“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you, and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20, NASB).
1) A Portrait of the Early Church (David McClister)
A Portrait of the Early Church
The New Testament is our pattern for living. Its pages reveal the will of God concerning personal godliness, church organization, our relationship with non-Christians, and a host of other subjects. The New Testament shows us, through various figures and numerous examples, how God wants us to live and work as His children.
If I may be allowed to use the imagery of a photograph album, the book of Acts preserves for us a series of snapshots of how the Christian life was lived in the first century A. D. It is the New Testament pattern in the form of historical, literary pictures. As one goes from chapter to chapter in Acts, he sees picture after picture of life in the early church. An interesting picture appears in Acts 4:23-35. In this portrait of the early church we can see several remarkable things which we ought to have in the church today. The portrait of Acts 4:23-35 shows the early Christians in a difficult situation: Peter and John had just been released by Jewish officials, having been threatened not to preach Christ publicly. Yet because of the marvelous features apparent in this portrait, the early church stood firm.
These Christians knew about the power of prayer and used it! When the world threatened them, they did not disband. They did not waste their precious time worrying about the threat of persecution (Phil. 4: 6), nor did they place their trust in their own plans, programs, or strength. Instead they gathered together to pray. They knew that God cared for their state and was receptive to their pleas, and thus they placed the matter squarely in His hands. Even if they themselves could do nothing to stop the threats of their enemies, they knew that God could and would care for His own.
Their prayer, recorded in Acts 4:24-30, is a gem. First of all, these Christians asked for strength to do God’s work (v. 29). How many times do we find ourselves asking God to do our work for us! But these Christians were not so lazy. They wanted to do God’s work, and they prayed for the necessary strength. Sure, the work was difficult, and they knew it. That is why they did not try to do it on their own. The early Christians knew that they could be effective only if they relied on the strength which God supplied, not on themselves. We would all be benefited immeasurably if we would stop asking for worldly things, which only drains our strength and hinders growth (Jas. 4: 3), and start praying as the early Christians prayed.
Secondly, the early Christians realized in their prayer that all things, including their present distress, were in accordance with God’s plan (vv. 24-28). They, like their Lord, had resigned themselves to accept God’s will and working, and put their own desires aside. How great a lesson this is for us today! Too many times the Lord’s work is hindered because of our petty jealousies and conflicting worldly desires. We ought to review what commitment to Christ really means.
God heard their prayer and answered it. Although we may not expect miraculous answers to prayer (of the kind in Acts 4:31) today, we may still expect an answer to our prayer. Just as God indicated His support of these early Christians, so will He be on our side if we will resolve to do God’s will regardless of what the world says and ask for God’s help in doing it.
The early church was united. One of the most common features among all the portraits of early church life in Acts is the unity of the believers. That such an emphasis on unity should be apparent is no accident. God wants us to know that a church which is pleasing to Him is not ridden with strife and factions, but rather is united in peace (Eph. 4:3).
The portrait in Acts 4:23-35 gives great place to unity. “And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul: and not one of them said that aught of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common” (v. 32). Their unity was not superficial, but real. It was grounded in their hearts and souls and was manifest in their attitudes toward each other. The determination and sentiment among them was one. And it is this very thing which accounts in a great measure for the immense strength of the early church. Rome fell to pieces in the first century but the church stood solid. Herein lay God’s message on growth, effectiveness, and progress: it begins with unity in spirit. But where there is selfishness there is no flowering of the Lord’s work.
The early Christians knew that their primary work was to preach the gospel to the lost. Thus Acts 4:33 records, “And with great power gave the apostles their witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.” This preaching the gospel with great power was due in part to the unity of the church, but its real cause lay in the grace of God. Grace is favor. God favored and approved of the work these Christians were doing in spreading the gospel, and He blessed them in doing it. Brethren, God will bless us in the same way if we will just get engaged in that same work.
Because the early church was evangelistic, it grew. Notice that it grew, not swelled. There is a difference. Churches swell in size when there is a shifting of members to different locations, but growth only comes when there are new additions to God’s family. But more specifically, the early church grew because of the essence of its evangelism: the resurrection of Christ. The first century Christians did not push human creeds or try to accommodate current social tastes. They simply laid emphasis upon Christ’s resurrection, knowing that this is the cornerstone of Christianity and the very basis of Christian living (Rom. 6:4; Eph. 4:24).
Characterized By Love and Devotion Among Its Members
Acts 4:34f is one of the most remarkable features of this portrait of the early church. When was the last time you saw or heard of a Christian selling his house to help another Christian financially? I am not denying that this ever happens today, but you must agree that it occurs only rarely. I know that our society is extremely affluent compared to the setting of the New Testament, and that saints in such a condition of need as in Acts 4:34f are usually not seen as a result. But what Acts 4:34f shows is a lack of worldliness in a willingness to help one another. The Christians of the first century freely gave up their possessions for the cause of Christ, and this was the effect of their great love and devotion to each other in the Lord. Such love is described in 1 Cor. 13, and its results are seen here. Eph. 4:16 describes these Christians perfectly.
Of course these Christians were devoted to Christ more than anything else, but their devotion to Christ caused them to love each other in a sacrificial way. They did not mind sacrificing possessions and pleasure for the benefit of brethren. And so must our attitude be today. The apostle John asked the timeless question, “But whoso hath the world’s goods, and beholdeth his brother in need, and shutteth up his compassion from him, how doth the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word, neither with the tongue; but in deed and truth” (1 Jn. 3: 17f).
In Acts 4:23-35 we see the church as God would have it. But the Lord’s church in any locale can only be this way with the “working in due measure of each several part” (Eph. 4: 16). If the local church is to be pleasing to God, it will take each member working with this goal in mind. Let us all resolve to copy the portrait of Acts 4.
— Via Searching the Scriptures, Volume XXVI, Number 1, January 1985
CHURCH OF CHRIST
1402 Tebeau Street, Waycross, GA 31501
Sunday services: 9:00 a.m. (Bible class); 10 a.m. & 5 p.m. (worship)
Wednesday: 7 p.m. (Bible class)
evangelist/editor: Tom Edwards (912) 281-9917
http://thomastedwards.com/go (Older version of Gospel Observer website without pictures, but back to March 1990)
http://ThomasTEdwards.com/audioser.html (audio sermon)