Why go to Church? Pt. 2
Last time, we began to look at this question by exploring the nature of all Believers being a Priesthood unto God. And we looked at it mainly in the context of gathered public worship. That we get together like this on a Sunday to indulge in our Priestly privileges: Especially by preserving the right worship of the One True God in society.
We gather to take in the nourishment of the sincere milk of God’s Word; to offer up spiritual sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving; and to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.
But there is much more for us to explore on this topic. And part of that exploration is necessary due to 2 common misunderstandings. And so I want to work from 1 key text this morning: Acts 2:42-47
Acts 2:42–47 ESV / And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Narrative texts always call for special attention. Just because an event is recorded doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. That Judas went and hanged himself is not meant to be a paradigm for us. But when events coincide with other Biblical teaching, and, as in this case – we see how the Church drew from it historically – we have a good level of confidence. There are 3 elements I want to touch on in this text as displaying what the early Church looked like under the direct supervision of the Apostles.
1. The DEVOTION of the Believers
The Believers did not simply attend services, they were a group DEVOTED to some specific things. One lexicon defines this word “devoted” as: “to persist in adherence to a thing; to be intently engaged in, attend constantly to.” Serving Christ together was not a passing part of life – it became the hub around which their lives now revolved. But what was it specifically they devoted themselves to? 4 things. Acts 2:42
Acts 2:42 ESV / And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.
a. The apostle’s teaching: Literally, to the Apostles themselves teaching – not just to a body of truth. We know from the different words the Bible uses there were basically 4 kinds of preaching. We can’t explore those now, but they devoted themselves to having the Word of God expounded and applied to their lives. They were devoted to Biblical preaching.
b. The Fellowship: Involvement in each other’s lives. Knowing each other’s needs. It is why the word gets translated in another place as “partnership.” They joined as partners in the cause of Christ. This gets characterized a few verses later as doing whatever it took – even selling property or goods to see each other were cared for. We’ll come back to this.
c. The Breaking of bread: Shared meals which always included a reference to the idea of communion or the Lord’s Table. Eventually it became a technical term just for the Lord’s Supper.
d. The Prayers: They were a praying Church.
So we note first how Christians were marked out by how they were devoted to: The teaching of the Apostles; The Fellowship of Believers; The Breaking of Bread; and The Prayers. Devotion to these things speaks to us especially in our day where Christians face the twin giant enemies of: Distraction and Apathy.
The distraction of a 24 hour news cycle that incessantly cries out for our attention to all sorts of things – most of which we can do little if anything about – except be occupied with. Sports and other activities also vie for the Sunday time slot.
But then there is spiritual apathy: A loss of urgency and importance regarding the state of health and growth of one’s soul in the image of Christ. A willingness to be content with what we might call a bare salvation instead of a commitment to be actively engaged in what we know is the goal of Scripture for us as stated in places like Ephesians 4:11–14 ESV / And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.
We see the nature of this investment in vss. 44 &45
Acts 2:44–45 ESV / And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
Here is another common misunderstanding we need to address. Some have thought these verses teach that there was some form of communism or socialism afoot here. But that is to ignore the balance of Scripture. e.g. When we get to Ch.5 we read of the account of Ananias and Sapphira and how they claimed to have sold a piece of property for a certain amount of money to give to the Apostles to meet the needs of the needy. But Peter plainly reminds them that when they owned the property it was theirs to do with as they pleased, as were the proceeds of the sale. These didn’t automatically become communal property.
The early Church did not have all their goods in common as though private ownership disappeared. This was a voluntary giving up of some things so that those among them who were truly in need were provided for. They had all things in common in this sense: They shared common concern for one another’s welfare so that what they had was to be employed to meet one another’s needs.
But if we imagine this to be merely a financial or material concern – we completely miss the balance of Scripture. As we’ll see in a minute, if we do not have a burden for the needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ – and ESPECIALLY for their spiritual needs, we cannot carry out the most vital aspects of being committed to one another – of being invested in the lives of some group or body of Believers. They had a common faith which led to common goals and therefore common concerns for one another in concert with those goals. Above all, the goal of growing together into the image of Christ – taking on His character in spiritual growth.
Which brings us to the 3rd consideration here:
And this commitment showed itself in a very specific way: Acts 2:46–47 ESV / And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
Once again we are into some serious myth-busting. It surrounds the ideas of commitment to a particular group of Believers. And I know this is an area of disagreement among true and sincere Christ followers.
There are those who object to a worship service like we’re a part of this morning, since, (as the argument goes) the early Church didn’t meet in Church buildings, they met in homes. So this whole coming to a Church building thing is an invention of organized religion. So they reject the need for gathering together as we do today as an invention. Then, there are those who will argue that coming together for gathered worship is really the whole shebang of being “Church”. That once they’ve performed their holy duty for the week – they want to be left alone. Church is a once a week meeting. Been there, done, that, got the T-shirt, see you next week. That is their entire conception of “Church.”
But Scripture challenges both of those ideas.
How it does, and how that is confirmed in history is important to investigate. But in doing so, I want to rephrase our original question. The title so far has been Why go to Church? I’m going to switch that to: Why BE the Church? The reason for the change should be obvious to most of you – I hope. Church is NOT a building or an organization. It is because the Church is not this building – or any building for that matter. The Church is the people who meet here. Believers gathering, THAT, is Church.
Under the Old Covenant, the Mosaic and Jewish order, God’s presence dwelt in the Tabernacle and then in the Temple, within the Holy of Holies – the inner most part that God had commanded be fabricated as a place for His presence to be among His people. That economy was one of types and shadows – not the final form of what God was after. Now, under the New Covenant, we have an entirely new arrangement.
Paul spells it out in Ephesians 2:18–22 ESV / For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
We meet here in what we can call a Church building, but it’s merely a meeting place – it is NOT “the Church.” We, indeed all those who believe in Jesus Christ are “the Church.” We as a people are now His dwelling place. So we do not in truth gather to come TO Church as much as we gather to BE the Church. To be the public gathering of those who are God’s people: Christ’s Congregation.
But what about the way we gather? Is it Biblical?
Why “going to Church” looks the way it does.
As I mentioned above, some people object to the need for this kind of weekly gathering arguing that the early Church didn’t do this, they just met in homes. Didn’t they? Well, no. As our text notes: Day by day they attended the Temple together AND, they broke bread in their homes. It was not an either/or construct – it was a both/and. And to be honest with you, I never saw the true importance of the 2nd idea here – in terms of meeting in the homes until the last couple of years.
Now for those who object to needing to gather in the larger context we need to look at some Scriptural evidence. 1st we need to remember that when Jesus was here, He did the majority of His teaching and preaching in the Synagogue and not outdoors or in homes. Luke 4:14–16 ESV / And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all. And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read.
When Jesus was being tried and questioned by the High Priest He responded: John 18:20 ESV / Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.
On the Day of Pentecost, there were 120 gathered in the “upper room.” A facility about this size. When Paul was booted out of the Synagogue in Corinth, he found a new meeting place – renting the “hall of Tyrannus” for 2 years. With all of Jesus’ disciples being Jews, the “church” format they would be most familiar with was the weekly Synagogue service. This proves to be the pattern the early Church followed.
Acts 15:21 tells us the basics.
Acts 15:21 ESV / For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.”
And historians tell us what that looked like in full. Their Sabbath gathering had 5 elements.
a. The Shema was read: A prayer that included Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Numb. 15:37-41.
b. There were special synagogue prayers recited – most often a collection called the “18 Benedictions.”
c. Then the reading of the Law: The 1st 5 books of the Bible divided up into 3 year cycle that took them through all 5.
d. Then a selection by the Prophets was read. This portion was what the sermon was about with an explanation of the text and an exhortation to apply it to your life.
e. Then a closing benediction.
That’s what it looked like when Jesus “went to Church.” It is not surprising then that the earliest Christian church services followed that pattern pretty closely.
We get a fascinating testimony to this from an unexpected secular source – Pliny Secundus – or Pliny Jr. in around 110 C.E. He was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor and often tried, tortured and executed Christians.
In one of his letters to the Emperor Trajan he wrote this about what he knew of Christians:
The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ Pliny the Younger – They (the Christians) were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.
His reference to “innocent” food was in dispelling the rumour by enemies that Christians were cannibals.
He also noted they were from all strata of society. But rising before dawn to meet, showed an accommodation so slaves could be there without neglecting their duties, and the rich would go out of their way to join them.
Christian apologist Justin Martyr wrote down what he observed in the Church. This is around 140 C.E.:
Ante-Nicene Fathers 1: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus Chapter LXVII / And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability,2 and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.
But then, as our text says, they also broke bread in their homes. They were committed to this dual pattern – why?
Because, only meeting in the larger setting – we cannot truly invest in one another’s lives as we saw in our 2nd point. We can’t love one another as Christ has loved us.
Unless we meet in smaller, more intimate and personal ways, we cannot carry out the “one anothers” of Scripture in any meaningful or complete way. This becomes the role of what we call “small groups.”
What does that look like? Let’s do a whirlwind tour of some passages to get a bit of that picture.
Romans 12:10 ESV / Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
Where in the world can we show brotherly affection to one another and strive to outdo each other in showing honor – unless we are TOGETHER? We can’t.
Romans 12:16 ESV / Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.
We often prefer to live in harmony apart from one another – which is an oxymoron. To harmonize with those who strike different notes. To associate with those who don’t come up to our standard. Humble ourselves. These can only be done in relationships, not as passing ships on a Sunday morning.
Romans 15:7 ESV / Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
Romans 16:16 ESV / Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.
2 Corinthians 13:11 ESV / Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.
Restoring broken relationships is up close and personal – it is not done in public worship. Comforting one another is intensely personal – as is living in peace with those you may disagree with in areas.
Galatians 5:13 ESV / For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.
Galatians 6:2 ESV / Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
Bearing one another’s burdens again is something best carried out in smaller, closer groups.
Ephesians 4:2 ESV / with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
Gentleness, patience bearing with each other are only done in close personal frameworks.
Ephesians 4:32 ESV / Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Forgiveness is ALWAYS personal.
Ephesians 5:19 ESV / addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart,
Ephesians 5:21 ESV / submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Colossians 3:16 ESV / Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV / Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.
Hebrews 3:13 ESV / But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
It is one thing for us to gather and be exhorted to keep from letting sin harden our hearts from the pulpit – but this is a call to do this personally. One on one.
Hebrews 10:24 ESV / And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,
James 5:16 ESV / Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
1 Peter 4:9 ESV / Show hospitality to one another without grumbling.
Is there a sum to all of this? Indeed. Scripture not only calls us to love one another, it uses these passages and more to show us HOW to love one another.
“For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Gal. 5:14
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Jn 13:34–35.
The simple truth is, this kind of love cannot possibly be lived out in a once a week meeting nor even just in our own families. It will require getting together with other saints within contexts where we know each other, know our lives, confidentially share our sins and weaknesses, and burdens and draw from each other. Where we love each other. When this is not a part of life with this or some other congregation, we are more like consumers, but not true members of each other. This requires a true commitment to be growing in Christ and advancing His kingdom in partnership.
Some may come to Church like they go to their favorite restaurant. It is where you get the food you want. But no one has a commitment to a restaurant to see it though good and bad, highs and lows, to better the other patrons and preserve its service in the community and beyond.
And so we have to ask ourselves, is this somewhat similar to how I respond to the preached Word of God from week to week? I go. I listen. I like to hear it done well or at least pleasingly. But that’s where it ends?
To use another analogy, some treat commitment to a Church pretty much the way I do my gym membership: I can go there when I want; and I always want it to be there (that’s why I pay my dues). I’ll complain if the equipment needs repair or the help doesn’t treat me well – but I have no real commitment to it. No commitment to the others there and their health or progress. If I don’t like something, I’ll just move on. I mean just having something that says I belong there makes me feel healthier, even if I don’t go – right?
Beloved, that may be going to church for some, but it is far, far different than BEING Church. In fact, this is the basis for why we have something called church “membership.” No, the word isn’t in the Bible but the concept sure is. It’s purpose is to establish groups committed to carrying out the Biblical paradigm of a people devoted to the Apostle’s teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers together. Committed to meeting the common needs of some group of Believers both materially and spiritually in both contexts of public worship and breaking bread in our homes.
I know some object to the term “membership” – that’s fine. But without question Scripture presents us with a commitment – by whatever name you wish to give it – to this Biblical pattern and its goals. The very synagogue model Jesus and the Apostles functioned in and, that the early Church was built upon – was this one of being committed members of a particular synagogue and group. Not one of being mere attendees with no lasting commitment if things don’t meet their particular preferences.
Both testaments portray this formal kind of relationship as truly important.
In the Old Testament – the ultimate act of discipline in Jewish society was for one to be “cut off” from God’s people. The 1st of about 40 times this phrase is used in the 5 books of Moses is in Genesis 17:14 ESV / Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”
In some cases the phrase clearly means capital punishment. But the most common use meant that the person could no longer live as an accepted member of the community of God’s people. The worst thing that could happen to you was that you lost your identification as one of God’s people. “Cut off.”
When we come to the NT we have the very same concept. So what happens in 1 Cor. 5 when there is a man in the Church who will not repent of his sexual immorality? 1 Corinthians 5:11–13 ESV /
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”
“Purge the evil person from among you.” Let him not be identified with the People of God. Identify him as an unbeliever – which would mean barring him from the Lord’s table – the most potent symbol of being joined to the Church.
Now in our culture, should this happen, most would barely care since they take such a low view of the Lord’s Table to begin with. It isn’t a matter of “if I can’t” but “if and when I want to” – when Paul calls being debarred from the table being delivered over to Satan in vs. 5. If membership has no importance, such a thing makes no sense. And in truth, to many of us today, it doesn’t to us either. “So I’m not identified with God’s people in this place – I’ll just go where it doesn’t matter.”
I will grant you that Church membership is not identical to a marriage – but they do share the common feature of formal commitment. Couples who merely live together, no matter how much they share, tend to one another and maybe even own together – have nevertheless said in effect – in remaining unmarried – “I’m here, only until I’m not. I have no true obligation to you.”
And so it is with many in the Church. They may work and serve and attend and for what it is, that is great. But if there is no obligation, no commitment beyond “I’m here, only until I’m not” – then there will be precious little true investment in other’s spiritual welfare, for in the final analysis, their own welfare comes first. There is no obligation to love the others. And love, always includes obligation on some level. Always.
For the early Church, membership was simple: When someone believed the Gospel and was baptized, they were now considered members of that band of Believers. It was seamless. Not so today. And I think we’ve lost something powerfully significant here.
Well, where does all this take us? Let me just cite 3 things. Why COME to Church? Why BE the Church?
a. Because it is the Church that Jesus died for, not only for individuals. Ephesians 5:25–27 ESV / Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
We can forget that Christ’s salvific work has both an individual and a corporate aspect. We must embrace both. Our salvation unites us to Christ, but also to His Body.
b. Because the Biblical model is one of committing ourselves to other Believers in some formal fashion. We see this very clearly in Paul. Acts 9:26 ESV / And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
The idea behind the word join in this passage carries more than the idea of mere association – it is to associate with some form of bond. Paul wanted to be recognized as part of them in some formal capacity – so that he could serve and fully enter in with their approval. It is even used by Paul of someone consorting with a prostitute – so that the bond is more than a handshake. It is more than a passing association. And such is the nature of Paul’s converted soul, that he desires more than just being born again and part of the universal church, he desires to be bound to these believers he has found – not just to know them but to “join” them, to enter into a bond with them.
In 1 Cor. 6:17 it is the same word used for the Believer who is joined to Christ in one Spirit. This is more than a mere associative relationship. And joining the Believers in any place is much more than just showing up among them as one sees fit. As I said above, it is analogous to (while not identical with) a marriage. And bears some of those characteristics.
In Galatians 2:9 Paul mentions being given “the right hand of fellowship” or partnership by James & John in Jerusalem. Craig Evens notes in his commentary – in Roman culture such a handshake was considered a pledge between honorable persons. It wasn’t just politeness. But among the Jews it was not just symbol of agreement, but of a sacred covenant.
The Biblical model is one of formally joining ourselves and committing to some group of believers. Whatever we call it.
Have you made such a sacred covenant with some body of Believers?
c. Because we are called to minister to one another in ways that only a deep commitment to some particular persons can be carried out. Earlier we looked at 17 specific “one another” passages. There are at least 13 more we didn’t cite. The cumulative message is unmistakable: We cannot carry out these exhortations, these true obligations to our brothers and sisters in Christ without being in a committed relationship with a number of them. It is impossible. Christ has died for His Church, not just for me or you as individuals. And I cannot love Him, without loving the object of His love. To love Him, I must “be Church” with His Church.
Beloved, don’t just come to Church, BE the Church.