Regular readers of this blog know that I am a fervent defender of the Regulative Principle of Worship. However, today I’d like to set that debate aside and address something that both sides of the issue should be able to agree on.
(For non-regular readers, allow me to summarize the principle briefly: the regulative principle states that only those elements that are prescribed by God in the New Testament for worship may be used in worship. The alternative view, often called the normative principle, states that we may include any element in worship as long as it is not forbidden in Scripture.)
Today I would like to focus attention on a few elements of corporate worship that must be part of worship regardless if one holds to the regulative or normative principle.
In Acts 2:42, Luke lists four commitments to which believers in the very first church “devoted themselves,” and then he describes what the daily life of this Church looked like as a result of these commitments. In this description, we will find defining characteristics of this new, infant church that I believe are quite instructive for churches today.
Devotion to apostolic teaching
The first commitment of this infant church was devotion to apostolic teaching. Well, they certainly had a lot to learn, didn’t they? And so the apostles instructed them in the teachings of Jesus, and how He had fulfilled Old Testament prophesies, and how they should live with each other and be witnesses for Christ. And these people were devoted to this teaching.
After a while, the apostles wrote down this teaching under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. So now, we have this same apostolic teaching recorded for us completely in the letters of the New Testament. So the apostolic teaching to which this infant church was devoted was basically the New Testament Scriptures that we have today.
You see, just as a healthy infant needs food, so a healthy infant church needs the food of Scriptural teaching. And it is no different for an adult. We need food in order to be healthy. There is no such thing as a person who has reached such a high level of physical maturity that he no longer needs food. The same is true for the Church. No matter how much we grow and mature, we will always need to be devoted to apostolic teaching — the teaching of the New Testament.
Peter even later alludes to this in his first letter when he says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation.”
But they didn’t just hear the doctrine. Devotion implies that one they heard the truth, they submitted themselves to the truth. Once they were told the word of the Lord, they obeyed the word of the Lord. It is not enough simply to hear lectures about theological issues; as the Church of Christ, we must submit ourselves to what the Word of God says and commit to abide by it.
But devotion also implies a third reality. The New Testament calls the church the pillar and support of the truth. Churches must be committed to teach and preach the apostles doctrine and obey the doctrine, but also to militantly defend and protect that doctrine. When biblical truth or practice is under attack, as it is so often in our day, it is to the church that the responsibility lies to uphold that truth; not seminaries, not conventions, not publishing companies or parachurch ministries, not even pastors alone. We as Christ’s church must be devoted to hearing the apostles’ doctrine, submitting to the apostles’ doctrine, and defending the apostles’ doctrine.
Devotion to Fellowship
Next, Luke says that they were devoted to fellowship. This word literally means “having in common.” It’s the same word used down in verse 44 that is translated “had everything in common.” Well, what was it that these 3,000 people from all over the world had in common? Their new faith in Jesus Christ. They had a unique unity.
This kind of unity is really something that cannot be explained. Two people of completely different nationalities or cultures or ages or interests can have sweet fellowship simply by nature of their unity in Christ. First John 3:14 says that this is one way that we can know that we are saved — if we naturally love to be with other believers.
I experienced this when I traveled on a mission team in Europe two summers while I was in college. Over and over we experienced something like this: we would meet other Christians who hardly knew any English, and we certainly didn’t know their language, and yet we had an enriching time of fellowship with these people because of our unity in Christ. We had absolutely nothing else in common.
This kind of unity and fellowship is encouraged in all the “one another” passages throughout the New Testament. We are commanded to love one another, be kind to one another, care for one another, stimulate one another. This is true Christian fellowship.
Really, getting together for a piece of pie and talking about sports is not what this fellowship is. There’s nothing wrong with getting together and talking about sports — in fact, that can be very beneficial — but it’s not biblical fellowship. Biblical fellowship involves spiritual conversation. Encouraging one another, not just to have a good day, but encouraging one another toward holiness and righteousness. Caring for one another’s spiritual needs. Holding one another up in prayer. This is a mark of true spiritual health! This kind of mutual edification is what this infant church was devoted to.
These new believers shared a deep fellowship and commitment to one another simply by virtue of their common relationship with one another. They had everything in common because of their mutual faith in Jesus Christian. As the rest of Acts illustrates, this spurred them on to encouraging and strengthening one another in that faith, bearing up each other’s burdens, and admonishing one another in the things of the Lord.
Again, because of the individualism and lack of commitment of today’s professing Christians, sometimes you wonder if people simply “attending” a church service rather than really joining with a church really have anything in common. Often times professing believers today have more in common with the unbelieving world than with their fellow Christians. These new Christians knew that they were now different than any other group on the face of the earth; they knew they had something in common that was different than any other commonality they shared with unbelievers, and this manifested itself in true, deep fellowship.
So the first commitment is devotion to apostolic teaching, and the second is devotion to fellowship. These two commitments could be summarized by the Second Priority of our church—mutual edification through the regular teaching of the Word of God and through true Christian fellowship.
Devotion to the Lord’s Supper
The third commitment was devotion to “the breaking of bread.” There is a definite article there — “the” — which indicates that this is specifically speaking about the Lord’s supper. This was something that they were devoted to because Christ had commanded them to be.
Now, what is the significance of this ordinance of the church? I want to take you to 1 Corinthians to help answer this question. In chapter 11, Paul gives specific instruction to the Church concerning participating in the Lord’s Supper. But earlier in chapter 10, he explains the significance of the ordinance:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.
The word translated “participation” is the exact same word translated “fellowship” in our text. It emphasizes what we have in common as a local church. It emphasizes the unity we have in Christ. It is often translated “communion,” and this is why we sometimes refer to the Lord’s Supper as “Communion.” Participation in the Lord’s Table is participation with the sacrifice of Christ, and as we share together and partake of the one bread and the one cup, we demonstrate together the unity and fellowship of the body.
This is why the ordinance was given to the church and not just individuals. This is why you don’t just have a few friends over and have Communion — this is for the whole body to partake of together. Members of the body of Christ, who have professed that membership through the sign of baptism, and who are living in unity with others in that body, proclaim their unity with Christ and with each other as they share a meal at his Table.
So this devotion to the Lord’s Supper is something that this infant church apparently did every time they met, which seems to be every day. Each time they met, they manifested their oneness with Christ and with one another through this beautiful drama Christ himself initiated.
Devotion to Public Prayer
The fourth and final commitment Luke lists of this infant Church is devotion to public prayer. Again, there is a definite article — “the” — in front of “prayers.” It literally reads “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This has at least two implications.
The first is that this is speaking about more than just individual, private prayer. Private prayer is important, but these believers were devoted to “the prayers,” meaning public times of prayer together. This devotion is so critical for a church and yet so neglected today. Churches say that they have prayer meetings, but they pray very little. We need to protect this commitment as a church. We need to protect and relish those times when our church gathers together for “the prayers.”
The other implication is that “the prayers” probably refers to specific prayers that were part of Jewish liturgy. Now I don’t think I need to tell you that “liturgy” is not a bad word. It simply means doing things in church meetings in an organized, orderly fashion, and since Paul commands the church to hold their meetings “decently and in order” in 1 Corinthians 14, liturgy is a necessary thing. Every church has a liturgy — an order to which they do things. And this early church had a liturgy — an organization to their meetings. Where would they have gotten such a liturgy? Since every member of this infant church was a Jew, they would have naturally gotten their liturgy from Jewish worship—likely from their regular synagogue services. And why not? Christianity is simply the correct continuation of true, biblical, Old Testament Judaism with new revelation manifested in Jesus the Messiah.
In other words, this devotion implies that this infant church was devoted to regularly meeting for corporate worship, these corporate gatherings were so characterized by prayer—by dialogue with God—that they could be called “the prayers.” In fact, church buildings used to be called “houses of prayer.” The church at this time and in times past was so characterized by communion with God through dialogue with him in worship that they were known as a people of prayer. Unfortunately churches today have allowed other priorities and emphases to distract from one of the most significant and important commitments, communion with God in worship.
These second two commitments could be summarized by the First Priority of our Church—the worship of our God. This infant church was devoted to the public assembly in which they offered prayers to the Lord, considered the teachings of the Hebrew Bible and of the apostles, partook of the bread and, as other instances in Acts make clear, praised God and worshiped him together.
So these are the four continual commitments of the infant Church. This is what marked the simple devotion of the healthy infant Church. They were devoted to biblical teaching, Christian fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and organized worship with public prayer.
So let me ask you this question: are we satisfied with just that in a local church? Or do we feel like we need something more? Are we satisfied with a local church that is just devoted to preaching, Christian fellowship, Communion, and meetings for prayer and worship? Or do we feel like we need programs and flash and spectacle?
Let’s compare this snapshot of the healthy, simple infant church to the adult church of today. Is the church today healthy? Or do we have so much extra baggage and complications that prohibit us from being devoted — I mean, really devoted — to these four things?
Wouldn’t it be great if the church today got back to the simplicity of early church life? It is true that in some ways the church today is more “adult.” Does the evangelical church today articulate important doctrine perhaps more carefully and even more accurately than this infant church? Probably. But dotting our doctrinal i’s and crossing our doctrinal t’s is worth little if we are missing these essential commitments. Is the church today more “sophisticated” than the church in Acts 2. Maybe. But maybe “sophistication” distorts what is really important. If contemporary, “adult” churches long for the vibrancy and life and influence of this infant church, then maybe the contemporary church should get back to the simple building blocks of a healthy body — devotion to preaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer.
Often, churches have to have a lot of extra programs and other things exactly because of the lack of health of the body. And I truly think that if a church really experiences true revival — rejuvenation of spiritual health — then all these extras will simply drop off.
If a church is simply devoted to these four commitments, Luke tells us what a church like this will look like. We don’t have the time to look at this in depth, but I just want highlight the results of a healthy church that is devoted to these four things:
(1) Unbelievers were in awe of them. How does this compare to today? Instead of the world being in awe of the church, the church seems to be in awe of the world. And in an attempt to attract the world, the contemporary church copies the world. But what attracted the world here and what will attract the world today is difference. Different commitments than anyone would normally have.
(2) These believers experienced great unity and fellowship. This took two forms in our text. First, they were lovingly generous toward one another. Again, we don’t have time to fully explore what was going on here, but the imperfect tense of “selling” and “sharing” reveals that this was a voluntary, recurrent practice of selling possessions in order to give to those who were in need. They probably did this because here you had 3,000 people from all over the world wanting to spend time focusing on apostolic teaching so that they could take the truth back to their home lands, and so it was necessary for them to meet one another’s needs. The point is that their devotion to the four commitments led them to be lovingly generous to each other, and we see this as a mark of true believers in passages such as 1 John 3:17.
The second form this unity took was that they met often together and they ate together with joy and thankfulness. Again, true believers who are devoted to the same things love to be together and encourage one another.
So they had a unique relationship to the world around them, they had a unique relationship to each other, and they had a unique relationship to God
(3) The praised God. This simply characterized who they were. These people were known as those who gathered in the temple courts praising God, and specifically praising his Son, the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
(4) And finally, as a result of being devoted to the necessary commitments, they saw unbelievers added to their number by the Lord every day. Perhaps a reason that the contemporary church sees comparatively few people come to Christ is that we have lost our proper devotion to these four commitments. In other words, a simple but profound commitment to worship and mutual edification will lead to fruitful ministry of evangelism.
Remember, this is the Church Christ built. This is the body with Christ as the head. This is the building with Christ as the foundation. And thus what the church today decides to devote itself to must be what Christ desires. Not creativity, not innovations, not slick methods or programs. If the church today wants to be healthy, it should look back to this infant church—a church that was simply devoted to the apostles doctrine, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.