In our last post from our on-going series, When you Come Together, we resumed with a look at the gatherings of the early believers, specifically from the Book of Acts. There we pointed out that our primary focus would be on five key passages and several supporting passages. We then proceeded to look at two of those key passages, Acts 2:1-5 and Acts 2:42-47, with this latter passage serving as one of (at least) ten summary sections used by the divinely inspired author, Luke. As a summary, Acts 2:42-47 provides not so much a systematic liturgy to be copied in an individual gathering, rather it summarizes the on-going nature of believer’s gathering and highlights the types of activities we might expect to find when they gather going forward in Acts.
Turning again to Acts, we draw our attention to the fourth chapter and a supporting passage from Acts 4:23-31, and another use of gathered together (synago) that sets the context for us where Peter and John have just been released by the rulers, elders, and scribes, and join their friends, sharing in the details of their release. At this news, the believers rejoice in one voice to the Sovereign Lord (despot) interweaving Psalm 2:1-2, interpreted Christologically (Or Messianically), which is followed by prayer for continued boldness in the face of persecution and the continuation of the manifestation of spiritual gifts. Testimony, praise, prophecy (proclamation), prayer, not performed by just one, rather, “they lifted their voices together to God”. There was a unity among them and God blessed this by shaking the place physically, filling them Spiritually, and granting their petition for continued boldness in the midst of increased persecution.
Staying in chapter 4, immediately following this event, the author provides for us another summary statement, which serves as our third key passage:
32 Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common. 33 And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34 There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold 35 and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. 36 Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, 37 sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet.Acts 4:32-37Notice that this summary begins with unity, a unity of heart and soul and a unity of physical possessions. This commonality, surely rooted in love for God and love for one another (John 13:34-35), freed them up from the entanglements of possessions to give freely of their abundance to the needs of their fellow saints so much that there were no needy people among them. Their giving was strictly voluntary; they were aware of one another’s needs and met them. In practice, this is Matthew 6:19-21 (c.f. Hebrews 13:5). Then, further evidence of God granting their prayer from earlier, the apostles continued to give testimony with great boldness.
It should be clear that while the last summary (Acts 2:42-47) focused on the activities of believers when they gathered together, this summary focuses on their attitude when they weren’t gathered. To use some of the less accurate terminology of the day, in Acts 2 we gain some insight into what happened when they “went to church” and in Acts 4 we gained some insight when they “were the church”. Both are true and are not at odds with one other. There was an aspect of something that happened when believers gathered, but their also was an attitude of family and brotherhood that united them even when they were apart. For the early believers, they did not divide their life into church, professional, and personal nor did they even treat Sunday in isolation from the rest of the week. No, for them their whole lives, down to their very possessions, were devoted to each other.
One of the key takeaways from this is to observe that even when they were not physically gathered together with the ecclesia, their primary concern was still the believers of the ecclesia. Furthermore, as we’ve pointed out previously, they had an attitude of loosely holding to their own physical possessions – including property, which would have necessarily implied their attitude towards “church property.” It would have been unthinkable for them to sacrifice on a personal level to meet the needs of the saints only to turn around and devote the proceeds of personal property sales to the purchase or construction of a dedicated church property. Their priority was not property, rather it was people. These early believers were not wealthy, generally speaking. As we know from history, the vast church and cathedral building programs did not happen until the church acquired great wealth and property in the 3rd and most notably 4th centuries. This was certainly not the case with the early believers, as seen here and later when famine strikes Jerusalem, and their gatherings and attitude toward one another reflected that (see Revelation 3:17) .
As we move further into Acts, we find the occasion of several supporting passages that continue to supply context and provide for us hints along the way of early gathering practices. The first of these is Acts 6:1-7, which is essentially a combination of summary and description of a unique event. Here, in a passage that is often used as a proof text for the ordination of deacons, we find a problem brought to the attention of the apostles, namely the neglect of the Hellenistic (Greek speaking Jews) widows in the daily distribution.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.By way of summary, we find that this was a period of great growth for disciples – followers of Christ, Christians, believers, those who were gathering together as in Acts 2. Initially, we would need to understand what this daily distribution is in order to better grasp the issue that was being raised to the apostles. The word for distribution is the Greek word diakonia, as we looked at briefly earlier in our series. This is also a familiar word for those who often find Scriptural support for the office of deacon from this passage and others such as 1 Tim. 3:8, there we find the related word diakonos. In this passage, however, we find no indication of deacon or deaconing, rather it would best be understood as the “daily serving”. Their was a daily serving taking place, possibly of food or other material support as likely outgrowth of our passage above (Acts 4:32-37). To address this, the apostles gather together the disciples in order choose seven men to meet this need. Here we find the oft-quoted verses that it is not right for the apostles to “neglect the word”, which we have already seen concerned bold, evangelistic witness, in order to “serve tables”, diakoneo tables, followed by their desire to remain devoted “to the ministry of the word”, diakonia of the word. Lots of “deaconing” going on here by more than just so-called deacons. Nevertheless, the point for us in this passage is to recognize two key developments. First, it’s the second time that believers gathered together in order to make decisions concerning ministry (see earlier where we looked at Acts 1:12-26). Second, we see yet again that it is not the disciples making top-down decisions in isolation, rather it is the people who have put forth the seven men to address the present issue.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith. Acts 6:1-7
Thus far in our survey of early Christian gatherings, we have found separate occasions where they have gathered to pray, to make ministerial decisions, to give testimony of God’s work in their lives, to praise God, to prophesy/proclaim, and to give towards the needs of saints. As of yet, we have not found the systematic joining of these activities into one set liturgy. Furthermore, we’ve seen that the early believers had a family or brotherhood that extended beyond when they were gathered and allowed them the expression of love for brethren in meeting the needs of the saints and the commonality of possessions among them.
After taking a brief excursus to address the meaning and development of deacons/deaconing, we will return to our survey of Acts and continue to examine what happened when the early believers gathered.