Civility, or the lack thereof, is a topic often addressed in our modern culture. It is not new, nor is the lack of it.
The early Christians also faced opposition. They also faced rabble-rousers and mobs when their growing influence created fear in the Jewish leaders: “But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5). They noted the Christians “turned the world upside down” (v. 6). But their movement spread despite the opposition.
We have been looking at the early Christian movement and its impact as it spread throughout the world. We’ve discovered the passion and the power of the early church and the impact it had on its surroundings. Now we will examine four things the early church was devoted to, which can help us today.
If God could use them, God can use you and me. If only we want him to. How we can continue writing Acts today with the fervor of the early Christians?
How can we make the difference in our world that they did in theirs?
A legendary football coach I met while pastoring in Atlanta unknowingly provided the answer to that question for me. Dan Reeves, served in the NFL for 38 years, both as a player and a coach, and over the course of his remarkable career, became a household name. But the greatest impact he had was not as a sports figure. It was as a believer in Jesus Christ.
While Dan coached the Atlanta Falcons, his brother was active in our church and Dan and his wife Pam visited often. Dan told me one day that he and Pam felt God had called him to the work he was doing. Surprised, I asked him what he thought God wanted him to do. He said, “To influence the men on this team, and anyone else I can, for God.”
Through his national exposure as a NFL coach, God fulfilled that call in his life. He is a humble and gracious man. He would probably tell you, “If God can use me, God can use anyone.”
And he did with the early church, and is still doing so today.
The early church leaders were Galileans; we would call them “country folk.” Not one of them was from Jerusalem or any city you’d recognize. The vast majority were foreigners, from the fifteen nations Luke listed earlier (Acts 2:9–11). Religious leaders in Jerusalem called them “uneducated, common men” (Acts 4:13), since they did not have the rabbinic schooling and background of the Jewish leaders.
Yet in just thirty years their movement spread from Jerusalem to Rome, and from 120 to multiplied thousands, and soon millions. They became the mightiest and largest religious movement in human history.
What explains their incredible success? What did they have which we need?
The “four-fold cord”
The key to the people of apostolic Christianity lies in a Greek word: proskartereo. This word means, “to be devoted to.” To make something your passion and your highest priority, to give yourself exclusively to it. What was the passion and highest priority for these early Christians? Think of the answer as a four-fold cord, a rope made of four strands interwoven for strength, the rope to which these Christians clung for life itself.
First, “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Having no New Testament, this became the word of God for them. They didn’t just read the word of God, they staked their lives upon it. They learned and obeyed the Bible.
All through the Book of Acts we find these Christians reading, quoting, and depending upon the word of God. I counted forty-nine different Old Testament passages they quoted from memory and used in their lives and ministries. They were saturated in Scripture. It became their food and drink, their sustenance and life.
Second, they were devoted passionately to “the fellowship,” the koinonia. Fellowship has been defined as “two fellows in one ship.” Imagine 3,000 people in one ship and you’ve got a good picture of these first Christians. They sold their possessions when necessary to give “as any had need” (vs. 44–45). Even their enemies noticed. Tertullian quotes their admiring statement, “How they love each other.”[i]
And they extended their ministry to those outside their “ship” as well. When unwanted newborns were thrown out with the trash, these Christians would rescue them and adopt them into their families.
When the plague swept Jerusalem and everyone abandoned the sick and dying, the Christians stayed behind, risked their lives, and cared for them.
They clung to the word of God, and to the people of God.
Third, they were passionate about the “breaking of bread.” Now I am too, especially after church on Sunday morning, but Luke means far more by the phrase than we do. This is Luke’s term (cf. 20:7) for what Paul calls the “Lord’s Supper” (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:23–26) and Christian worship.
They worshiped him publicly: “day by day, attending the temple together” (v. 46). This was their regular practice: “And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico” (5:12), the eastern edge of the outer court. This was their “sanctuary,” where anyone could see them.
And they worshiped him privately: “breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts” (2:46). They worshiped on Sunday, and all during the week. Theirs was a passion for the worship of God.
And last, they were passionate about “the prayers” (2:42). The definite article is clear in the Greek: not just occasional or sporadic praying but a definite schedule and discipline. They were so passionate about praying that they scheduled it and practiced it habitually, the same way you and I schedule appointments important to us.
And the results were quite amazing: “And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles” (v. 43). They were living in reverence of God, and the Holy Spirit moved through them with amazing power. They worshiped and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, living in the joy of Jesus.
They praised God and had favor with all the people. And “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v. 47). When a church is on fire, people will come from miles around to watch it burn.
Have you heard of a city missionary in New York named Jeremiah Lanphier? He and two other men began praying for revival and awakening, and others joined them. Their prayer movement led to the Third Great Awakening in American history. It spread to Ireland, where the courts were adjourned because there were no cases to try and jails were closed because there were no prisoners to keep.
Why did God use them? Because they had a proskartereo kind of passion for prayer.
Every awakening has started with prayer, and that is the most powerful weapon we have today. This Saturday, September 26, Franklin Graham has organized a prayer march in our nation’s capital. Participants will march 1.8 miles, beginning at the Lincoln Memorial at noon EST. We can join them by uniting in prayer for the safety of the participants and for a great movement of the Holy Spirit across our nation.
Every single thing these early Christians did, we can do today. These are the four keys to being used by the Spirit of God, the four-fold rope to which we can cling today.
Many of you already have this rope in hand. And God is using you, in ways you can see and ways you cannot. Some of us need to take the rope, again or for the first time. If we want God to make our lives meaningful and significant for all eternity.
While others in our culture choose uncivil ways to engage changes, we can model the early church and engage the Spirit for change.
The choice is ours.
[i] Lucian of Samasota (died 185) was an obvious enemy of the gospel (he calls Christians “poor wrenches” and Jesus “that crucified sophist”). Nonetheless, he records the fact that Christians care for their own with “incredible speed” (The Passing of Peregrinus 13).
[ii] The Didache 14.1: “On the Lord’s Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure.”
[iii] Cf. Calvin (Commentary on Acts, 126); Marshall (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 126); R. J. Knowling (Expositor’s Greek Testament 94).