Acts 2.42-47; 4.32-37; 5.1-11
The earliest body of believers experienced a mass of conversion when Peter proclaimed the truth of Jesus as the Christ at the feast of Pentecost. Whether you take these 3000 new believers to be hyperbole—an argument for which I find insufficient evidence for—or not, there was certainly a notable growth that took place in the Jerusalem church, forming a community of believers; one which needed specific attention and certainly one which requires our attention in ministry today.
Specific detail is given to the way that the church operated:
- Devotion to the apostles teaching (Acts 2.42),
- Devotion to the fellowship [o koinonia—note this is not to the act of fellowship they are devoted, but to the fellowship as a whole, this is the community of believers] (Acts 2.42),
- Devotion to sharing meals (Acts 2.42, 46),
- Devotion to prayer (Acts 2.42),
- Living amongst each other (Acts 2.44)
- Voluntary communal property (2.44-45, 4.32, 34-37).
The contemporary expositor of scripture might argue—and indeed many will agree with this assumption—that these six points ought to be interpreted and applied in such a fashion:
- We must teach the words of the apostles.
- We must have time set apart for fellowship—time spent with other believers.
- We must be hospitable to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
- We must devote ourselves to prayer.
- In our cultural context, it is inappropriate to assume we ought to live amongst each other, but that we must set aside time to devote to fellowship with one another.
- In our cultural context, it is inappropriate to assume we ought to share everything we own with the church, but that we must be devoted to giving a portion of our wages and worth to the church and possibly to charitable work.
This fictitious expositor would presume to have come to these conclusions on the grounds of biblical discernment—for which he certainly ought to! But, what is biblical discernment? Is it comparing the events occurring in scripture to a contemporary reality as many expositors have become accustomed to doing (the method for which this exposition was derived)? Or is biblical discernment a criticism of the heart of God which flows through a passage of scripture? Certainly you must realize at this point I will argue for the latter.
Yes we must seek not the feels-right-approach to cultural conformity, but seek out the true heart of God through the narrative. As we understand rightly the heart of God, we can then apply that heart within the contemporary context. This is biblical discernment; that which flows out of scripture, not one that uses the culture as a means for interpreting scripture as was the case for our fictitious expositor.
Given our passages, I would propose the following methodology for discerning the heart of God in this particular scripture. Luke’s purpose was to bring certainty to the things that had been taught about Christ and to continue to show what Christ was doing in developing the early church. Interpretation should therefore follow this form:
- What does it mean (What actually occurred?)
- Why did God work in this way?
- What does this tell us about how God intended to develop the early church?
- Does this apply directly to the church today? If so, why? If not, how does it apply (why might Luke have left this account for later generations?)?
- How does it apply personally and in smaller corporate circles (ie. autonomous churches; youth ministries; etc.)?
As I seek the heart of God in this way, I find the following to be true (I’ll spare you to read all my exegetical work):
- God desires that each individual be devoted to the study of the Bible as the only reliable source for godly wisdom and sound doctrine.
- God desires each individual to be devoted to serving Christ first, within their collective body (ie. church, ministry, Christian community, etc.) and second, in their communities or other mission fields, alongside the collective body.
- The breaking of bread—or sharing of a meal—in the early church culture ultimately symbolized acceptance. Therefore, God desires that the collective body actively accept one another. This can certainly be accomplished in today’s culture by the sharing of a meal, but also in other ways as well.
- God desires that the individual be devoted to prayer, not in the supplicatory sense, (or Luke would have used the term supplication; cf. hiketēria [supplication], proseuchē [earnest prayer]), but prayer which seeks to understand the mind of Christ, [contextually] to reveal how the will of God is to play out from within the body of believers.
- There is strength in numbers. God desires the church to be a united community to bring strength from within, through the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ecclesiastes 4.12).
- The church exists primarily for spiritual purposes, but if physical needs are not first met, the church cannot intervene on spiritual matters. Therefore, to the degree which is appropriate for the contemporary setting, God desires the collective body to take care of its congregants’ physical needs—even to the extent that the early church went to accomplish this task.
Notice how the former set of principles, given by our fictitious expositor, lacks the call to serve Christ boldly in a communal form as the early church did. This form of Christianity is individualistic and breeds complacency. It breeds Christians like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5.111), who wanted to look like God fearing Christians, but were unwilling to adopt the heart of our God.
The latter set of principles are certainly a challenge to the way we see ministry today, but do they nonetheless reveal the heart of God? Or do you not believe that the beating of the hearts of the believers and the unity of the believers’ souls (Acts 4.32) was critical to the miraculous growth of the church (Acts 2.47)?
Again, the former principles of our fictitious expositor reflect a tradition of reformed Christian ministry in the US. And the latter reflect the heart of God as it permeates time and provides valuable insight into the will of God for ministry today.
I promise to talk about youth ministry, for that is the reason why I have prepared this study in the first place. So, should I—as tradition has showed me I ought—preach a moralistic message to the youth of my church? one where I am wise and they are foolish, except that they obey?—isn’t that the tradition of youth ministry?
No, it seems to me that I ought to proclaim the heart of God, to foster unity, to bring the strength of numbers that the Holy Spirit will use to draw more youth of our community to the feet of Christ for salvation. I am but one man with few words, but there are with me many voices to empower with the Word of God to bring the Gospel to bear on the souls of the lost.
Oh that this youth group would be ‘of one heart and soul’ and that the Lord would add to our numbers, not those with deep pockets or superficial faith, self-seeking individuals with a desire to belong, but those who are being saved. Then those who are being saved, that their hearts will begin to beat as one with the rest and the purpose of God would be accomplished through us.
I’d encourage comments that demonstrate a practical reality of this sort of ministry for I know no other way to accomplish this task than to be consistent in preaching the Word of God, making a conscience effort not to preach moralism, but to preach empowerment through the body of believers and the Spirit of God. And all the while praying that God will be faithful in this work.