Christianity 201

March 30, 2017

The DNA of the Very First Church

During the week of March 13th, Andy Elmes from the UK Ministry Great Big Life ran a series of five devotionals that he called “Characteristics of a Blueprint Church.” Space doesn’t permit us to run all five here, but I wanted to include some highlights from each day. See the bottom of today’s piece for information on how you can get material like this in your inbox each weekday.

Characteristics of a Blueprint Church

Acts 2:41-43, NIV
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.

They devoted themselves

Here we find the first ingredient to their effectiveness. There was within the church, not just the leadership, a spirit of self devotion. People daily “devoted themselves”. They had great preachers, but they were not spoon fed; they were self feeders taking responsibility to get the spiritual nourishment they needed. They had great meetings and fellowship but did not need to be constantly phoned or dragged there or reminded with constant bulletins like they had memory problems; they got themselves were they needed to be, when they needed to be there.

So much of modern church is sadly about motivating people to do what they should naturally want to do, encouraging people to do things that really should be their spiritual lifestyle. Imagine if we could get even more self devotion into the DNA of the modern western Church – how much more effective would our local churches be if each member took personal responsibility for even the little things, like getting to Church on time so church services could start as strong as they could do, serving on the teams that needed them and turning up when it was their turn without a text, being faithful in honouring God with their finances and time without subtle reminders and encouragements from the stage?

I am always amazed at how people can downgrade the “God bit” of their life and sentence it to a lesser devotion than the other bits; one great example again being time keeping. In every other area of life they are on time: meetings with the dentist, bank manager, work – but why not church? What is that switch that needs to be fixed? Surely the greatest of our devotion belongs to God, right? Surely the place we manifest the greatest personal self devotion should be in His House? Imagine what we could achieve if just this one thing was to change – suddenly no challenge would be too great. Hey we might even see 3000 people get saved on our Sunday morning: 3000 people moved by His message but also moved by a group of people so sold out and devoted to what and who they believed in.

Apostles Doctrine

…The Dictionary says that Doctrine is, “Teaching, instruction, the body of principles in a branch of knowledge or system of belief.” Basically, the Apostles’ doctrine was the teaching of the first Church Leaders (apostles). The foundational teaching for the new testament church was based on their teaching, especially Paul’s. Their teaching formed the “branch of belief” for what we still believe, live by and hold to as true today in regard to everything including God, His Church and how we are to live.

I suppose the challenge today is, do we teach and personally live by the truths found in the Apostles’ doctrine (teaching)? Does it still form the margins of what we believe today to be truth or do we attempt to mix it with other doctrines (teachings)? Notice that it does not say they devoted themselves to the doctrine of Moses or the doctrine of religion; no, it clearly says they devoted themselves to the doctrine of the Apostles (leaders of the early church).

The doctrine of Moses was not wrong for its time or dispensation, but as Paul stood up to preach daily everything had indeed changed. Christ had now died for the sins of the world, the old covenant was no longer effective or relevant because a new covenant had been established and had replaced it – a covenant (agreement) cut with the very blood of God’s only Son, not of bulls and goats that could only provide a mere covering for sin that would last a moment. Full punishment for sin had now been placed on Christ as He hung on the cross as our substitute; full forgiveness had now been given and God’s wrath towards us settled because of His one-time redemptive work. So much had now changed. It wasn’t that Paul could not or did not refer to Moses, the law or the previous covenant, but now what he taught, and the doctrine he was establishing, was based on the grace of God and the perfect finished work of the cross, and nothing else. The doctrine he now preached and established would leave a person redeemed and free outside of their own performance or merit; it would give the offer of a new beginning to all who would believe based on faith not works; it would reveal God’s eternal plan to get His life inside the life of the believer, to empower a person to overcome and live the new life they had been freely given…

…[A]re you living and building by the Apostles’ teaching or are you trying to add a bit of Moses, or maybe a bit of law, maybe a dash of your reasoning?

…When I started to think about “the Apostles Doctrine” I was intrigued to find out exactly what it was, to make sure I was not guilty of mixing covenants in a wrong way, or of believing partial or diluted truth. I studied a bit deeper than normal and found out what the epicenter of the Apostles Doctrine was. I was not surprised but certainly encouraged as I discovered the Apostles Doctrine orbited and found its strength in a couple of basic truths or realities. Firstly the finished redemptive work of Christ and secondly the reality of the new creation.

Think about that: everything that Paul taught and established was based and rooted in the simple yet profound truth that when anyone believes in Jesus as Saviour they become a “new creation” – they are born again, and it is as if they had never lived before or ever sinned in the sight of God.

One of Paul’s foundational truths for all he taught in regard to this reality was of course this one found in 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NKJV): “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new”. The NIV translation puts it like this: “the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here”. Paul had a deep set revelation that the new creation was God’s master plan – not a patch up job of the old man, behaviour modification or a rust maintenance program, rather a brand new beginning for a person based on God’s unfailing grace.

The truth is when a person believes in Christ they identify with His death, burial and resurrection and come in by faith to a brand new existence based on Christ alone (Romans 6:3-6). As God’s word says in Romans 6, the old man is crucified with Christ and, as Paul said so well, our only boast is in the cross where we were separated from the world and who we were to be who God has called us to be (Galatians 6:14). As you read on in that verse you actually see Paul defy or replace the doctrine of Moses with this new creation reality.

Galatians 6:15, NIV
Neither circumcision nor un-circumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.

…Are you attending meetings or doing life with the church?

We have been looking at what the first church devoted themselves to. We saw that the Apostles’ teaching was a very high priority and that each person who called that first church home had a personal devotion to it. Next on the list comes the word fellowship, this was another high priority to them and needs to be to us. So what does it mean by fellowship? I love the way The Message translation puts this verse:

“They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.”

I love that statement and the image it creates: they devoted themselves to “the life together”. The early church put great emphasis on simply “doing life together”, they never defined their church experience as two hours on Sunday but rather committed to live more community-minded in their relationship with the Church…

Acts 2:42-44, AMP
And they steadfastly persevered, devoting themselves constantly to the instruction and fellowship of the apostles, to the breaking of bread [including the Lord’s Supper] and prayers.

We have looked at how the original blueprint church devoted itself to doctrine (teaching) and fellowship (doing life together); next on the list comes the breaking of bread. Did this mean that they spent all day doing communion? I don’t think it did. I like the way that the Amplified version puts it: “to the breaking of bread [including the Lord’s Supper]”. Personally I think this fits well with the culture of Israel at that time and links well with previous value and priority of doing life together. Remember, when Jesus instituted the original communion, or breaking of bread as we know it today, where was He? In a synagogue? No, He was at a meal with His friends, hanging out with them, eating and breaking bread with them, then He takes the bread and wine and talked His friends through what has become a significant ordinance still in His Church today.

Is God saying in this verse that we are to devote ourselves to the act or ordinance of communion? That we are to do it all day and everyday? Or, like the Amplified version says, that we are to be taking time to eat and fellowship together and, in the midst of that ongoing fellowship, we are to make time to take bread and wine to specifically remember what He has done like He instructed us to do). This feels more natural and ‘lifestyle’ to me than just making the bread and wine something we do in certain meetings we hold together?

Again, I don’t think it is an issue of “either, or”, rather “both”. I think we should still have significant Bread and Wine (communion) times together when we meet corporately, but also as we build the community side of the church. As we meet together not just to pray but to fellowship and eat, in the midst of us doing that we take time to give thanks and remember what He did for us when He gave His Body (represented by the bread) and shed His Blood (represented by the wine or grape juice)…


I subscribe to the morning devotional Breakfast of Champions by Andy Elmes, which originates from the UK ministry Great Big Life. Click the link to have it delivered to your inbox each weekday.

 

December 9, 2011

Devotion or Discipline?

I’ve often said to acquaintances that I appreciate this particular opportunity because it forces me to spend a fixed amount of time either in God’s word, or in areas where others have been contemplating aspects of Christian doctrine or Christian living in the light of scripture.   But I no sooner use the word forces and I realize that word is laden with baggage.  It implies something that I must do, but will only do if forced because it is contrary to my will.

I also know that some people have issues with the approach of author Richard Foster in the book Celebration of Discipline.  They find the term discipline too formal, almost constricting.  These things  — prayer, Bible study, etc. — should be the product of delight not duty.  I love my wife, but I don’t have to set aside times to show this, I try to do this in many ways throughout the day.  (Emphasis on try if you happen to be reading this honey.) For many, an emphasis on the word discipline comes with a belief in performance based religion; we achieve standing before God on the basis of the things we do. They don’t want to embrace a faith that scores points on the basis of hours spent in Bible study or on one’s knees in prayer. They don’t want to feel compelled to do these things, but rather, to do them naturally, organically.

But didn’t Paul tell us that he knows what he wants to do is not always the same as what he does? While we want to spend more time with God, we often need structure to bring that desire into actual activity. While we may not be double minded in the sense that James defines it, we do live in two worlds.  We need to discipline ourselves so that our intentions are actually carried out.

If you’re new to this journey of Christ-following, you may wish a refresher on what the particular disciplines are that we’re referring to.   Donald Whitney reiterates these in his book Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life.  The blog Protheist lists them using the word priorities, which is softer than disciplines, as long as we understand we still need to make priorities.  Here’s the summary:

Spiritual Disciplines

1. Bible Intake

We should strive to read and study the Bible on a daily basis. This helps us to aim our thoughts, desires and lives toward God, thereby drawing closer to him (James 4:8) so that we can walk more fully in his will. During our times of Bible intake, we should seek to memorize, meditate on and apply God’s word. Perhaps this means we only get through one or two verses as a result; but in the end, it is not about the quantity, but rather the quality of your time in the word.

2. Prayer

As Christians, all prayer is heard and all prayer is answered, even though God may not always answer the way we want him to. While sometimes prayer helps us to align our will to God’s, it is also an event where we can thank (Col 4:2), confess (1 Jn 1:9), worship (Heb 12:28-29) and invite (Or beg) God to intervene in a crisis in our lives (Phi 4:6). Though the Bible teaches that God is sovereign, it also teaches that our prayers greatly affect the outcome of events (Luk 11:9-10; Jam 4:2). To get a response from God, we do not have to speak award winning prayers, but he does want us to come in reverence (Heb 5:7) and humility (2 Chr 7:14); expressing our needs, fears, desires and concerns with him.

3. Worship

The act of responding to and focusing on God is to be done by the power of the Spirit by the word of truth (Jhn 4:24). We are encouraged to do this in both private (Rom 12:1) and public (Col 3:16) settings, and is not limited to singing. But rather our lives are to be an act of worship to God as we seek to glorify him and his name in all we say and in all we do (1 Cor 10:31); whether that is through work, play, art, study or speech.

4. Evangelism

Even though we may not all have the spiritual gift of evangelism, we are all called to evangelize in both word and deed (Matt 28:18-20). While we may be afraid of the hearer’s rejection of the Gospel, we must be sure that we measure our success by the careful accurate delivery of the message (1 Cor 3:10), not the recipient’s response (1 Cor 3:6-7). For we are but a postal service that delivers important information, and must not see failure in their rejection of the message but in our refusal to deliver. If you know enough about the gospel to be a Christian, then you know enough to share it with others.

5. Serving

When God calls us, he does not call us to park our cars in idle, but to drive forward with a mission and purpose (Matt 28:18-20)! We are slaves to Christ, who has set us free from our slavery to sin (Rom 6:17-18, 22); and as servants of Jesus, we are workers, not sleepers (1 Cor 4:1). We do not work in an effort to earn our salvation, but we work because it has already been given to us. God has rescued us from the grip of Satan which we so grossly loved, and the depths of Hell which we so badly deserve. How do we repay him? We can’t (Rom 3:19; Gal 2:16). How do we respond? With our lives (Rom 12:1; Eph 4:1).

6. Stewardship

Your time cannot be regained. Each moment that passes is lost forever. While we may not care much now, every moment on earth will be far more valuable at the moment of our death. So as Christians, who have been rescued from our lives of sin, how are we to use our time, our money, our gifts, our talents, our possessions and our knowledge? By understanding that they all ultimately belong to God (Ps 24:1-2; 1 Cor 6:19-20), we give them back to God, the church, our family and our community (Col 3:23-24; Jas 1:27) out of the joy (Rom 14:17; 15:13; Gal 5:22) that God has granted us for the purpose of worshiping the Lord and raising up a generation of Christ followers.

7. Fasting

This is an expected (Matt 16:16) voluntary abstinence from food for private spiritual purposes and not for public declaration (Matt 6:18). We do it to strengthen our prayer lives (Ps 35:13), seek guidance (Acts 13:2), express mourning (Joel 2:12), request deliverance, express repentance, show humility, minister to others, display concern for the work of God, overcome temptation and most importantly, love and worship God. We do not do this as a form of self-inflicted punishment but as a method of communicating sincerity and hope that God will answer our request as we desire.

8. Silence and Solitude

There are many great purposes to getting away by ourselves on a regular basis. Some of these include, following Jesus’ example (Luk 16:12), hearing God’s voice better, worship God, seek restoration, get clear spiritual perspective, pursue God’s will and to help us control our tongue. We are far too addicted to the noise and the sound of our voice. Miniature getaways force us to temporarily mute both to connect with God on a deeper level.

9. Journaling

Do not do this if you are not concerned with spiritual growth; as it is a powerful tool that does just that. It helps us record progress in our Christian life, evaluate ourselves, meditate on matters, express thoughts, clarify insight and track the amazing things that God is always doing in our lives. As Francis Bacon once said, “If a man writes little, he must have a great memory.”

10. Learning

Just as Jesus grew in wisdom (Luk 2:52), so should we seek to do the same. We should be humble and teachable (Col 3:12-13), as we attempt to love God with our mind (Matt 22:37); while seeing our learning as a discipline to live out and not a hobby to play with. For if we are seeking to become more like Christ, we must know what Christ is like, which is why we should seek knowledge as we pursue Christ.

Closing

Of all the disciplines we hold ourselves to, the spiritual disciplines are priceless tools that we can use to greatly enhance our relationship with God. While some are expectations of us, others are simply time tested recommendations.

If you feel stuck in the moment, are not sure how to grow in your walk with Christ, of if you want to read a more thorough explanation of each topic, pick up Whitney’s book on Spiritual Disciplines…

We’ll give the last word on this to Bonhoeffer, via the blog Euangelion:

In his exposition of Jesus’ words in  Matthew 6:16-18 in Nachfolge (“Discipleship”), Bonhoeffer has this to say about the importance of practicing spiritual disciplines such as fasting:

Jesus takes for granted that disciples will keep the pious practice or exercise of fasting. The life of a disciple requires the strict practice of austerity. The only purpose of such practices is to make disciples more willing and more joyous in following the designated path and doing the works required of them. The selfish and lethargic will, which resists being of service, is disciplined; the flesh is chastened and punished. The practice of austerity makes me fell the estrangement of my Christian life from the world. A life which remains without any ascetic discipline, which indulges in all the desires of the flesh as long as they are “permitted” by the justitia civilis [civil order], will find it difficult to enter the service of Christ. Satiated flesh is unwilling to pray and is unfit for self-sacrificing service (158)

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