WHAT MARKED THE ASSEMBLY AT THE BEGINNING
These verses show us what marked the assembly at the beginning. Earlier in the Acts we find the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost and tongues of fire sitting on each one (Acts 2:1-4). Peter (and others, but Peter in particular) preaches in the power of the Spirit, and as a result three thousand persons believed and were baptised. It was a time of great blessing and addition, and evidence of the power of the Holy Spirit. Then we find that these persons “persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers.”
Much has changed since the days of the apostles, but these four things remain as characteristics of Christianity. They are things that we can enter into today. They provided a safeguard for the early Church, and they provide a safeguard for the assembly today. They are not dependent on gift: the teaching of the apostles was a matter of gift, but that teaching remains for us in Scripture, and the other things – fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayers – are matters that all believers can and should take up. So, with the Lord’s help, I want to say something about these four things for our help in the days we are in.
First, though, just a word on perseverance. I fasten on that because sometimes we think that just after Pentecost everything was very easy and straightforward. Yet I suspect that it was not like that at all. Believers needed commitment and perseverance. Perseverance is something that finds us out very easily. Even in ordinary things, it is often very easy to start something but quite difficult to keep it going. We find an example in the prophet Haggai. The people of God, having returned from the Babylonian captivity, began to build the house of God at Jerusalem on the 24th of the sixth month (see Hag 1:14‑15). Yet it seems that by the 21st of the seventh month the initial enthusiasm was being lost, and they needed a further word of encouragement (see Hag 2:1-5). It is very easy for all of us to start off in the things of God with great enthusiasm and then find that it is all too difficult, or to become distracted from what we have begun. The believers in Acts 2 persevered in these four things. That is a challenge for us today, for these four things that marked the assembly at the beginning are still important.
The teaching of the twelve must have been very distinctive because of what they were as having been with Jesus. When Peter set on the arrangements for filling the place that had been left by Judas’s treachery, the only persons who could be considered were those who had been “with us all the time in which the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day in which He was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21‑22). The apostles were all persons who had learnt personally from the Lord, and from the way that He did things. How wonderful it must have been to have seen the Lord, day by day, acting with such grace and blessing! Seeing, too, how He met provocation and despising. It affected them in their own spirits.
Then the other distinguishing feature of the twelve was that the Lord had directly commissioned them. He said, “As the Father sent Me forth, I also send you” (John 20:21). With what authority they went forth as having the Lord’s commission! They were to be witnesses, the Lord said, “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb are on the foundations of the wall of the Holy City (Rev 21:14). I think that gives us some idea of Heaven’s assessment of what they were, and the fact that the twelve laid the foundation. Their teaching would have gone far beyond words; there would have been a display of the character and spirit of the Lord Himself.
This is hugely important in Christian teaching. It is very easy for all of us to get hold of the words without the spirit that lies behind them. Paul, in writing to Timothy, says, “Have an outline of sound words” – but they were to be held “in faith and love” (2 Tim 1:13). I think that the apostles would have done that. They had an understanding that came from the Lord Himself. In Mark we read that the Lord spoke to the crowds in parables, and then explained everything privately to His disciples (see Mark 4:33‑34). When the Lord was in resurrection He appeared to the twelve, and to others, and He explained in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27, 44-46). That is why the apostles used the Old Testament with such freedom – they take the Scriptures, as we might think at times, almost out of their context and apply them directly to the Lord. They had received an understanding of the Scriptures that enabled them to use the Old Testament with great authority. So the apostles’ teaching can be relied upon.
People – even Christians, alas – sometimes say, ‘Times have changed,’ or ‘The teaching of the apostles, and the things written in the New Testament, just reflected the views of society at the time.’ It is not the truth! The apostles carried forward something from the Lord Himself. (I think that applies to what Paul writes as well, because he got something from the Lord – not in the same way as the twelve, but what he had was not contradictory to what they had.) So we can read in the Scriptures about the apostles’ teaching, and we can rely upon it. I would encourage everybody to read it for themselves. We often try to take the short cut of getting something through others. That is fine up to a point, but there is very great blessing in going back to the teaching of the apostles, reading it in the Scriptures and getting something for yourself as relying on the Holy Spirit; praying to Him that He might open up something in the Scriptures related to the Lord. That was the great characteristic of the teaching of the twelve, that they reflected something of the Lord Jesus. They had companied with Him, and what He did, the way He taught, and the way He served were reflected in what they did.
We see an example of that in Peter’s preaching here. He says, “Brethren, I know that ye did it in ignorance” (Acts 3:17). We might say that the Jews who condemned the Lord very obviously knew what they were doing. Peter says, “Ye did it in ignorance.” How could he say that? Well, he was reflecting the prayer of the Lord, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Whatever the outward appearances, that was the divine comment, and Peter follows it.
Peter would have preached with great feeling in Jerusalem, because he had seen the Lord’s tears. The Lord wept over Jerusalem and said, “If thou hadst known … the things that are for thy peace” (Luke 19:42). Then, too, the Lord had spoken of some of the dreadful things that were going to happen to the city, which came to pass in AD 70. Peter, knowing the Lord’s words, would have had particular concern because he knew that the city was coming under judgement, and he wanted as many people as possible to come to Christ before it happened.
When Peter went into the house of Dorcas, we see him reflecting what he had seen the Lord do in the house of Jairus (Mark 5:22‑24, 35-43; Acts 9:36‑41). Peter had learnt something through that experience with the Lord, and it was reflected in his own service. I think there was a most wonderful exposition of the ways of the Lord in the teaching of the apostles, so that persons who had never encountered Christ in their own lives came to see how wonderful and blessed a Person He is.
These early converts in Acts 2 persevered in the teaching of the apostles, and it would result in their being formed after Christ. You get an illustration of that in the history of Elisha. The Shunamite’s son died, and the woman came to Elisha. Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, was sent with Elisha’s staff, and the staff was to be laid on the lad. And what happened? Nothing at all! We can lay out ideas and things that perhaps very much ought to be done. But nothing happened in the way of life until Elisha came, and reflected, in type, something of the gentleness and grace of Christ – he stretched himself on the lad. And that is how life came in (2 Kings 4:17-37).
Life, too, was maintained in the company in Acts 2 after the pattern of Christ, because the apostles not only reflected in their teaching what they had learned personally from the Lord, but also conveyed something of His spirit and character. Now that has a message for all of us. What can I pass on of the grace and blessedness and true life that there is to be found in the Lord Jesus? As you go through the Gospels you find persons, such as that man who went through the whole of Decapolis (Mark 5:20), who are extraordinarily effective in reaching out to others. The woman of John 4 was one of them: she had life from Christ, and she imparted it to others. She said, “Come, see a man who told me all things I had ever done – is not He the Christ? They went out of the city and came to Him” (John 4:29-30). She made Jesus immensely attractive. She did not do that through any sort of eloquence, she did it just through the change that had been accomplished within her. And she reflected something of the blessedness of the Lord Jesus. The apostles in their teaching would have done that.
They could speak of His exaltation and glory too, because they had seen the Lord go up, and the Holy Spirit had come down to bring the witness of His glory in heaven. In that way all was maintained freshly and livingly. They had within them that fountain of water flowing out, as it says, “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38).
How thankful then we can be for the teaching of the apostles preserved for us in the Scriptures! They are given to us so that we can learn for ourselves at first hand, as it were. Then let us persevere in these things. Take them as a real reflection of the Lord and what He would do, and what He would have us do. Let us not get led astray into thinking that the time has passed for some of these things, because what is written in the New Testament stands for all time. The persons in Acts 2 persevered in the teaching of the apostles. They found blessing and preservation in it, and we shall do the same.
The Scripture also speaks of persevering in the fellowship of the apostles. John tells us what that fellowship was: he says, “Our fellowship is … with the Father, and with His Son” (1 John 1:3), but he does not intend that to be something known only by the twelve, because he writes (just before that) of others having fellowship with them. The result is that persons come into a realm of divine affections. Divine affection is first shown to us in the giving of Christ: “God commends His love to us, in that, we being still sinners, Christ has died for us” (Rom 5:8). But Christianity is to be a system where divine affection is known, and where we are to be brought into living communion with the Father and the Son. The Lord spoke about it when He said, “We” – that is, the Father and the Son – “will come to him and make Our abode with him” (John 14:23). That is the portion of a believer as keeping the Lord’s word. We are to know the reality of divine affections. That was the fellowship which the apostles had, and the fellowship into which these persons in Acts 2 came.
You see divine affections working out in the Christian company in the Acts where those that had substance sold their possessions and “distribution was made to each according as any one might have need” (Acts 4:35). The Christian company is marked by interest and concern for one another. This may often find its expression in prayer. Often we encounter circumstances where we feel that we can do very little to help, but we can always pray. In this way there is a working out of divine affections in the Christian company. It is the fulfilment of the Lord’s word, “By this shall all know that ye are disciples of Mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves” (John 13:35).
Where is the source of that love? It is in God Himself, the love of God shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. That love is to mark the Christian fellowship. Of course, there were various things that are recorded in the Acts, matters that brought in difficulties of one kind and another, and those things had to be dealt with. But underlying it all, the apostles’ fellowship was a fellowship of divine affections, known in our hearts in communion with the Father and the Son, and expressed towards one another.
What a company this must have been! What blessing must have been obvious in the company – “By this shall all know that ye are disciples of Mine, if ye have love amongst yourselves.” What a testimony in a world where love is so debased, and where even in families we see such break-up and confusion! Fellowship is a very practical thing. What a testimony there is in this fellowship, and what a preservative it is for us!
Then perseverance in the breaking of bread marked this company at the beginning. The breaking of bread is to bring us into real, living touch with the Lord Jesus. It takes us back in mind to the night on which the Lord Jesus was delivered up – the night when He set on what was to be done in remembrance of Himself (Luke 22:19). Every one who had been converted through Peter’s preaching would have been thankful to enter into that remembrance, with its symbols speaking of the Lord’s body given and His blood that was shed “for remission of sins” (Matt 26:28). Can you imagine any one who knew that remission not wanting to respond to the Lord in the way that He had desired?
The Lord’s supper is intended to bring us into accord with the mind of Heaven. The Lord Jesus is ascended up above all heavens (Eph 4:10). He has the first place in all things (Col 1:18). He is crowned with glory and honour (Heb 2:9) – given the place of utmost glory and exaltation in heaven. As we celebrate the supper there is an answer of worship, thanksgiving, and appreciation rising from our hearts to the Lord, so that in our affections, and in our companies, we give Him the first place – just as He has the first place in heaven. As heaven is filled with His praises, so our hearts are filled with His praise, and we rejoice to be able to enter into something of the joy of heaven in relation to our Lord Jesus. How worthy He is! We sing sometimes,
‘Now, in accord with the homage of heaven,
Rises a song from the hearts of Thine own.’
One great servant of God described worship as ‘the grateful and joyful response of the heart to God, when filled with the deep sense of the blessings which have been communicated from on high’ (‘On Worship,’ JND Collected Writings Vol 7 p87). I am sure that the persons in Acts 2 would have had a great sense of the divine blessing. As remembering the Lord, their hearts would have been focused upon Him and been filled with worship and praise.
I admire the apostle Paul for his action at Troas. Paul was speaking at length and Eutychus, overpowered with sleep, fell out of the window and was taken up for dead (see Acts 20:5-12). Paul went down and enfolded him. In that action Paul reflected something of the grace of Christ. It would have been so easy for him to continue with his address and let others deal with the problem. But no, Paul went down and Eutychus revived. What follows is very striking. It seems that immediately they went up and broke bread. Their hearts were to be focused on the Lord Himself. It would have been so easy for everyone to be focused on the miracle, or on Eutychus, or even on Paul. Yet what happened was that they broke bread and through that, I believe, everyone’s heart was focused on Christ. That is exactly what the breaking of bread is intended to do.
Many of us come from small gatherings, but when we come together to break bread I love to think of many others throughout the world who, in real affection for Christ, are giving Him the first place. I am glad to think of being, in that sense, at one with a vast company of people who remember Him and want to give Him the first place.
Giving Him the first place acts as a great preservative for us. Even as Christians we may easily be carried away by something of the glory of this world. When we remember the Lord in the breaking of bread, we do so in a world that has cast Christ out. The evidence of that grows continually around us, but it has always been so. Think of the world in which Peter was preaching in Acts 2. What had happened just a few weeks before? The Son of God had been crucified. I cannot think of a greater act of rejection than the Crucifixion. There is the same rejection today. There may be a certain outward order of things that appears to give recognition to Christ, but Christ is not wanted in this world. Thank God there are persons here who do want Him, who love Him, who know Him as their Saviour and Lord, and who love to give Him the first place! The breaking of bread focuses our hearts on that blessed Man for His own glory, and in due time the song of praise that starts on this earth will be carried on for ever in heaven. As we sang at the beginning of our time today:
‘In happier, holier strains we’ll praise
The grace that made us Thine.’
Well, finally, there is perseverance in prayer. Prayer is another of the great characteristics of the Christian dispensation.
The Lord Himself was a Man of prayer. He was always praying. Before He chose the disciples, He spent the night in prayer (Luke 6:12). We are also told that He went out into a desert place and was praying (Mark 1:35). He was here as a dependent Man. He was truly God, yet as come into manhood He was dependent. He demonstrated that dependence: even in relation to His miracles He said, “If by the finger of God I cast out demons” (Luke 11:20), or as it is rendered in one case, “If I by the Spirit of God cast out demons” (Matt 12:28). The Lord did things in dependence – it was as dependent Man that He met the devil in the temptations. He could have banished Satan in a moment by divine power, but He met him dependently as a Model for you and me.
So the Lord was often praying. We read of the Lord giving thanks to the Father for hearing Him (John 11:41); giving thanks for food, and giving thanks for the cup on the night in which He was delivered up (Matt 26:27). It is worth pondering that He gave thanks, even at that extreme moment.
The prayers of the Lord affected the disciples. The Lord made dependence attractive to them, and one day, after He had been praying, they said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Dependence is not attractive to any of us naturally. We like our own way and our own will, but the Lord made dependence attractive. Then those who were with Him must have heard that wonderful prayer recorded for us in John 17, when the Lord committed His own to the Father, and they saw the blessedness of Someone in communion with the Father.
How attractive prayer became! So in the early days, as you read in the Acts, the apostles together with “several women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brethren” “gave themselves all with one accord to continual prayer” (Acts 1:14). The reference to “several women” shows that everyone in the Christian company is to be involved. We have a great privilege and resource in prayer, because it enables us to bring God into our matters. We can pray to God about anything that concerns us. The Lord encouraged persons to pray. He told His own of their heavenly Father Who cares for us and answers even before we ask. The Father has such care that even the hairs of our heads are numbered (Matt 10:30). I do not think that even with a computer we could number all the hairs in a person’s head and keep the number up to date! But the Father does! It shows the level of His interest in us. Then the Lord exhorts us to “always pray and not faint” (Luke 18:1). Then there is the prayer that we engage in together, and I suppose that is what is referred to here in Acts.
As we read through the Acts, we see how important prayer becomes in the Christian way. Paul asks for the prayers of the Roman believers that his ministry might be acceptable to the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:30‑31). When Paul was converted, one of the things that the Lord said to Ananias was, “Behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11). By those four words the Lord conveyed to Ananias that the man was changed. He had never prayed before! He might have uttered certain words, but they were not prayer! “Behold, he is praying” showed that the “insolent overbearing man” (1 Tim 1:13) was changed – he was becoming dependent.
If there is one feature which shines in the sight of God, perhaps above all the others, it is dependence. It is what God intended a man to be. It is peculiarly delightful to Him to see persons not going their own way, but seeking His will and direction, and seeking to order their lives in accord with what is pleasing to Him. God loves that dependent spirit that casts everything upon Him, as Peter said, “Cast all your care upon Him, for He cares about you” (1 Pet 5:7).
There is great emphasis in Scripture on piety. The mystery of piety is defined as: “God has been manifested in flesh” (1 Tim 3:16). In the Lord Jesus, the Word became flesh, He came into our condition. He became flesh and adapted Himself to the needs of men – “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). One of the things that prayer does is to bring God into our circumstances and our needs. Prayer is one of the marks of piety. In the Psalms we read that God has reserved the pious man for Himself (Ps 4:3). I think that shows the delight that God has in dependence. It was one of the features that marked the beginning – they persevered in prayer.
I commend these features to you. I feel that I have not been able to say very much about them really, but I believe that they are very important. They marked the assembly at the beginning, and they are to mark the assembly at the end. All of them are important if we are to be preserved in the things of our Lord and, as taken up by us, will lead to formation after Christ.
May the Lord help us, for His name’s sake.
14 November 2009