The Spirit-Filled Community
How do you react when you hear this description of the early church?
Now, it might raise some questions in your mind – like, did they not have jobs (they seem to be spending all their time together eating praying)? were they living in hippie communes with no personal property?
And put aside those questions; and of course this is somewhat of an idealized picture because we know as we read on in the account that the early church wasn’t perfect – there was sin present in their midst as it has been all through the history of the church including today – here and now in our midst;
but, doesn’t this create some kind of sense in you, that the church today has lost something; and doesn’t this create some kind of desire in you, to try to recover and reclaim that?
“The gift of the Spirit brought about a community which realized the highest aspirations of human longing: unity, peace, joy, generosity, and the praise of God.”
Often not what we see in the church.
“The Holy Spirit forms the church to be a colony of heaven in a country of death.”
What we see in this passage, is that The Spirit creates a community of Jesus; to reach their community for Jesus.
- The Spirit creates a community of Jesus
- to reach a community for Jesus
The Spirit creates a community of Jesus
The first thing that happens after the Spirit produces the first converts of the church, is that a community forms.
The Spirit comes; people are connected to Christ; Community Forms.
The Spirit binds believers together in commitment to Jesus, and to one another to the Church.
Because, when conversion happens, commitment to community happens.
The Spirit of God creates commitment to Community; and it creates commitment to community.
commitment to Community:
we’ll look at the specific things which characterize their community in a minute, but for now I want to stress, is that salvation doesn’t leave you by yourself to live for yourself but it invites you into, and binds you to, the community of the Savior.
It’s often said that we live in an individualistic age and I think that’s true, but I also think it’s true that in that individualistic age the longing for community – a community of love like we see here – has never been stronger – and it’s a sad reality that the church ought to have the greatest resources to provide that attractive beautiful longed-for community – but perhaps has been influenced by our individualistic age more than we realize and so often does no better and lives no differently than the world.
As I’ve been reflecting on this passage, I’ve been confronted with my own short-comings in this area and it’s something that we ought to take to heart;
But it is costly, because to live out real community like we see here, requires commitment.
The Spirit of God creates commitment to Community; and it creates commitment to community:
I think one of the key words or ideas is the picture of devotion we see: “they were devoted” – v42 & v46 (they continued – same greek word – they persevered in it; it wasn’t just a season or spark of commitment but it was ongoing).
Just as much as its true that we live in an individualistic age, so it’s also true that we live in a commitment-less age. In my opinion, there’s never been more of a functional aversion to commitment or devotion.
Except the difference is, that while I think we live in an individualistic age that longs for community; we live in a commitment-less age, that doesn’t long for commitment.
Maybe, we long for the benefits of commitment, but not the personal cost and real sacrifice that is necessary to bring about those benefits.
Because every commitment has a cost – and so, every commitment will compete with other commitments – and so, what you’re committed to isn’t seen by what you say you’re committed to but by what commitment wins out over others.
In all our commitments, it’s often our commitment to Jesus that gets squeezed out.
But for those who say they are committed to Jesus, one way that commitment is tested or verified is through one’s commitment to the community of Jesus – His Church, which we loves, for which he shed his blood.
Many people say something like:
“I love Jesus, but I don’t love the church.” Or, “I can be just as committed to Jesus without the church as I could with the church.”
But, just on a straightforward, initial reading of these passage, does it seem like those statements can be true?
In fact, it seems that no attitude could be more in conflict with the heart of this passage & so much of NT.
v47 – when people are saved, they were added to the community.
They’re not let into the community without being saved: this is nominalism – which reduces the church to just a voluntary social club that anyone can enter and leave irrespective of their inner spiritual condition or profession of faith or living a life that reflects a life of following Christ.
But at the same time, they’re not saved and then remain outside of the community: but salvation brings them into the Church: There’s no just “me and Jesus” christianity that is practiced privately in isolation from the body of Christ. There’s no: “I like Jesus, I just don’t like the organized religion.”
Because though the church is certainly far from perfect, our attitude towards the church can’t be separated from our attitude towards Jesus because the church is Jesus church; which he died for and which he loves and which he is committed to.
John Stott: “I trust that none of my readers is that grotesque anomaly, an un-churched Christian. The New Testament knows nothing of such a person. For the church lies at the very center of the eternal purpose of God…the Church is God’s new community.”
And if you want to be a part of God’s purpose and God’s community, you need the church and the church needs you.
Old story of a pastor who was visiting a man who recently withdrawn from being a part of the fellowship of the church – hadn’t been at worship service, hadn’t been meeting with other Christians – and so the pastor visited him to inquire about how things were going and why he hadn’t been around, and the man said that he believed he could be just fine in his walk with God without the church. And the pastor didn’t say anything, but rather – it was a cold winter day and there was a burning fireplace with hot red burning coals gathered together in the center – and the pastor got up, picked up a fireplace tool and pushed one of those bright glowing red coals away from the rest so that it was isolated from the rest. And he sat down. And it didn’t take very long for it to lose it’s glow and turn black. And then the pastor got up again and pushed it back into the pile of coals and immediately it regained it’s glow. And, then he left. And, guess who he saw at Church the next Sunday?
The Spirit set the church aflame. But without the community of God’s people, we lose our glow. We lose our “first love”. We become cold christians.
We need the church for our benefit; the church needs each of us for it’s benefit.
But, it’s not even just that we need the church; it’s that we are the church; and so you can’t be who you are and who God wants you to be without that necessary part of who you are!
4 main characteristics (from Stott):
Worshiping; Learning; Loving; Growing
God was in their midst; living and active; they saw and felt and knew his powerful presence, and they were in awe.
They believed in Jesus as Lord and Savior; their lives were centered around God; they were empowered by the Spirit.
There isn’t just a horizontal element to their community – but in fact, as we can suppose from the previous section, these people were very different people, and the thing that brought them together wasn’t the horizontal elements – the human relationship or commonality or shared interest or – it wasn’t even their common jewish heritage or faith even though they did share that – but something beyond those things, something stronger and deeper than those things – the vertical element of worship.
The thing that creates their love for one another, isn’t their love for one another. The thing that creates their love for one another, is their love for God;
They all have come to know God; and they have come to see the love of God in the Savior Jesus Christ; and they have been recipients of that love and that has created love in their hearts, which they pour out towards one another.
Their worship was formal & informal:
v46 – they met in the temple – formal: as at that early stage Christianity was sort of a sect of Judaism and so they still met to worship at the temple.
v46 – met in homes – informal: and those meeting in homes are described in terms of fellowship and worship – that their meetings in homes were still filled with the praise of God.
And so, their worship wasn’t merely a sunday morning church thing – it was that, it wasn’t less than that – and I think it’s clear the early church was very committed to times of formal worship; but that wasn’t the extent of their worship; they had worship services that didn’t stop but spilled over into every day of the week and every part of life.
Membership class: if you’re a church member, we ask that you make a ground-floor minimum commitment to be present at worship.
Because we believe that whatever other good things there are in the Christian Life – community groups or private devotions or whatever else – are good but can’t replace the corporate gathered worship of God with the people of God.
Being a Christian is a counter-cultural public declaration; and though corporate worship may be less public than it was in the NT it’s still the same counter-cultural declaration of where your priorities lie and who the Lord of your life is.
And so that’s where commitment begins in the life of the church member; but that’s not where it ends.
And, there’s a reason we encourage small groups – because this kind of life can’t happen on just a sunday morning connection – but it’s more pervasive than that; it’s more continual than that; it extends all the rest of the day; week; all throughout life.
joyful & reverent:
Both joy and reverence are part of spirit-filled worship:
v46 – their meetings together were characterized by gladness, sincerity of heart, and praising of God.
Gladness; praising – Joy. They weren’t quiet about their faith but praises flowed from hearts affected by Grace. And because of the gospel of God’s gracious salvation coming to them, they had innumerable unending reason to be joyful.
And so do we.
v 43 – lit: fear came upon every soul.
in v 43 this is in connection to the wonders and signs being done – specifically by the apostles. It’s important to remember that miracles in NT were primarily performed by apostles – not exclusively, but the main bulk of them – in fact, only 2 exceptions in book of Acts – Stephen and Philip; all other people who perform signs and wonders are apostles. And so with the passing of the office of apostle, I think there was a concurrent passing of the “gift” of miracle such that I don’t believe that anyone has the gift of “miracle” as the apostles and a small few others had in the NT times;
But that doesn’t mean that God isn’t working. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing things that ought to inspire awe in the hearts of his people. That maybe God works in a less visibly or obviously supernatural way doesn’t mean that the eyes of faith can’t see his working and respond in awe.
And, I think something that would do the church today good, is a renewal of the fear of God – awe at the reality and significance of God being in our midst.
Awe – the fear of God – such that God would not be an appendage to life but central; that church would not be just an activity but a real encounter with the living God that fills every part of life and results in worship.
That they were a worshiping church, didn’t mean that they weren’t a thinking church or a learning church:
v41 – the early church came into existence through Peter’s preaching – through learning – and v42 – they continued to live by the apostles teaching.
They were devoted to the apostles’ teaching.
Their spiritual encounter with Christ was not one in which they just believed whatever they wanted; nor was it one that was exclusively a mystical spiritual experience which didn’t involve them thinking and learning the content of their faith.
Some people might err in thinking that learning is all that Christians do; and that is an error; but it’s also an error to exclude learning about the faith from the Christian life.
The Church exists today because they received and passed on the Apostle’s teaching.
And so, it’s the church’s job to teach the faith; and it’s the church’s job to receive that teaching and learn the faith.
“Sermonettes make Christianettes” – not to say that it’s necessarily more godly to go to a church where the preacher is long-winded; but that a sign of a healthy church is that the sermon or teaching ministry of the church isn’t an afterthought that is characterized by fluff; or that isn’t eclipsed by the rock band rocking-out for the entire worship service.
And the apostles teaching – for us – is the New Testament (which was written by apostles or by those closely connected to the apostles, & which was built upon and validated the Old Testament). And so for us to follow the example of this early church means to be devoted to the Scriptures and to receive them for what they claim to be: the word of God.
It means to love scripture; to read scripture; to learn & know scripture; and most of all to live scripture.
To be devoted to it such that we don’t just believe God’s word when it agrees with us and we don’t just live by it when its easy to live by; but even when it’s not.
Worshiping; Learning; Loving
v42 “they were devoted to the fellowship”
being devoted to the fellowship was costly. It cost time, it cost comfort, and it cost them in their wallets and bank accounts (or whatever the first-century equivalent).
3 main aspects of their devotion to the fellowship: Prayer; Hospitality; generosity.
They prayed for one another, because they cared about one another. They were a praying church.
“they were devoted to the fellowship … to the breaking of bread & to prayer”
“breaking of bread and prayer” are descriptors of what it means to be devoted to the fellowship.
breaking of bread – some think this refers to the sacrament of communion, but probably it is more general: that it simply means that had people into their homes and they ate together;
They were hospitable. they shared meals together.
And, who do you share meals with? Family; friends.
It’s hard to sit down at a table across from your enemy and break bread; but it’s what we naturally do with those we love.
And the reason they ate together is because though apart from christ they might very well have been enemies; or at least strangers; now in Christ they were family. brothers and sisters.
The home of a christian isn’t a fortress surrounded by a moat filled with alligators with the draw-bridge seldom lowered; the home of a christian isn’t a pristine museum where the messiness of letting others in can’t occur;
the home of a christian is a place of hospitality.
And this hospitality was more than just a mere formality: they shared not just meals together, but life. They continually met together; they prayed for one another; and, they made known their own needs and discovered the needs of others. And, they considered the needs of the other, their own needs and they did what they could to meet those needs.
Their radical generosity is a hard-to-ignore but easy-to-make-us-all uncomfortable aspect of this passage. And it might raise some questions, so we’ll look at those – but let’s not miss the point: that they were radically generous.
occasional; voluntary; radical.
occasional: as each had need. they didn’t get rid of personal property just for the sake of having a monk-like existence, but they did it with an aim: v45 “they sold their property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.”
It was driven by, and responsive to, the needs that they saw among & around them.
And since the goal was the alleviation of needs, they weren’t impoverishing themselves by giving away everything they had – and that’s made explicit in v46 where you see that they still had homes to invite people into.
Probably, they were selling extra property and possessions; or downsized; or bought less-nice things to have more to meet the needs of others.
But, our danger in’t giving too much that we risk impoverishing ourselves; our danger is giving too little that we risk living for this world. They believed Jesus teaching that this life doesn’t consist in the abundance of possessions.
this wasn’t communism; because in communism no one retains rights to their own property; and so generosity doesn’t exist in a context where someone else has a right to what is yours without your consent.
The church wasn’t sending out tax bills to people and confiscating their property if they didn’t pay it.
You’re not being generous when you pay your taxes – even if you think that money is actually going to help people you’re not being generous because it’s not voluntary – there’s no choice : generosity only exists when it’s completely voluntary, because when it is completely voluntary, you have the right to keep what is yours, and you have to make the difficult choice to give away what is yours, and you can only do that, if you’re generous.
And we know that this was voluntary because later in Acts chapter 5, Peter says so! I’m not going to get into the details of that story – we’ll get there soon enough – but Peter says to those who were trying to appear more generous than they were: “Didn’t the property belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal?”
Rhetorical questions, but answer clearly: YES! it belonged to them before they sold it; and after they sold it they could do whatever they wanted with the money.
That’s why if you want to be a generous person; what you don’t need is, lots and lots of money; but what you need, is a generous heart.
And the way you get a generous heart, is by knowing the God of generosity:
Occasional; Voluntary; Radical:
Radical – it truly cost them. And, if you have committed to radical generosity – if you have committed to tithing – giving a tenth of your income – whether that’s a goal or a starting point: you know that it’s costly. Because it means, giving up things you could have or do – fancy stuff, luxurious vacations, whatever else it may be – radical generosity isn’t done – can’t be done – without some kind of personal sacrifice – because if it hasn’t involved sacrifice then it hasn’t yet been radical generosity.
And, that’s one of the most counter-cultural, challenging things here in this passage.
When confronted with needs in the community, they didn’t just pray and say, “hope things work out for you”.
No, they sold houses; land; possessions. They were radically generous.
But, for radical generosity to occur, 2 things need to happen.
First, someone needs to meet a need.
They need be able to see a need, and they need to be willing to meet a need. That requires overcoming the obstacles of selfishness and self-centeredness to see beyond yourself and your own concerns and into the concerns of others.
Second, someone needs to be willing to allow a need to be met.
They need to be willing to make their needs known so that the community can see it; and they need to be willing to let someone meet it. And that requires overcoming the obstacle of pride that might be unwilling to receive help from someone.
Some people are all too eager to let others do for them what they themselves ought to do, and that’s not right; but sometimes we need to be willing to let others offer their generosity to us, to help us when we can’t help ourselves – whether the needs are financial or otherwise.
Our God is generous; he loves by giving away. God loved the world and so sent his son; Christ loved his people and so gave his life.
And, if we worship a generous God, then we must be generous people – who care about the needs of others more than their own luxury or security; who are invested in the riches of the kingdom rather than the riches of the world; and who give of themselves because of love.
2 Corinthians 8:9 – “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he be are poor, so that you, through his poverty, might become rich.”
Worshiping; Learning; Loving; Growing:
v47 – “praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Reminds us that it’s only the Lord who brings growth to the church because it’s only the Lord who brings salvation; and the church experienced exceptional growth in those early days;
but it also shows us that their lives were on display; their praise was on display – this wasn’t hidden but their lives were a light shining brightly to the world around them, and God used that to grow their community.
And as much as they loved one another, they didn’t become a closed-off, exclusive clique; they didn’t build imposing uninviting walls around their fellowship that would send the clear signal to people to not approach; and they didn’t love what they had so much that they didn’t desire to change what they had for the sake of others.
They were welcoming; they were inviting; they were accessible; they were outward-looking.
In all their focus on one-another, they didn’t forget about their neighbors; they didn’t forget about the world around them.
In fact, I imagine that every time they enjoyed the warmth and love and authenticity of Christian fellowship, they thought about those still on the outside; and instead of thinking, “I just want things to stay this way forever”; they thought, “I can’t wait for this to change when 1 more person comes in from the outside.”