I seriously considered starting this study into what the New Testament says about the Church by delving into the gospels and seeing what Jesus – the God-man upon whom the entire faith, the Church included, is built upon – had to say on it.
I barely managed to get half way through Matthew before I realised that what Jesus had to say was so involved, so developed, so articulate about the Church that we really need to know what the Church in the bible even looks like in order to give His words on it any sense of context.
So I am going to skip to Acts, not because Jesus said too little on the Church, but because He said too much to make sense of without Acts and the letters to lay the foundation of what he was talking to. I will say this now; I am not a trained theologian, nor am I going to write absolutely everything I have noticed, realised and learnt whilst going through the scriptures about the Church – if I did that, this blog-strand would number in the hundreds of articles and hundreds of thousands of words! What I will do, however, is write about the parts I believe are essential to understanding what the biblical Church is.
Which, to be fair, is still a lot.
Where to begin?
Theologians still debate as to who wrote Acts and when it was written. I personally believe the tradition that Luke wrote it holds water, and that it was primarily written in the middle of the 1st century. Some of you may agree, others not; the beauty of the bible is that it leaves itself open to such debates.
The reason I believe it is a mid-1st century document is the ring of authenticity that its words hold; dissensions, disagreements and even massive administrative failings (as we shall eventually cover) are still very much present in the text. The flaws of the early Church are still clearly there for all to see, and thus I come to my first point; no iteration of the Church has ever been perfect, even from its earliest days. When we look at what the biblical Church was, we should not trick ourselves into thinking they were somehow perfect and unstained with failure.
They were human, and made mistakes like the rest of us. Praise be to God that they had the guts to state as much in scripture, so that we who follow in their footsteps can learn from their mistakes as much as from their successes. To often we forget this; we often talk about trying to be a ‘biblical’ church without contemplating the fact that the biblical church were still learning themselves.
This doesn’t make the biblical church unworthy of imitation today, but more so; a perfect biblical church would be beyond our grasp to achieve. A good one, however, is possible to aspire to…maybe even to attain.
Which leads us to several questions; Who were the Church? How did they treat one another? How did they treat others? What would a day in the life of the Church in Acts look like?
Thankfully, Acts records a good enough picture in various places to show us.
And all who believed were together
One day in May, 30ish AD, the entire Church gathered together in an upper room in Jerusalem. The bible records that this day the Church was filled with the Holy Spirit – the promise Christ made to them was fulfilled. Acts 1 states that the entire Church was one hundred and twenty people (give or take a few) before this event.
After this event, the Church over three thousand people.
Often, when the first half of Acts 2 is looked at, there is either an emphasis on the number of people converted, or the moving of the Holy Spirit, or Peter’s sermon to the crowd…but what about the crowd itself? In verse 41 it says that “those who received his [Peter’s] word were baptised”.
And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished, saying, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians – we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”
Local Jews were not the majority in this crowd by far; their aren’t even mentioned in the list. This text reveals they were an international crowd of Jewish believers – both originally Jewish and recent converts – having come to celebrate a Jewish festival. This tells us much more than just what tongues the apostles were speaking in; this tells us who the first Church was made up of. These lands – in modern day terms – stretch east to the borders of Iran, south to Yemen, west to Libya and Italy; thousands of visitors from all of the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean basin were present. These were people who did not share a common language, did not share common customs, did not share any real connection with one another save that they all believed in Peter’s sermon about Christ.
In the beginning, the only thing holding the Church together at all was Jesus, and their mutual love for Him.
This crowd, far from their homes, were faced with a choice; the apostles with the message of Christ were fixed in Jerusalem, which means – were they to learn what living for this Christ meant – they would need to learn from them there. In the joyous, beautiful chaos that ensued (baptising three thousand people in a day must have been pretty chaotic!) this rag tag crowd of strangers made their choice. They decided they weren’t going home at all; instead they would stay and learn from the apostles, making do with what they have and sharing with those who have not. With the jubilation of that day still ringing in their ears, they acted on their decision;
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 signs and wonders 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.
It is not an incredible stretch of the imagination to figure out what these things they sold were; the houses, possessions and belongings that once belonged to them across the world suddenly didn’t seem so important to them – their home was Jerusalem now. So those with houses in Jerusalem put up those who didn’t, those who had possessions and property afar sold them in order to make life easier for the Church; it isn’t said how they distributed the money, but housing and food would be a safe bet to make.
Often this is seen as some kind of a fanciful depiction of Christian communism; I call it good sense. This cosmopolitan, varied, distinctive group of three thousand strangers from faraway lands has set up shop right in the middle of Jerusalem, and they needed all the money they could get to ensure their numbers didn’t starve or go homeless as everyone tried to find jobs and make their new lives practically work. They sold what they didn’t need, so that all of them had what they did need. And, in all of this, these people are learning; they are learning how to live with one another, love one another, learning from the apostles, and awed by what God is doing among them. The first Church quite literally gave up everything they knew, made a foreign city their home, living with foreign people, in the quest to know Jesus. And get to know him they did; “And awe fell upon every soul, and many signs and wonders were being done through the apostles.”
Jesus once said, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundred fold and will inherit eternal life.”  They gave up everything for Jesus, and they most certainly received much in return.
At first, when I started writing this, I wasn’t sure what message to take from this, or whether there was even a helpful message for the Church today. But, the more I look at this, the more I can see us in these people written of here; strangers, from all walks of life, united by a common love of Jesus Christ. We have our differences, our issues with one another, but we have come together all the same. We see each other often, study and talk and laugh and bicker with one another.
Even now, the only thing really holding the Church together, is Jesus.
We are very much on the same page as the early Church, even if it is not so apparent now…and that is something we can challenge ourselves with. Are there those in your church who struggle to get by, yet you have some possession, belonging – or even a house – that is not necessary to you, and is something you do not really need? Are your doors wide open for those in the church to come freely? Do you devote yourself to the scriptures, to fellowship, to prayer? I know for a fact I do not do so as much as I could, even in a land that is my own, in a house that is my own, surrounded by people who speak the same language as me. My prayer for myself and you is that, one day, the spirit and life behind this verse shall be true of us all, by the grace of God;
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 favour with all people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
 – Matthew 19:29