By Dale H. Swartz
Have you ever read Acts 2:42-47 and thought “Wow, what a Church! If I could only have lived back then and be a part of that congregation! Imagine sitting in a Bible Study with the apostles leading the discussion, quoting the words of Jesus and seeing God work in a mighty way among His people! I wonder why we don’t see that kind of church today. I wonder if we could be a part of a church like that again. Come to think about, why couldn’t we? If God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and His power hasn’t changed, then why couldn’t we have a church like that? What did they have that we don’t have? Look what we have going for us today. We have the advantage of modern innovation and technology that was never conceived of or thought of back then. We have television, books, tapes, videos, computers, and cell phones. We have e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, twitter, Wikipedia and the list goes on and on.
Despite all of the modern wonders that we have today, we don’t seem to have churches today like the first century Church. What did they have in those early days that we don’t have today? Take a look at Acts 2:42-47. There are basically two things that made the early church what it was. As a result of these two things, the people had a sense of awe and respect; they saw many signs and wonders performed by the apostles because the Holy Spirit was at work in their lives. It is true that the believers had things in common, they sold their possessions to support the work and aid the poor, they were unified together, went to the temple daily, they fellow-shipped with one another and they broke break together (vv. 43-47). But all of these activities seem to be an outgrowth of these other two things practiced by the early Christians.
The first of these two things is found in Acts 2:42. Here the scripture says: “And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching…”
To me it is no coincidence that “devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching” is the first item listed in what the early Christians did. In those early days of the Church all the believers, leaders and followers alike, had seen Jesus and listened to Jesus; some had even been his very close personal disciples. These people were first generation followers of Jesus and, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they articulated Jesus’ message just as He had taught it to them. They had no doubt who Jesus was (Peter had stated that in the middle of Jesus’ ministry, Mat:16:16), they had no doubt what Jesus meant regarding the kingdom of God and they had no doubt what their mission and responsibility was because Jesus had personally given them the Great Commission.
Down through the centuries since that time the words of Jesus have been debated, analyzed, and scrutinized to the point that parts of Jesus’ message, including His very identity has been misconstrued and convoluted. After the death of the early church fathers, new converts to Christianity who had other theological and philosophical ideas in their backgrounds accepted the teachings of Jesus; but like new converts today, they had difficulty separating and setting aside the false ideas from their past. Instead they tried to integrate their old ideas and philosophies with the new teachings of Jesus. The result has been a diluted message. Notice I called it a diluted message. I did not call it a diluted gospel. In Galatians 1:6-9 was apparently confronted by the beginnings of this deviation
and said it was NOT another gospel, but a perversion of the gospel. The gospel is the good news about the kingdom of God, and this other teaching is neither about the kingdom, nor is it good news.
The Apostle Paul warned Timothy that this perversion and deviation from the truth was going to happen. In 2 Timothy 4:3 Paul said: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine…” and today in the 21st century we have seen that come to pass. The word ‘sound’ in 2Tim:4:3 comes from the GK. word hoog-ee-ah’ee-no meaning to have sound health, to be well (in body); and figuratively to be uncorrupt or (true in doctrine). That is part of the trouble. Much of what is taught today may be doctrine, but it isn’t sound (uncorrupted) doctrine. Remember, doctrine means teaching and every church has its teaching; but what exactly they are teaching is what comes into question.
Jesus’ doctrine and the apostle’s doctrine was, and still is, the true and uncorrupted doctrine. It is a different doctrine than what is taught in many mainline churches today.
The second basic thing that the early Christians followed that resulted in the spectacular growth of the first century Church was prayer.
At this point you may say; “our church prays and as an individual I pray. That’s so simple, there has to be something more than that”. No, I believe it is as simple as that; but I also believe we don’t fully understand prayer today as they did in the first century.
In his book, ‘The Heart of a Great Pastor’, H. B. London and Neil B. Wiseman, both from Focus on the Family, wrote the following. “Don’t expect a miracle until you have gone way beyond your own resources. God doesn’t waste the supernatural on what you can do on your own. Peter, the coward before Pentecost, did this in the Early Church. In Acts 4:29, 30, Peter’s (and the Church’s) prayer for ‘signs and wonders; asks God for boldness to speak convincingly before Herod and Pontius Pilate and for supernatural results in the Early Church. God answered Peter’s prayer. The Bible says the place was shaken. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke the Word of God with boldness”.
Jesus set the example of prayer for his disciples. By his own life example he showed them they needed to be in prayer contact with the Father on a continual basis. A great example of this type of prayer is recorded in Matthew 17:21. The passage records an account of a miraculous healing that took place at the hands of Jesus. The disciples tried to heal a man with an unclean spirit but
couldn’t do it. Jesus healed the man and then said regarding the healing: “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” Jesus had a very intimate relationship with His Father and his prayer life was greater than any of his followers; but he taught them that by maintaining a more dedicated prayer life a miracle of that same proportion could be performed by them; but it was
accomplished only through prayer and fasting. When Peter prayed his prayer recorded in Acts 4 he prayed with confidence and truly believed God would answer the prayer. Today, too many people pray without a true confidence and belief that God will hear and answer their prayer.
If we pray, believing, God will give us what we need. H. B London said: “The work of God in the human heart and in the Church may not always be spectacular, but it will be supernatural.” We may not see some of the miracles of the early church, but what about those close-at-hand, and less sensational miracles that are seldom noticed? A student receives a $100 check unexpectedly when his dorm room cupboard is bare. The prayer of faith that does not heal the cancer, but gives the cancer patient the peace, comfort and resolve that God is near. Too many times today answers to prayer are considered ‘coincidences’ instead of ‘God moments’.
If we want the twenty-first century church emulate the first century church we must dedicate ourselves to the apostles’ doctrine and to the type of prayer that was demonstrated by Jesus and practiced by the apostles. We must live our
Christianity every day and then in turn, teach these things to other people. James 5:16 says “the effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much” and when it comes to our Christianity Jesus said “by their fruits ye shall know them” (Mat:7:20). What the Scripture appears to be saying is that we prove our belief and faith through our actions. Therefore if we REALLY believed what James said, we would be more of a praying people; we would be praying like Jesus
and the first century church; and we would see a reappearance of that first century excitement and enthusiasm in our twenty-first century church.
One of the most magnificent praying persons I ever met was the late Z. B. Duncan. He was not only a dedicated man of faith, but also an extraordinary man of prayer. Z. B. spent hours upon hours in prayer; in fact he even constructed a small prayer
closet on the roof of the back porch on his house. He had it enclosed so that he might use it even in inclement weather. Z. B. prayed often and a lot and whole heartedly believed, thought doubting, that God hear and answer his prayers. As a result God revealed things to him and used him in ways that I have never seen in any one else before or since. As a boy, I remember sitting in our living room when he was a guest in our home. I listened to him testify about the power of God. Oh the stories he would tell of how God had spoken to him in his meditation and prayer time and revealed intimate and personal things about other people
that no one would have been able to know except someone tell them. These were true stories of God working through him to impact the lives of others. His stories inspired others to reaffirm their faith and rededicate their lives to God. Listening to his stories reminded me of the early first century church might have been like.
Could we ever have a church like the first century church again? My answer is YES, but it is a qualified yes. To have a church today like the first century church in the Book of Acts we first must preach the apostle’s doctrine, which was Jesus’ doctrine; not the doctrine of the second and third century church. Secondly, we must dedicate ourselves to lives to a more fervent life of prayer. Jesus set the ‘prayer bar’ very high, but not out of reach. In John 14:12 Jesus said “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do, he will do also; and
greater works than these he will do; because I go to the Father.” Jesus was going to the Father and He promised to send the Holy Spirit would which would be God’s active agent working in our lives. If we would truly abide in Christ on a daily basis I believe we could see the first century God blessed, Christ empowered Church come to life again.