10 Characteristics of the Early Church

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 wonders and signs 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. 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 the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

Last night, I posed the question, for what did God save us? Well, according to John 17:3, the essence of eternal life is to know God and to know Christ. According to Romans 8:29, the purpose or the objective of salvation is for us to be conformed to the image of Christ, to become like him. And that is a process that begins at the time God calls us, and his Spirit, as Paul said in Ephesians chapter 2, makes us alive together with Christ.

Now there is a vital moment in Matthew 16 where Jesus turned to his disciples and asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they answered, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” So Jesus then asked, “But who do you say that I am?” And it was then that Peter gave his well-known confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

With that, Jesus declared, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

So upon Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, a fact revealed to Peter only by God himself, God would build his church. So the church would not be a mere social club. It would not be a human organization like the Rotary Club or the Lions Club. Rather, it was organized by God, and its members are divinely appointed. The church serves as God’s gathering of his people here on earth. Think of the church like a sheepfold where a shepherd’s flock are brought together in one place, safe and protected. In John 10, Jesus, speaking primarily of the Gentiles, said, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

This idea that people sometimes have that a believer, a disciple of Christ can live in isolation apart from the gathered church is a dangerous idea, not to mention unbiblical. It’s a really bizarre notion when you think about it. The person who claims to be a Christian yet refuses to be a part of the local church is essentially saying, “I want to join God’s family in heaven, but I don’t want to do it now.” It doesn’t make any sense.

No, God intends for his called-out people, those who know him, as Jesus said in John 17:3, to work together as a group striving to be conformed to the image of his Son. After all, that’s where believers are headed. One day we hope to be ultimately and totally glorified, made fully into the image of Christ, spending eternity together in God’s presence. So why would we not want to join together now and help one another to that end? Right?

The question is, how do we do that? Well, I think the best place to start is at the beginning.

As many of you know, I’ve been involved in starting a new church back home, and it has been a wonderful experience for many reasons. Most notably, my co-pastor and I have had a rare opportunity to start completely fresh without the many layers of traditions that inevitably form over the course of time. Staring at a blank slate, we were able to sit down with our Bibles and ask ourselves, “Okay, what does the church of Jesus Christ look like in its purest form?”

Now at the beginning of the process, we weren’t interested in what to call the church, or deciding on a location for it, or what style of music we were going to use when we worship. What we knew was this: the church has a purpose, and we want to fulfill that purpose in the simplest way possible. In fact, we almost named the church, Simple Church. But as it turns out, there is a so-called “simple church” movement that holds to a few principles we don’t agree with. So we decided against calling ourselves that.

But we both wanted to get back to the basics. We both wanted to be a part of a local church that strives to know Christ deeper, to know his will for us better, and to become an increasingly sanctified people. And even though we came from two very different places, we had a remarkably similar vision. We both wanted to define the essentials of the church according to Scripture, basically hitting the reset button, and start fresh. We would build up from there.

Well, as I thought about the prospect of starting this new church, I was drawn to Acts chapter 2 where we read of the very birth of the New Testament church. Here we see the church in her infancy. It comes before the broken vow and greed of Ananias and Sapphira. It comes before the Judaizers introduced a perverted version of the gospel. It comes before Simon the magician attempted to buy the power of the Spirit from the apostles.

Before any of the problems, Acts 2 describes the church as it was in the beginning. And verses 42 through 47 provide us with a simple formula to follow. In fact, I’d like to highlight ten characteristics of the early church found in this passage.

Redeemed and Fully Committed

Number one: The church was made up of redeemed, confessing, repentant, baptized, committed believers.

Again, it was not some social club. It was not a secular organization where people gathered to merely socialize with others in the community. No, if you read chapter 2 in its entirety, you’ll see that it all began with an outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the people. After that, Peter stood up and preached a powerful message, quoting the prophet Joel who said, “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” He preached Christ and him crucified, ending his sermon with these words: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Immediately after, thousands of people gathered around the apostles, asking, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Between the Spirit’s working and Peter’s preaching, the people were stirred in their hearts. They believed the message. So Peter answered, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” In the end, 3,000 souls were baptized and added to the church.

But these people did not stop at baptism. They didn’t believe, repent, get baptized, and then say to themselves, “Well, I guess that’s it. I’ve made it. Forgiveness of sins is mine. Now I can rest on the promises of God. I’ll just sit back and wait until I die or the Lord comes again, whichever comes first.” If they had said that, I know how Paul would have responded. He would have said, “The hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” (That’s what he told the Roman church.)

Our initial conversion to the faith is not a rest stop. According to Paul, the closer we get to the Lord’s second coming—in other words, the further we get from our prior conversion—the more active we are supposed to be. It would be a terrible shame for Christ to find us sleeping when he returns.

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, “rocked to sleep in the cradle of grace.” Well, it doesn’t apply to the early church. Look at verse 42: “And they devoted themselves—” Stop right there. I believe the KJV says, “They continued stedfastly.” In this case, I believe the KJV expresses the full meaning even better. Yes, they devoted themselves to what follows, but they continually devoted themselves. They were steadfast and committed. They didn’t merely sign a decision card or pray a prayer and then move on with their lives.

Rather, the church became their lives. They were so committed, in fact, that even when persecution forced them to abandon their homes and livelihoods, they remained dedicated to the cause of Christ. Acts chapter 8 tells us, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” But listen to this: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.” Their faith could not be shaken. Their resolve was unbreakable.

That’s exactly what the church needs today. There are plenty of people who profess a belief in Jesus. There are plenty of people who claim to have faith in Christ. We don’t need more bodies in the pews. What we need are strong, faithful, persevering disciples who are fully committed to Christ and his kingdom. If we don’t have that, do we even have a church?

Committed To Sound Doctrine From Godly Leaders

Characteristic number two: The early church was committed to sound doctrine and godly leadership. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”

In many respects, the church begins with its leadership. In Ephesians chapter 2, Paul said, “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”

In Ephesians 4, he added to this premise by saying, “[The Lord] gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.”

This was one of the problems we found with the “simple church” movement I was talking about before. They don’t feel it’s necessary to have qualified leaders in the church.

But according to Paul, the church was originally built on the foundation of godly leaders. And to this day, the church continues to rely on its leaders to feed them, equip them, and rule them (which is not the same thing as lording over them, by the way). The writer of Hebrews said, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” So the church absolutely needs leaders in the form of pastors and Bible teachers, or elders if you prefer.

According to Peter, the primary function of pastors is to watch over the church and guide them like a shepherd would his flock. In 1 Peter 5, he said, “I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.”

Now the most important aspect of the pastor’s role is teaching the Word of God. This is his primary means of leading the church. In fact, the only thing that qualifies an elder that doesn’t also qualify a deacon is his ability to teach. And when you consider verses like John 8:31, you understand why. That’s where Jesus said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.” We need sound, consistent Bible teaching in order to (1) know Christ deeper and deeper and (2) learn what is necessary to become increasingly like him. After all, those are the very reasons God has saved us, right?

Through the prophet Hosea, God said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” Proverbs says, and I’ll quote the King James here, “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” But what is that vision based on? The proverb continues, “But blessed is he who keeps the law.” In short, God’s Word not only serves as our continual nourishment, but it’s also our guide as well as our defense.

So the church needs qualified elders (preferably more than one since that is the biblical pattern), and those elders need to lay a strong foundation of clear, thorough biblical teaching. And furthermore, the entire church needs to be dedicated to the study of God’s Word. Again, the text here says, “They [that is, the church] devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” They were like the noble Bereans in Acts 17 who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily.” Not only were they thrilled to hear the Word of God taught, but they were also digging into the Word themselves on a daily basis. Obviously, they didn’t feel that an hour or less of preaching each week was sufficient because it’s not.

I’ll give you one more thing to think about, and then I’ll move on. Jesus once said to some of the Jews, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” Now I don’t think he was arguing against the idea that the Scriptures contain eternal life. They do in a very real sense because they contain the testimony of Christ. Now that’s not to say the Bible can save you or atone for sins, but the Bible points us to the one who can. So in a matter of speaking, the Bible does contain eternal life.

But more to the point, the Scriptures bear witness of Christ. If the essence of eternal life is to know Jesus, then the Bible affords us the privilege with remarkable convenience to study him and to know him better and better, not to mention his will which allows us to become more and more like him.

Committed To Deep Fellowship

Characteristic number three: The church was committed to fellowship.

I should point out that fellowship is so much more than socializing. That word denotes partnership and sharing with one another. When we become a part of the church, we are joining ourselves to one another in a profoundly intimate way. That is why Paul could describe the church as a body in 1 Corinthians 12. We are essentially members that form a single body, a single person. We no longer live independently. We rely on each other, help each other, and grow together as a unified body. My needs become your needs. Your needs become my needs. What causes you to rejoice, makes me rejoice. What causes you to weep, makes me weep. We are living together as the family of God.

You know, when we read about the early church, it is clear that they did not think of the church as a place to go. No one ever said, “I’m going to church.” They understood that they were the church, and they were the church together.

Perhaps no passage articulates the importance of fellowship better than Hebrews 10, starting with verse 23. It says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 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.”

I like what one commentary had to say about those verses: “This exhortation calls for serious thinking about other Christians with a purpose to stir up (or provoke) them in their love and service. Christian perseverance is thus a community endeavor.”

It goes on to say, “Community encouragement toward perseverance requires being together.” That should go without saying, but sometimes it needs to be said. If we think that merely sitting with the church for an hour or two on Sunday morning qualifies as the kind of fellowship commanded throughout the Bible, well, think again. Biblical fellowship, the kind of fellowship enjoyed by the early church goes much deeper than that.

Think of Christ and the apostles. Think of Paul and his traveling companions. Think of all the time they spent together. Think of all that they went through together. Think of the closeness between Jesus and John as John rested his head on Jesus’s chest. Think of the way Paul spoke so highly of his friends and fellow-ministers when he closed out his letters. These were people who shared a profound relationship with one another. They weren’t strangers who attended the same worship services. They lived together, suffered together, encouraged one another, supported one another (in more ways than one), they sacrificed for one another, and they rejoiced to know they were serving our Lord Jesus Christ by serving each other.

Committed To Christ Above All Else

Characteristic number four: The early church was Christ-centered.

I realize that virtually every church claims to be Christ-centered, but that doesn’t mean every church truly is. Sometimes we become more about ourselves. Sometimes we become more about our traditions. Sometimes we can get too focused on a particular doctrine or methodology. It will most often be subtle, but we can very easily get distracted from our first priority which is Christ himself.

Not only was the early church devoted to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, but verse 42 also says they remained steadfast to “the breaking of bread.” Now there is some debate as to whether that refers to the Lord’s Supper or a regular meal. But I’m not sure that it’s worth arguing over because the 1st-century church typically combined the Lord’s Supper with a general fellowship meal among believers.

This can be seen in 1 Corinthians chapter 11 where Paul rebuked the church for treating the Lord’s Supper like it was nothing more than an ordinary meal. In fact, the wealthy among them were eating up the bread and drinking all the wine without sharing with the poor. That’s what led Paul to say, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another.” We also see in the very first Communion service that Jesus and his disciples enjoyed a full meal together before they had the bread and the wine. So whether the “breaking of bread” here refers to the Lord’s Supper or not, I believe it’s safe to assume that Communion was a part of it.

Regardless, we do have it on record that the Lord’s Supper has always been a vital practice of the church. And what is the primary purpose of the Lord’s Supper? Well, Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Paul added, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So the Lord’s Supper is a specific activity of the church designed to refocus our minds and hearts on Christ and his crucifixion.

You know, when my co-pastor and I were in the planning stages of the new church, one of the things we discussed was how often we should have the Lord’s Supper. Well, I grew up having it once, twice, or maybe up to four times a year. But we both agreed that wasn’t enough. Now Scripture doesn’t tell us how often we should have it. But given its importance, we both felt that even four times a year wasn’t quite enough. Now you may feel differently about it, and that’s okay. We finally decided on once a month. Anyway, the frequency of Communion is not really what I want to talk about.

What the early church’s commitment to the Lord’s Supper signifies to me is that Christ and his finished work were their priority. And when Christ is our priority, it means that we’re not. It means that what we believe and what we do as a church is not self-serving. It means that we are living out our calling as a people who have been saved to know Christ, to learn about him, to learn his will, to serve him, and to become increasingly like him. It means we’ll have a church full of Marys who sit at the feet of Christ, hanging on to every word he speaks, pining for him and his glory.

Committed To Praying Together

Characteristic number five: The early church prayed together.

Again, verse 42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”

Now beyond being a people who clearly believed in prayer, this text implies they were praying together. You know, it is a sad thing when you realize that prayer has become little more than an empty religious routine in some churches. It can almost feel like an afterthought. It seems as though a prayer or two just got shoved into the worship service because, well, you know, that’s what we’re supposed to do.

Listen, our prayers do not have to be these long-winded, eloquent mini-sermons we so often hear in churches. You don’t get extra points for quoting verses of the Bible. (Of course, you’re always welcome to quote the Bible in your prayers.) My point is, prayer is remarkably simple. Prayer is our way of communicating with God. With fear and reverence, just open your mouth and let your heart do the talking.

But more to the point, the church should always put an emphasis on prayer and specifically praying together. It’s really sad when I hear people in the church sigh and moan at the prospect of a prayer meeting. And I know what they’re all thinking; it’s boring. But what exactly is boring about it? Since when did it become boring to stand in the presence of God before his throne of grace and make requests which he not only allows, but he even encourages. That’s not boring at all, and the church desperately needs it.

Reverential Toward God

Characteristic number six: The early church felt reverence toward God.

Verse 43: “And awe came upon every soul.” I believe the KJV uses the word, fear. Either word is appropriate. They both signify the reverence the people had for God.

I think that’s something we’re prone to lose over time. It’s almost as though we get too comfortable with God. Or maybe the problem is that we’re not really thinking about God as we should. We’re still gathering to worship him, but it’s become so routine that maybe we don’t take it as seriously as we should.

I’ll just give you one verse to think about along these lines. In Ecclesiastes chapter 5, Solomon said, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” In other words, when sinners approach God, some amount of preparation is required. We need to humble ourselves. We need to recognize God for the Holy and Sovereign Lord that he is. We need to approach him with fear and reverence in our hearts.

Committed To Using Spiritual Gifts

Characteristic number seven: The early church used their God-given spiritual gifts.

Look at the latter part of verse 43: “Many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.”

Now, this is one of those subjects that probably deserves its own sermon, and maybe more than one. It’s a subject that I think often gets neglected in the church today.

Now I know that this verse only points to the apostles doing miraculous signs and wonders, but we can still translate it to modern times. First of all, the apostles were not the only ones in the church to whom God gave spiritual gifts. Second, not all spiritual gifts are quite so miraculous as healing the sick or raising the dead.

Let me read a passage from 1 Corinthians chapter 12. Paul wrote, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone.” Did you catch that? God gives gifts to everyone in the church.

“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.”

By the way, nowhere in Scripture do we have a complete list of every possible spiritual gift. That’s made clear to us by the fact that the lists given to us are never the same.

Paul continued, “All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.”

So there are a few things to keep in mind here. First of all, everyone in the church possesses spiritual gifts. Second, these gifts are for the primary purpose of building up the church. According to Paul, they are for the church’s “common good.” And lastly, there is only one way that I know of to discover your gifts, and that is to continually devote yourselves to the apostles’ teaching, to fellowship with the church, to breaking of bread, to prayer, and so on. When we are actively seeking Christ and striving to be conformed to his image together as a church, the spiritual gifts that we need will manifest themselves when we need them.

Committed To Generosity

Characteristic number eight: The church was generous and charitable.

Verse 45: “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

I suppose that’s self-explanatory. However, I will add that we can share even more than our money and resources; we can also share our time, which can be equally important.

Actually, let me make one more point about this. Every church has a budget, right? And if we look at the breakdown of that budget, how much of it is dedicated to helping those in need? You know, in the Old Testament, there were three separate tithes, or three separate givings of ten percent. (Tithe, of course, means ten percent.) There was one tithe for the temple expenses, another tithe for the priests, and a final tithe every three years for the poor. So their required giving actually totaled not ten percent, but more like twenty-three percent.

Now I don’t know if those exact figures should be used as a model for the church today, but I strongly believe that the poor and needy should have a place in the budget. It’s just too important to neglect. See Matthew 25. According to Jesus, when he returns at the end of time, his primary concern will be whether or not we helped those in need. In fact, he said that by helping those in need, we are actually doing it to him. He said, “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” So the church should be generous and charitable.

Full of Joy and Thanksgiving

Characteristic number nine: The church was full of joy and thankfulness.

Verse 46: “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.”

Of course, we also see, once again, how committed the early church was to fellowship. They met together in the temple, but that wasn’t enough. So they also went from house to house, breaking bread, and sharing meals together. They were generous toward one another. They were happy. They were clearly joyful. And they were praising God for it all.

Evangelistic and Growing

Finally, characteristic number ten: The church was growing because God was working through the people to evangelize the world.

The last part of the passage says they were “having favor with all the people [that is, the people in the community around them]. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”

Now someone might point out that the text doesn’t say God was working through anyone to save people and draw them into the church. It only says that the Lord added to the church. That’s true, but this one verse doesn’t tell the whole story. If we jump back to chapter 1, for instance, Jesus, just before his ascension into heaven, promised once again that he was sending his Spirit to the disciples. But for what reason? Chapter 1 and verse 8 says, “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.”

So the Holy Spirit was sent to empower the church to be Christ’s witnesses throughout the earth. Look again at verse 47 in chapter 2. The church had favor with all the people. So the community around them looked upon them positively. They were having an impact. God was working through them to expand his visible kingdom, growing it from a small mustard seed to a massive tree. And that is really the theme of this entire book. Over and over again, The Book of Acts tells us that the disciples multiplied and the Word of God increased. I already read from chapter 8 where the church in Jerusalem was scattered by persecution, yet they continued to preach the gospel everywhere they went.

Suffice it to say, the early church was extremely evangelistic. And as a result, God was using them, and blessing them, and drawing more and more of his sheep into the church through their efforts. May God do the same for us today. Keep in mind, evangelism was not given an expiration date. No, in fact, one of the last things Jesus told his disciples was, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Committed To Worship In All Things

Now as you reflect on this list I’ve given you, a list of church basics, you’ll notice that I hardly mentioned worship even though worship is a central part of the church’s life. Well, let me say a few things about that. First, our worship of God should be a given. Second, most everything in this passage is a form of worship. And third, while our corporate worship on Sunday morning is vital, it is by no means the totality of our discipleship. Remember, there are six other days in the week. Christianity doesn’t begin and end on Sunday.

But with this list as well as a mind that is set on knowing and becoming like Christ, everything else has a way of falling into place. You know, at its heart, the church is a very simple organization with simple mechanisms to help us fulfill our purpose to the glory of God. May God bless us.

Preached at Eureka Primitive Baptist Church (Chula, GA) on February 12, 2017