Committed to the Local Church – Part 1 (Acts 2:42-47)

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Introduction

Last week’s sermon was about the need for all of us to be committed to the mission of the church—a mission I described as Making Disciples. But it would be possible for someone to walk away from that sermon and agree with everything I said and yet believe they could do this apart from being connected to a local church. And that would be the exact opposite of what I am trying to accomplish in these three sermons about the importance of being committed to the church.

You see, when I talk about “the church” in these sermons what I mean is not just the universal church of Jesus Christ that extends across time and geography and nations and peoples, but also the local church, a small body of believers who gather together each week as part of the larger body of Christ. What I am talking about is the importance of being committed to a church like this church.

The mission to make disciples is the mission of the global church, but it is also the mission of the local church. And the instrument God normally uses to make disciples is local churches reaching local people. But for that to be possible, the members of a local church have to be committed to that church and its mission. And that is what I want to talk about for the next two weeks. Being committed to the Local Church.

This week we will talk about church membership and what it means to be a church member. We will talk about the importance of being a regular attender who is devoted to the church and to one another. Next week we will pick up where we leave off today and discuss the importance of being committed to serving the church and committed to serving through the church.

Church Membership

To begin let’s talk a little about church membership. Sadly, there are a lot of professing Christians today who believe they can be completely healthy in their faith apart from being attached to a local body of believers. These people believe they can make it on their own and do not need or desire to be a part of a local body of believers. Often times these Christians have been hurt in some way by a church or have had a bad experience with the church, and while they have not given up on their faith, they have given up on the church or anything they like to call “organized religion.”

Well certainly, what is most important is that people like this have not given up on their faith. And it is sad that they have been hurt by the church. But at the same time, the Bible does not have a category for a follower of Jesus Christ who is not attached to other believers. The Bible doesn’t ever expect or prescribe a sort of “loner” or “rogue” Christianity. We cannot import our Western individualism into the Bible and believe that “just me and Jesus” is ok. It is not possible to be a healthy, growing Christian apart from being attached to a local body of believers. Let me say that again, it is not possible to be a healthy, growing Christian apart from being attached to a local body of believers. And being attached to a local body of believers is described today as church membership.

And I say all this because I know that there are people who like to argue that the Bible never talks about church membership and thus conclude that church membership is an unbiblical idea. But, brothers and sisters, while the Bible does not use the words “church membership,” the Bible has a whole lot to say about what we call “church membership” today.

As an example, look with me in Acts 20:28. We will be moving around a lot today, so get your fingers warmed up. Acts 20:28.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. (Acts 20:28 ESV)

I want you to notice a few things in this verse. First of all, the Apostle Paul is instructing the leaders of the church at Ephesus to pay careful attention to their flock. The point being that these pastors had a particular flock, a particular set of people, what we would call church members today. And their responsibility was to take care of that flock. And so we learn in this verse, and elsewhere in the book of Acts, that there was already a pattern of local churches established early in the life of the Church. We see this in Acts and indirectly through the mere existence of all of Paul’s letters written to these various churches.

But also notice in this passage that this church is described not only as the Church at Ephesus, but it is also described by Paul as the “church of God.” This local body of believers is the “church of God” in Ephesus. And perhaps the most important thing we see in this verse is that Christ died for this church. Paul says that Jesus obtained the church with his own blood. In other words, he died for the church of God. And his death was not just for the universal church, but here we see it is for the local church in Ephesus as well. Paul echoes this in his letter to the Ephesian church saying in chapter 5, that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).

And so my point to all of this is that the church is important to Jesus. Not just the universal church, but the Ephesian church is important to Jesus as well. The local gathering of believers in Ephesus was something important enough to Christ that he was willing to give his life up for it. And so today when there are Christians who say they don’t need the local church, I wonder if they have considered the fact that Christ died for the local church?

So while the Bible does not contain the term “church member” or “church membership” anywhere, we should never believe that church membership is unbiblical or extrabiblical. Church membership is not something that was invented hundreds or thousands of years later. From the birth of the church on the day of Pentecost, the church has been keeping up with its members. Acts 2:41 says: “So those who received [Peter’s] word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” Added to what? Added to the number of people within the church. Those who believed and were baptized did not simply go away and privately live their life of faith in Christ by themselves. They were joined with the other believers which involved devoting and committing themselves to certain things.

What does it mean to be a Church Member?

And this brings me to the main passage I would like to focus on in the sermon today. I would like us to focus in on Acts 2:42–47 to see what it looked like in the early church to be a church member.

Follow along with me as I read Acts 2:42–47:

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42–47 ESV)

In our sermon last week I mentioned and discussed briefly Acts 1:8. In that verse, the resurrected Jesus, said to his disciples just before his ascension, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And on the Day of Pentecost, as promised, the disciples received the Holy Spirit. And through the power of the Holy Spirit, Peter preached a sermon that resulted in the salvation of 3,000 souls—far more converts than had previously been made. And so, the witness to Jerusalem, described in Acts 1:8 has now begun. The Church of Jesus Christ has been established. And what we have in this passage is an up close picture of the first local Christian Church.

So what are some of the things we see about the early church in this passage that helps us answer the question, “What does it mean to be a church member?”

Being Devoted to the Church

Well, the first thing I want us to notice from this passage is that the early Christians were devoted to meeting together. They were devoted in their attendance. Verse 42 says that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” And this was more than just meeting on Sunday. Verses 46 and 47 say, “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 favor with all the people.” And they were doing these things “day by day.”

And remember, Christ died for the church. And because of that I wonder how a professing Christian can see the local church as something irrelevant or unnecessary in their life. I wonder about those church members who do not see their attendance as something important or necessary. They come when it is convenient for them. “This Sunday is convenient, but next Sunday we have something to do. Sunday mornings are fine, but Sunday School is not something I am interested in. And Wednesday services, I don’t think that can fit into our weekly routine.”

I am not trying to be a legalist. I am not trying to imply at all that someone’s spiritual life is measured by their attendance at the weekly services of the church. But what I am trying to do is encourage you all to be committed to this church and to be committed to attending the services this church offers. We see in verse 42 that the members of this new church were “devoted” to it. Specifically we see that they were devoted to four different things that required them to come together. Verse 42 says they were devoted to “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” These were not things they were half-heartedly committed to, things they attended when it fit into their schedule. These were activities and services they were devoted to and thus these gathering times would have been well attended.

Devoted to Apostolic Teaching

Let me briefly discuss these four items that describe the inner priorities and practices of the Jerusalem Church. First of all the members of this church were devoted to the apostles’ teaching. In other words, they were devoted to being discipled. As I said last week, the process of making disciples does not end with conversion. The process of making disciples is ongoing and includes teaching and instructing. And it requires disciples who desire to be taught and are devoted to it. A half-hearted commitment will not do. And so, the members of the newly established local church in Jerusalem were devoted to the apostolic teaching.

Devoted to the Fellowship

And second, they were devoted to the fellowship. Fellowship is one of those words we like to throw around in church. We are always up for some good fellowship. Many churches even have rooms called “fellowship halls.” But what exactly do we mean by fellowship? Well two things actually. First of all there is the fellowship that we have as believers with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a fellowship we are all a part of. But in addition to this divine fellowship, there is the Christian fellowship we have with one another. When Jesus said, that all people will know we are his disciples by our love for one another, this is what he had in mind.

And I would like you to look with me now at how this loving fellowship played out in the early days of the church. Look with me in verses 44 and 45.

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. (Acts 2:44–45 ESV)

Now before I get into the controversial portions of these two verses let me point out one thing that is very clear and provides additional support to something I said earlier. Look at the beginning of verse 44 again: “And ALL who believed were TOGETHER.” Brothers and sisters, there are no rogue or loner Christians. When someone believes the gospel it is imperative that they join themselves with a local church. When the gospel is preached and believed we have not only brought someone to Jesus, we have also brought them into the fellowship of his people. And these people are found each week gathered together in local churches.

Brothers and sisters it is impossible to become a spiritually mature Christian apart from attaching yourself to a local church. The local church gives us the opportunity to utilize our spiritual gifts. The local church is where we are instructed. It is where we are made aware of blind spots in our faith and our behavior. It is the place were we are encouraged and strengthened and corrected. It is the place where we are baptized and share the Lord’s Supper. It is the place where we learn to love people who are hard to love. It is the place where we learn to carry the burdens of others and to ask for assistance with our own burdens.

As a Christian you must be devoted to the fellowship of the church. To deny yourself access to the church is to deny yourself the opportunity to mature in the faith and experience many of the wonderful gifts Jesus intended for those who unite themselves with a local body of believers. Will the local church be perfect? No, far from it. And it will be less perfect because of me and you. The church is not perfect because it is made up of people. But the church is loved by Jesus Christ. The church is his instrument for taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. And one day, it is with the church, that Jesus will participate in a great marriage ceremony. Jesus loved the church and gave his life for her. And a healthy (healthy not perfect) local church offers you as a Christian an opportunity to participate in a loving fellowship where you can grow and mature as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Now, with all that said, what about the more difficult ideas in verses 44 and 45? Do these verses instruct us to take everything we have and sell it and put the money in one big pool of funds managed by the church? Is this some kind of Christian socialism?

Well first of all, that is not really what was going on here anyway. If all the people within the church were compelled to sell everything they had, then it would be impossible for them to meet together in homes in verse 46 which says they were breaking bread in their homes.

And second of all, it is important to understand that in the Bible we often find two different types of language about the early church. There is descriptive language—language which describes what the church looked like and what it was doing. And there is also prescriptive language—language which describes not only what the early church was like but gives us specific instructions regarding how the church should function today and for all time. And what we have here is not prescriptive as much as it is descriptive. It is simply describing what the church was doing at this particular point in time because of their unique situation. The church of Jesus Christ was in its infancy and it would have been necessary for things to look a little different than they do today. There is more that could be said about this, but that would get me off track of where I am going this morning.

But let’s not move on without noticing what is prescriptive about these verses—and that is the necessity for church members to have loving generosity toward one another. It is a mindset that says, “If my brother or sister is in need, and I am able to help them financially, I will. Even if that requires me making a sacrifice to help them. Or, if this church finds itself in need and I am able to help meet that need, I am going to do so.” That is what it means to be devoted to the fellowship. In a family we share. It is that simple. We look out for one another and care for one another. We do not let brothers and sisters in Christ do without when we can help them. We are devoted to one another.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was killed by Hitler at the end of WWII said: “We are members of a body, not only when we choose to be, but in our whole existence. Every member serves the whole body, either to its health or to its destruction” (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 89). Where do you fall on that continuum? Are you someone who is making this church healthier? Or are you someone who is stunting its growth? Let’s all try to be church members who make this a healthier place of disciple-making.

Devoted to Worship

So first of all the members of this new church in Jerusalem were devoted to the apostles’ teaching and secondly they were devoted to the fellowship, and thirdly and fourthly they were devoted to “the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Now it is important to note the presence of the definite article “the” before both of these items. “THE breaking of bread” and “THE prayers.” What that definite article tells us is that what is being spoken of here are actual, regular church services or gatherings. “The breaking of bread” likely meant the Lord’s Supper and “the prayers” are likely referring to regular prayer services.

It was really unthinkable in the days of the early church that someone could be a follower of Jesus Christ apart from being devoted to all these things. But this does not mean that the church did not soon start experiencing problems in this area. If you turn over with me to Hebrews 10:24 you will see that the author of this letter is having to remind his readers of the importance of meeting together regularly. Let me read Hebrews 10:24–25 to us.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:24–25 ESV)

Apparently by the time of this letter it had already become the habit of some to neglect meeting regularly with the church. These are not people who were devoted to the church. And we have many people in our churches today who fit into this same category.

But brothers and sisters, one of the main points to my sermon this morning is to encourage you in this area of being devoted in your attendance and to not neglect to meet together with us when we open the doors for Sunday School, when we open the doors for Sunday morning worship, when we open the doors for our community group time on Sunday nights, and when we open the doors to the church on Wednesday nights for prayer.

The famous evangelist, D.L. Moody, once said:

Church attendance is as vital to a disciple as a transfusion of rich, healthy blood to a sick man.

He knew what I said earlier, “It is impossible to become a spiritually mature Christian apart from attaching yourself to a local church.” It is important that we erase our Western notions of individualism with regard to our faith. The Bible always speaks of a community of faith, whether it is Israel or the Church. The community of faith is vital to our spiritual health. And as a member of that community, you are a member of a body. And just like a body who is missing an arm or a leg is not healthy, when we are missing one of you, this church is not healthy. Your attendance matters, not only for you, but for the rest of us too. Again, are you someone who is making this church healthier? Or are you someone who is stunting its growth? I pray that you will devote yourself this morning to this church. I pray that you will recommit yourself to it and that you will do what you can to make sure it is a healthy church with a rich environment for making disciples.

Conclusion

To conclude, turn back with me to Acts 2 and let me make one final point. Notice in verse 47 that while the church and its members were in the midst of devoting themselves to the teaching and to the fellowship, and to the worship, that they were still carrying out their mission to make disciples. Look with me again at the way this passage closes at the end of verse 47:

And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

As we said last week, the mission of the church is making disciples. And everything that the church involves itself in is related to that. And making disciples involves both the initial conversion and the ongoing instruction. So what does it mean to be a church member? It means to be someone who is devoted to the church and to its mission to make disciples.

Does that describe you today? If not, during our prayer time in just a moment, ask the Lord to change your heart toward this church. Ask the Lord to give you a heart that is devoted to this church and its God-given mission to make disciples.

This is by no means a perfect church. If it was a perfect church, I would have to resign as your pastor because I am far from perfect. But it is the church of Jesus Christ. It is his church. He died for this church. Yes he died for us individually, but he also died for this church. He loves the church and he gave his life up for her. And as a follower of Christ, you must love the church too. I pray that we will all learn to love this church more over the coming days, weeks, and months. And I pray that through our devotion to it, many will come to know and love Jesus Christ.