April 14, 2008

What is the Church Supposed to Be? – Part 2 – Acts 11:19-30

Posted in Ecclesiology at 12:40 am by Dan Lowe

Following is a summary of the morning sermon preached at Maranatha Baptist Church on April 13, 2008.

What is the church supposed to be?

It seems that a lot of people are trying to answer this question today and the answers often vary widely.

1)      There are people today saying that the church doesn’t have to be organized.  In fact, there are some who teach that a free-flowing, loose structure is the best model for a church (i.e. see George Barna’s book “Revolution.”)

2)      There are people today saying that the church simply needs to do whatever works (i.e. Church Growth Movement.)

3)      There are people today saying that the church doesn’t need to have recognized leaders… that everyone basically fulfills the same role in the church.  This is fairly common among many within the emergent church movement.

4)      There are people today saying that it is not even necessary to be part of an organized church.  Faith is considered to be a private matter to be expressed individually in whatever way we see fit.  (i.e. “It’s all about me and Jesus…”)

There are many people today saying that if the church is to survive into the 21st century, then we must redefine the church in postmodern terms… or else the church will cease to exist.

I find this opinion very difficult to reconcile with the following statement of Jesus… “…I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18b (ESV).)

Jesus Christ will build His Church… and nothing can stop it.  He is the Builder… and His blueprints are recorded for us in Scripture.  His model is the one we must examine carefully if we want to answer the question… what is the church supposed to be?

In order to answer this question, we have been looking at the model of the church at Antioch provided for us in Acts 11:19-30.   Last week, we tried to answer the question, “What are church leaders supposed to be?  This week we will try to answer the question, “What are the members of the church supposed to be?

Acts 11:19-30 (ESV) – 19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. 22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. 27 Now in these days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. 28 And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius). 29 So the disciples determined, everyone according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. 30 And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.

We see five characteristics of church members described in this passage of Scripture:

1)    They were continually engaged in biblical evangelism.

Acts 11:19-21 tells how some of these Christians fleeing from the persecution in Jerusalem traveled north 300 miles to Antioch.  This was a large, particularly pagan city, yet this did not hinder these Christians from speaking forth the gospel of Jesus Christ everywhere they went.  The hand of the Lord was with them… and a church was born. 

But their evangelistic efforts didn’t stop there.  They didn’t get complacent once the church seemed to be thriving.  They continued to engage in the practice of evangelism.

How do we know this?

Notice verse 24… after Barnabas had arrived in Antioch and began his ministry there… “… a great many people were added to the Lord.  Verse 21 tells us that there was already a large number of believers there in Antioch, but even more were added to the Lord after Barnabas came to shepherd this church.

Where did this great number of people come from?  They didn’t come as a direct result of Barnabas’ ministry.  Notice that we are told that he was “exhorting them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.”  In other words… his ministry was primarily dedicated to building up those who were already Christians.

So where did this great many people who were added to the Lord come from?

They came from the continuing work of these Christians who were part of this local church in Antioch.  They were average, ordinary Christians… people like you and me… who went about their day to day lives speaking of Jesus in average, ordinary ways…

2)    They were committed to gathering together corporately.

Look at verse 26… after Barnabas had gone to Tarsus and returned with Saul… notice what they did… “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people.”

The importance of gathering together with fellow Christians is questioned constantly today.  We live in a highly individualistic culture.  We value our independence and freedom.  We don’t want to be tied down.  We value being self-sufficient.  We don’t want to need anyone or anything.  We like to believe that we can take care of ourselves.  Let’s face it… we don’t want to be told that we need to gather together with other Christians.

However, as Christians, we are not simply saved by Jesus Christ in order to live our lives alone with Jesus.  We saved by Him into a community of faith.  We are called to live out our lives together with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is made clear through the figures of speech used to describe the church in the New Testament…

          We are the Body of Christ (I Cor 12:12-27)… and each one of us is an individual part of that body.  We are not made function independent of the whole, just as the hand isn’t made to function apart from the eyes and the lungs and the kidneys.  We are saved to be part of a body.

          We are a living stones being built together into a temple (Eph 2:19-22, I Pet 2:4-5)… into the dwelling place of God by His Spirit.  One stone all by itself isn’t much of a temple now is it?

          We are the family (or household) of God (Eph 2:19-22, Gal 6:10).  One person does not make up a family.  By definition… a family is more than one person.

We are not saved by Jesus Christ to be “Lone Ranger” Christians.  We are called to be part of one another and that means we will gather together.

But are we commanded to gather together corporately as Christians?

Let me respond this way… there is no question that the apostolic model is for Christians to gather together with other believers regularly in order to be built up and strengthened in the faith.  If you don’t believe this, then simply read quickly through the book of Acts and make a list of all the passages which describe Christians gathering together regularly.

Not to mention that most of the New Testament epistles are written to churches, not individuals.  By the way, all the letters addressed to individuals in the New Testament were all, without exception, leaders in a local congregation.  The New Testament seems to assume that we will be committed to gathering together as Christians.

But if you are looking for a command to gather together with fellow believers… you need only look to Hebrews 10:23-25

Hebrews 10:23-25 (ESV) – 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

Christians are to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering… meaning that we are to cling to Jesus Christ as our Savior… and Christians are to stir up one another to love and good works.

How are we to do this?  By not neglecting to meet together.

How can we stir one another up if we don’t meet together?

How can we encourage one another to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering if we never assemble together?

If we gather together infrequently, then we will be weak… weak in our faith… and weak in our lives… because we need each other to strengthen us in the Christian life.

The tendency to neglect gathering together is nothing new.  The author of Hebrews here implies that some of his hearers were neglecting to gather together, just as many do today.  We must resist this tendency to neglect assembling together and be faithful to gather with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

What did the Christians in Antioch do when they gathered together?

We aren’t provided with a complete list of their activities, but we can safely assume that they engaged in similar activities as the church at Jerusalem, which is described for us in Acts 2:42-47

Acts 2:42-47 (ESV) – 42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

            The Christians in Jerusalem engaged in the following activities when they gathered together corporately:

o   They gathered for fellowship which was expressed through “the breaking of bread” (probably the Lord’s Supper) and “the prayers” (probably corporate prayers.)

o   They gathered for corporate worship (“day by day, attending the temple together… praising God…”)

o   They gathered in both large and small groups (“breaking bread in their homes…”

o   They gathered to be taught the Word of God (“they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching …”)

This last activity is clearly expressed in Acts 11:19-30

3)    They were committed to receiving and applying the Word of God to their lives.

We are told 3x in this text that these Christians gathered to be taught the Word of God…

o   11:23 – Barnabas was “exhorting them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose.”

o   11:26 – “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people.”

o   11:27-28 – prophets come down from Jerusalem and speak forth the Word of God to them…

Notice that this teaching did not go in one ear and out the other.  They received the Word of God and applied to their lives.  After hearing Agabus speak the Word of God, they determined to take action and put this teaching into practice by caring for the needs of their brethren in Judea.

4)    They exhibited love and care for their fellow Christians.

Agabus foretold of a famine which would affect the entire Roman world.  This famine would no doubt impact the Christians in Antioch.  Yet they considered others more important than themselves (Phil 2:5-11.)  They were concerned about the needs of their brethren in Judea and they took action to provide for them.  They were willing to sacrifice of themselves in order to provide for fellow Christians living 300 miles away… many of whom they did not know and would never know or never see.

If they were willing to show love for their brethren 300 miles away… how loving do you think they were toward one another?  We don’t know for sure… but it seems that they took the command of Jesus in John 13:34-35 very seriously…

John 13:34-35 (ESV) – 34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Christians are commanded to love one another as Christ Jesus has loved us.  This is no small order.  He sacrificed Himself for us.  He suffered and died on our behalf.  He gave His life to save us… and we are to love one another in the same manner.  We are to sacrifice of ourselves to care for one another.

Jesus says that “by this”… by the way in which we show love to one another… the world will know we are His disciples.  By this”… we will stand out and be distinct in the midst of the world and that was certainly true of the Christians in Antioch.

5)    They were distinct from the world.

“…in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.”  Most scholars agree that this was originally a term of derision, but it was also a term of distinction.  They were unique.  They were distinct from the rest of the world.  They weren’t Jews.  They weren’t Gentiles.  They were followers of Jesus Christ and everyone could see this.

This distinction was probably the result of everything we have seen in this passage…

1)      They were constantly engaging in evangelism.  They were always telling people about Jesus Christ… that is how they knew to call them “Christians.”

2)      They gathered together regularly in the worship of Jesus Christ and in fellowship with one another…

3)      They received the teaching of the Word of God and applied it to their lives… living lives which reflected the very character and sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

4)      They loved one another… and their fellow believers who were far off…

5)      And the result was that they stood out in the midst of the world… they were Christians…

Are you a Christian?  Then let me ask you a few questions in light of this passage of Scripture…

Are you distinct from the world?  Do people look at you and see that you are different?

            Do you consistently engage in sharing the gospel with others?

Do you make gathering together with other believers a priority?

How do you listen to the Word of God?  Do you expect to profit from hearing the Word of God preached?  Do you absorb the Word of God and allow it to shape your life?

Do you demonstrate love toward your brothers and sisters in Christ?

This is what church members… Christians… are supposed to be.

Does this describe you?

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