Where the world comes to study the Bible

Lesson 9: Snapshot of a Healthy Church (Acts 2:42-47)

Related Media

Probably a majority of Christians have had a bad experience in a local church. I grew up in a fundamentalist church where the pastor used power and anger to run the church. When I was a teenager, my dad, who was on the church board, confronted the pastor because he was using the church office for counseling and was charging a fee, but funneling the money through a dummy account, which is against IRS regulations. When the church would not deal with the situation, we left the church. Shortly after, the pastor left his wife and five children and ran off with a young counselee.

I started going to another church, where I got involved with the college group. The college pastor recruited me for a planning group that would come up with clever programs to entice students to attend. If we had 50 come out, he would rave about what a great program it was. If only 25 showed up, we would rack our brains for a better program. I used to call it “Creative Programs for Carnal Christians.”

Meanwhile, at a Sunday morning church service they announced that there would be a meeting that night to discuss the future direction of the church. I stumbled naively into that meeting and discovered that the pastor had been wrongfully involved with a number of women in the church. The denomination quietly moved him to another pastorate.

About this time, I got involved with Campus Crusade at Long Beach State College. We would have 125 students come out on Friday evenings to study the Bible and be equipped to share our faith. There were no clever programs to entice them to attend. They came because the Lord was there and He was working in their lives. It wasn’t long until I thought, “Who needs the games that they’re playing at this church?” I dropped out of church for several years.

But even though I had these bad experiences, I knew that the church didn’t have to be that way. I would read passages like our text and think, “The church can be a godly, exciting place where the Lord’s presence is sensed, where He is at work.” I knew that Christ had promised that He would build His church, even against the opposition of hell (Matt. 16:18). I thought, “If Christ is building His church, then I want to be a part of making the local church what He wants it to be.” In a nutshell, that’s why I’m a pastor.

Our text gives us a snapshot of a healthy local church, the first church after the Day of Pentecost. It was not a perfect church, since it was made up of people. We will later see some of the problems they encountered. But God was at work in their midst. As we have seen, Acts is the record of what Jesus continued to do and teach through His people after His ascension. On the Day of Pentecost, He called to Himself (2:39) 3,000 souls, so that the church began with 3,120 members! Now we read, “the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (2:47). Jesus Himself was at work in this church! This snapshot shows us the marks of a healthy church so that we can measure ourselves by it and seek to follow its example.

A healthy church is marked by continual devotion to the Lord, to His people, and to His work in the world.

If these three marks look suspiciously like our church’s purpose statement, I’m sure that it is just coincidental! Our purpose statement was developed from the Great Commandment and from the Great Commission. It reads, in part:

Flagstaff Christian Fellowship exists to show how great God is by helping each person and family grow in fervent love for God, love for one another and love for those without Christ, both locally and globally.

We see these three priorities in the early Jerusalem church:

1. A healthy church is marked by continual devotion to the Lord.

The risen Lord Jesus was central to all that was happening in this new church. The word translated “continually devoting” points to constancy, purpose, or resolve. Out of ten uses of the verb and one use of the noun in the New Testament, six are connected with prayer and two with the ministry of the Word. We see their continual devotion to the Lord in four ways:

A. Devotion to the Lord means devotion to the teaching of His Word.

“They were continually devoted to the apostles’ teaching” (2:42). While 3,000 new converts all at once would be any pastor’s dream, it also would be any pastor’s nightmare. These people were from many different locations and backgrounds. While most of them had some biblical background, they were ignorant about the person and ministry of the Lord Jesus. So the apostles had a massive job on their hands, to ground these people in their new faith before they returned home. They must have done with these people what Jesus recently had done with them: Beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, they explained to them the things concerning Jesus in all the Scriptures (see Luke 24:27).

We live in a day where the evangelical church often minimizes and even disdains sound doctrine. Instead, it emphasizes emotional experience and feelings. Several years after I was in the ministry, I audited a church growth class offered by a nearby seminary. The professor had traveled around America in a motor home, visiting many large, growing churches. He came up with a list of 15 characteristics of growing churches. Conspicuously absent from the list was solid biblical preaching! When I questioned him about this, he shrugged and said that it didn’t seem to be a prominent factor in these growing churches!

But when you turn to the last three letters that Paul wrote to his younger pastors, Timothy and Titus, you find him emphasizing again and again the need for sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:13, 16; Titus. 1:9). In his final appeal to Timothy, just before his martyrdom, Paul gives the strongest possible admonition: “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word” (2 Tim. 4:1-2a). He goes on to warn Timothy that the time will come when people will not endure sound doctrine, but will accumulate teachers who tell them what they want to hear.

A healthy church must be devoted to sound doctrine, because God has chosen to reveal Himself in the written Word. If we are not continually growing to understand and apply the doctrines of God’s Word, we are not growing in devotion to the Lord.

B. Devotion to the Lord means devotion to corporate worship.

The preaching of God’s Word should result in worship, in that it should bring us to an encounter with God Himself, which is the heart of true worship. But in addition to the apostles’ teaching, there are several other aspects of worship that we see here:

1) The Lord’s Supper.

“They were continually devoting themselves to … the breaking of bread” (2:42), which refers to the Lord’s Supper. I wonder if the Lord’s Supper would be one of the four things that distinguish evangelical churches in our day. I’ve heard people say, “If you celebrate communion too often, it becomes routine.” Bible reading and prayer can also become routine, if you do them every day. But I hope that we don’t read our Bibles and pray less often so that they don’t become routine! The solution is not to decrease the frequency, but rather to ask God to shake us out of our spiritual dullness.

The Lord’s Supper should remind us of the greatest truth in the world, that the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me, so that I could be forgiven and reconciled to God! It should make us examine our lives, so that we confess and turn from any sin. I wish that we could have the time in our services to have the Lord’s Supper each week, because it is an important part of worship.

2) Prayer.

Literally, the text reads, “they were continually devoting themselves to … the prayers.” It refers to set times of corporate prayer. Whenever and wherever the church meets, whether in a large meeting (“in the temple”) or from house to house, prayer ought to be woven into the fabric of church life. Our singing can and should be directed to God in prayer. At our elders’ meetings, we often stop to commit a difficult matter to the Lord or seek His mind in prayer. In your personal and family life, prayer ought to be a normal, frequent response when a personal problem arises or when you talk about someone who is facing a problem. Prayer acknowledges our total dependence on the living Lord.

3) Praise and joy.

“They were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart” (2:46). Their lives were marked by joy because of what the Lord Jesus had done for them on the cross. “Praising God” (2:47) is a present participle, pointing to the ongoing, common expression of praise to God. It no doubt marked their corporate times of worship, but it also oozed out of the cracks of their daily lives, drawing others to the source of their joy.

The only way to develop that kind of constant joy and praise is deliberately to focus your mind on God: “If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). In the Psalms, often the psalmist is in dire straits, but he resolves to focus on the Lord: “My heart is steadfast, O God, my heart is steadfast; I will sing, yes, I will sing praises!” (Ps. 57:7). David wrote and sang that song in a cave, hiding from the mad King Saul. Even in the caves of life, God’s people must resolve to be people of praise and joy.

Thus the first mark of a healthy church is continual devotion to the Lord. It must be continual in the sense of a deliberate resolve to be in His Word and to be worshiping Him.

2. A healthy church is marked by continual devotion to the Lord’s people.

“They were continually devoting themselves to … the fellowship” (2:42, literally). We cannot be devoted to the Head, who is Christ, and at the same time cut ourselves off from the body, His church. That would be like a young man saying to his date, “I like your face, but your body is gross!” That would be his last date with her! Even though the body of Christ is not nearly as lovely as Christ Himself, the Bible commands us not to forsake assembling together with other believers (Heb. 10:25). There are many verses in the Bible that exhort us to bear with one another and forgive each other, since we often offend and get offended (Col. 3:13).

What does it mean to be devoted to the fellowship? The Greek word (koinonea) means “to share in common.” We read in verse 44 that “all those who believed were together and had all things in common.” The Greek phrase translated “together” is repeated when it states that “the Lord was adding to their number (lit., “together) those who were being saved” (2:47). Verse 46 underscores this sense of togetherness when it says that they were of one mind and took their meals together. So being devoted to the fellowship is a commitment to be built together with those who have joined God’s family by being saved. Note these four aspects:

A. To have fellowship, we must be truly saved.

Those added to the fellowship were those whom the Lord was saving (2:47). While some who were not saved may have attended both their large gatherings and their home meetings, they were not truly a part of the fellowship until the Lord saved them. To be saved means to be delivered from God’s wrath and judgment that we deserve because of our sins. We get saved by putting our trust in Jesus Christ as the one who bore the judgment for our sins on the cross. As soon as a person gets saved, he shares Christ in common with all others who are saved. Salvation by grace through faith in Christ is the basis of all true fellowship.

B. To have fellowship, we must be together.

You can’t have fellowship if you don’t gather with the church. Some people object to large churches as being too impersonal. But please observe that when the Lord started the church, He started it big! It began with 3,120, and soon it numbered over 5,000 (4:4) and it kept growing from there (5:14; 6:1, 7). While we should gather with the whole church for worship and teaching, we only enjoy deep fellowship with those we get to know personally. If you only attend the Sunday morning service, but never spend time getting to know the other saints on a deeper level (house to house or restaurant to restaurant!), you will not enjoy the fellowship that God intends for you.

There are two levels of Christian unity. There is the unity of the Spirit, which is a fact among all who have been baptized by the Spirit into the one body of Christ (Eph. 4:3; 1 Cor. 12:13). Paul commands us to preserve it since it already exists. Then there is the unity of the faith, which we are to attain to as we come into a deeper knowledge of Christ and grow to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:13). Believers who know Christ and His Word well can have deeper fellowship than those who do not know Him well.

C. To have fellowship, we must share together in the things of God.

Too often, Christians get together and spend the whole time talking about news, weather, and sports. It’s not wrong to talk about these things. But at some point, the conversation needs to move to a deeper level. If the Lord and His salvation are at the center of my life and of your life, when we get together we will talk about Him. If we don’t, it may reveal that He doesn’t have the proper place in our lives.

There is something to be said for food and fellowship going together! These early Christians were taking their meals together (2:46). The fact that their meals are referred to as “breaking bread” might suggest that these were not elaborate feasts, but just common meals. If you wait to have people over until your house is just right and your table settings are perfect, you won’t ever do it. Just have other believers over and share a simple meal. Direct the conversation to the things of God and His Word. You will be built together with your brothers and sisters in the Lord.

D. To have fellowship, we must share together in material things.

Verse 44 is not prescribing communal living for God’s people in every situation. The Bible recognizes the right to personal property and the need for families to be distinct. Years ago, Marla and I enjoyed reading Edith Schaeffer’s book, What is a Family? [Revell]. The Schaeffers lived at L’Abri, a ministry center in the Swiss Alps where dozens of students would come to study. She has a chapter that describes the Christian home as a door with hinges and a lock. The hinges open the door to others, but the lock means that there are times when a family needs to shut out others and be together as a family.

The situation in Jerusalem was somewhat unique. Thousands of pilgrims had traveled there for the Feast of Pentecost. Many had been saved after Peter’s message, and they wanted to stay longer to get grounded in their new faith. They needed hospitality and financial help to do this. To meet these needs, the church opened their homes and their pocketbooks to help the needy. Some even sold land and donated the proceeds, although this was not required (4:37; 5:1, 4).

Before we say, “Whew, this doesn’t apply to me,” we need to remember that we’re all exhorted to be generous and ready to share with those in need (1 Tim. 6:18). We are told not to share with a lazy or irresponsible person who refuses to work (2 Thess. 3:6-12). But if a brother or sister is in need of the basics of life (that means food, shelter, and clothing, not cable TV or a six-pack of beer!), then we should be quick to share the blessings that God has bestowed on us (2 Cor. 8 & 9). If we have this world’s goods and see our brother in need and close up our hearts against him, we should question whether God’s love abides in us (1 John 3:17)!

Thus a healthy church is marked by continual devotion to the Lord and to His people. Finally,

3. A healthy church is marked by continual devotion to God’s work in the world.

Our text does not say that the church was devoting itself to evangelism. But the fact is, it was happening, and it did not happen apart from these new believers sharing their faith with those who did not know Christ. New believers are often the best evangelists, because they have the largest pool of unbelieving friends, and those friends can see the change in their way of life. New believers should learn a basic gospel presentation and the Bible verses that communicate the gospel.

Some of the evangelism took place through the miracles that the apostles were performing (2:43), and the preaching that accompanied these miracles (3:1-26). The ability to perform these miracles was limited to the apostles and their close associates (such as Philip). The miracles confirmed these men as God’s messengers and identified them with Jesus, who also had done great miracles. I do not believe that the gift of miracles exists today (Heb. 2:3-4), although at times God does perform miracles in response to our prayers, and He can use such miracles to bring people to saving faith. But our main focus should be on proclaiming the gospel, which is the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

Evangelism is primarily God’s work, but He does it through us. It is the Lord who adds to the church those who are being saved, but we are responsible to share the gospel. Note that the Lord added the new converts together with the church (literal rendering of “to their number,” 2:47). He does not save people without adding them to the church where they can grow, and people are not truly added to the church unless they are saved.

There is a sense in which a healthy church will be a reproducing church. Granted, there are special times of God’s sovereign working, where many hundreds, if not thousands, are saved in a short period of time. We cannot expect that as the norm; but we all should be entreating the Lord to add to His church often those whom He is saving. If we are not seeing conversions, we should examine ourselves to ask why. A healthy church is devoted to the Lord, to His people, and to His work in the world.

Conclusion

Many years ago, John Stott met a group of Christian students in Argentina who had visited all of the Protestant churches in their city, but could not find any that satisfied them. They had dropped out of the church. He asked them what they were looking for that they could not find. He was startled when, without realizing what they were doing, they went down the list of Acts 2:42 in order.

They said that they wanted a church where the pastor faithfully expounded the Bible and related it to where they lived. They were looking for warm, loving, caring, supportive fellowship. They sought a sense of the living God and His greatness in worship. And, they were looking for compassionate outreach (in Christianity Today [6/12/81], p. 21).

No church is perfect and none will come close this side of heaven. But as we continually devote ourselves to the Lord through His Word and through worship, as we devote ourselves to the fellowship of His people, and as we devote ourselves to His work in the world, He will use us to glorify Himself. I challenge you to be fervent in your devotion to the Lord and to His church, so that He uses us to reach many in this city and around the globe for His glory.

Discussion Questions

  1. Which of the three areas is the strongest in our church and in your life? Which do we most need to work on? How?
  2. Is our church purpose statement adequate? How could it be improved?
  3. Should we be expecting conversions daily (or weekly) or is this unusual? What in us would hinder God sending revival?
  4. Is it possible to get out of balance on any of the three priorities? If so, how?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Discipleship, Ecclesiology (The Church)