For several years I truly believed that I hated the Church. I didn’t, not really. I hated a church. Even greater, I hated what it had done to my family.
I no longer hate that church. I still have to remind myself to forgive them. Some days I don’t want to. But my hatred has dissolved into a sad indifference, something more akin to pity than anything. Why would I pity them?
Because they missed it.
The Church – the Church as God intended, the Church that is the Bride of Christ – is potentially the most beautiful entity on the planet earth. And I only say “potentially” out of respect for other worldviews; to me there is nothing more beautiful. I love to travel to participate in the global Church purely because there is no better way to witness God at work. The Church is the witness to the transcendence of God. We, from all places and peoples, are united in Christ. Does anything demonstrate better how our God is completely uncreated and the true Creator of us all? How could any one man, locked in his countless presuppositions and cultural prejudices, dream up a concept so great, so magnificent, that people from all corners of the earth could worship it? No one could. This is the sole assurance I need that my God is the one true God. His unique nature is why I can be a part of a church in Edmonton, Nairobi, Chicago, or Naples.
That, that is the Church that I love. That I thank God for.
I was reading Acts the other day and was struck again by how I almost struggle to recognize the Church today when I compare it to the Early Church. Why is that? What has changed? Have we lost our way? I don’t have the answers, but I did compile this list that I would like to share with you.
But I want to be clear: This is about the Church of Acts – not the Acts of the Apostles. Sometimes when I read Acts I get overwhelmed. Miracles littered amidst intense persecution – I cannot relate to the insane conversion of Paul or the heart-wrenching death of Stephen. I want to draw your attention to the believers in the background. They were amazing! They were us, if we had lived in that time. I think we can learn so much from our predecessors, which is why I have compiled this list.
These items have been organized “chronologically” according to where I found the evidence in the book of Acts, though I may have drawn from elsewhere in the book to help support the point.
One) They were baptized immediately. Does anyone else have adult Christian friends who have yet to get dunked? The first verse referring to this is Acts 2:41, which tells us that right after Peter finished his sermon (following the Pentecost, which was the birth of the Church), a bunch of people believed (3,000 according to the text), and “those who accepted his message were baptized.” You can also see examples of this when Phillip preached and baptized (8:12), particularly his encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, whom he baptized per the man’s request, “Look, here is water,” the eunuch said, “Who can stand in the way of my being baptized?” (8:36). Believers at that time were eager to be baptized. Why aren’t we?
Two) Devotion and fellowship of believers. Not to say we aren’t devoted or that we don’t share in fellowship, but when was the last time that you sold property and possessions to give to another believer (2:45)? Verse 4:32 goes so far as to say that believers didn’t consider anything their own, sharing everything they had. Do you meet with believers everyday (2:46)? Do you share meals in each others’ homes, eating with glad and sincere hearts, praising God together (2:6-47)? Would you say you are one in heart and mind with all your brothers and sisters (4:32)? Is God’s grace so powerfully at work in you and your fellow believers that there is no one in need in the local Body you worship with (4:33-34)?
Three) They prayed together. One of my professors teaches hand gestures to help students remember what happens in the Bible. For Leviticus he taught to remember “Levites and Priests,” which involved a making a pretend steeple with your hands. “Make sure your fingers are on the inside,” he showed, lacing his fingers, “otherwise there will be no priests in the steeple.” Then he put his fingers on top of his knuckles and “opened” his steeple, with no fingers inside. “That’s not Leviticus,” he joked, “That’s the Wednesday night prayer meeting at your church.” It’s one of those funny little memories I can’t forget.
Why are we so reluctant to pray together? When Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin, they immediately went to other believers and they all prayed together. They prayed God would give them strength and courage to share the Gospel and perform miracles for his glory, and the Holy Spirit responded with an earthquake and indwelling the believers (4:23-31). When Peter had been imprisoned later (no worries, he was rescued by an angel, nbd) believers gathered to pray (12:12). Other mentions include Acts 4:42, 13:3, and 20:36.
Four) The believers’ reputation preceded them. According to Acts 5:13, the believers were highly regarded by the people. This couldn’t have been hard to manage when they left pagan ways or old Jewish traditions, automatically drawing attention to themselves by a drastic change in lifestyle. Instead of gathering in temples or synagogues, they met in homes, humbly praising God. They helped each other, they loved one another. In the world, not of it, and whatnot. Can people identify you as believers without your telling them?
Five) They were racists, too. Bet ya didn’t see that one coming. I include this in the list lest we begin to think we can never attain what they had. (By the way, I certainly hope you are not a racist, and that your church in no way behaves in such a disgusting way. Surely we have learned that this is not the love of Christ, but the ignorant pride of man.) My point is this: they were sinners, just like us. When the Hellenistic Jews were ticked at the Hebraic Jews (and with reason), the apostles appointed seven deacons to care for the matter, and other organizational needs (Acts 6:1-7). This is the first example we have of the Church operating not just as a mass of people, but as a people united with a cause. If you don’t think that counts, consider the fact that God had to give Peter the same vision three times before he would take the Gospel to Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10). They weren’t perfect, just like we aren’t. But they allowed themselves to be corrected by the Spirit and led into servanthood that was pleasing to the Lord.
Six) They mourned for their leaders. When Stephen (one of the first deacons) was stoned to death, “godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him” (Acts 8:2) When Paul left for Jerusalem, where he was surely to be imprisoned, if not killed, the believers knelt and prayed together, weeping, embracing, and kissing Paul in farewell (20:36-37).
Seven) Everyone spread the Word! Following Stephen’s death, a “great persecution broke out against the Church” (8:1). The apostles remained in Jerusalem, but believers were scattered across Judea and Samaria (see Acts 1:8). I just want to remind you that apostles stayed in Jerusalem, okay. That’s important. Why? Because Acts 8:4 says that “those who had been scattered” – which allow me to remind you, was not the apostles – “preached the Word wherever they went.” GUYS. This was not the crazy, miracle performing, mic-dropping, super famous apostles. This was you and me spreading the Gospel through whole regions – evangelism was (and is) not just for the giants. Not only this, but the Gospel is for everyone! Peter himself discovers that “God does not show favouritism, but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right” (10:34). This concept was so counter cultural that when Paul declared that God sent him directly to the Gentiles, the Sanhedrin broke out in a riot, shouting that Paul was not even fit to live (22:21-22).
Eight) They protected their leaders. When Paul’s life was threatened (literally), believers took him by night and lowered him in a basket over the city wall so that he could safely escape (9:25). Maybe our pastors aren’t being persecuted like Paul was, but I guarantee you they are being gossiped about. What if, the next time someone brought up the pastor’s family, you just gently changed the topic? What if, the next time you are tempted to dissect his message you quiet yourself and pray instead? Maybe he stumbled over the words, maybe the powerpoint didn’t work, maybe you can justify it somehow, but I would warrant a guess that by opening your mouth, you are a cacophony that drowns out what the Spirit might be trying to teach you from that sermon. What if we stood up for our pastors instead of letting them to take the fall every. damn. time. Consider lowering your pastor in a basket lovingly instead of allowing him to be caught by those who would otherwise harm him.
Nine) They lived in the fear of the Lord. Reverence, worship, and adoration of the Lord increased their numbers exponentially (9:31-32).
Ten) They sent missionaries. One day, while the believers at Antioch were worshipping and fasting, the Holy Spirit told them to “set apart Barnabas and Paul for the work to which I have called them” (13:2). So they fasted, prayed, placed their hands on Barnabas and Paul, and sent them off (13:3). When they returned to Antioch, the believers there all gathered together so that Paul and Barnabas could report all that had happened, and they stayed a long time with the believers (14:27). The believers in Thessalonica also sent Paul and Silas to Berea, from Berea, believers sent Paul to the coast (17:10, 14). Also the Church just dealt well with believers moving around: When Paul, Barnabas, and some others were appointed to carry a message to Jerusalem, they were received warmly by the church (15:4). Later, the other believers left Paul and Barnabas, and they were sent off with blessings of peace (15:33). After Paul and Silas were released from prison, the believers encouraged them before they went on their way (16:40). Priscilla and Aquila wrote to believers at Achaia on behalf of Apollos so that he would be welcomed (18:27). When Paul and the others left for Jerusalem, the believers followed them out of the city and knelt on the beach together, praying before sending them off (21:5). When they got to Jerusalem, the brothers and sisters received them warmly (21:17). Later when they arrived in Rome, believers travelled from all around to welcome them (28:14-15).
Eleven) They weren’t scared to meet for longer than an hour. So we’ve already established that believers got together a bunch (see item two), but one instance just kind of makes me giggle. Here’s the scene: Believers all gathered. Paul has to leave the next morning. Gives the message of a lifetime. Lamps. Hot night. Tons of bodies all in one place. Hot. Paul still talking. Still talking. It’s midnight. Boy falls asleep. Boy falls out window. (No, I am not kidding.) Boy dies from fall. (Still not kidding.) Paul performs miracle. Boy lives. (Seriously, read this story it is so great haha.) Everyone sighs in relief. Believers break more bread. Paul keeps talking. Sun rises. Paul leaves. Annnnd scene. (Acts 20:7-12).
These cats were serious about their church services, yo! They didn’t sing two songs, pass a plate to a third song, maybe take a swig of grape juice and swallow a bread crumb before listening to a bible lesson that better not go over thirty minutes! Are you kidding? These guys sat through like ten HOURS of Paul’s preaching. They ate two MEALS together. They loved being together! (In this case, you can even say they loved it to death lol.)
Church, let’s strive to be the Church. We have been richly blessed: Jesus, who redeems us, the Spirit, who seals us for salvation and indwells us, God, who has given us his Word. We have nothing to fear, for we have God inside us and our brothers and sisters beside us. Let’s act like it.
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28
I have so much love for my brothers and sisters across the world. I hope you can be encouraged by the Early Church as I have been.
keep striving & keep serving,