In our long and ongoing series examining how evangelicalism responded to the COVID pandemic, particularly in the United States and in the light of the Book of Acts, we come now to the final installment: What happens when believers gather together? This last section is really the heart and soul of the entire series, driven in large part by how the vast majority of churches responded at the start of the pandemic and how many continue to respond at present.
As we may recall, the initial widespread response was to close church buildings and shift to an online, virtual church. In most areas, closing was by ordinance from State governors (however lawful that may have been), but the shift to an online, virtual church was a decision made entirely by individual church leadership and remarkably was a near uniform response. In the online environment, the goal was to replicate what happens in person, i.e. announcements, singing, prayer, sermon, benediction, even giving etc., by allowing individuals or families to observe this in the comfort and safety of their own homes. If ever in the history of modern evangelicalism, at least within the United States, there was more evidence of the overall systematic deficiencies of what we have come to know and call Sunday morning church services it was exemplified in these responses to the present pandemic. Because our services have simply become opportunities to extend the rampant cultural consumerism that dominates our day, no one blinked an eye to the notion that the status quo – that is sitting and watching someone else do all the work, couldn’t still function in a virtual environment. In order to know whether this is proper, we need to examine it in the light of Scripture to find out what happened in the early Christian gatherings and what should be our expectation today.
In walking through the Book of Acts, as we have been doing, this time we want to focus on those passages which highlight the nature of activities that occur when believers gather. In opening this series, we highlighted the significance of the little phrase coming together (synerchomai: 16x in Acts), as it related to the gathering of believers and cited passages from throughout the book where believers were indeed together. Here again, we will return to that theme paying special attention to the instances where these gatherings occur. As with our other posts in this series, we will need to begin with Acts before extending into related and relevant epistles which spring from Acts. Of interest through Acts, we will focus on five primary passages, while looking at several supporting passages.
To set the stage for us we ought to observe the first gathering of the little ekklesia of Christ – now reduced to the eleven, around Him just prior to His ascension where they have one final conversation before He leaves (Acts 1:6). In a way, this final conversation is a repetition of the early commissioning given in Matthew 28:18-20, though with some additional instruction. Upon seeing our Lord ascend and then returning to Jerusalem, we find the first ekklesia or gathering of believers, assembling post-ascension. Here (Acts 1:12-14) we read that the eleven, together with the women, Jesus’ mother Mary, and His brothers (or perhaps even brothers and sisters), are gathered together in one place for prayer. We wouldn’t want to read into this passage more significance than the context allows, but clearly given all that they had experienced over several weeks, their greatest need…together…was to seek God in prayer.
Next, we read of this post-ascension ekklesia where Peter is the presumed spokesperson and calls for the brethren, which we are informed numbers about 120, to choose a replacement for Judas, a call which he supports with Scripture. Here we perhaps gain some insight into the early decision making among the group. We ought first to note that it wasn’t Peter, or the Eleven (at this point) who put forth the two men for Judas’ replacement, rather it was a decision arrived to by the body. The nomination, as it were, of Barsabbas and Mathias, is then narrowed to one selection by God through prayer and the casting of lots. If we could summarize, we might simply say that this larger gathering was for the furtherance and advancement of their gospel ministry in Jerusalem.
In the second chapter of Acts, we arrive at the first two primary passages of interest for our discussion here which wrap around a significant event at Pentecost.
When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested[a] on each one of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.Acts 2:1-5First, we find our related phrase, “they were all together in one place,” which we ought to note indicates their unity and physical presence together. We might ask what was the occasion for their gathering, but we can reasonably surmise it was for the purpose of Pentecost. Pentecost, or the Old Covenant Feast of Booths, is described for us in detail in Exodus 23, 24; Leviticus 16; Numbers 28; and Deuteronomy 16. It sets the time frame for us around mid-May to early June. Because we know our Lord celebrated Passover with His disciples before His death, this puts our time here around 50 days, 7 weeks, or a week of weeks from that time. Essentially, seven Sabbaths, plus one which would be on Sunday (see also Jubilee). Is this a justification for the Christian gathering to happen on Sunday? Not exactly, as at this point they were clearly meeting on the Sabbath (Saturday) as well. If anything, it is perhaps evidence of their willingness to meet more often than one day. As we know, it was this occasion when they were gathered together in a house that the Holy Spirit came upon them and they began to speak in tongues.
As this event unfolds, with verse 5 providing the transition from the house to the “neighborhood” as it were, we find the familiar events of the nations gathering at the commotion and again Peter standing up among the brethren. Here we find him giving a clear and concise (likely summarized) message of the gospel which demands a response from his hearers, which they acknowledge, namely repentance and baptism. Given the transition in verse 5, the audience identified in vs. 5-11, the subject of Peter’s message, and the subsequent response it would seem to be special pleading to classify this as a “church gathering” with Peter delivering a sermon to the congregation and then to use that as support for our modern practices. This was clearly an evangelistic message to unbelievers. If anything, we might say that the private gathering in the house was made public by the Holy Spirit who then drew unbelievers to the brethren allowing for the opportunity of the gospel to be preached. Pentecost, the coming Holy Spirit, flaming tongues of fire, speaking in tongues, and 3000 saved all on this day would appear to be a unique moment in history, though there is certainly application for us here.
As we move to the latter portion of Acts 2 and our second primary passage, we find a common device used by the divinely inspired author, that of a detailed summary. Luke utilizes this tool, perhaps at least ten times, in order to draw the readers attention to specific points that he wants to highlight. In this case, the highlight is how the early believers fellowshiped with one another.
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. Acts 2:42-47As we have pointed out repeatedly in our study, it is a limiting principle of interpretation to treat every passage as either prescriptive or descriptive and then to only follow and apply in our modern context those that are prescriptive. If we were able to make this distinction with certainty and consistency (and that’s doubtful), we would find that while the prescription is commanded, the description is not to be ignored as it often highlights, or describes, a pattern to be followed. While the earlier event at Pentecost described an actual historical day, this passage at the end of chapter 2 describes a pattern of how the early believers gathered. The activities mentioned here show that they are ongoing and repeated and it is framed as a succinct summary of their fellowship, as such, it’s not necessarily a systematic liturgy. Looking closely at each part we find the following:
- Devotion to:
- The apostle’s teaching
- The fellowship
- The breaking of bread
- The prayers
- Exercise of spiritual gifts
- Union and commonality
- Meeting of individual needs by the community
- Day by Day:
- Attending the temple together
- Breaking bread in their homes
- Praise to God
- Favor with the people
- Sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners
In our next post in this focus upon the gathering, we will examine our third primary passage as well as several supporting passages for gatherings which occur throughout the middle portion of Acts.