Learning from the Early Church
I recently finished a sermon series on the book of Acts at our church. I have been deeply blessed by working through this book. In fact, as I completed the last sermon, I was in tears. I told my wife, "It might seem silly, but I'm going to miss spending this much time with Paul."
It has been very impactful to my own soul, and my own congregation, to see not only the growth of the early church, but also the growing pains, the imperfections, the difficulties, the conflict and opposition that the early church experienced.
After spending more than a year in the book of Acts I have four major takeaways that I would briefly mention.
- Grace Teaches Us to Prayer for our Enemies
As I preached through Acts one of the ideas I kept reflecting on was just what a turning point the murder of Stephen was. I thought about Paul's own culpability in Stephen's murder and how that must have stayed with Paul for the rest of his Christian life.
Chapter 7 of Acts contains the sermon that got Stephen killed, but it also contains his subsequent murder by the crowd, including Paul. Back when I preached on this passage I missed something very precious: the prayer of Stephen as he was dying.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Our instinct when we read this prayer is to say, "What a godly man!" Stephen's cry is certainly pious and loving to his enemies, but have you considered that Stephen actually prayed for Paul?
Here we have a beautiful illustration of the grace of God that not only did Stephen pray for his persecutors to know the forgiveness of Christ, but even more, that God actually answered that in Acts 9 by converting Paul! It's exactly what Stephen prayed for; it's what he wanted most in his dying moments - for his enemies to know the same forgiveness that God had shown him.
I can't help but feel that it should motivate us to pray more for our enemies - for those we think are too far gone. Who knows - maybe God will show his grace and save the one we're praying for!?
- Diversity is Baked Into the Church
One of the truly frustrating things for me is people who say, "Well my friends and I are the church. We don't need to be part of an organized church." And whenever someone says that to me I frequently will encourage them to look at their circle of friends - what they will usually find is a group that is not very diverse. It's usually very like-minded people from similar backgrounds that are around the same age and same stage in life. People who self-select their own "church" tend to have a very homogenous "church" of people who are just like them.
And yet one of the realities of the church is that the church is a very diverse place.
Today if someone says "diversity," folks limit it to only one category; they think of racial diversity. However, the church should be a diverse place in lots of ways; age diversity, income diversity, career diversity, geographic diversity, educational diversity, and yes, racial diversity.
We see this diversity most especially in the conflict of the church in Acts 6. The whole reason the diaconate of the church needed to be created was because of the friction that came from racial diversity in the early church.
If it wasn't for Jesus Christ, these Jews and Greeks would have had zero reason to ever be together in the same place! And so diversity is one of the many beautiful designs of God in establishing his church.
Any given Sunday just look around and ask yourself this question: "If it weren't for the Gospel, would I ever be around most of these folks?" I think the honest answer in most of our cases is "no," and that's not a bad thing - it's actually a wonderful testimony to the centrality of Jesus to all our relationships and to the Church itself. Being around people you wouldn't otherwise be around if it wasn't for Jesus is one of the happy realities of a diverse and Gospel-centered church.
- Jesus Started an Organized Religion
The age we live in is deeply suspicious of "organized religion." I know countless folks who have generally Christian values and worldview who nonetheless really don't think they need the church, or a church, or any church because they say "I can have church at home alone with just me and my Bible." But church isn't exclusively just about a sermon or Bible reading. Church is the entire experience of being with God's people together, hearing the same Scripture read and preached together, receiving the sacraments together, and being under the oversight of the elders of the church together.
This isn't just one of my ideas. One of the things the book of Acts shows us is that Jesus loves the church, he loves his people, and he actually wants the church to be organized even in a kind of formal structure. Under the guidance of the Spirit, the Apostles "appointed elders for them in every church" (Acts 14:23). In Acts 6, which we saw above, the Spirit moved the Apostles to appoint deacons in the church. If you have "church" at home alone or with just a self-selected group of friends you don't have elders or deacons or sacraments - you are living with a self-selected group of pals. And even more, you're missing out on the intentionally organized religion that Jesus established.
- Telling Our Neighbors About Jesus isn't Optional
Finally, the book of Acts repeatedly stands out as a deeply evangelistic book. This is a given, of course. It begins and ends with a mission statement of sorts. In Acts 1:8 Jesus says "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." And the book ends with Paul living in Rome and the "end of the earth" under house arrest, preaching to the Jews and Gentiles of the city.
Acts begins with a command to evangelize, a promise of evangelistic success, it is filled examples of those successes, and it ends with a triumphant self-sacrificial example of the continuing work of evangelism.
In Acts we see Christians tell all sorts of people about Jesus! They witness to homeless beggars (3:6); to religious leaders (4:1-12); to hostile crowds (7:1-53); to complete strangers when they see them traveling (8:29-40); to Jewish crowds; to soldiers (10:1-8); to people living on islands; to wealthy business people (16:11-15) to fellow prisoners (16:25); to their jailers (16:31); to philosophers (17:22-34); to Jewish royalty (26:1-29); and even to rough and tough sailors at sea (27:25).
The book of Acts has built into it a theme and a trajectory of showing and telling us that it should be in our DNA as Christians to tell people what God has done for us, how he's done it for us, and why we know he can do the same for any person we meet.
Adam Parker is the pastor of Pearl Presbyterian Church (http://www.pearlpres.com). He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, and a husband and father of four.