8 May 2023
In the study of Galatians, we noted the characteristic of the true gospel, and how this gospel gives birth to the true community of Christ, the church. The Apostle Paul was concerned that the preaching of the wrong gospel by the Judaizers would give rise to two different churches – that of the Jewish community and the other of the Gentile community; and worse still, it would not be what God truly desires in His salvation plan.
The church lies at the very centre of the eternal purpose of God. It is not an afterthought on God’s part; it is not an accident of history. The church is in fact God’s new community. Because it is a community, albeit a unique one, there is no such thing as an unchurched Christian or an individualistic Christian. If you choose not to be in a church as a believer, you are an ‘anomaly’.
The church is conceived by God in a past eternity, being worked out in history, and to be perfected in a future eternity; the church is not just to save isolated individuals and so perpetuate our loneliness, but rather, it is God’s plan and purpose to call out of the world a people of His own, for His own glory.
Christ died for us, not only to redeem us from all wickedness and evil, but also to ‘purify for Himself a people that are His very own, eager to do what is good’ (Titus 2:14).
We may be dissatisfied, even disillusioned, with some aspects of the institutional church; but we are still called to be committed to Christ and His church. Not doing so would mean we are out of the eternal purpose of God; badgering the church and abandoning her would also mean that we need to give an account to God on judgement day. Let us not forget that Paul, when he was Saul, was guilty of persecuting the early church and when he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus asked him why he was persecuting Him (the church is the body of Christ). But we may tend to idealize the early church through tinted glasses and imagine that it had no blemishes. Then we will overlook the rivalries, hypocrisies, the immoralities and the heresies that troubled the first-century church. Nevertheless, the early church, in spite of all its excesses and failures, had been founded by the Lord Jesus, through the Spirit.
In Acts 2:42-47, we see the distinct marks of a living church, a church that is not ‘perfect’, with all its blemishes, but nevertheless one that is a real authentic community of Christ.
(A) The first of this mark: a living authentic church is a learning church
‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (vs 42). The Holy Spirit is the ‘Spirit of truth’; it stands to reason that whenever the Spirit of truth is at work, truth matters. The believers were eager and keen to learn the teaching of the Apostles (taught by the Spirit of truth). Its pastors and teachers expound Scriptures; its parents teach their children out of the Scriptures at home, and its members read and reflect on the Scriptures everyday in order to grow in Christian discipleship. The Spirit of God leads the people of God to honour the Word of God. What is unexpected and surprising today is to find believers, who are members of a church for many years, not knowing even the basics of the gospel and the Christian life; at the same time, there is no desire and diligence in studying the Bible and yet, at the same time, they are ‘serving’ in the church in so many ways, and one wonders whether the service is in the Spirit and led by the Spirit! The tragedy is that they do not reflect a community that is a learning church; and much more tragic, there is no indication that the various individuals are keen to correct the situation and humbly start to learn again (Hebrews 6:1-2).
It is almost preposterous to expect such ones to share the gospel or to teach younger believers among them the rudimentary doctrines of the church!
(B) The 2nd mark of the living community
“All the believers were together and had everything in common (koina). Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need” (Acts 2:44-45). In verse 46, ‘they broke bread in their homes’. This does not mean the prohibition of private property, for vs 46 indicates that some still had their homes. Neither is the calling to voluntary poverty for all serious believers. But the principle of voluntary Christian sharing is part and parcel of the outworking of love in the church.
The early Christians love one another and care for one another; in particular, they cared for their poor sisters and brothers. John the Apostle wrote in 1 John: “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. If any one of you has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in you? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18 TNIV).
But in today’s context, it is not surprising to hear of Christians being ‘unfriendly’ and ‘hostile’ to other Christians just because they do not share the same interests, or because they do not speak the same ‘lingo’, or belong to a group the former are interested in (eg. the opposite sex) for the pursuit of marriage and relationships for instance. The young may not be in the least interested in the old, and individuals with the same careers and work tend to gather together and express interest in deeper interaction. With such going-ons, can the church be truly a living authentic community in Christ?
This may seem insignificant but in reality, such behaviour reflects a lack of love and care in the church; it would surely grieve the heart of God to see His people behaving in such a manner. In the Old Testament, the prophets of old prophesied against injustice, wrongful behaviour and attitudes in society and exploitation and ‘bullying’ of the poor and vulnerable; is this not somewhat a similar situation in today’s context when believers do not care for one another and in fact ‘hurt’ and ‘traumatise’ the vulnerable and the weak. The report in the news recently highlighted ‘loneliness’ as one major ‘illness’ in the United States and certainly, such an occurrence is not just limited to the US. Loneliness is a major problem in the world; one can be lonely in a crowd; mental illness like depression has a major contributory factor in ‘loneliness’. Recently also, in Singapore, some seniors were described as suffering from “tiredness of life”, a condition where the individuals no longer find it meaningful to live on; besides loneliness, they do not even bother about daily living – they just move on because they have to and not because they want to. Surely, care and love can make a lot of difference to such ones; Christians have a living hope; the church is the present community pointing to the hope of a future eternal community. But looking at what is going on currently in churches, one wonders whether there is any difference at all from secular gatherings.
The Lord willing, we shall look at other marks of a living authentic church subsequently but in this sharing, there is much for us to ponder upon as we evaluate whether the churches today fulfil even the two marks described.
We have considered two marks of the living authentic community – the church. The second one: a caring church at the conclusion of the previous sharing. It is interesting to note that the Apostle Paul, in his epistle to the Galatian Christians wrote: “For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself. If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other” (5:14-15). Paul wrote it in the context of the Judaizers insisting that the Gentile believers must embrace the Law in order to be true Christians; implying that if they refuse, they would be ‘second class believers’, as the Jews were the ‘first people of God’ given the Torah and the external sign of circumcision. In this insistence, the Judaizers were in effect ‘biting’ and ‘devouring’ the Gentile believers, giving them a load they themselves could not carry, even with the Torah from Moses. Left alone, the Judaizers and their insistence on the Law for salvation, the church of God will be ‘destroyed’. Paul, with his pharisaical background, knew that the Law does not save and in his encounter with Jesus, he knew that it must be by grace through faith. So serious was the matter that Paul wrote in an unusual harsh manner: “As for these agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” The matter has to do with the true gospel of Christ; it has to do with authentic salvation that comes about with the response of faith to the good news with the ministry of the Holy Spirit; it has to do with the eternal destiny and future of many, Jews and Gentiles alike.
We see the seriousness of preaching and sharing accurately the true gospel of Christ; we see how the lack of care and love among believers would lead to spiritual ‘destruction’ and to ineffective testimony of life of believers and church as part of the communication of the gospel. Ignoring the truth and God’s revelation, seeking to build our own kingdom rather than God’s, magnifying our own spiritual status and standing, even at the cost of God’s glory – all these are tantamount to lack of love for the church of God and the people of God – they are in fact a stark manifestation of the life in the flesh ‘dressed’ in ‘spiritual clothing’.
(C) The third mark: A worshipping church
The believers in the early church devoted themselves ‘to the breaking of the bread (Lord’s Supper) and to the prayers’, meaning prayer meetings and prayer services. Their worship was both formal and informal; it was both joyful and reverent. Their worship was never irreverent.
The Lord’s Supper becomes our celebration of the experience of community; we celebrate fellowship with Christ – by His grace, our Lord chooses to commune with us in the here and now. His presence is symbolized in the Lord’s Supper; we eat and drink conscious that He meets us at the table. Participation in the supper signifies our reaffirmation of our faith. Through our presence at the Lord’s table we publicly confess our loyalty to Christ; we reaffirm the pledge or covenant we made at our baptism. Through the Lord’s Supper we also celebrate our present community with each other within Christ’s body; our eating and drinking together reminds us that the foundation of our unity rests with our common communion with Christ.
Worship means attributing worth to the One who is worthy; only the Triune God can be the focus of our worship. We praise God for who He is and for what He does. Worship includes verbalising our praise to God, offering the fruit of lips that confess His name (Heb.13:15); it entails as well the proclamation of God’s Word in the reading and preaching of the Bible (Neh. 8:1-9) as in the sermon. It is the Word of God which evokes the worship of God. Our worship is a response to God’s Word. An element in corporate worship is prayer when the community focuses its address directly to God.
A living church is a worshipping church; it manifests the presence, the power and the glory of God in the corporate community. We must not take worship lightly and behave without the consciousness of God’s presence and without a deep sense of reverence and awe, knowing and experiencing fellowship with Him and with one another in a holy community. It is not in order to continue chit-chatting with one another frivolously when corporate prayer is offered and when the exposition of the Word of God is proclaimed; neither is it proper to engage in activities that distract others from the posture of worship.
The health of the community, the church, can actually be evaluated by the ‘atmosphere’ in the worship service; it should not be flippant or so solemn like a ‘funeral’ without the joy and reverence of God in its midst. Too much of our worship is ritual without reality, form without power, fun without fear, religion without God. We need to restore the true meaning and practice of worship of the Triune God.
(D) The fourth mark: An evangelising church
“And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” Acts 2:47). Only the Lord Jesus by His Holy Spirit can open the eyes of the blind and give life to dead souls, and so add people to His church. The Lord did not add them to the church without saving them, and He did not save them without adding them to the church.
The early Christians did not regard evangelism as an occasional activity; their witness was as continuous as their worship, and the Lord honoured it. Mission arises from the biblical doctrine of the church in the world. If we are not ‘the church’, the holy and distinct people of God, we have nothing to say because we are compromised. If, on the other hand, we are not ‘in the world’, deeply involved in its life and suffering, we have no one to serve because we are insulated. We simply do not share the gospel if we do not declare God’s love in the gift of His Son to live our life, to die for our sins and to rise again, together with His offer thorough Jesus Christ, to all who repent and believe, of a new life of forgiveness and freedom and a place in God’s community, the church.
People have to see with their own eyes that the gospel we preach has transformed us. It is people who communicates primarily, not words or ideas…what communicates most is personal authenticity. If our life contradicts our message, our evangelism will lack all credibility. Indeed, the greatest hindrance to evangelism is lack of integrity in the evangelist.
The late John Stott, in his last book, ‘ The Radical Disciple’, shared that the main reason why our evangelistic efforts are often fraught with failure is that we do not look like the Christ we proclaim. The one who shares must embody what he is sharing.
Our lop-sided focus on securing conversions and our unbalanced emphasis on activities in the church and mission often result in sending believers to be messengers when they are not spiritually ready and they do not look like what they are talking about. The church and mission may mistakenly conclude that such ones are ready simply because they have gone through certain training programmes or acquire som skills in ‘sharing the gospel’.
In the same book ‘The Radical disciple’, John Stott shared two letters he received from Christian leaders in South Asia and Africas. A letter from South Asia wrote, “There is a huge problem with lack of godliness and integrity”. An African leader wrote, “..the growth is largely numerical.. the church is without strong biblical and theological foundation of her own”. The view of many Christian leaders confirmed the truth that there is growth without depth in many cases. There is statistical growth with no corresponding discipleship development. Depth must imply and include teaching believers to obey everything the Lord Jesus has commanded in Matthew 28, in the well known Great Commission. This does not happen ‘overnight’ and it means also that the church is equipped with believers who are able to teach and to communicate what Christ desires.
The call for evangelical integrity is to live a life that is worthy of the gospel and a life that reflects the truth of the gospel. Stability in both doctrine and ethics (morality) is in short supply today in the churches. It is not enough to proclaim the good news, we have also to defend and confirm the gospel (as seen in Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians).
The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth, who cares about the truth, teaches the truth and bears witness to the truth. He enlightens the minds of unbelievers to perceive the truth and feel the force of our message of the gospel, in our words and our reasoning. Apart from His ministry, there is no true conversion and no true transformation and growth, individually and also corporately as a church.