The Marks of the Early Church

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Pastor Scott L. Harris

Grace Bible Church, NY

May 3, 1998

The Pattern for the Church

Acts 2, 1 Thessalonians 1


This morning I want to continue in a similar theme to what I spoke on a couple of weeks ago. Last week marked the end of my 7th year of ministry here. I think all of you – both those who have been here many years and those only a few months – should know my heart and mind. You should know what I believe and where I am headed. You also need to think through what the Scriptures say concerning the church and what it should and can be.


The church is defined differently by different people. The state defines it as a nonprofit institution and requires certain things from it for it to exist as a legal entity and do business. Things such as constitutions with dissolution clauses and designated trustees may be important for the purpose of holding property and opening checking accounts and such, but the church of Jesus Christ exists apart from any building, business transactions, constitutions and designated trustees. The church of Jesus Christ exists apart from any state, nation or human government for the church belongs to God, not man.

Some people treat the church, for all practical purposes, as a social club of one sort or another. Some with the base motives of making good business contacts, others simply with the desire to be with people who are like they are. But the church of Jesus Christ is not a social club! Certainly there are many social aspects to a church as the people interact with one another, and there might even be some natural business contacts made in that interaction, but the fellowship of the saints is for the purpose of helping one another become conformed to the image of the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:29; Eph. 4:12f), not assisting good financial transactions. It is comfortable to be with people who are like yourself, but the true church is composed of people from every imaginable background. One of the reasons I wore this tie was as an illustration and reminder that the church is made of folks from every nation and every tribe on earth (Rev. 5:9). It might make us a bit uneasy at times to be with folks that have a different cultural background, different habits and personal standards, yet that is what the church of Jesus Christ is made up of.

Technically our English word, “church,” comes from (kuriakon ) kuriakon and means “belonging to the Lord.” It used in such places as 1 Cor. 11:20 & Rev. 1:10. The word was first used to describe the place where the followers of Jesus met and then later for the people too.

The Greek word usually translated as “church” in your English Bibles is (ekklasia) ekklasia and simply means the “called out ones” or “the assembly.” Its reference to what we think of as “the church” is the “ones called out by God” or “the community of believers.”

There are many metaphors used in Scripture to describe the church. In 1 Peter 2 it is described as a temple – “a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” This description emphasizes that one of the purposes of the church is the worship of God.

In Revelation 19 & 21 the church is described as the “bride” of Christ. This places emphasis on her special relationship to the Lord.

Several passages such as Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:15 and 1 John 3:1 describe the people of the church as the “children of God” who can cry out to Him, “Abba, father.” Such verses describe the adoption we have received and our new standing we have with God as the objects of His fatherly love.

Then there are passages such as Romans 12 & 1 Cor. 12 that describe the church as the body of Christ. The emphasis being on our ministry to one another and the world on His behalf as well as describing our relationship to one another. What a beautiful metaphor in those passages as the importance of every member of the body is emphasized as being vital to the health of the whole.

I have preached on the nature of the church in detail in the past, so I am not going to repeat that this morning, you can pick up a tape on the subject if you would like. What I want to emphasize this morning is that the church of Jesus Christ is not an institution of man and cannot be defined, structured or operated according to organizations man has formed. The church is instead an organism made up of the people of God and created by Him for His own glory. It must be defined, structured and allowed to live, grow and function according to His instructions.

If this is what the church is, then a question that must be asked is how do we assess a church to know if it is a true church, and what factors must we examine to see if the church is healthy or not. To answer these questions we are going to look at the birth of the church in Acts 2.


Now as we look at Acts remember that Acts is a historical book that describes the transition God’s program from centering in the nation of Israel to the grafting in of gentiles for the formation of the Church. The church does not replace Israel, for God still has a plan for that nation and will keep His promises to her. What has changed is that the message of God’s salvation is now proclaimed through the church.

As with any historical book we must be careful not to make the documented events into doctrine – that is the purpose of the epistles, but we can look at those historical events for patterns and examples.

As the book of Acts begins Jesus is still with the disciples after the Resurrection. Jesus tells them that the Holy Spirit would soon be sent to them and that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. They were then to go out and be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even to the remotest part of the earth. Jesus then ascended into heaven while they watched. And after he had gone out of sight two angels encouraged them that Jesus would return in the same manner in which he left. About a week later, the events of Chapter 2 begin.

2:1 And when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent, rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance.

The promised coming of the Holy Spirit had been fulfilled and it was first evidenced by the tongues of fire and their speaking in other tongues. Verses 5-11 explains what these other tongues were:

5 Now there were Jews living in Jerusalem, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6 And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were bewildered, because they were each one hearing them speak in his own language. 7 And they were amazed and marveled, saying, “Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 “And how is it that we each hear [them] in our own language to which we were born? 9 Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs– we hear them in our [own] tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God.

These other tongues were languages unknown to the speaker but known to the one listening. And what they declared were the mighty deeds of God.

The response of the people seeing – verse 12,13. And they all continued in amazement and great perplexity, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others were mocking and saying, “They are full of sweet wine.”

Some were just confused, some mocked and concluded that these folks had already become drunk on sweet wine – or “new wine” depending on your translation. Note verse 15 were Peter denies that anyone was drunk.

Peter then gets up and responds to the confusion and the mocking and delivers a very powerful sermon – in fulfillment of Jesus promise that after the Holy Spirit came upon them they would receive power to be His witnesses. Peter who only 50 days before was afraid to tell a servant girl that he knew Jesus is now direct and to the point with all these Jews that had gathered around. Just to give a taste of the power of this sermon without reading the whole thing, look a verse 36 – “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ– this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Peter was powerful and direct. The result, vs. 37, was that those listening were pierced to the heart and cried out, “Brethren, what shall we do?” The answer: repent and demonstrate the fruit of that repentance by being baptized. Vs. 40 tells us he continued to testify and exhort them to “Be saved from this perverse generation.”

The response – Verse 41 – So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Now consider the dilemma that now faced the apostles. Matthias had been added as an Apostle in Acts 1, so there were now 12 of them. I Cor. 15:6 tells us that there were at least 500 followers of Jesus prior to the ascension. Now in one day there were about 3,000 baptized believers added. Just the effort to baptize so many would have been quite an effort – good thing Peter preached early in the morning!

But now what were they to do with all these folks. How do you follow up that many people especially when as verse 47 indicates more were being added to their number daily? How do you train them in all the right things to believe – an even harder task since the New Testament was not even written yet. How do you organize them and train them how things operate when there is no organizational structure yet? What would you teach them even if you could organize a membership class of some sort? Those are all questions we might ask because of our own cultural backgrounds, but they did not concern the folks then.

Look at verses 42-47 to see how the people responded after being saved.

They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 And everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44 And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common; 45 and they [began] selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46 And day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47 praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

The response of the people was from the heart. No one even had to tell them what to do. These Jews would have already understood the Law of Moses and the moral code within it. Now they put it into practice because of desire, not because of coercion or compulsion. The promise of the new covenant was already being fulfilled – the Holy Spirit had come and the law of God was now in their hearts. They demonstrated the reality of this inner heart change by their attitude of continual devotion to four things. 1) the apostle’s teaching. 2) Fellowship, 3) breaking of bread, and 4) prayer. The effect on others was they gained their favor and the Lord continued to add to their number daily.

The first devotion they had was to the apostles doctrine. Remember, most if not all these folks would have been Jewish and therefore familiar with the Old Testament. The apostles doctrine would have explained the Old Testament in light of Jesus and His teachings. They would have taught about the life of Jesus, explained who He was, what He taught, how He fulfilled OT prophecy, the nature of true righteousness and that salvation from sin comes only by placing one’s trust in Jesus to forgive because of His sacrifice of Himself. How do we know this is what they would have done? Because we now have the Apostles’ doctrine in written form in the New Testament. We too can devote ourselves to the Apostles Doctrine.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, a key mark of someone who loves God is a love for His Word and a desire to live according to it. That is most clearly demonstrated in Psalm 119, which I had asked you to meditate upon previously. Jesus put it this way in John 14:21 – He who has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me . . . “ adding in vs. 23, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word . . . “.

A mark of true believers in a healthy church is a love for God’s word, a desire to study it, discuss it with others and to live by it. It is a desire that arises from the heart of an individual that wants to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29), and so wants to understand what that image is like. Paul told Timothy in 2 Tim. 2:15 to “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth.” We need to do likewise, for it is the Scriptures – inspired by God Himself that are profitable for teaching, reproof, correction and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16). It is in the Bible that we find God’s precious and magnificent promises that by them we might become partakers of the divine nature and escape the corruption that is in the world by lust (2 Pet. 1:4). The life of a Christian is directly tied to the Scriptures for they are the only special revelation He has given us of Himself, what He has done for us and how He wants us to live.

There is great danger when anything comes between us and the Word. There is not only the risk of vain worship – as Jesus warned in Matt. 15:9 – ‘But in vain do they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’ There is also the danger of a false gospel which could cost you your soul. Paul admonished the Galatians for this in Gal. 1:6 – “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ for a different gospel.” There are many other warnings and rebukes throughout the Scriptures about this danger. Paul gives a similar rebuke in 2 Cor. 11:4 in how readily they received teaching contrary to the apostles’ doctrine. In 1 Timothy Paul told Timothy to instruct certain men not to teach strange doctrines (1 Tim. 1:3), he warned him about those that would pay attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons (4:1-5), and those that would advocate doctrine different from that of Jesus Christ (6:3,4) and in 2 Timothy he warned that the time was coming when the people would not endure sound doctrine, but want their ears tickled (2 Tim. 4:3,4). This is also why Paul set out the qualification for Elders that they must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.”

Devotion to the apostles teaching was a mark of the Spirit’s working in the hearts of these first believers. Another mark was their devotion to fellowship.

I am not going to go into a long dissertation about this since I have preached on the subject before, but notice the depth of this fellowship in verses 44-46. Verses 44,45 are not advocations of any sort of socialism or communism – for such would be contrary to Acts 5 statement that they owned, sold and gave as they desired. There was not a requirement or compulsion. Rather what was occurring was the practice commanded in the Mosaic Laws to care for the poor (Deut. 15) being put into practice because it was now on their hearts to genuinely care for one another. This is the out working of all the “one another” verses in practical terms. True love now dwelt in their hearts for God and therefore for one another (1 John 3:17,18).

Note as well the attitude toward one another in verse 46 – “they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God . . . “. Their desire to be with one another resulted in their being together as much as possible. This fellowship was done because someone had organized or because there was any “tit for tat” reciprocation -, i.e., they invited us, so we invited them. This was genuine sharing and welcoming one another to each others homes because of the joy God had placed in their hearts – which erupted in praise of Him as they were in one anothers’ homes. Praise and worship of God naturally bubbled out as they got together – what more important thing could they talk about than what God had done and was doing among them?!

They were also marked by “breaking of bread.” Most New Testament scholars believe that this is a reference to the Lord’s table – partly because in verse 46 the “breaking of bread” is distinguished from “taking their meals together.” But notice where this great act of worship was occurring in verse 46 – “from house to house.” The apostles were among them, but the worship of the Lord’s table was not regulated to it being served on occasion by the apostles when everyone was together. Instead we find it was occurring “house to house.”

They were actually copying the practice that took place at the last supper – a meal shared by a family or several families together remembering what God had done in the past for them in freeing them from slavery in Egypt. Now they were doing the same but in reflection of what God had done in freeing them from sin through Jesus Christ. Let me challenge you to consider doing this at your own home with either your own family or ask another family or two to join with you. Each of you have Bibles to read through the accounts of what Jesus did and the meaning of each element. Read through the account of the Last Supper in one of the Gospel accounts or follow Paul’s teaching on it in 1 Cor. 11. If you know the Lord you have the Holy Spirit and have access to God directly. Now if you do not know the Lord, then none of this is for you in any setting.

Now you might say, “wait a minute, we can’t do that on our own.” Why not? You do not need me or someone else to be your “protestant priest” for you. Does not 2 Peter 2:9 say that you as a Christian are a “royal priesthood?”

But perhaps this gets again to the heart of the issue of the nature of the church. It is not an ecclesiastical organization which is to set up practices and traditions to which everyone must bend. It is rather the body of Christ, the people of God, joined in fellowship with one another because of their common communion with God Himself, and that is true whether it is a few Christians meeting in a home or thousands and thousands joining together in some big arena or stadium.

The unity among the body of Christ is not because it is forced, but because of the commonality of each individual Christian living according to the Spirit of God – or as Eph. 4 puts it, [There is] one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. 7 But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

The final mark of these first Christians was prayer. They had not been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ and they desired to talk with Him. It was their natural response to what God had done for them. The location did not matter – at the temple, in houses, in jail, wherever they might be. As I consider their practice, I see the lack in my own. Why should prayer be sort of shoved off to either designated times, or special meetings, or just when my heart is burdened. Should not prayer be a mark of fellowship whenever Christians get together – and I am not talking about just the prayer of thanksgiving over the meal. I know some of you have special concerns about different things that occur – whether that is something going on in government, a personal

concern, things going on with missionaries you know, whatever it may be – why not get some of your Christian friends together and pray together. This should be our common practice, not something that is just done on Wednesday nights at these facilities.

These early believers had a heart response to what God had done for them in saving them from sin that then demonstrated itself in very practical ways. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching that they might understand better what God was like, what He had done and how they were to live. They devoted themselves to true fellowship out of their overflowing love for God. They devoted themselves to true worship in prayer, praise and obedience to the Lord’s commands concerning the ordinances of baptism and communion. All of this done simply because it was on their hearts to do so. The Holy Spirit and the Word were sufficient.

No church is perfect because they are all made up of imperfect people – at best, just sinners saved by grace. But a church needs to understand the elements that should mark it. My desire is these marks of the early church should also be marks of this church, but these are not things that I or anyone else can force upon you even if we tried. They need to be on your hearts and need to flow out of your personal relationship with the Lord.

What any local church becomes is dependent on the relationship the people in the church have with the Lord Jesus Christ. If the people truly know and love the Lord they will serve Him and one another resulting in the fulfillment of Eph. 4:12f. The church will become mature and strong. It will build itself up. And from there it will significantly impact the community it is in. Are you a help or a hindrance to this church fulfilling its commission? If you are not a help, what are you going to do to change?

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