Five things that we can learn from the early Church
The early Church we read about in Acts was very different to what we imagine as ‘the Church’ today, but we can still learn from it, writes Glasgow Elim’s James Glass.
The word ‘church’ can paint all sorts of pictures in people’s minds. It usually depends on their background or experience, and sometimes it’s an image painted by the media.
The Church we meet in the book of Acts is one that is very different from many of the more contemporary pictures people have developed of the Church. That’s not to say it was perfect. The Church that had Peter and John amongst its leaders was also the Church of Ananias and Sapphira.
It saw spectacular answers to prayer. It also saw two of its most significant leaders martyred. It was able to resolve disagreements between different ethnic groups but unable to help Paul and Barnabas resolve their differences.
However, there is no doubt that the picture we have of the Church in the book of Acts is one that is compelling. So what was it like? Perhaps the clearest picture that we have of the Church in action is found in Acts 2:42-47.
1. Strong traditions
Firstly, the Church born in the power of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost kept its shape by devoting itself to particular practices.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. They commit ted themselves to the Word of God.
This value placed on the Word is found throughout Acts and the epistles.
Fellowship was high on their agenda as well. The text seems to indicate that they were equally devoted to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. This Church was a tight-knit community of dedicated followers of Christ. The strength of their fellowship is demonstrated in verses 44-45: no-one was in need because they cared for each other. Undergirding this fellowship was Jesus’ command to love one another.
Years later, Paul would further develop this theme in his teaching about the body and spiritual gifts. And, of course, the Apostle John would go on to emphasise and expound the key component of fellowship ‘love one another’, especially in his first epistle.
Breaking of bread was also one of the core practices of the early Church. Instituted by Jesus before his death on the cross, the Lord’s supper was central to the life and worship of the early Church.
Verse 46 reveals that it was practised in smaller groups in homes rather than as one Church of three thousand plus people.
And, of course, prayer was an important part of the mix. The Church in Acts was a praying Church. The gospels and epistles are full of exhortations to pray.
2. The power of God
Everyone was filled with awe at the many signs and wonders performed by the apostles.
The early Church was not only birthed in the power of the Spirit, the Spirit’s power was part of its ongoing experience. It was this power that enabled the Church to impact people at a deep level (they were filled with awe – literally fear).
The miraculous is a hallmark of the witness of the Church throughout Acts and the epistles.
3. Giving generously
Generosity is the third feature of life in the early Church. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had a need.
Part of this generosity finds its impetus in the depth of fellowship that existed between the early Christians.
These verses provide a fascinating insight into the early Church. There was a strong sense of community: “The believers were together and had everything in common.”
At the same time, that depth of community did not extend to communal living – they still retained property: “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had a need.”
The kind of sacrificial generosity described here features throughout Acts and the epistles.
4. Unspeakable joy
Fourthly, the Church was joyful both in worship and fellowship: “Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people,” (Acts 2:45-46).
A ‘party’ might seem too irreligious to describe life in the early Church. However, these verses describe a very happy bunch of people who clearly enjoyed being together and worshipping God. If you are uncomfortable with ‘party’ then think ‘joyful’. Meetings in the early Church were joyful occasions.
This kind of joyful fellowship and worship is found all over the New Testament. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in particular, is bursting with joy – even though he was in prison when he wrote it!
5. Reaching the lost
Finally, the early Church was an evangelistic Church. “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The Church was evangelistic! It reached out to the lost world.
Notice how Luke describes the evangelistic witness of the Church. Firstly, it was Jesus who was working through his Church. Secondly, people were being saved on a daily basis.
Thirdly, those being saved were added to their number. Evangelism was only complete when the new believers were added to the Church.
This picture of the Church found in Acts 2:42-47 is not a complete picture. The Church was still in its earliest days. In later decades, revelation from the Holy Spirit enabled Church leaders like Peter, John and Paul, to develop and deepen the Church’s understanding of what the Church is.
Nevertheless, Acts 2 introduces us to the broad themes and practices that shaped the Church of the first century and have continued to shape the Church in her most effective moments in history.
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