"The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God." – Genesis 17:8
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And fear came upon every soul; and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of 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.”
If you’re like me then you’ve probably read the above passage and noticed a discrepancy between what is described in the Acts of the Apostles and the way that you would describe your local congregation. For the past several years I have been longing for something more; I feel as though I’m staring into utter darkness, reaching for something that I can’t see but I know is there.
God has given us a blueprint for how His church should run within the book of Acts. I believe that it is our responsibility, as Christians, to review this vital book and begin burning the worthless chaff that has blown into our churches over the past centuries. We must prune our congregations so that they might more closely resemble the church of the first-century; the church that learned directly under the tutelage of the physical Christ.
Over the next several weeks, we will be looking at Acts 2:41-47 and comparing the primitive church to the modern church. I hope that you’ll join me in trying to understand what has happened to Christ’s bride and what we can do to get it back to the way that it should be. I would appreciate any comments, suggestions, and questions; so, if you have any, don’t be afraid to send them in. Now, let’s get started…
And they devoted themselves…
The word, ‘devotion’ has several meanings, including: profound dedication and earnest attachment to a cause. The word’s etymology suggests the idea of someone taking a vow of dedication. If you look at the Greek word that is used here, “proskarterew” (proskartereo), you will discover a word whose meaning is something like ‘continuing steadfastly’. So, no matter how you look at it, these early Christians were described as living lives that were both consistent and constant. Over the next few weeks, we will begin to look at the various ways in which this was true; but, for now I’d like to simply focus in on this idea. This idea of devotion can be a hard concept for us, Americans, to understand so I’d like to look at two places in order to get a better understanding of what devotion is before we go any further. Those two places? The ancient nation of Israel and the primitive Christian Church.
The Nation of Israel…
The book of Exodus reveals to us that Israel’s relatively small family of seventy individuals had exploded into a full-blown nation within Egypt. In fact, it tells us that “the descendants of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong; so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). The story that follows is a very well-known one. A Hebrew boy who is raised as Egyptian royalty eventually leads the entire nation of Israel out of Egyptian bondage through the power of the Almighty God. Soon the nation of Israel was on its way to the land that God had promised its forefathers: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. However, due to a series of complaining streaks, Israel would end up wandering around the Sinai Peninsula for forty years before God would finally allow them entry into their ‘promised land.’
For forty years this nation of men, women and children lived together in an intimate, nomadic community. For these people, Judaism was not simply a religion that they engaged themselves in. Judaism was their way of life; it defined them. In fact, before they were sentenced to forty years of wandering, God had bestowed a set of laws for living on them. He had given them what we call the ‘Ten Commandments.’ But, beyond that, he gave them laws and rules that would dictate every aspect of their lives; from their sexual practices (Leviticus 18:20-23) to the way they built buildings (Deuteronomy 22:8) to how to judge crimes and accidents (Exodus 21). They were given certain specifications with what they could and couldn’t eat (Leviticus 11). God had even given them requirements for how to retain sanitation within the camp (Deuteronomy 23:12-13). These people didn’t live in one reality known as ‘work’ or ‘school’ and then, once a week, enter another reality, ‘church’. These people ate, thought, drank and breathed Judaism. Again, it defined their very existences.
As if the rules and regulations that God had placed on them were not enough, these Jews also lived a life whose schedule was fully dictated by God. Every week they took a day off; simply because God had modeled and demanded it. And every seventh year God demanded that they allow the land to rest by not planting on it. Not only were they told not to plant once every seven years, they also had a year of jubilee every fifty years all debts would be absolved and all slaves would be made free (Leviticus 25). You see, God desired to permeate these people’s lives. His desire was not merely to be someone they acknowledged once a week; He wanted to remind them that He was always around them. Every time they ate, they were reminded of His dietary laws. Every time they built a building, they were reminded of His building code. Every time they went to the bathroom, they were reminded of his sanitary laws. Their religion was not merely a religion; it truly was a way of life that saturated all things and when one’s life is totally immersed in something like that it’s hard not to be devoted.
The Early Christians…
Now, remember that when God became man in the person of Jesus; he was a Jew. And he was a Jew who preached to Jews. So, most of the primitive Christians were converts from Judaism, which means that these early Christians retained many of their Jewish sensibilities. They still adhered to the dietary laws that were laid down in the Tanakh (the Christian’s Old Testament). They still followed the laws regarding the Sabbath and they had added several holidays to their calendar since the time of Moses as well. The Jews, especially the Pharisees and Essenes, still had a very distinct sense of brotherhood with one another. In fact, many of them wouldn’t even associate with their cousins to the north (the Samaritans) much less complete Gentiles. This attitude of self-superiority even had a short-lived foothold in the early church (Galatians 2:14). Fortunately, God rooted it out before it became a huge problem too soon. Nevertheless, the early Christians had a very strong sense of devotion just as the Jews did.
These primitive Christians lived during a very dangerous and barbaric time of history. They were in constant danger of torture and death. It wasn’t many years after Christ’s death when “Herod the king stretched out his hand to harass some from the church. Then he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded further to seize Peter also” (Acts 12:1-3). Not only were the Herodians (one of four sects of first-century Judaism) after the Christians; but, Saul, a Pharisee, also sought “letters from [the high priest] to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9:2). But these men and women weren’t only in danger from other Jews; they were also in danger from the Roman government. In fact, Eusebius writes that the Roman emperor Nero “did not proceed to destroy so many thousand with any calculation but with such indiscriminate murder as not even to refrain from his nearest and dearest friends” (Eusebius, pg. 63). These were dangerous times for the Christians and they would get more dangerous before they would become any safer.
And yet, even though these were very dangerous times for these early Christians; they continued to devote themselves to their faith. In spite of the danger, they met together daily. They persevered in prayer and fasting. They never gave up evangelizing; trying to reach others with this good news that God had entrusted them with. What an amazing testimony these early church members should be to us. They never quit pushing towards the goal in spite of persecution and dangers. Paul once wrote, “As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’ Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:36-37). That is true devotion; Christianity defined who they were and what they represented.
How do we compare?
We live in a very different environment than the first Christians did. They had to be in constant fear for their lives while we need have no such fear. They were rejected for what they believed and stood for. We live in a country where Christianity is the majority religion (that doesn’t mean, mind you, that we have a majority of Christians in our country). Obviously, we don’t have to deal with many of the issues that those first Christians had to deal with. Our lives are easier and we have more potential free time. Surely with an environment that is so conducive to spiritual growth, we should be some of the best Christians that history has to offer. We certainly have the capabilities, don’t you think?
Unfortunately, this is not the case at all. Rather than meeting together every day like those early Christians (and meeting at a time when every time they met together put them in danger), most Christians in America meet together once or twice a week at most. And many times, rather than gathering for prayer (see Acts 4), we get together to be entertained or achieve a feeling. In a nation where 85% of its population is Christians, it’s odd to note that polls show only 18% of people say “that completely understanding and carrying out the principles of their faith was [their] highest priority” (Barna). Only 18% of people have placed faith as their number one priority! What happened to Jesus’ words that “if anyone comes to [Him] and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be [His] disciple” (Luke 14:26)? Isn’t that what devotion is? Holding something as your number one priority?
“Surely”, you’re thinking, “there must be more than a meager 18% of Americans who are truly devoted to their religion.” Unfortunately, other facts bear this out. Recent research has shown that only 21% of Americans are attending church weekly; much lower than has previously been assumed (Hadaway). “But,” you say, “I can be a Christian without attending church!” Indeed you can. However, the sad fact is that, according to a recent poll by George Barna’s organization, a third of people who call themselves Christians are “more similar in lifestyle to non-Christians than to evangelicals” in the following ways: “the likelihood of discussing faith matters, volunteering, turning off offensive television programs, discussing moral issues, gambling, using tobacco, having sex outside of marriage, getting drunk, and passing on encouragement to others” (Chang). George Barna goes on to say that “these statistics highlight the fact that millions of people who rely on Jesus Christ for their eternal destiny have problems translating their religious beliefs into action beyond Sunday mornings” (Chang). What a sad state many of America’s churches are in! There is no sense of devotion in many who profess Christ today. Christianity has often become a means to an end; whether that end is friendship, peace, better finances or salvation after we die. Christianity may help us reach all of those things; however, it is so much more. It is the power of God to transform our lives here and now; as well as after we die. What potency! How sad that there is so little devotion…So little of Christ.
What can we do?
By now, you’re probably wondering what I’m going to suggest we do. How do we get back to a church that reflects Jesus Christ instead of our culture? How do we achieve a first-century church? Well, first we need to understand a fundamental aspect of the church. Paul writes, in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church…” (1 Corinthians 12:27). He goes on to list various jobs that churches need and God has provided. However, right now I’m more interested in how he defines the church. You see, the Church is a collection of Members that make up one Body. Earlier in this chapter of First Corinthians, Paul describes the Church as a physical body that has a mouth, nose, ears, etc. He reminds us that the Body can’t function without all of its parts working together. Our churches are made up of individuals. We can’t change the church without changing the individuals within it; and once we change the individuals, the church will naturally follow. So, if we want our churches to function like first-century churches; we’re going to need to function like first-century Christians.
And that is what this series of articles is all about. We’re going to look at the ways the early church and the individuals that made it up functioned in order to learn how we might better function. We can see that there is an obvious lack of devotion within many churches today. Many Christians simply aren’t vowing to live for Christ like the word implies. So, how do we become more devoted? And what exactly do we devote ourselves to? Practically, what can leaders do to encourage others to be more devoted? What are our churches doing wrong? Right? How can we fix it? May God bless our minds with wisdom and understanding and give us the courage and boldness to make the changes that are necessary.
Chang, Pauline J. May 27, 2004. “The Christian Post”, Statistics: Sunday Christians Among American Adults
Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History; Translated by: C. F. Cruse. Published 1998 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc..
Hadaway, C Kirk; Marler, Penny Long; “How many Americans attend worship each week? An alternative approach to measurement ” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 44 no 3 S 2005, p 307-322