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Core Christianity: Tough Questions Answered

4 Practices Your Church Needs to Faithfully Follow Jesus

by Dennis E. Johnson posted August 2, 2018

Acts 2:42-47 is the first of several transitional summaries in which Luke offers portraits of the life of the church in the aftermath of the Spirit's arrival. This transition opens with the four activities that characterized the church's life together and fostered its members' growth: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (2:42). Luke elaborates on these four components in his later transitions showing that they are the means by which disciples who entered the church through baptism were taught "to observe all that I have commanded you," as Jesus had instructed (Matt. 28:20).

The Apostles' Teaching

Extensive space is devoted in Acts to the content of sermons in which the apostles and others proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom. The sermons of Acts focus on demonstrating to the unconvinced that Jesus is the promised Messiah, both Savior and Judge, and on summoning them to a radical shift of trust and allegiance. Within the congregation of those already committed to Christ, however, the focus would be on deepening faith and showing the implications of grace for relationships and conduct in the king's community.

Nonetheless, the sermons of Acts reflect the content that the apostles taught believers, as well as the message they proclaimed to those outside. Paul's Epistles, which are addressed to Christian congregations, reflect in writing what he taught to churches in person.

These Epistles reinforce the centrality of the gospel truths that first drew us to faith (Gal. 3:1-5; 1 Cor. 15:1-4), and they show that the redemption wrought by Jesus sets the agenda and provides the power for our life as his disciples (Col. 2:6-7; Rom. 6:1-14). Moreover, the prologue to Luke's Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) shows that the evangelistic sermons in Acts express truths that would strengthen the certainty of those, such as Theophilus, who had been catechized in the Christian faith.

Later passages in Acts highlight the prominence of the apostles' teaching in the life and witness of the church. Luke reports that "with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all" (Acts 4:33). The apostles' "testimony" was addressed to those outside the church, but it also bore fruit among believers, who responded to God's grace in generosity toward others (4:32, 34-35). The truths about Jesus to which the apostles testified drove the growth of the church, both in numerical expansion and in depth of spiritual maturity. 

The Fellowship

This second component of the church's life poses challenges both to our understanding and to our practice in twenty-first-century America. If "fellowship" brings to our mind's eye images of light conversation over hot coffee in a "fellowship hall" during a "fellowship hour," we will misunderstand what Luke and the Holy Spirit mean by "fellowship." The Greek term, which found its way into English usage in some Christian circles several decades ago, is koinönia. Its focus is on a shared life and commitment to one another, a "partnership" that often includes giving to others and receiving from others (Phil. 1:5; 4:15).

In the context of Acts 2:42, Luke immediately identifies the practice that koinönia expresses, reporting that "all who believed were together and had all things in common (2:44).This readiness to share material things with needy brothers and sisters not only characterized the earliest church in Jerusalem (4:32-35), but also found expression later in believers' generosity toward each other even across vast geographical and ethnic distances. 

Here is where the early church's costly compassion challenges our practices and our hearts' priorities. Despite, or because of, the affluence that Western Christians enjoy even in times of recession, in comparison with most of the world, we are too often captive to our private property. Our possessions own us more than we own them.

Generosity that impinges on our lifestyle or jeopardizes our financial security (as we imagine it) is all too rare among us. By contrast, although Joseph Barnabas stood out in the apostles' estimation for his character and faith (Acts 11:24), in one sense he was just one typical example of how many cheerfully forewent comforts or security to relieve others' needs (4:36-37). 

The Breaking of the Bread

Although English versions often omit it, the Greek original contains a definite article that is significant: "The breaking of the bread." Luke will go on to report that believers gathered regularly to break bread (no article) and to eat meals together (Acts 2:46). However, references to breaking "the bread" elsewhere in Luke and Acts direct our attention to that evening when Jesus, on his way to the cross, constituted the Lord's Supper by breaking the bread and offering the cup as signs and seals of his impending sacrifice to inaugurate the new covenant (Luke 22:19-20).

After his death, his disciples recognized their risen Lord when he took "the bread," blessed, broke it, and gave it to them (24:30-31). Later, the church at Troas gathered on the first day of the week "to break bread," and in the wee hours of the morning, after a lengthy sermon, Paul finally broke "thebread" and ate with them (Acts 20:7, 11).

It appears that in those early years this sacramental participation in the bread and the cup (1 Cor. 10:16-17), in which believers "proclaim the Lord's death until he comes" (11:26), may have been integrated with the meals that believers regularly shared together (Acts 2:46; see 6:1-7). Paul rebuked the Corinthians' drunkenness, selfishness, and contempt for the poor in the common meals, because these abuses had so poisoned the atmosphere by the time they received the elements that signified Christ's death that the sacramental portion of the meal could hardly be called "the Lord's Supper" (1 Cor. 11:17-22). Better to satisfy your appetites at home than to split the church by conspicuous consumption!

But the schismatic suppers at Corinth were a far cry from the oneness of heart and soul that we see in the portraits of the church's life together in the early chapters of Acts. When Christians recognize, as those early believers in Jerusalem did, the priceless sacrifice of Christ that is proclaimed in the bread and the cup whenever we gather at the Lord's Table, the Savior's love, sealed to our hearts by faith, will move us to gratitude for his grace and to love for one another.

The Prayers

The kingdom community that listens to God, through the apostles' teaching and through the bread, the visible Word of the Lord's Supper, replies to God in prayer. When the Spirit arrived, his presence in their midst evoked continuous devotion to "the prayers." Not only did they participate in Israel's prayers at the temple (Acts 3:1), but also their own gatherings in homes became houses of prayer in which they offered thanksgiving and petition in Jesus' name.

The presence of Christ in the midst of his assembly mobilized their prayer when threats and persecution could have jeopardized their joy. Rather than retreating or lamenting, believers "lifted their voices together to God," repeating back to God words that he himself had spoken ages earlier (Acts 4:24-31).

Alluding to Psalm 146:6 and quoting Psalm 2:1-2, they affirmed that the conspirators who assaulted Jesus had simply fulfilled God's Word and accomplished God's purpose. Through the apostles' teaching they were learning to read their Bibles, so the Lord's Word molded their words and the Lord's glory captured their hearts. Instead of begging to be shielded from suffering, they asked "to speak your word with all boldness," so that the power of Jesus' name might be shown.

As the message of Jesus the Christ is proclaimed, the Spirit pierces hearts, producing repentance and faith. Believers and their families are embraced into the King's community through baptism in his name, nurtured by his Word and "the bread" (and wine) of the Supper, moved to express their unity in costly and tangible compassion, and drawn together in prayer before God's throne of grace to "find grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 4:16).

Adapted from Dennis E. Johnson, “Word and Sacrament: Making Disciples of All Nations;" "Acts 4: The Community of the Kingdom" Modern Reformation, Jul/Aug 2011. Used by permission.

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Dennis E. Johnson

Dennis E. Johnson is the professor of practical theology at Westminster Seminary in California. He is the author of several books including Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures, The Message of Acts in the History of Redemption, Triumph of the Lamb: A Commentary on Revelation, and Walking with Jesus through His Word: Discovering Christ in All the Scriptures. 

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