The church local and universal is God’s ordained means for accomplishing His purpose in the present age. The local church in particular is the sole vehicle for God’s work and witness in the current dispensation. After the rapture, other institutions will come to the forefront for the furtherance of God’s eternal program. But this must never diminish the glorious reality that the church exists and functions according to “the eternal purpose” of God (Ephesians 3:10, emphasis mine).
This week’s message completed the study of Peter’s Pentecost sermon and explored the life of the early church. It revealed important aspects of our function and purpose.
A. The Church Must Practice Apostolic Evangelism (vv. 37-41)
You will recall that Christ’s last words to His Apostles involved His commissioning of them to be His representatives and spread His gospel to the world. This is rooted in His initial (through resurrection) and impending (through ascension and crowning) exaltation to the place of highest authority as the only Savior and the Ruler of the universe. Ephesians 1:19-23 is very helpful for understanding this majestic place occupied by our Lord. He is in the place of final, overruling authority over everything that happens on earth; His will is being accomplished to the glory of His Father and the completion of His wonderful kingdom plan of the ages. What is most interesting is the Ephesians passage concludes with saying the church is the physical Body of this exalted One on earth—of necessity implying, I think, that the Body carries out the will, plans, and directives of its exalted Head, who rules over earth from Heaven. Christ is sovereign, but we are integrally and intimately involved in the execution of that sovereign will as we are filled with His Spirit and apply His Scriptures (especially those He wrote through His chosen Apostles).
On the Day of Pentecost, Peter is functioning in his apostolic capacity as an emissary of Jesus Christ as he begins the Great Commission outlined in Matthew 28. He is also accomplishing the sovereign will of the ruling Christ, who meant to have three thousand Jews bow the knee to their Messiah. Peter’s choices thus are real, meaningful, and effectual in changing the course of history and furthering the plan of God. Peter has begun proper evangelism by focusing on Christ’s person and work – he has not shied away from emphasizing His shed blood, victorious resurrection, or imperial authority. He has also properly exposed the sin of his listeners. This is really the heart of biblical evangelism. For Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8), which includes all the effects of the Curse on every part of life but most fundamentally refers to His breaking the power of sin in the lives of His people and in its stranglehold on the world. People cannot be rightly related to Christ as Savior if they do not grasp their sin. If they do not see their sin as an offense to a holy God, they will come to Christ for the wrong things and will at best have a shallow conversion (if not a false one). These people, because of the work of the Holy Spirit through Peter’s preaching, saw their sin and they were desperate—fearful of impending judgment from the One they had killed who was now in the place of absolute authority.
Peter calls them to repent—to turn from self-rule and its fruit, sinful affections, thinking, and deeds—and by implication to turn in dependent faith and surrender to the One who has authority to rule and save. (While we must never insist a potential convert repent of every individual sin or understand the full implications of submission to Christ’s authority in order to be saved, some hatred of sin and desire to be free from it as a principle, and some understanding that Christ is the authority and must be yielded to, should be present if God is indeed drawing the person to salvation.) Then, he calls upon them to be baptized as a mark of their allegiance to and identification with their new exalted Lord. Bruce Compton, a seminary professor, wrote: “Peter’s first command was for the hearers to repent of their sins. Those whose repentance was sincere would obey Peter’s second command and be baptized, thus identifying with Christ and proclaiming publicly their allegiance to Him. Hence, it is these, the ones who were baptized as an expression of their true repentance, who had their sins forgiven and who received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Technically, then, water baptism is understood here not so much as a condition for forgiveness and the Spirit as it is the mark of those whose repentance is genuine.”
That the Spirit would be given to the truly repentant indicates the Messianic era has dawned and the Messiah is ruling, calling out a new people for His name who are empowered by the indwelling Spirit to obey His directives in faith and glorify God thereby. Evidently, the ruling Christ was pleased to honor Peter’s message, as He drew 3,000 of His elect to full salvation that day. As evidence of His work in their hearts, these would manifest increasingly transformed lives among the new community of the church. It is to that newness depicted that we now turn.
B. The Church Must Practice Apostolic Order (vv. 42-47)
The order of the church is how the church is intended by God to function. Perhaps most strictly and formally, it refers to the actual government of the church and the way in which its public worship is conducted, including its ordinances. However, I am using it more broadly to refer to the total life, faith, and practice of the church in the lives of its individual members. Individual believers willingly gathering together in (1) local assemblies which (2) function consistently, if imperfectly, according to how God through His Apostles has expressed they do so is an excellent evidence of God’s supernatural work in their hearts.
True believers desire the things of God, even if due to poor teaching or immaturity they may misunderstand or misapply them. These first believers had the added benefit of joining the church before the proliferation of denominations, “culturalization” of Christianity (such as in the West, which is not inherently a bad thing, but has had bad effects in that it has made it far easier to identify as a Christian devoid of surrender to Christ, a biblical worldview, or consistent obedience to His Word), and thousands of years of false teaching, rote traditionalism, and radical cultural shifts had decimated the church and landed us in a second dark age. This meant their faith could be purer, their obedience more defining, their loyalty unquestioned, given that it was so costly. Still, in every age church saints are to function according to this pattern as the marks of their covenant with Him, and so examining them is helpful.
The “apostles’ teaching” was their authoritative and divinely-revealed unpacking and explication of the gospel and God’s claims on His people, as well as how Christ had fulfilled and would in the future continue to fulfill Bible prophecy. This teaching is now preserved, if not exhaustively, in the inerrant, verbally-inspired writings of the NT, and is the same thing as the “traditions” Paul mentions in his letters (1 Cor. 11:2; 2 Thess. 2:15, 3:6—especially in the latter verse, to be “unruly” is to in any way be out of conformity with that tradition. It should not be limited to the idleness of unemployment). As emissaries of Jesus Christ, the Apostles spoke for Him via revelation and so were the de facto authorities for faith and practice in the church. “Fellowship” refers to the sharing of life with other believers in love and relationship based on their shared partnership and identification with Christ and His Word. Their sharing in His truth made fruitful and enduring human relationships possible, rooted in the very life of God that flowed in each believer. “Breaking of bread” is the Lord’s Supper, instituted to both anchor us in the sufficiency of His shed blood and as a prophecy of His return to complete the work. “Prayers” are corporate prayers as a Body, appeals to the living ruling Christ to intervene on earth and come to the aid of His community.
“Awe” (v. 43) is more properly “fear”—a direct underscoring of God’s tangible, active presence among them. Though redeemed, their lingering flesh as well as the manifestation of sheer omnipotence and holiness in their daily lives would doubtless have produced a trembling sense of smallness in the presence of unhindered majesty. “Signs” refers to the miraculous works performed by the Apostles, to authenticate them as revelatory spokesmen for God, and the ones responsible for effecting the transition from Israel to the Church as God’s appointed institution through which He works with humanity. While the revelatory signs have ceased, Christ is still present and active among His people and can be asked to do miraculous things in response to prayer. Verses 44-45 explore the sacrificial love and community the believers enjoyed as they met one another’s needs. (Because most were merely visiting in Jerusalem for Pentecost, and had publicly identified with a Man so hated He had been killed in that very city mere months earlier, the new believers would almost certainly have had deep needs on almost every level.) Their Jewishness is evidenced in their still gathering in the Temple to worship God daily as a community, but their New Covenant participation is shown by the fact that it was marked by joy (rooted in accomplishment of prophecy and assurance of God’s forgiveness and power working for them), a new community (the “taking of meals” is a reference to the love feasts following the Lord’s Supper), and righteous lives.
The final note is that the Lord was not done with the three thousand saved on Pentecost. Through an obedient, rightly-ordered church, Christ was accomplishing an integral part of the will implied in the Ephesians passage referred to earlier. His physical Body carried out His will and plans as more Jews surrendered to their promised Messiah. May the same Lord, who still rules with great decisive power, find our local churches equally usable in the accomplishment of His plan, to the glory of our wonderful God.