The Gathering (Acts 2:41-47)
What is the church? What is its purpose? How does it function? If we claim to be a true church, then it behooves us to be able to answer these questions. How would you answer them? Could you back up what you had to say with the Bible? What are we to be about as a church?
In our proposed church constitution, we say that the purpose of the church is as follows:
“This church exists by the grace of God, for the glory of God, which shall be the ultimate purpose in all its activities. This church glorifies God by loving Him and obeying His commands through:
1. Worshipping Him;
2. Equipping the saints through Bible instruction and study;
3. Proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ through preaching and personal evangelism, and any other means consistent with the teaching of Scripture;
4. Administering and participating in the ordinances of our Lord, namely, baptism and the Lord’s Supper;
5. Encouraging, supporting, and participating in missions work, local, domestic, and international;
6. Administering Biblical fellowship and accountability among believers; and
7. Serving other individuals, families, and churches by providing for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, in the name of Jesus Christ.”1
I think this is a pretty good purpose statement for a church. Here is another one:
Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved. (Acts 2:41-47)
In fact, any purpose statement for a church needs to line up with what the Bible has to say about the purpose and function of a church, and that means that it needs to line up with passages like Acts 2. And though Acts 2 doesn’t say everything that the Bible says about the church, it does say some pretty important things. And I think that our purpose statement does line up with it. In fact, one of the main things I want to do in this message is to point us to the Biblical underpinnings of the purpose statement of the proposed constitution.
The Glory of God
What is the purpose of the church? What are we to be about? Well, notice that the main purpose above all other purposes is the glory of God: “This church exists by the grace of God, for the glory of God, which shall be the ultimate purpose in all its activities.” The church doesn’t exist to exalt itself. It doesn’t exist to exalt man. It exists to bring glory to God, that is, to bring honor to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Thus Paul writes to the Ephesians that the purpose of the church is the display of God’s manifold wisdom: “To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God” (Eph. 3:10). So it should not surprise us that he would write just a few verses later: “Unto him [God] be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end” (Eph. 3:21). What was true of God’s people under the Old Covenant is true also of God’s people under the New Covenant: “Fear not: for I am the with thee: I will bring thy seed from the east, and gather thee from the west; I will say to the north, Give up; and to the south, Keep not back: bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; Even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isa. 43:5-7).
So the main purpose of the church is not focused on man or his problems. That’s not to say that the church doesn’t exist to bring help to mankind, but it is possible to so focus on the horizontal aspect of our mission that we forget that the primary mission is the glory of God. How then do we glorify God, both as individuals and as a church?
I don’t think that it is a coincidence that right before Paul prays that God’s glory might be in the church through Jesus Christ in Eph. 3:21, he had just prayed that the saints might be able “to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God” (19). The church glorifies God primarily in knowing God’s love for them and then loving God back for who he is. It is the reason why, though our Lord later praised the Ephesian church for being doctrinally faithful, he nevertheless threatened to take away the church because they had stopped loving him as they once had (Rev. 2:4-5). It is the reason why the first commandment is to love God with all our heart and soul and strength and mind.
And we show our love to Christ concretely by obeying his commandments. You cannot say that you love God if you refuse to obey his commandments. For our Lord put it this way to his disciples, “If ye love me, keep my commandments. . . . He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” (Jn. 15:15, 21). So we glorify God by loving him and we show that we love him by keeping his commandments. Thus, in the purpose statement, we read, “This church glorifies God by loving Him and obeying His commands.”
Of course behind this love to God and obedience to God is the knowledge of God, a knowledge that is rooted and based upon his word. It is not love to a god of our own making. God is not glorified or loved or obeyed when you replace him with an idol. There is therefore this emphasis in the NT on knowledge and wisdom: “We ... pray for you, and . . . desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Col. 1:9-10). Hence, we should put it this way: we glorify God when we grow in our knowledge of him as he has revealed himself to us in Scripture so that we love and obey him more and more.
The church exists so that this happens. God gave us the church so that we will grow in the knowledge of God so that we love and obey him more and more. We see this in the Acts passage. If we ask, how does the church function to make this happen, Acts 2:41-47 helps us to see how. It tells us that the church exists to promote the glory of God by doing three things: discipleship, worship, and evangelism.
I put this first because it is first in the passage above. First of all, we read that “they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). The first thing a disciple does is to gladly receive the gospel. It means that you believe what the gospel says. It means that you believe Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and then three days later rose from the dead, and that this is not some kind of religious metaphor but a fact of history, a fact that was witnessed and attested to by multiple, independent witnesses (1 Cor. 15:1-9). But receiving the word is not merely an intellectual thing. Note the word gladly. They “gladly received the word.” It resonated with them. It means that you don’t just acknowledge the literal reality of Christ’s work as Savior and Lord (even the devils do that, Jam. 2:19), but that you actually trust in Christ as Lord and Savior. And it means that you repent of your sins against him.
Having done that, you get baptized. Being baptized means to put on Christ (Gal. 3:27), it means to identify with him and his church. It is part of publicly identifying with Jesus and confessing him before men. This is important, not only because it is a part of our obedience to the Lord (Mt. 28:18-20), but also because our Lord himself said, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32-33). Those who refuse to be baptized in the name of Christ are in the same category of those who deny Christ before men, and that is a very serious sin indeed.
But being a disciple is not just about becoming a Christian. It is also about growing as a Christian. In fact, you really cannot separate the two. A true Christian is a growing Christian. A true Christian is a good fruit- bearing Christian. How does that happen? Well, it happens the same way you become a Christian: by receiving the word. Hence, we go on to read, “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine” (Acts 2:42). How was it that they became Christians? They became Christians by receiving the apostles’ doctrine. And they continue as Christians by continuing steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine. This is not a description of extraordinary Christianity; it is a description of ordinary Christianity. This is what a disciple is supposed to do. As our Lord put it, “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed” (Jn. 8:31).
Now one of the main ways that happens in the church today is through the teaching of pastors. Paul writes to the Ephesian church in Eph. 4:11-12, “And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” Note that the work of pastors is to continue and to build upon the work of the apostles. It’s why Paul, as he was passing from the scene, wrote to Timothy, “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long suffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables. But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry” (2 Tim. 4:2-5).
So we are to attend to the teaching of the pastors, the elders. Not YouTube pastors, by the way. Not men we occasionally watch on our iPads or TVs, but through in-person attendance at the church services, as far as possible. This means that we ought to prioritize our times around the public gathering of the church, especially Sunday mornings. This is how we grow. The disciples in the book of Acts didn’t get discipled from afar – they were there in person. I think this is partly communicated in the phrase “apostles’ doctrine and fellowship” (42). Also, “And all that believed were together” (44). “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (46). You might be able to watch a church service from a distance on TV, but you can’t “break bread from house to house” if you’re not actually physically present! But the point is that this was the context for “the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship.”
I also want to note the formal/informal dimension here. This is very important. You have the disciples together in the temple (there’s the formal dimension of church gathering and discipleship), and then they are “house to house” (there’s the informal dimension of church gathering and discipleship). In other words, the disciples didn’t just wait until the formal gathering to do discipleship. They were constantly in each other’s lives – in a good way, and not as busybodies. In other words, they were applying Heb. 3:13 to the life of the church: “But exhort one another daily, while it is called To day; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
And that also means that it is not just the pastors who do discipleship. They of course are the overseers (this is what a “bishop” is) – not in the sense of micromanaging everything, but in the sense of making sure that the discipleship that’s happening is Biblical. But we all have a role in this; surely, Heb. 3:13 says that if it says anything. And so I want to encourage all of you to look for opportunities to disciple and be discipled in this church.
Let me give you some examples that are happening right now outside our Sunday morning gathering. Of course, we have the Bible doctrines studies that we are doing on the Sunday afternoons that we have a fellowship meal. This is very important because understanding systematic theology is important, and I appreciate the help that Brother David is giving on that. Also, we have the Bible ethics studies which David and I will recommence in March. On Friday mornings, a few of us men have been getting together to encourage each other as fathers. And to help us be purposeful, we’ve been reading through a book together (Parenting with Words of Grace by William Smith). Brother Adam is leading it, and I appreciate his willingness to do that. The ladies have been getting together for prayer at the T’s home. Again, so important that we pray together and fellowship together. Notice the emphasis on prayer in Acts 2:42.
Here I want to encourage us to do something else that I’m not sure is currently happening in our church in a systematic way, but which needs to happen if we are going to be Biblical about discipleship – and that is older women teaching younger women. This is what Paul says in Titus 2: “The aged women likewise, that they be in behaviour as becometh holiness, not false accusers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things; that they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed” (3-5).
Now I think that something has happened over the years in PB churches, which has come about as the result of wanting to rightly safeguard the Biblical insistence of male leadership in the churches and the fact that the apostle Paul says that women are not to teach or usurp authority over the men (1 Tim. 2:11- 12). But we have gone way too far, and we have ended up in a place where women don’t think they are
supposed to teach the Bible in any context. My friends, this ought not so to be! What Paul is saying in the passage we just read in Titus, is that it is important that we have godly and spiritually mature women doing Biblical teaching in the context of the church – older women teaching the younger women. It bothers me that we are so quick to pounce on certain aspects of this text (for example, that women are to be workers at home and obedient to their own husbands), but to completely neglect other aspects of it (like the teaching part of that text).
What am I getting at? I would love to see the women of our church teaching and learning the Bible from one another, and I want to help. I know we have women who are qualified and capable. I want to help equip you and give you my support, so you feel equipped and ready and able to do this. There is no one right way for this to happen. Both formal and informal teaching is needed and valuable. The pastor cannot do everything, so I want us to work together to establish a church culture where women are teaching each other in accordance with the instructions from Titus 2, etc. The instruction is given to women, but women are not left without the support of the pastors and the church as they carry it out. I know this may sound intimidating and something outside of our comfort zone, but I'm confident that the Lord will give wisdom to carry out what we are told to do. The church will come alongside you and support you. The pastors will come alongside you and support you. The resources of the church will be made available for you to do this. This ought to be a regular part of our church. It is needed and it is important.
If you are unsure how to go about this, please come talk to me. I am more than happy and eager to support a ladies’ study. It is an important part of the discipleship process.
But teaching is not the only aspect to discipleship. Fellowship is an integral part of discipleship. I think this is why you see teaching and fellowship together in verse 42. And throughout this passage there is an obvious emphasis on breaking bread together and being together. The church is not merely a school; it is more like a family. We are brothers and sisters in the Lord, and we need to act that way. We need to get to know each other, so that we can encourage each other and sympathize with each other.
Part of this is also helping with the physical needs the church members. You see this in verses 44-45, especially. By the way, this is not a prescription for communism, and to make this about economics and politics is to completely miss the point of the passage. The Bible never supposes that private property is somehow sinful. In 1 Tim. 6, Paul doesn’t tell the rich to become poor, but to be generous. What you see here, rather, is the willing parting of property in order to meet real needs that were in the church at that time. The members of the church wanted to do this; they were eager to do so, because they loved the brethren. They weren’t content to simply say, “Go in peace, be ye warmed and filled” without giving and meeting real needs.
But of course meeting financial and physical needs doesn’t exhaust what fellowship is. Sometimes this is just being present physically and emotionally. It means weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. It means bearing each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2). It means “administering Biblical fellowship and accountability among believers; and serving other individuals, families, and churches by providing for physical, emotional, and spiritual needs, in the name of Jesus Christ.”
We need to be intentional about fellowship, brothers and sisters. It needs to be cultivated, or it can wilt and whither. The devil would like nothing better than to create coldness and distance between us. Let
us do all that we can to prevent such a thing from happening. We are one body and one family in Christ. Let us live like it and act like it. I want 1 Peter 1:22 to be a reality in our church: “Seeing ye have purified your souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit unto unfeigned love of the brethren, see that ye love one another with a pure heart fervently.” Love is the glue that will create fellowship. It is what will make the teaching meaningful and impactful. You’ve heard it said that folks don’t care what you know until they know that you care. In other words, meaningful fellowship makes for meaningful teaching. And together they make for meaningful discipleship.
Some of you might be wondering why I put discipleship first and not worship. I mean, after all, if the main purpose of the church is to glorify God, shouldn’t worship be first on the list of priorities of the church? Well, worship is certainly important. But let me tell you why I led out with discipleship.
It’s not just that it’s first in the text – it is. It’s also that you cannot have meaningful worship apart from meaningful teaching about God. I’m a firm believer that systematic theology should begin, not with the doctrine of God, but with the doctrine of Scripture. And the reason is that you can’t know God apart from his revelation in the Scriptures. And you can’t worship God if you don’t worship him in Spirit and in truth (Jn. 4:24). For that to happen, discipleship on some level has to have happened before real worship can happen.
But the knowledge of God ought to lead to the worship of God. So you see it here in the book of Acts. Surely the “gladness and singleness of heart” in verse 46 is not just a result of fellowship over food but the outflow of hearts full of the love of God. They were together, “Praising God, and having favour with all the people” (47). I think also the “fear” that came upon every soul in verse 43 was also a product of the reverential and worshipful atmosphere that persisted in the early church. The early church was a worshiping church. Are we?
We said earlier that the main purpose of the church is the glory of God. But to give glory to God we must first see and taste the glory and goodness of God (Ps. 34:8). We must truly believe that God deserves this, that it is not something we give to him because we have to, but we glorify God because we are compelled to by an inner sense of the majesty and the worth of God in Christ. We must feel what the psalmist expressed: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised” (Ps. 48:1). We need to be able to sincerely say: “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased” (Ps. 115:1-3). We need to be able to say, “Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name” (Ps. 96:8), and to feel the obligation arising, not from an external force compelling us to do so, but from an inner delight in the glory of God. We need to be able to say, with the apostle Paul, “the love of Christ constraineth us” (2 Cor. 5:14) to worship and serve him.
Everything we do as a church ought to have the glory of God as its aim. Everything! “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). Our singing ought to be for the glory of God, and the delight we feel in it ought to be a delight, not merely in the tune or the sounds of our voices, but in the truths about our Lord we are singing.
Our praying ought to be for the glory of God. Strange as it might sound, but even in our prayers we can start glorifying ourselves rather than Christ, as the Pharisees did (Mt. 6:5). We shouldn’t pray to men but
to God. But when we pray with God as our audience, in faith and hope and love, and when the content of our prayers are filled up by the teaching of the Scriptures, and we are looking for his reward, then our prayers glorify God. God is praised when he is approached as the only one who can meet our needs, when we approach his throne in prayer as a throne of grace where we can find mercy and help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). And on the other hand, a prayerless church is a Christless church. Not so the early church. It was a praying church. They continued in prayers, and so should we (Acts 2:42).
Our preaching and teaching ought to be for the glory of God. We don’t preach the word to glorify the preacher. That does no one any good. The preacher is not here to give you himself; at least, he ought not to be. Rather, we must be like the apostles, who said, “For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us” (2 Cor. 4:5-7). In hearing the preaching, we should not only be gathering new information but rejoicing in the old and the new, and rejoicing in the Lord who reveals himself to us in his word.
Our fellowship ought to be for the glory of God. And it will when our fellowship with each other springs from our fellowship with God, when we can say with the apostle John, “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 Jn. 1:3). We ought not just to think of fellowship in terms of what we get out of it. We ought to think of it as an expression of our unity in Christ, as a natural outflow of being in the same family. Christians who want nothing to do with each other are not glorifying Christ! Christians who can barely stand to be around each other are not glorifying Christ. Rather, we glorify him when we are excited to fellowship with one another. And though it is true that it doesn’t have to be limited to our own local congregation, surely it must start here. Brothers and sisters, let us glorify God in our fellowship.
Now you may be wondering where evangelism is in the text. Well, I would say that the text is bracketed by evangelism. How is it that 3000 people heard the gospel and responded to it? They did so because Peter and the other apostles were bold enough to preach the word to them. Evangelism! And then you read in the very last verse of our text that this evangelism wasn’t a one-off thing. Rather, “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).
Now some may look at that verse and say the wrong thing. The wrong thing is to say, “Well, the Lord is the one who added to the church, so nothing for me to do!” It is true, of course that the Lord is the one who does the adding. But it is false to think that therefore we have nothing to do. Listen to what the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians: “Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers by whom ye believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planteth anything, neither he that watereth; but God that giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:5-7). Yes, at the end of the day, those who share the word aren’t the decisive agents in the process: God is. He alone is the one who gives the increase. But that does not mean that Paul didn’t need to plant or that Apollos didn’t need to water. They did!
Nor is evangelism just for the preacher. Here is something that might surprise you, but it is true: you are the evangelists of this church. What is our program for evangelism? Just this, that you be salt and light in the places where God has put you. You are to carry the seeds of the gospel where you go, as they did in the book of Acts: “Therefore they that were scattered abroad went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). This is how the early church did it. How did guys like Justin Martyr, the second century church father, become Christians? Justin wasn’t raised in the church; he was a pagan. He had been searching fruitlessly in the pagan philosophies for truth. And then one day as he was walking along a beach, he met an old man. And this old man happened to be a Christian who was happy to visit with Justin about his faith. The result? Justin became a Christian, and not only a Christian but an outstanding and great leader in the early church. That’s what we are talking about. Be willing to be like that old man and be willing to share your faith in Christ with searching pagans!
So these are the three things we see in this text. We glorify God by loving him and obeying his commandments and we do this through discipleship, worship, and evangelism. Brothers and sisters, let us therefore be doing these things. Let us do them with faith, hope, and love. Let us do them with enthusiasm. Let us do them better. Let us, like the early church, continue steadfastly in these things. And may the Lord add to this church such as should be saved.
1 This is for the most part a verbatim reduplication of the purpose statement in the church constitution of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., with slight modifications.