Becoming Part of A Living Fellowship (e)
Several years ago studies were conducted among former American prisoners of war to determine what methods used by the enemy had been most effective in breaking their spirit. The findings revealed that they did not break down from physical deprivation and torture as quickly as they did from solitary confinement or from disrupted friendships caused by frequent changing of personnel. Attempts to get the prisoners divided in their attitudes toward one another proved to be the most successful method of discouraging them. It was further learned that the soldiers were not sustained primarily by faith in their country or by the rightness of the cause for which they fought. They drew their greatest strength from the close attachments they had formed to the small military units to which they belonged.
These observations help us understand why Christians need the group experience of fellowship with other believers to help them sustain the new life in Christ.
To have a new beginning in Christ we must understand the primary force behind Christian fellowship, the nature of the fellowship and the response we make in fellowship.
Thus far in the previous studies in Acts, we have seen several necessary ingredients for beginning life anew. In the first chapter we have seen the disciples dependent upon God's plan, which came in his own timing, as they joined together constantly in prayerful supplication. In the beginning of chapter 2, we have seen the earlier believers dependent upon the enabling power of God's Spirit as the Spirit descended upon them on Pentecost. They were enabled to communicate to people of different languages. This power enables Peter to stand up and proclaim, "Whosoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved." The Spirit guided message allowed them to see clearly the revelation of God's Son and its personal application.
The Spirit leads Peter to proclaim the fulfillment of God's promises and the power of the resurrected Christ. They begin to see the confidence and assurance, which comes to each of them personally. Christ is now Lord and Master. The hope of a new beginning comes to each person as the Spirit-guided message penetrates their hearts and reveals God's plan to salvage their lives. Three thousand responded.
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and the apostles did many wonders and miraculous signs. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone, as he had need. 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 favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Here in the later part of the second chapter we catch a glimpse of the first fellowship of believers. This is the first worship service of believers. However, it is not described by the order of worship, nor is it described as a ritual. Luke describes it by describing the impact God had made in their hearts. He describes it by describing the actions of the believers as they came together for the first time. It is here that we find another very important ingredient to begin life anew . . . the devoted heartfelt fellowship and worship of believers.
Nowhere do we get a closer look at the nature and character of the first fellowship of believers than in the later part of Acts 2. Here we have a brief but clear description of the fellowship of the first believers. It serves as a model for all believers today.
Devoted To Apostles' Teaching
This new fellowship was focused on the apostles' teaching. The amazing thing about Pentecost is that their attention was not drawn to some man or church doctrine. It was drawn to the apostles' teaching. The fundamental activity of the first fellowship was a firm continued adherence "to the teaching of the apostles". There was an objective basis for their subjective experience of being together. What was happening was thoroughly rooted in the scriptures. It was biblical. The Lord guided them through the teaching and preaching of his word, just as he endeavors to do today.
The importance of the apostles' message was that it revealed the truth about God. The message sought to focus their attention upon God. It was the message that brought them into fellowship. It was the God- centered message upon which fellowship would be sustained and maintained.
There was no church until they responded to God's call of salvation. There was no creed book. Actually, there wasn't even a New Testament. Their preaching was entirely from the Old Testament. The New Testament believers were founded upon the fulfillment of God's promises as revealed through Moses and the prophets. It is troubling to think that at times we think we only need the New Testament. We really can't understand how our faith is undergirded by the power of God until we see it supported by everything that God has done in redemptive the history of the Old Testament.
They were moved and motivated by the Spirit-guided message of the apostles. The original language carries with it the idea of being persistent listeners. They weren't passive listeners; they were active listeners. There is a thirst to hear and learn more about their newfound life of spiritual freedom in Jesus Christ. Our teaching of the Bible has become too static as we formulate our own doctrines. Not so with the first believers, they were active participants in what was being taught by the apostles. What they were being taught was impacting their hearts and lives.
Try to imagine the pioneer spirit of the first settlers in this country as they probed deeper and farther into this vast wilderness. They were seeking new horizons. There was a great excitement in this newfound country. The excitement led them to probe into the deep wilderness. It is here in Acts 2 that we catch a glimpse of the pioneering spirits of our spiritual forefathers. When Peter stood up and proclaimed the possibility of their spiritual freedom, they only had a thirst for more. They were looking for new horizons. The excitement of seeking and finding God was in the air. The excitement of a New World created in the image of the Firstborn was in the air. (Ephesians 2:10)
"Worship does not satisfy our hunger for God; it whets our appetite." ( --Eugene Peterson (quoted in Leadership, Wint 1995) Jesus said, "If any man have ears to hear, let him hear." And he said unto them, "Take heed what ye hear: with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you: and unto you that hear shall more be given. " (Mark 4:23-24)
They were not caught up into the charisma or personalities of the people proclaiming the message. The focus is on God and his message of salvation. Fear came upon them as they beheld the many wonders and signs done by God through the apostles. They never lost sight of God. His message proclaimed their salvation . . . their freedom. The excitement of a new beginning for a new life was in the air.
They were focused on the message of the cross. The breaking of the bread tells us the focus of the apostles' teaching and their fellowship.Breaking bread is a phrase that refers to partaking of the communion that Christ instituted during the Passover. Bread and wine were common fare at a Jewish table. These were the emblems used for the purpose of focusing their minds on Christ. Their focus was on Christ's sacrifice winning the victory for them. This was the central focus of their new life. The apostles presented Jesus as the fulfillment of the messianic promise of the Old Testament. It was God's wisdom and power that made their salvation possible. No more animal sacrifices for them . . . God had made his Son to be sin for them. (2 Corinthians 5:21) Peter had shown them that Jesus was approved of God by the miracles, wonders and signs he did in their midst. It was a fellowship focused on God through the message of the cross.
That's where the possibility of being born again begins for every man, woman and child. It begins by focusing your life on the cross. The first believers were excited because they were focused on building a new life in Christ through the enabling power of God.
All The Believers Were Together
Beginning a new life focused on Christ brought them together in a devoted fellowship. Listen to Luke's simple description of worship. "All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone, as he had need. 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 favor of all the people." (Acts 2:44-47)
Togetherness is important because it is encouraging. Church attendance is often substituted for fellowship. To some fellowship is like a jar full of marbles. The marbles are in the same jar but there is little togetherness. The marbles have little effect on each other as they roll around in a jar. They just bump into one another. But real fellowship is more like a jar of grapes that bleed on one another. Fellowship should allow our faith to rub off on one another. The first believers had real spiritual needs that led them into fellowship with others. As they came into this fellowship of other believers with the same needs, they naturally bled on one another.
Too often church attendance turns us into iceberg Christians where we just float around and bump into one another. One fellow visited a church and gave his description of those in attendance. He said, "I don't want to say that it was a cold church, but the ushers had on ice skates." The first fellowship meeting had little to do with church attendance and everything to do with togetherness. Although fellowship can't be had or be exciting without a bodily presence.
Philip Slater has written that today's enormous technology appears to have made it unnecessary for one human being ever to ask anything of another in the course of his daily activities. He implies that this has increased the tendency of people to live independently. He goes on to say, "Even within the family, Americans are unique in their feeling that each member should have a separate room, a separate telephone, and his own car when economically possible. We seek more and more privacy, but are more alienated and lonely when we get it."
To me, nothing points this out more profoundly than the little computerized Tamagotchi pets of recent. It is a little computerized gadget that tells you when it is hungry, when it needs to go to the bathroom, etc. You can send a kid in his room to play with this computerized pet. It seems to me, to breed more isolation.
There was an intense feeling of responsibility for each other. This is one of the major drawing powers of worship. They were, "Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need." These offerings were coming from those who had "glad and sincere" hearts. No one could bear to have too much while others had too little. They are not just giving money; they are giving up their possessions and goods; they are giving themselves. These offerings were coming from those who had "glad and sincere" hearts. It reveals the heart and core of worship as they responded to God by responding to each other.
A Worship Filled With Awe and Wonder
At The heart of their worship was the celebration of God. It wasn't the design of the service . . . contemporary or traditional . . . it was God.They understood God's love made their worship possible. His love and devotion made possible a new life. It wasn't their behavior; they had just finished nailing God to the cross. Their response in worship was due to the power of God. Hearts were responding to God's presence. Their worship was a result of being drawn to God through the effect of the cross. They were confident that Christ lived and died so they could be free from sin. This was the drawing power of the occasion.
Luke describes the worship service in the simplest terms. "Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common." (Acts 2:42-45)
The first fellowship of believers was made up of those who had a sure knowledge of their salvation through Christ's death and resurrection and were now enjoying his living presence. They were sure of who they were because they were sure of Christ. They were thoroughly convinced, soundly converted, and Holy Spirit-filled believers.
Imagine for a moment, sitting in a packed Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, just as your home team wins. Imagine the excitement in the air as the home team scores the winning touch down in overtime. But imagine for a moment, being the only one seated in that empty stadium when that winning touch down is scored. Would you shout near as loud? Would you be nearly as excited in an empty stadium as you would in a packed stadium? Excitement breeds excitement.
However, the euphoric excitement of your favorite football team winning would pale into significance when compared to the excitement on Pentecost. There is no comparison of me winning vicariously through the men on the field and what I have won through the vicarious death of God's Son. Now, there is a real win! Now there is a brand new life, which can be had each day of my life. When Christ won that victory over Satan on the cross, it was my personal salvation that was won. He won for me a new life filled with glories of God's grace. I wish that every worshipper of God today could restore the excitement of heart seen on Pentecost.
It was an emotional worship filled with fear and awe. A worshipful response was forthcoming as they saw the miracles, wonders and signs that God was doing through the apostles. They have no doubt but what the apostles have God's approval. They were worshipping God because of their experience of God. They had experienced the reality of their salvation. They saw the one behind it all. They never lost sight of God.
"Praising God" was the natural expression of their hearts for the supreme blessing they had found in Christ. What would happen to this church today if we sought to duplicate the spirit of that first assembly? It would probably be scary to most of us today.
An Attractive Fellowship
A sincere fellowship is always attractive. Attractiveness is the natural quality that flows from a genuine fellowship. People want to know the source of it all. That helps church growth more than anything does. There were no outsiders or insiders. No charter members on Pentecost. Everyone was in the "in crowd." They were simply in Christ. They were from different nations, spoke different languages, and I am sure that their cultural dress was much different, but Jesus Christ had broken the barriers. This made the first century believers attractive to outsiders.
There was a great quality of togetherness. Because we are "in Christ," we are reconciled together forever to God. An old tract called "The Seven Togethers" summarizes the completeness of our union with Christ. It says we are:
(1) crucified together with Christ (Gal. 2:20);
(2) dead together with Christ (Col. 2:20);
(3) buried together with Christ (Rom. 6:4);
(4) made alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5);
(5) raised together with Christ (Col. 3:1);
(6) sufferers together with Christ (Rom. 8:17);
(7) glorified together with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
The word together is significant. In that one word we see all the barriers to fellowship removed. This made them attractive to the world. This resulted in God adding to their number daily those that were being saved.
There was a winsome attractiveness about these believers. Luke records that they "praised God and had favor with all the people." There were no arguments over names, formulas, creeds, rituals or tradition; it was just a simple heartfelt response to God and one another. No argument over baptism, church names, or the kind of music, or the order of worship, or the kind of worship . . . contemporary or traditional . . . or which church to join. There wasn't even an argument of whether they should or shouldn't attend the temple gatherings where the blood of daily animal sacrifices continued to flow. There is attractiveness about this spirit. In fact, it was there that others saw the attractiveness of the fellowship of the first believers. It was that attitude that brought others into a relationship with God.
Nowhere is the pure pristine spirit of fellowship more eloquently described. The early believers were walking as the Spirit gave them enabling power. They were following the Spirit-guided teaching of the apostles.
It was here that we see the first believers unified, magnified and multiplied. It was a powerful testimony to the unsaved. The risen Lord continued his ministry from heaven and people continued to be saved.
It was the continued searching, learning and worship of those who believed that made a new beginning for each of them possible. It was in their fellowship that they received the instruction, encouragement and power to begin life anew.
They were not even called Christians at this early date. In fact, at this early date this body of believers doesn't even have a name. They were simply described as those " . . . who received his word" and as "those who were being saved." The King James Version does use the word church in this context, " . . . And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." (Acts 2:47) Yet, the translators in 1611 were looking in retrospect as they were translating. In retrospect it is an accurate description of what was happening, but it was not a precise translation. They had no official name, no creed book, or organization. They were simply believers who received the truth-saving message of salvation, which set them on a new road headed straight for their new life in Christ.
These verses do not close with the establishment of the church, they really only show us the beginning of the church. It was here that the transformation of life on planet earth begins. It is where it begins for each of us. It is here that the all-powerful Spirit of creation sets about the work of recreating life anew for each of us.
It was here that their minds were enabled by the Spirit of God to know the unlimited wisdom to maximize the thought of the mind for the purpose of developing their God-given potential.
That is where it begins with each of us. Essentially, it begins as we make the same responses they made when God harvested their souls during the greatest harvest festival of all on Pentecost.
It all begins when we are willing to personally experience the seven togethers: When we are willing to
(1) become crucified together with Christ (Gal. 2:20);
(2) become dead together with Christ (Col. 2:20);
(3) be buried together with Christ (Rom. 6:4);
(4) be made alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5);
(5) be raised together with Christ (Col. 3:1);
(6) become sufferers together with Christ (Rom. 8:17);
(7) become glorified together with Christ (Rom. 8:17).
Their final concluding commitment to togetherness began at baptism. Now that they have buried the old me, they are beginning to discover the new me through the Spirit's enabling message and through the mutual encouragement of those of like precious faith.