And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. —Acts 2:42
What are we here for as a church? Jesus, community, mission. That’s it. Jesus comes first, Jesus and his work on your behalf. Everything else flows from that. So here’s the gospel again. Jesus has so given himself to us, he can’t take himself back. He lived the perfect life for us we’ve never lived. He died the guilty death for us we don’t want to die. Jesus alone is why the all-holy God above, without lowering his standards at all, freely forgives us and gladly receives us. The reason why is not what’s in our hearts toward God but what’s in God’s heart toward us. We don’t come to church to improve ourselves. We come to church in our failure and confusion and depression and numbness and sin. We’re here to receive what Jesus alone can do for us. We do not bring our strength or our success, but we lift up the empty hands of faith and we receive grace upon grace. Immanuel Church is not for victorious Christians; this church is for all people who don’t perform well. Here is the good news at the heart of the Bible:
Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven. —Matthew 9:2
Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. —Luke 12:32
I came not to call the righteous, but sinners. —Matthew 9:13
The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. —Mark 10:45
We come to Jesus that way, we live with Jesus that way. And if you’ve given your heart to him, when you walk into heaven, you’ll say, “You mean it really was that simple? Just the blood of Christ for me, and nothing more? Not my performance at all? Well, hallelujah!” And that’s also why, walking into heaven right beside you will be drug dealers and crooked lawyers and strippers and under-achievers and deadbeat dads and so many other sinners who came to the point in their lives where they despaired of themselves and cried out to Jesus to save them, and he did. Jesus said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Are you willing to believe that? Are you willing to believe that you don’t need your own performance any more, that you only need Jesus? If so, tell him right now and say, “Lord Jesus, you are all I need, all I want. I receive you.”
Now community. Why community? Because Jesus isn’t out just to save individuals; he’s creating a new community. It’s called the church. The best advertisement for Jesus is the beauty of human relationships in a healthy church. And the worst advertisement for Jesus is a bad church. We all know that. The problem is so widespread, we cannot import into Immanuel the patterns of the past. The well-worn paths have become ruts. The churches that are making an impact today are venturing into new ways, more biblical ways, more intentional ways of doing church. Healthy churches look like the gospel. Healthy churches look like good news for bad people. What kind of church does the gospel create? The gospel and the church do go together. The church is not only the voice for the gospel; the church is also a part of the gospel. The Bible says, “Christ loved the church, and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). There’s the cross! Jesus died for this community called the church. It is sacred. It is blood-bought. We take our hands off it. Some people say they like Jesus but hate the church. I understand. But what would a groom say to you if you told him, “I think you’re awesome, but your bride is ugly”? We revere the Bride of Christ for the sake of Christ. Let’s be a lovely Bride, and let’s open up that belovedness to more people. What kind of church does the gospel create? We don’t care about traditions. We care about beauty. We see it here in Acts 2:42-47. I want you to see four beauties in a gospel-centered church.
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. —Acts 2:42
I am struck by these words: “And they devoted themselves . . . .” My Greek lexicon tells me this word means “to be busily engaged in.” This word was used in Classical Greek with the meaning, “to persist obstinately in.” The early Christians were passionate about their life together. They didn’t fit community into the margins of their busy lives; they reorganized their lives around community. What is the immovable center of your weekly schedule, and what are you fitting in around that center? The gospel makes us passionate for community. Why? Because God is a passionately relational being. He is the Triune God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit, in nuclear powered relationship forever. Why then did that Super-Person, complete in himself, create us? He doesn’t need us. But God created us, to draw us into relationship – both vertically with him and horizontally with one another. This is not an optional add-on, if we can manage it. This is why God created the universe. George Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life, page 497: “In the Edwards’ world, the meaning of life was found in intense loves, including earthly loves.” Not moderate love. God loves us intensely, not moderately. The meaning of our lives is to grow to love him back intensely, not moderately. The ultimate sin is not hating God but loving God kinda sorta and fitting him in. And he calls us to love one another intensely, devotedly, with a love that obstinately shows up. Showing up for community groups at 9:00 on a Sunday morning is not a hardship, no matter where you live in the Nashville area. A 9:00 start Monday through Friday is no big deal. If 9:00 on Sunday is hard, go to bed earlier on Saturday night. The only question is, What’s at the center? Remember what Woody Allen said: “Ninety percent of life is just showing up.” Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Revolution is seeing each other a lot.” Strong relationships are revolutionary. I’m not saying you have to commit to Immanuel. But if you’ve given yourself to Jesus, you have to commit to some church, because the gospel creates strong community.
This verb in verse 42 could be translated, “They were continually devoting themselves . . .” (NASB). It was their lifestyle. And this happened in Jerusalem, the buckle of their Bible Belt. But when the gospel came to town, when heaven was coming down in the power of the Holy Spirit, everyone could see it was new, and they ate it up. They happily adjusted their schedules for gospel community. What passionate commitment have you made in your life that obstinately won’t give way but forces everything else to adjust? God has put his love upon you. God has a purpose of greatness for you that will cost you. Do you younger men want to be leaders for the gospel? Okay, lead. I read this yesterday in a book on Christian living by a Chinese Christian:
Members cannot be passive in the Body; they dare not merely stand by looking on. For none are so hurtful as onlookers. Whether or not we take a public part in things is immaterial; we must always be giving life, so that our absence is felt. We cannot say, “I don’t count.” We dare not attend meetings merely as passengers, while others do the work. We are his Body, and it is when all the members fulfill their ministry that the life flows.
And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. —Acts 2:43
Have you ever noticed what the early Christians didn’t do? They didn’t turn the hill where Jesus was crucified into a shrine. They didn’t turn his empty tomb into a shrine. They didn’t invent Jesusland. Why? Because through the ministry of the gospel the presence of the risen Jesus was powerfully with them. They didn’t need holy places. They had a holy presence.
Legalism cannot take us there. Legalism and our own performance cannot produce awe. Grace cannot not produce awe. The good news that God does not help those who help themselves but God helps those who can’t help themselves, the good news that God loves only the undeserving, the good news that God loves the weak through the finished work of Christ on the cross – when we believe the gospel for ourselves, awe comes upon us, the glory of God comes down, and we worship.
It’s also important to see that the early Christians didn’t devote themselves to signs and wonders. They devoted themselves to gospel community, and God added miracles in. Miracles were not the center; God fit them in around the center. Anyway, the greatest miracle of all is a new heart, a new faith, a new resting in Christ alone, a new confidence that I am a complete idiot but my future is incredibly bright because Christ is for me – that power inside is a precious miracle. And it does happen through the ministry of the church, just like back then: “. . . many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.” The people were devoting themselves to the apostles’ doctrine (verse 42), they were devouring the gospel, they were on a steep growth curve, and awe came upon them, and their hearts were coming alive in the Bible Belt. God made his power felt – not through legalism, nor through sensationalistic over-focus on miracles, but through the ministry of the gospel.
I grew up in a church like that. Every now and then God came down. We were a mainstream, non-weird, traditional, straight-laced church. And sometimes God’s power interrupted our services. It was always quiet, it was too holy to disrupt, but we felt the presence of God and sometimes the whole direction of our service changed. Our forefathers used to call it “the presidency of the Holy Spirit” – God himself presiding over his gathered people. These wonderful moments didn’t solve every problem at our church. In fact, our real problems came up to the surface, as God dealt with us. God confronted us in our sins, and he applied the healing power of his grace. He visited us. He kissed us on the cheek. I pray for the visitations of God upon us here at Immanuel. We must be open. We must be reverent. We must not push ourselves forward, but let God show us his glory.
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. —Acts 2:44-45
Was this an early form of socialism? No. Verse 46 tells us that they met in “their homes,” so they retained ownership of their homes. What they shared with each other was voluntary. Peter makes that point clear with Ananias and Sapphira in chapter 5. Moreover, they were sharing “as any had need,” not in compliance with a top-down policy. Nowhere else does the New Testament say that other churches pooled their resources like this. It didn’t become authoritative Christian practice. So what do we learn from verses 44-45? We learn the beauty of generous care for one another.
Let’s all admit it. These verses are scary. We might wonder, “Is someone going to take advantage of me?” No. It doesn’t say they went around begging; it says they went around sharing. The beauty God has for us here is a readiness to care and to share and to be kind and generous and open. The Bible says, “If anyone has this world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18). God opened his heart. He shares with us generously. He gives so much, we have something to share with others. It’s a beautiful statement to our selfish world, that here in the church is an alternative that only God could create. Here’s how the preacher John Chrysostom, in the fourth century, described the early church:
This was an angelic commonwealth. The root of evil [i.e., the love of money] was cut out. No one envied, no one grudged. The poor man knew no shame, the rich man no pride.
And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. —Acts 2:46-47
I’ll focus on just one phrase here: “glad and generous hearts” – or literally, “with gladness and simplicity of heart.” That first word “gladness” means they were kind of bubbly together. They had a great time together. They laughed. They were cheerful. Why? They were under the forgiveness and love of God forever. They knew the hammer would never fall. They knew they had nothing to fear ever again. That second word, “simplicity,” is a rare word. It comes from the Greek word for “stony ground” but has an un- prefix. The word suggests a picture of unstony hearts, that is, hearts like fields with no stones under the surface, nothing to trip someone up. These people had nothing to fear from each other. Nobody had to watch his back. Does anyone else like Roadrunner cartoons? Wyle E. Coyote opens a doorway set up there in the desert and when he opens it kaboom!, the dynamite explodes. The early Christians were not explosive people. The gospel made them happy, relaxed, loyal. The church was not politicized or tense. They didn’t need power. They had Jesus, and they proved that he is enough for community to thrive.
No wonder they had favor with outsiders. No wonder their number kept growing. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? But it was more than human attraction. It was Jesus. It was the Lord adding to their number. Again, people didn’t just get saved. When they got saved, they joined the church. It’s what the Lord was doing. It’s what the Lord is doing today. And we say back to him a wholehearted Yes!