authority of a story, not of a rule book.
First, some introductory remarks. Several of you have expressed a desire to learn more about how the Scriptures which compose the Bible fit together. There are different ways of viewing the organization of the 66 books, and it is good for us to have some scheme in mind for making our way around these books. We know that the Bible can be divided into two parts, an Old and a New Testament. The Old Testament includes the scriptures Jesus and the Apostles knew and referred to when they talk about the Scriptures. The New Testament was written by followers of Jesus – not all eyewitness – after his death and resurrection. The Scriptures Jesus talked about, the law and the prophets, were written over a period of roughly 1,500 years and may be divided into four categories: The Torah, the historical books, the wisdom books, and the prophets. The division of the Scriptures written during the roughly 50 – 100 years after the Incarnate Life of Jesus, is fivefold: The Gospels, the Acts, the Pauline Epistles, the non-Pauline Epistles, and the Book of Revelation. The 19th century Methodist clergyman Arno Gaebelein (1861-1945) made the helpful association of this New Testament division with the fivefold division of the Torah: The Gospels with Genesis, the Acts with Exodus, the Pauline Epistles with Leviticus, the Epistles of Peter, James, John and Jude with Numbers, and the Book of Revelation with Deuteronomy.[ii] Keeping this rough structure in mind, we can see that the apparently disparate books of the Bible are in fact related to one another in a single overarching narrative.
The Acts was written by the author of Luke’s Gospel, and like that Gospel, addressed to a fellow Greek,[iii] Theophilus, which means “friend of God.” Luke, an eyewitness to some of the events in The Acts, is “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14), and a fellow laborer with Paul (Phil v. 24) who is faithful to Paul in Rome (2 Tim 4:11). Luke is a “god-fearer,’ i.e. a Greek, with knowledge of the Septuagint, who probably wrote The Acts during the two years mentioned at the very end of the book (Acts 28:30), while Paul was imprisoned in Rome. The Acts continues the story begun in Luke’s Gospel, describing those things which Jesus does, no longer from earth, but from heaven, through the Holy Spirit.
The Acts can be divided into two parts. In Part 1, Peter “uses the Keys to the Kingdom”[iv] to preach first to the Jew in Jerusalem (Chap 1-7, esp. 2) and then to the non-Jews in Samaria (Chap 8-12, esp. 10). Part 2 (Chap 13-28) relates the journeys of Paul, from Jerusalem to Rome, and his preaching to the Gentiles. The two parts together disclose the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise to his disciples: “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The Acts, indeed all of the New Testament, was disseminated for reading in public assemblies (1 Tim 4:13). Today’s lection is the first of three “summary narratives” which provide through example guidance for shaping churches. This summary follows Luke’s account of the “first church in the history of the world,”[v] continued over from Luke into the beginning of The Acts (Luke 24:48-53, Acts 1:8-15, Acts 2: 1-41).
The church of about 120 disciples, whose messianic faith “has not caused them to separate from Jewish practice and worship,”[vi] had been meeting “in the temple,” worshipping Jesus and “praising and blessing God,” and in “the upper room” where the disciples lived, when “the promise of the Father,” as Jesus called the Holy Spirit, came fully upon their assembly, ten days after his Ascension. Taken together, the ascent of Christ and descent of the Spirit provide a wonderful image of the vertical traffic between heaven and earth; as Jesus ascends, the Spirit descends, “and suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them.”
From this and the following account, we observe, first, the church: an assembly literally kindled by the Spirit; sent through Jesus by the Father, the church begins as an act of Jesus. Second, the phenomena of tongues: as humanity’s language was confounded, for conceiving the Tower of Babel as a vertical path to heaven, humanity’s language is restored, for the church’s mission across the earth. Third, all that is happening now has been foreknown in Scripture, for Peter preaches the Pentecost as fulfilling Joel’s prophesy, and David speaking of Jesus of Nazareth, resurrected and sitting on his throne. And fourth, hearing the Gospel calls for a response: repentance, and baptism, through which we receive “the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Luke’s summary statement provides a model of church life that steadfastly perseveres in the apostles’ doctrine; fellowship; breaking of bread; and prayers. There were also emergency provisions for the common good: 3,000 disciples were added to the assembly, requiring that the disciples sell their possessions and hold “all things common…parting them as every man had need.” This is what is called “living in light of The Gospel.” The first church continued to meet in the Jerusalem temple, and in homes of the disciples, where fellowship included breaking bread (the Lord’s Supper) and eating together, and praising God, almost as a daily occurrence. Prayers in community settings were likely set prayers, and not extemporaneous, following the practice of the Temple and the instruction of Jesus for the Our Father.
Luke’s gives us a picture of the profound effect church life had on believers, whose thoroughgoing conversion did not leave them lukewarm.[vii] “Fear came upon every soul,” Luke writes, “and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles.” Luke describes awe and reverence, and the “wonders and signs” Jesus continued to work through the apostles, heightening the believers’ feelings of amazement and contributing to their exuberance. People were changed, and emerging habits of generosity and hospitality laid the groundwork for shifting “the focal point of church life” in The Acts from Temple assemblies to home gatherings.[viii] Home churches would be the norm for the next three centuries, until the first church buildings were built, during the reign of Constantine. The great joy and singleness of heart shown by the disciples made an impression on the city inhabitants, “and the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”
As we read through the ending of Luke and the first two chapters of The Acts, we hear Luke’s account of the coming together of believers in the first church of Jerusalem, the place of Jesus’ awaited return. Several comparisons of our church life with the one Luke pictures come to mind:
(1) Are we devoted to the Apostolic doctrines, or do we edit them into groupings of those we accept and those we reject?
(2) How does selective belief affect our prayer life?
(3) Do we offer hospitality and enjoy daily fellowship with each other during the week, or do we keep our church fellowship to an hour or so on Sundays, separate from what we regard as the important parts of our lives?
(4) Are we as generous with the needs of the church as we are with the needs of our families?
(5) Why do we not share a meal at church, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper? (6) Are our personal interactions with each other guided by the joy of conversion or worldly concerns that restrict intimacy?
(7) Do our personal interactions affect how the community at large views the church and the effectiveness of our witness?
(8) Are church buildings integral to our Christian life, or would we be more connected as a worshipping and caring community without them?
These are all good questions, and we may answer them differently, remembering, however, that the church aims to grow into unity of mind, continuing, as Luke describes, “with one accord in prayer and supplication” (Acts 1:14).
[i] Other themes include Salvation, the administration of the Holy Spirit, the carrying out of the Great Commission, the mission to the Gentiles, the success of the Gospel, the unity of the church, the unified preaching of the apostles, particularly Peter and Paul, and reassurance for believers.
[ii] Arno C Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition. The basis for Gaebelein’s association: in The Acts/Exodus “the beginning of the church on earth /God leads out of bondage a heavenly people and delivers them;” in the Pauline Epistles/Leviticus “believers separation and standing in Christ/Holiness unto the Lord;” Epistles of Peter, James, John, and Jude/Numbers: “for the wilderness journey of God’s people;” and the Book of Revelation/Deuteronomy “a rehearsal of God’s ways and a review of the entire prophetic Word.”
[iii] Inferred from Col 4:10-14
[iv] Matt 16: 18-19
[v] Andy Chambers, Exemplary Life: A Theology of Church Life in Acts. I am indebted to this work for my idea about how to organize this sermon series.
[vi] Darrell L. Bock, Acts, BECBT, 149
[vii] Chambers, ibid, 66, note 20
[viii] ibid, 77