Over the years I have heard and read many different theories on how to ‘do church‘. The people of God have searched for the formula that will recreate the kind of signs and wonders seen in the book of Acts. All the theories out there fail to find that key. For the main, most of them are based around a gimmick that bares no relationship to anything written in the Bible. It is easy to find countless pastors who have broken away from some existing order of Christianity, in order to forge a way through, often with some new idea. Sadly, these attempts often become facsimiles of what they broke away from or just bigger and better versions of the original.
The thousands upon thousands of different denominations which exist under the Protestant / Non-Conformist banner, not to mention the thousands more of Non-Denominational churches, should be evidence enough that no one out there has it right. And, if one small group did, it would be evidenced by the kind of signs and wonders seen in the book of Acts.
I am not saying that I have the practical, step-by-step answer. There is no man-made blueprint for this. I am simply saying that we have stopped listening to what God has already said. It has been my experience, and I suspect the experience of many others, that when God is silent, it is because He has already spoken. Frequently, in those times, when I feel that tangible silence from God’s direction, I find He leads me back to what He last said to me. He reminds me of the promises He has made us. And, as is usually the case, when I re-examine both what He said and my actions, I find that I failed to be absolutely obedient to His word, or perhaps misunderstood what He was saying by trying to shape it to my will, and not His.
In Part Four of this series I referenced the first couple of verses from the letter to the Hebrews. It is clear from what it says that God has spoken already. If we are not hearing how we should ‘do church’ I suspect that it is because He has already shown us, firstly through the pages of the Old Testament, and then, latterly through the person of His Son, Yeshua. After all, it is very clear that those first disciples understood exactly what He wanted them to build, because they actually built it. We have a tendency to look at what they built back then and talk as if that couldn’t work now. We will come up with endless reasons why it wouldn’t work. In this day and age, at this sticky end of time, we expect that it would be something more elaborate than people living together and sharing all their stuff. It is as if we expect it to be a megachurch or a series of megachurches. Instead, it was a meagre-church. Of course, we know that the Hebrews were expecting something a whole lot more elaborate than a guy riding into town on a donkey. And look what they failed to see as a result. It is as if what they did back then doesn’t count – that we’re much more sophisticated. I wonder why we feel we are exempt from following what they did? It is possible that way in which churches, even the modern ones, are so heavily weighed down with traditions or man-made rules, that to change is almost out of the question. Let me offer one scenario that I know to be true because I have seen it in action, on more than one occasion.
Imagine a young, married pastor. He is fresh from Theological College, and he and his wife have many ideas for when they get assigned to a church. Perhaps they are second or even third generation Christians and walk closely with God. They have read the New Testament and think they can see what God wants for His church. They are given a post to some obscure town which is awash with various social problems. They’re really excited and can’t wait to get started. The position comes with a manse, not far from the church building. The name above the door of the stone church building proudly proclaims it’s reforming heritage. Yet, once inside the doors, they find the church is stuck in an age long since passed. Stuck in the time of the last revival – the last thing that worked. Tradition has become more important than the gospel. There are rules which they didn’t envisage; unwritten understandings of how things should be done.
As time passes they try to change one thing, and then another. Perhaps some more lively and modern worship songs. Perhaps they re-arrange the chairs or talk of replacing the pews. But each time they are faced with opposition from the eldership and the congregation. We have always done it this way, is the mantra they hear. Then comes the talk, the one where a carefully selected elder, possibly the treasurer, comes to them and shows them the accounts and explains how finely balanced the financial position is. He tells them that too many changes will scare people away and the church cannot afford to lose any income. Dejected, the pastor and his wife sit back and review the situation. Maybe next year we can try again. The years pass and nothing changes. Their dreams have been pushed to the back of their minds, like the distant sound of thunder. By now, they know everyone. They know how to please people, and what sort of sermons they like to hear. And, they think to themselves how fortunate are we. We have an income and no bills to pay. Life is good. And when it comes to the time for them to move on, they get the chance to meet the new pastor and his wife, they quietly advise them that change isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Sound familiar? It might not be like that everywhere. I used it as an example for how it is very hard to come in and change something that is already grounded in tradition. I believe that is why God calls people out of the existing tradition which they find themselves in, whatever that may be. A few months ago I felt as if the Holy Spirit put a phrase in my mind. I had been working through researching the churches of the book of Revelation and contemplating how you go about starting a church the way which God wants. The phrase which appeared in my head was, “It isn’t to start a new one, but to re-start an old one.”
So, if that was truly the Holy Spirit, which I believe it was (I tread with caution on such matters – it is easy to lay claim to the Holy Spirit speaking freely as some preachers do. My experience is that it actually happens a great deal less than people would like to believe), then the idea of just starting another new church is repellent to God. And if it is an old one which needs re-starting, it implies that the one in question is no longer running.
In the town in which we live there are a total of six self-professed churches (one High Anglican affair of the English Catholic Tradition; one United Reformed; one Wesleyan Methodist chapel; one Non-Denominational; one Christian Science; and of course, the Romans). As it is clear that they can’t all be right in terms of what God wants, that leaves the choice that either one is right, or none are right. My guess is that it is that none are right. I take our town to be typical of thousands of other towns across the nation. If the old one which needs restarting isn’t to be found in any of the already established churches of today, then where is it to be found?
The answer is found, unsurprisingly, in the pages of the New Testament. Let’s take a look at what those first disciples built. For what they built was exactly what Paul referred to when he said:
“Now, therefore (because of Christ’s sacrifice), you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Yeshua the Christ, Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” [Ephesians 2:19-22 (my brackets)]
Paul knew what this old church was. Of course, it wasn’t old to him. It was new compared to what God had called him out of. But he recognised that he was merely helping others to build upon those foundations which had been laid by those apostles whom Yeshua chose, and the prophets who came before them, all held together by Yeshua, whom we know to be the chief cornerstone, the one the original builders rejected (see Psalm 118). Can you see the pattern here? Even with Paul, whom Yeshua appeared to in person, God didn’t tell him to remain within Judaism and change it from the inside; He called him out of that place to help build another, according to God’s original blueprint. Not according to man’s blueprint.
Notice that Paul calls the believers of Ephesus, members of God’s household. Paul would have made this reference with the model of Abraham’s household in mind – that all who were included in that household were protected, fed, cared for, and equal. Christ is the head of God’s household, which is the church. Beneath Christ, all are equal.
Here’s what the foundation to which Paul was referring looked like:
“Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.
And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Yeshua. And great grace was upon them all.
Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the apostles’ feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need.” [Acts 4:32-35]
Hmmm. Perhaps if the good doctor Luke was writing those words of today’s church it might look more like this:
“Now the multitude of those who believed acted as though they were of one heart and one soul, but they were truly only out for their own best interests; everyone said that what they owned was theirs and that they had earned it. If someone was in need, they would be quick to say that they would pray for them, but they wouldn’t give away what God had given them freely. They had little in common.
And the power of the self-appointed apostles was in the way they controlled of their own congregations, as they gave witness to the way in which God had made them rich. They behaved as if God’s grace was upon them, but it simply wasn’t.
Many amongst them lacked food and clothing and couldn’t pay their bills. Those who owned land and property looked with contempt on those with nothing, as if God’s favour was clearly not upon them, suspecting them to be sinners. Those who could give, would openly present gifts to the self-appointed apostles so that people would consider them to be more spiritual. The self-appointed apostles took their money and bought themselves luxury items and built themselves large houses and told the people that their wealth was a sign of divine favour.”
You might find my sarcasm uncomfortable, but, if we are all really honest about how we compare to the early church, then we will have to accept that we have missed the mark. This isn’t about condemning anyone – everyone will have to face God at some point, and mine isn’t to be the judge. I am just trying to show what’s wrong with continuing as we have been for centuries. I don’t believe that churches which are part of large organisations, which are run like businesses, or those who are part of large denominations are ever going to be able to accept that they need to change, let alone actually institute the kind of wholesale change that needs to take place. God is calling people out of those giant institutions right now. This is not to start their own church, but to learn what His church should look like.
Let’s work through those verses from chapter four of Acts to see what we can learn from them about what church should look like.
In verse 32 it says that they were of one heart and one soul. If we pause for a moment here and try to grasp what this really means. Why did the author, Luke, choose to differentiate between the two? He had previously used the phrase, ‘of one accord‘, which seemed adequate then. But here he separates heart and soul. Our understanding of what the heart is can often be obscured by the way in which we associate emotions with the heart. Matters of the heart are often described in terms of feelings and emotions. The Hebrew understanding of the heart, however, is different. Instead of associating emotions with the heart, they associate the intellect and the will. In effect, the mind.
Part of the problem we have is because there is a tendency to only look to the New Testament, and therefore the Greek basis upon which the oldest scrolls were written, we fail to recognise that there are often differences between what one thing means in Hebrew, to what it means in Greek.
Throughout the New Testament the words heart, soul, mind, and spirit, are often used in an interchangeable manner. This is mainly the fault of the translators of the original Greek. Their own understanding was always brought forward. However, there is a difference between all of them. I have written an article on this blog which goes some of the way to explaining my own limited understanding. You can find it here: Afflict Your Soul. But, for those who don’t have time to go through that particular article, here’s a good way to separate heart and soul. The heart is described by Yeshua (in the Parable of the Sower) as the soil – the place in which God’s seeds grow. This would mean that we should consider the mind as being the same as the heart. The soul, on the other hand, in the Hebrew language is associated with the appetite. It is our soul where we decide to feed either our flesh or our spirits.
For this multitude to be of one heart and one soul wasn’t to say that there was a single heart and a single soul between the entire multitude, but rather, that their minds were collectively set upon a single goal, and that their souls were collectively all feeding their spirit – no one was pursuing any desires of the flesh.
The passage goes on to say that no one considered what they had to be their own. Instead it was freely available to all or any who had need of it. To have everything they owned as common property is quite astonishing to us today. We have a tendency, without even realising it, to measure our worth in terms of what we have. Yeshua had spent three years teaching these people that what you can see is unimportant, and therefore worthless. He taught them about giving freely because they had freely received. If you think about it, Yeshua practiced what He preached constantly. He gave of Himself all of the time. Even the authority which His Father had given to Him, He freely gave to first the 12 and then the 72. He taught them that by acting in this way, we would store real treasure in heaven.
By focussing upon the rest, that is eternal life, which God’s salvation promised, the disciples, and then the multitudes, recognised that it is only the things which we can’t see which are important. This theme is common throughout Paul’s letters. He urges other believers to fix their eyes on the unseen over the seen.
There is a wonderful story in the 2nd book of Kings when the king of Syria was making war against Isra’el. Elisha the prophet and his servant are there. It looks to be an impossible battle. Defeat appears to be inevitable. Elisha’s servant is at the point of despair. Elisha, however, saw the unseen. He simply encourages his servant by telling him that there are more with us than with them. He then asks God to open his servant’s eyes…his spiritual eyes. And then the servant saw that the mountains were full of the horses and chariots of fire of the army of Yehovah’s host. That’s how we need to be. Many will say that we are too far gone down the road of materialism, but it is never too late to ask God to open our eyes. It was one of Yeshua’s main miracles – opening the eyes of the blind. We can be physically blind and spiritually blind. Take a look at Mark 8:22-26. Ever wondered why Yeshua had to lay his hands on the blind man twice before his blindness was healed? It’s odd because we know that nothing is impossible for God, so it seems strange that it took two attempts. I think the first attempt was just to heal the man’s spiritual blindness. When he said that he saw men like trees who were walking, I think he was seeing into the spirit realm and those men like trees were angels.
We need to refocus – to fix our eyes on what we can’t see. Then, and only then, we will truly see.
Notice also in the text that verse 33 shows that the apostles witnessed with power. They spoke only Christ-crucified, just as Paul championed. I can’t recall the last time I heard a message on that subject. We’ve watered it down and focussed upon the grace. But we forget grace only comes through faith, and faith in Yeshua. If we don’t speak out the message of the death and resurrection of Yeshua, then faith is not ignited within us. If we lack faith, then the grace is unavailable to us. We will deal much more with the subject of what is actually being preached later in this series but, for now, it is important to note that they only preached one message.
The next two verses (34 & 35) are perhaps the most striking of the entire passage. No one lacked anything. Everyone willingly sold what they had to share with others. The apostles distributed what was given to those who needed it. They didn’t take the money and hold on to it. They didn’t use it to build a megachurch. They used Yeshua’s example and distributed all they had. It is a sad testament to all churches today who squirrel people’s gifts away in bank accounts whilst members of their congregations suffer poverty. Over the years I have been totally dumbfounded when I have discovered the amounts of money churches hold on reserve. Reserve for what? They all seem ready to claim the Gift Aid, but rarely do they do true acts of charity which Gift Aid was set up for, either within their own walls or in the streets around their building. God will require an answer from all that store money without His express instruction. To store money like that displays a complete lack of faith in God. As someone who lives by faith, I can tell you He is faithful. Whilst the experience stretches us constantly, it is wonderful when He provides just what you need, exactly when you need it.
I will finish this part here. In the next instalment we shall look at the signs and wonders that God performed through His fledgling church.