Perfect Love Casts out All Fear

God is Love

The concept of love is something some of us find it hard to talk about. Life has a way of twisting and distorting those things that God intended to be unblemished. For many, love has very negative associations, and it’s hard to break those subconscious links. Hard, but not impossible. The apostle John writes about what love really is – and absorbing these truths can be truly transformative.

Read: 1 John 4:16-19

We know how much God loves us, and we have put our trust in his love.
God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them. And as we live in God, our love grows more perfect. So we will not be afraid on the day of judgment, but we can face him with confidence because we live like Jesus here in this world. Such love has no fear, because perfect love expels all fear. If we are afraid, it is for fear of punishment, and this shows that we have not fully experienced his perfect love. We love each other because he loved us first.

God is love. Take a moment to digest those three simple words. They have the power to challenge hardened hearts that view God through Old Testament eyes as a harsh, vengeful god.

God. is. Love.

When we understand this characteristic of God, it changes the lens through which we read the Bible. If God is fundamentally love, then He is also loving. A loving God, like a loving parent, wants the best for His children. He wants them to flourish, to grow, to be successful, and to turn to Him in times of need.

For many of us, life has left us battle-worn and scarred. It may also have left us fearful of parental figures. And this can cloud our view of God, especially when we hear Him referred to as “Father God”. For a long time after I became a Christian, I still carried with me a fear of the idea of God as Father. I prayed to Jesus, who seemed safer, and welcomed the Holy Spirit, but I resisted approaching Father God. I imagined Him stern and formidable, the wrathful God I read about in the Old Testament.

And then I came to this verse – God is love. I pondered it for a long time. And slowly, it began to challenge the way I saw my Heavenly Father. I began to see the Old Testament God through the lens of love. Like joining the dots in a dot-to-dot puzzle, I recognised the way that love undergirded everything that God spoke over His children throughout the pages of the Bible. Yes, He got angry, but because He wanted the best for His people. Yes, He challenged their sinful behaviour, but because He loved them too much to sit by and watch them destroy themselves. Through the pages of the Bible, I discovered a model of parenthood that had been missing in my life, and I was able to see that my twisted understanding of “Father” as harsh and violent, was far removed from the divine blueprint of Fatherhood.

John writes that “perfect love expels all fear” (v18, NLT). Only God’s love is perfect; human beings are flawed creatures and incapable of that perfect love, but God’s love has the ability to chase away the fears that might keep us from a close, dependant relationship with Him. If we let it, if we allow this perfect love to change our distorted impressions of “Father”, and even of “love” itself, we can walk free from the chains of fear.

God is love. Three words changed my life. Have they changed yours? If not, perhaps you need to linger longer, search deeper, and allow transformation to take place.

Empty Grave Faith God of the Unexpected

What’s So Special About an Empty Grave?

In the aftermath of the Easter weekend, I’m taking time to reflect on the significance of the resurrection. It’s something that we can easily overlook, or take for granted, because it’s such a familiar event – the linchpin of our Christian faith. I spent some time thinking about that first Resurrection Sunday, and how putting ourselves in the place of those who witnessed the empty tomb can deepen our faith today.

Read: John 20:1-10

When Jesus rose from the grave on Resurrection Sunday, He didn’t do so with a great fanfare. He didn’t wait for a crowd to be gathered to witness Him rolling away the stone and walking out of the tomb that had been meant to hold Him. No one watched Him fold the grave-clothes. We know that a bunch of Marys arrived at the tomb to find it empty, and that other disciples, including Peter, also visited the empty grave – but Jesus didn’t approach resurrection in the way we might have imagined He would.

I’m very sure that it was no accident that Jesus rose from the grave whilst it was still dark. Nothing that Jesus did in His life, His death or His resurrection was in any way accidental. This got me thinking about the significance of the way that Jesus approached resurrection. To me, it would have made sense to wait at least until the Marys arrived – perhaps even for a crowd to gather to watch this spectacular triumph over death. At least someone should have been there, surely? But God sometimes surprises us. This is the God who sleeps in a storm, after all. And then there’s that passage in 1 Kings 19:11-12 where God is not in the wind, or in the earthquake or in the fire – but in the whisper, instead. I think the resurrection has many parallels with this passage.

It’s easy to believe in a resurrected God who walks out of the grave in front of you. It’s not so easy to understand what’s going on when you turn up at a tomb to grieve and find the One that you’re mourning is missing. The resurrection, in the shape of the empty tomb, before Jesus appeared to the disciples in His nail-scarred resurrection body, tests the substance of our faith. Do we believe with our eyes or with our hearts? For the disciples who visited an empty tomb, who were already in despair, would the first thought be resurrection, or theft? What does it take to be able to find hope in an empty tomb?

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that faith is the substance of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). A week after His resurrection Jesus told Thomas, who we know as Doubting Thomas, that it was great that he believed in the resurrection when he saw Jesus’s scars with his own eyes, but it was better for those who believed without seeing. Our faith doesn’t always make sense – not in seasons where we’re praying for breakthrough and nothing is happening. It’s hard to believe that God is in control when everything seems hopelessly out of control. Perhaps Thomas has been mislabeled. I’m not sure that he doubted, he just needed some proof to strengthen his faith. I think most people are like Thomas. We want to find hope in an empty tomb, but it isn’t always easy.

The empty tomb is a symbol of the sometimes incomprehensible nature of the God in whom we place our trust. It’s a reminder that whilst God can, and does, perform spectacular miracles, he also performs miracles that aren’t so easy to see close up. From a distance, the empty tomb makes sense, but to the disciples it wasn’t so clear. We’re saved by a God who is often found in unexpected places and in whispers. The empty tomb reminds us that just because we can’t see God at work, it doesn’t mean that He isn’t working unseen miracles right in front of us.

Jesus Seven Last Words from the Cross Good Friday Easter Meditation

Easter Meditation: Jesus’ Seven Last Words From the Cross

Easter is a time when we remember the sacrifice that Jesus gave that we might be extracted from the jaws of sin and death. Good Friday marks the moment that God used the devil's trap and turned it into a triumph as Jesus gave His life up as full payment for our sins. It's a poignant reminder that God can turn the most impossible situations around.

This Easter, let's meditate on Jesus' seven final "words" (or phrases) from the cross, and what they mean for our lives today. 

 
Seven "Stations" of Jesus' Last Words at Good Friday Supper, Christ the Light Church

1. Forgiveness

Luke 23:34

Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.” And the soldiers gambled for His clothes by throwing dice. 

This word invites us to open our eyes to the full extent of God’s forgiveness. 

Even as Jesus hung on the cross, in unimaginable agony, being mocked by those who watched, He extended grace and mercy in His plea to His Father to forgive. Those over whom His grace flowed did not deserve it - and neither do we, but we, too, are covered by His grace. Think about how Jesus must have felt as He hung on the cross; imagine for a moment the strength it must have taken to utter that plea to His Father whilst He was still being mocked. Forgiveness came at a real cost to Jesus - He paid the price for our sins so that we could be forgiven. But we are forgiven so that we can extend forgiveness to people who have hurt us. The forgiveness that we can extend will never cost us as much as our forgiven-ness cost Jesus. 

Good Friday Supper Station 1 Forgiveness

2. Salvation

Luke 23:43

And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

This word invites us to remember the gift of salvation.

When Jesus was crucified, He hung on a cross between two thieves. Both thieves initially joined in the mocking of Jesus, but then one of them came to his senses and acknowledged his own sin and Jesus’ sinlessness. He asked Jesus to remember him - and in this simple acknowledgement both of his sin and Jesus’ lordship, he received the gift of salvation. He had done nothing to earn his salvation, but his willingness to ask for it, and receive it, allowed him to enter into eternal life. 

The picture of Jesus hanging between two thieves is a poignant image of salvation. Jesus’ crucifixion in the middle represents the door to eternal life, and the thieves on either side represent those who choose to accept the salvation Jesus died to give us, and those who reject Him. 

3: Relationship

John 19:26-27

When Jesus saw his mother standing there beside the disciple he loved, he said to her, “Dear woman, here is your son.” And he said to this disciple, “Here is your mother.”

This word reminds us to strengthen our relationship with Him and with one another.

In the midst of Jesus’ agony on the cross, He took time to make sure that His mother was taken care of. Even as He suffered, His thoughts were focused on others, reminding us of the importance of relationship. The cross is often used to represent the two important types of relationship that we need to maintain in our lives. The vertical beam represents our relationship with God, which is strengthened through prayer and worship, and the horizontal beam represents our relationship with others. We need both types of relationship in order to be healthy. Our ability to strengthen our relationship with others flows out of our relationship with God - we receive from Him so that we can pour out for others in the way that Jesus modelled - even when we’re experiencing trials in our lives. 

Good Friday Easter Jesus Last Words Relationship Station 3

4: Abandonment

Matthew 27:46

At about three o’clock, Jesus called our with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?”, which means, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

This word opens our eyes to the persistence of His presence.

In this desperate cry from the cross, Jesus vocalised the agony that came from His (temporary) separation from His Father’s presence. God turned His gaze away as Jesus bore the full weight of our sins. Thorns are associated with the consequences of sin - the crown of thorns that Jesus wore is symbolic of the way in which He experienced separation from God, which is the fundamental consequence of sin. 

Jesus experienced abandonment so that we could experience right relationship with God - He was abandoned so that we never have to feel alone. God’s presence is persistent in our lives because of the sacrifice Jesus made on the cross. 

Good Friday Easter Jesus' Last Words Station 4 Abandonment

5: Distress

John 19:28-29

Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfil Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips. 

This word invites us to open our eyes to the depths of His love.

How could Jesus, who told the woman at the well (John 4) that He was the living water, thirst? The answer lies in the understanding that everything that Jesus did on earth was to fulfil Scripture. He said that He was thirsty to fulfil what was written in Psalm 69:21 - “they offer me sour wine for my thirst”. It was the final messianic prophecy that He needed to fulfil. The job was done. Every detail that needed to be attended to had been fulfilled. The night before, Jesus had prayed in the garden of Gethsemane for “this cup” to be taken from Him, and His distress at the thought of what He would have to endure had caused Him to sweat blood. He bowed to His Father’s will and completed His mission, and in this final fulfilment we must ponder the depth of His love - love so deep that He would endure the cross and all that it entailed so that we could be free. 

6: Triumph

John 19:30

When Jesus had tasted [the wine] he said, “It is finished!” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

This word invites us to open our eyes to the victory of surrender.

In three short words, God’s triumph over sin and death is declared. The devil thought that he had won in the crucifixion of the Son of God, but the cross is a symbol of victory, not defeat. In His death, Jesus freed all those who choose to believe in Him from the chains of slavery to sin, and took away the devil’s power to condemn. The cross is the final resting place for all the things that the devil would have us feel guilty about. When the enemy whispers in our ear to tell us that we’re not good enough, that our sin is too great to be covered by grace, or to accuse us, we don’t have to listen. Our sin was nailed to the cross with Jesus, and the devil has no more nails. The cross was meant to be the enemy’s trap, but God’s turned it into a triumph. Jesus’ victory came in His surrender to death. Our victory comes from surrendering to Jesus’ lordship, knowing that God can turn our worst situations into a triumph. 

Good Friday Easter Jesus' Last Words Station 6 Triumph

7: Reunion

Luke 23:45-46

The light from the sun was gone. And suddenly, the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn down the middle. Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words, he breathed his last. 

This final word invites us to open our eyes to see the resurrected Son of God. 

The curtain, or veil, in the Temple was what separated the people from the most holy place in the Temple, which was where the presence of God could be found. Until Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, people could only speak to God through the Priests. The separation from God’s presence was a consequence of sin - and the tearing of the curtain in the Temple is symbolic of the way in which Jesus died to rip away the barrier of sin to allow us to experience the presence of God. The ripping of the veil means that God is accessible - we only have to seek Him and He will be found. Our vision, once blinded by sin, is clear, and we can see God at work in our lives. 

When Jesus died, He was reunited with His Father - but His death also means reunion for all who believe. We’re restored to right relationship with God, and reunited with our Father. 

All images taken at the Good Friday Supper at Christ the Light Church, York, UK
Good Friday Easter Jesus' Last Words Station 7 Reunion
Praise God all the Time

Concept #8: Praise God (Redefining Church)

Acts 2:42-47 tells the story of how those who became followers of Jesus after Peter’s first preach on the Day of Pentecost formed a community that later became known as the church. Modern Christians and theologians call it the Early Church to differentiate this stage of the church from the other stages that it went through during history. Over the last eight weeks, we’ve been looking at concepts that the early believers modelled and what we can learn from them if we wish to Redefine Church in the modern age. In this final instalment, Concept #8, we’re going to take a look at how the Early Church Praised God as part of their community. 

Read: Acts 2:46-47

Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

The Early Church was formed around community – believers gathering together, united by their faith in the risen Christ – and we’ve already seen the impact of their devotion to the apostles’ teaching (Concept #1), their devotion to each other  (Concept #2), their devotion to breaking bread and prayer (Concept #3); their togetherness (Concept #4), their sharing (Concept #5), their all-encompassing faith (Concept #6), and their glad and sincere hearts (Concept #7). The model of “being church” that the Early Church demonstrated, as opposed to the more modern concept of “doing church”, shows us that our modern churches are, in many ways, far removed from what the first-century Christians understood church to be. In fact, if some first-century Christians were to find themselves in the twenty-first century, our churches would be unrecognisable to them. If we are serious about the idea of Redefining Church for the twenty-first century, we need to peel back the layers of centuries of theological and doctrinal “additions” to rediscover what being the church, being the Bride of Christ, and the body of believers, really means.

At the very heart of everything that the Early Church did together was their faith. They had the added bonus of being taught by the apostles who had walked and talked with Jesus for three years – but two centuries of distance from the actual events of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection isn’t an excuse for any kind of weakening of our faith. The first-century Christians may have had access to the apostles, but we in the twenty-first century have access to Bibles – not just in book form, but on our smartphones, tablets and computers, too. We have access to the apostles’ teachings, just the same. There should be no excuses for a watered down faith. Jesus is the same today as He was then, and will be in our future. If we believe that He is our Lord, our Saviour, and our Friend, then we should be just as passionate in our faith as the Early Church was. But I’m getting sidetracked. Our eighth concept in this series is simply “praising God”, and it is something that was at the centre of the Early Church community. Praise flows out of faith, and praising God is something that we can never, ever do enough.

We can praise God when we’re happy, and we can praise God when we’re sad. We can praise God when everything is going well in our lives, and we can praise God when we’ve fallen on hard times, or grieving the death of a loved one. It isn’t always easy to praise God when things have gone wrong, when our hearts are breaking or our health is failing. But just because it isn’t easy doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Praising God is a choice that we make. It was a choice that the early believers made even when they were being persecuted for their faith. We read that startling story in Acts 16:22-34 that causes us to stop and question our reluctance to sing praises to God when we’re in trouble:

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten with rods.  After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. When he received these orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everyone’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”

They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his household were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole household. (Acts 16:22-34, NIV).

I’m always challenged when I read this passage of Scripture, because I do struggle to praise God when I’m having a hard time. I want to be the kind of Christian who always has praise on her lips, but the truth is, I’m not there, yet. But I keep trying. The hardest time in my life was in the aftermath of the death of my husband and six-year-old daughter. I was drowning in grief, and yet, three weeks after that tragic night I found myself walking into a church. I’d felt completely numb until that moment, but when I stood among a fellowship of believers, I found that I was able to join in as they sang praise and worship to God, even though I didn’t know the words. That was the start of a long journey of healing for me, and I’m not done yet – but the journey began with praise.

Paul and Silas’ praises didn’t just break the physical chains that bound them – their praises also led to spiritual chains being broken in the lives of the jailer and his household, who all came to faith in Jesus Christ. Acts 2:47 tells us that daily more believers were added to the community of the Early Church. Although undoubtedly this was in part due to the preaching of the gospel, I think that non-believers would have been drawn to a fellowship of new Christians who demonstrated all of the eight concepts we’ve looked at – and especially drawn to a community who had praise always on their lips, in both good times and bad times. It’s been said many times, “preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words”, and the eight concepts we’ve journeyed through might just give us a roadmap for Redefining Church in the twenty-first century to become a community of believers that is a living outworking of the gospel message of Jesus Christ. 

Concept #6: All Encompassing Faith (Redefining Church)

For the early church, faith was not something reserved for Sunday morning services and a home group one night a week – it was at the very center of their lives. In this sixth concept in a series looking at “Redefining Church”, we get a window into the all-encompassing nature of the faith of the first-century church, and what it might mean for the twenty-first century church to have a faith that is more than just a compartmentalised part of our lives. 

Read: Acts 2:46

They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity.

Consistency and dedication were a huge source of strength for the community of believers that we have come to know as the “early church”. Faith was at the very center of everything that they did – rather than being a “part” of their lives, as faith has generally become in the twenty-first century. Even if we think that we’re putting faith high up on our priority list, and object to the idea that it’s just a part of our lives, compartmentalising aspects of our lives is such a “normal” part of modern life that often we’re not even aware that we’re doing it. We may ring-fence time for our family, for our work, for our hobbies, and for church on a Sunday and maybe midweek, too. Faith is important, and we may try to make decisions based on faith, but it’s still not the same as what the early church did.

Acts 2:46 tells us that the early church “worshiped together at the Temple every day, [and] met in homes for the Lord’s Supper”. The key phrase here is “every day”. Church wasn’t just something they did on a Sunday morning, worshiping God together was a part of their daily lives. Nowadays, someone who goes to church every day (if that is even possible, given that many churches only open their doors on Sundays) is regarded as a fanatic – but in the first century, everyone in the community of Christ-followers worshiped together every day. It wasn’t fanaticism then – this kind of dedication and consistency demonstrated the deep, genuine hunger for God that was present in those who came to faith soon after Jesus’ ascension. Maybe it was because they had the opportunity to learn from the apostles who had walked and talked and eaten with Jesus both before and after his crucifixion and resurrection. The stories were fresh and exciting – and because this was before any written New Testament was available, it wasn’t possible for them to sit at home on their own and read their Bibles as part of an obligatory “quiet time”. Is it possible that two millennia of distance from Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have watered down the excitement and the availability of the written Bible has taken away the need to “worship together…every day”?

Why bother going to church when you can worship God at home, with your own Bible and your own worship music? This is very much a modern attitude – and it’s the polar opposite of what the early church modelled. There are so many other demands on our time that faith-based activities often get pushed to the sidelines and we worship in ways that are convenient to us. It’s entirely possible in the twenty-first century to have a “private faith” that means that even if faith is central to our lives, and is all-encompassing, and does guide every decision that we make, it doesn’t have to entail (and probably rarely does) going to church every day to worship with other believers. Private faith is a valid, genuine faith, but in many respects it lacks the power of the corporate faith that the early church modelled. It lacks power because rather than fostering community strength, people gathering together with the same thirst and hunger for God, pulling together, working together, worshiping with one voice, it creates a fragmented community, pulling in different directions, having the same thirst and hunger for God but pursuing Him individually rather than together, and lots of individual voices in isolation. Private faith cannot be all-encompassing in the way that the faith of the early church was.

The early church demonstrated a faith that took center stage in the way that they lived and worshipped together. It was not compartmentalised or fragmented in the way that modern faith often is. In the twenty-first century, private faith is encouraged, but this kind of faith lacks power, and leads us to wonder what impact it would have on our society as a whole and our communities in particular if we were to Redefine Church to reflect the all-encompassing faith that the early church modelled for us. Could this be the transformative power that could change lives not only of the community of believers but of the hurting, broken and desperate people who don’t get to see Jesus when our faith is private?

Sharing Community is based on Micah 6:8, and this is a huge part of Redefining Church

Concept #5: Real Community and Sharing (Redefining Church)

The earliest believers provided us with a model for how “Church” should be done, and it wasn’t based on rules or doctrines, but on a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. The way the early Church lived out their faith is far removed from our modern concepts of church, and at the heart of it is the fifth concept in our series on Redefining Church – “Real community and sharing”. The early church wasn’t just united by their belief, they formed a genuine community of people who looked out for each other in every way, and shared their possessions among each other, so that everyone’s needs were met, and no one had to go without. What would it look like for the twenty-first century church to embrace the practices of the first century church? 

Read: Acts 2:44-45

And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need.

When we think of church in the twenty-first century, do we visualise a unified community that shares their possessions among each other so that no one goes without, or do we think about the building that people go to on a Sunday almost as a tick-box exercise? Admittedly, these are extremes, and some degree of community does exist in many modern-day churches, but it’s not quite the close community that Luke describes in Acts 2.

 We may tithe to our church, and get involved with a meal-supply rota for a family with a new baby or an elderly congregant just out of hospital, but sharing everything we have with our church community is a scandalous idea. Heck, there are a lot of people who come to our churches, supposedly a part of our community of believers, who come late and leave early, and we don’t even know their names!

What would change if we were to find a way to adopt the lifestyle of a sharing community that the early church modelled? Would sharing our possessions with others inspire us to get to know them better, to forge relationships that might be otherwise lacking in our churches? We’ve all heard that passage in Micah 6:8

No, Opeople, the Lord has told you what is good,
and this is what he requires of you:
to do what is right, to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with your God.

(indeed, it might well be the only passage from Micah that we know, and probably only because Jesus quoted it) but how might this passage apply to the way that we do church? To love mercy, to act justly, and to be humble – could living this out have a transformative effect on our church community and on our wider society?

Sharing things with one another is an act of mercy. It means that no one is with lack, and therefore no one feels in any way excluded. The societal hierarchies that otherwise afflict us are rendered mute because everyone is in the same position: if everything belongs to the community as a whole, then individuals are equal in that individually they have nothing. Poverty cannot exist in a sharing community. Theft cannot happen because, technically, everything belongs to everyone. Humility comes from the recognition that outside of the community, we have nothing, and we are dependent upon those with whom we have community. Justice comes from the fact that everyone’s needs are being met by the community, and no one is excluded, ostracised or looked down upon. To the outside world, this is a community that is so radically different – so alien – that people cannot help but notice – and perhaps, seeing the benefit of this level of interdependence, the deep relationships that are formed, they start to ask questions and want to be a part of it themselves. We know that more believers joined the early church every day.

Of course, this model of a sharing community-based church reminds us of something else. Something we have, perhaps, forgotten in the twenty-first century church, and that is our dependance upon God for everything.

The early church model of a sharing community that daily walked out the instructions of Micah 6:8 might seem like a radical idea to the modern-day church, but it’s something that we need to give more consideration to. Would it hurt us to make more of an effort to get to know the people in our church community better? Would it hurt us to pull together to help those who are in need? Would it hurt us to take the time to find out what people need, and tear down any shame-based barriers that may exist? Could redefining church be as simple as simply beginning to build relationships that create a greater sense of community?

 

Acts 2 Redefining Church

Concept #4: Togetherness (Redefining Church)

The fourth concept in the model of church that is described in Acts 2 is togetherness. The unity that the early believers built the church upon is far removed from the dissent and disunity that we see in the twenty-first century church. In the aftermath of the Day of Pentecost, the early church was united by an unadulterated, Christ-centred faith. After two millennia of doctrinal debate and division, the modern-day church, although still focused on Christ, is no longer united as one, but divided into dozens of denominations. What impact does that division have, and is it possible to redefine our understanding of church to return to the unity that the early believers thrived within. 

Read: Acts 2:44

And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had.

Unity, which refers to “the state of being united or joined as a whole”, is one of the key foundations upon which the early church was built. The earliest believers, in the wake of Pentecost, were united by their shared faith in the risen Christ. Imagine, if you will, what it was like for those who had come to faith following Peter’s first sermon. What was it that drew them together in unity? Likely, it was partly due to the fact that at this point they were a minority. They gathered together because they had their faith in common.

Common ground is one of the foundational principles of unity. But extending that principle to the modern church, we encounter a problem. As Christians, we should gather together as one body, one church, united, as the early believers were, by our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Saviour. Instead, although gatherings of Christians take place on Sunday mornings all across the world, we’re not united as one body, as one church. Instead, we have one faith, but dozens of denominations, and instead of unity, there is almost a sense of competition, with different denominations disagreeing over doctrine and each claiming to be the “true” church.

Christians in the twenty-first century can engage in “church shopping”, whereby if one version of church doesn’t fit with your lifestyle, or asks you to agree with doctrine that you don’t like, you can “shop around” for another church that expects less of you, or has a better kids’ ministry, or has a worship style that you prefer. Somewhere, in the midst of two thousand years of doctrinal debating, church has become less about “togetherness” and more about consumerism. Modern preachers can be afraid of preaching the gospel in its entirety because they’re afraid of upsetting the congregation, who have plenty of other churches to choose from. We’ve gone from the togetherness of “church” to the disparity of “churches”.

Jesus once said that a divided house cannot stand. There was no division in the early church, but the modern church has never been more divided than it is now. The early church didn’t even have a written Bible, much less doctrines to debate over, and their faith was clear and uncomplicated. I’m not suggesting that we don’t need doctrine, but there is a sense that too much emphasis on doctrine has taken away some of the transformative power of the gospel message.

What would it look like for the twenty-first century churches to embrace the unity that the early church had? Is it even possible for us to get past the doctrinal division that has blighted the modern church? In what ways could a united church reach the world that a divided church can’t? None of these are easy questions to answer, but they’re ones that we need to give careful consideration to. The early church grew rapidly – could that be in any way related to their togetherness? 

Devoted to the Gospel

Concept #3: Devotion to Breaking of Bread and Prayer (Redefining Church)

In this series focusing on the model of church demonstrated by the earliest group of Christians, based on Acts 2:42-47, we come to the third of eight key concepts: the way in which the early church devoted themselves to the breaking of bread and to prayer. These were solid foundations upon which the faith of these new believers was built – and are foundations that should be (but not necessarily are) at the centre of the 21st Century church. Was the early church’s concept of the breaking of bread the same as our 21st Century interpretation, or are there lessons to be learned about the way we approach the “Lord’s Supper”? What does it really mean to be devoted to prayer, and what does that mean for how we view prayer? 

Read: Acts 2:42-43:

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.

As we’ve seen so far in this series, the way that we “do church” in the 21st Century doesn’t always match up with the model of the church that the first believers, following the Day of Pentecost, lived out. The modern-day church has, in many ways, lost some of the intensity and community that the early church thrived on.

Our version of church might be considered to be a watered-down version of the Acts 2 model, but it doesn’t have to stay that way.

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 In the same way that the church has evolved over the last two thousand years, it’s possible to make changes now that could redefine the way we think about “the church”.

The third key principle that the early church modelled from the very start was their devotion “to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The breaking of bread that Luke documents here was the sacrament that Jesus taught to His disciples the evening before His crucifixion. Depending on your church tradition, it might be referred to as “communion”, “the Lord’s supper” or “breaking bread”. The passage doesn’t tell us how frequently the believers broke bread together, but in the context of Acts 2:42-47, there is a suggestion that these first Christ-followers met frequently (every day, even – see Acts 2:46), and presumably broke bread together on these occasions. Modern church traditions vary in how often they have “communion” or “breaking bread” as part of their worship services – for some it is weekly, others monthly, and some much more infrequently. Certainly our 21st Century interpretation of the importance of the breaking of bread is somewhat diluted compared to the 1st Century church. That’s not to say that the breaking of bread isn’t important to modern-day churches – for the majority of traditions, the importance is emphasised each time communion is taken – but this is more of a symptom of the general dilution of the model of church outlined in Acts 2 that has taken place over the last two millennia.

What impact did a greater frequency of the breaking of bread have on the early church? Not only did it emphasise the community spirit (see Concept #2) of the fellowship of believers, but it focused the new believers’ attention on Jesus. Everything about the breaking of bread ritual focuses on Jesus. Indeed, that is its purpose. “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19, my italics), Jesus said when He taught His disciples the ritual of communion during “the Last Supper”. The breaking of bread forces us to remember the enormity of what Jesus did for us on the cross. And being frequently reminded of what Jesus did for us cannot ever be a bad thing. How frequently does your church break bread together? The model of the early church suggests that perhaps even weekly isn’t often enough.

The second aspect of this third key concept is prayer. What does it mean to be devoted to prayer? In order to get back to the bones of what it originally meant to be a fellowship of believers, we have to start to question our modern-day understanding of devotion to prayer, and examine whether our modern-day understanding is comparable to that of the early church. People, and church traditions, have a wide range of approaches to prayer, and some may be closer to the early church model than others. What is important is to look at ways that we can move closer to the 1st Century model of prayer. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach that we can take, but every approach starts with questioning ourselves about how important prayer is in our lives, and then looking at ways to make it more important.

Prayer and the breaking of bread jointly serve to keep our focus on Jesus, and it was this intense focus that gave the early church a firm foundation in their faith. In our modern, busy lives, it’s sometimes difficult to find time to fully focus on Jesus, and it may be that we like to keep our faith life and our secular lives completely separate, so that our faith becomes peripheral to the busyness of daily life instead of being a foundation. This has, necessarily, impacted on the 21st Century church – but it doesn’t have to stay that way. What measures can you take today to try to put focus on Jesus back into the centre of your life and your church? 

Devoted to the Gospel

Concept #2: Devoted to Fellowship (Redefining Church)

At the end of Acts 2, we see a formula for the way that the Early Church operated – eight principles that underpinned a community of believers whom “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Last week we saw how these early believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This week, we’ll be looking at the Early Church’s devotion to fellowship – and how our modern concept of fellowship has been watered down over the centuries. 

Read: Acts 2:42All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer. (NLT).

When Luke writes about fellowship in Acts 2, the word that he uses is the Greek word koinōnía, which means “to share in, participation, communion, fellowship”. It is a word that can also be translated as “partnership”. In the modern-day church, we may be familiar with the idea of “fellowshipping” with each other on a Sunday morning, but the twenty-first century interpretation of the word fellowship has lost many of the connotations of its first-century Greek counterpart. Google the word fellowship and you’ll be presented with this definition: “friendly association, especially with people who share one’s interests”. Notice that there’s no mention of sharing, participation, or partnership. Over the course of two millennia, fellowship has gone from being a very close sense of community, unity and togetherness, to a mere “friendly association”.

We can see the impact of the watering down of the concept of fellowship in our churches as well as in wider society. Fellowship at church may be seen in the mingling around over coffee and biscuits after the service, and, for some but certainly not all, getting together midweek in small groups for a Bible study or “home group”. We still consider this to be fellowship – but would the earliest believers agree with our terminology?

For the Early Church, fellowship was a priority, and it didn’t necessarily mean a bunch of Christians gathering together in the same place. Fellowship for these early, devoted believers was about community. It was about togetherness, partnership, sharing burdens and responsibilities, building close relationships – not just with one or two people, but with the whole community. These people wouldn’t have been content to go Sunday to Sunday without seeing – or even thinking about – others in their fellowship the way that the modern church frequently do. They shared a closeness that today would seem alien, or even intrusive. They would have prayed together, worshipped together, eaten together, done things to help one another. The devotion to these community-building behaviours created a unity that enabled them to withstand persecution when it came – and it made them stand out to non-believers. Luke writes that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved”, and whilst this may be in part down to them sharing the Gospel truth with others, part of their witness was undoubtedly in their visible fellowship and unity. St Francis of Assisi wrote that Christians should preach the gospel, and if necessary use words. This necessarily causes us to pause and ask the question of ourselves and the fellowship (church) to which we belong: am I, and are we, living in such a way that we embody the Gospel?

Fellowship, as we understand it now, is a vital part of what it means to be the church, the bride of Christ, and even our watered-down understanding of it can be a witness to non-believers. But to return to the model of church that the earliest believers embodied, we need to start to question our understanding of what it really means to fellowship with one another, and how challenging ourselves to be more like the Early Church might transform our communities. 

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Devoted to the Gospel

Concept #1: Devotion to the Teaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Redefining Church)

Following Peter’s first preach on the Day of Pentecost, the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ, which would come to be called “the early church” devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. They didn’t have Bibles from which to read, and there were no formal doctrinal statements, but these first believers were devoted to the Gospel of Jesus Christ that the twelve apostles shared with them. What does it mean to be devoted in this way, and what lessons can we take from the way that the early church operated? 

Read: Acts 2:42All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.

The early church didn’t have many of the problems that the twenty-first century church has. There was no arguing over doctrine or theological differences between different denominations and affiliations. Divisions and differences came as the church grew and spread across continents, but at the very beginning there seems to have been a kind of unity that fostered community and belonging. Everyone was on the same page, as it were.

The word that the NLT translation of the verse translates as “devoted” is the Greek word proskarteréō, which means “to endure; to continue steadfastly with someone; to cleave faithfully to someone”. The word is also used metaphorically to refer to steadfastness and faithfulness in the outgoings of the Christian life, especially in prayer. It is a word that carries with it that sense of unity that the early believers displayed. The new believers respected and looked faithfully to the twelve apostles to teach them the gospel truth of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. They were hungry for knowledge of Jesus, and looked to the apostles to feed their hunger.

These first believers didn’t have the resources that we have and take for granted. The New Testament didn’t exist at this point; it would be several decades before the first Gospels were written down and Paul’s letters were written. The only resource for knowledge available to them was the disciples who had walked with Jesus during His ministry on earth. The early believers trusted the eyewitness accounts of the miracles, the parables, the crucifixion and the resurrection. They didn’t question whether the apostles’ teaching were theologically and doctrinally sound. There was no need to argue over interpretations and translations. They were devoted to the gospel truth that would transform the way they lived their lives and give them access to eternal life with God.

In the twenty-first century, the simplicity of the earliest believers’ devotion to the teaching of the apostles has been lost in a cacophony of doctrinal and theological debates. We have access to the Gospel in the form of the New Testament, and the internet has opened up the world of academic theology to everyone, with Bible Study tools and numerous different translations and commentaries accessible with a click of a mouse. We have never had more resources than we have now, but rather than deepen our faith, this unlimited access causes division and disunity – the polar opposite of what the early church experienced. Theological commentaries seem to carry more weight than the Gospel message itself, and amateur theologians question the interpretations of the preachers. The Gospel, like Jesus Himself, is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, and yet you could walk into several different churches from different denominations and find, however slight, differences in doctrinal interpretation of the Gospel that is meant to foster unity not division.

To redefine the church for the twenty-first century, there is a need to return to the simplicity of the devotion to the teaching of the apostles that the earliest believers demonstrated. A house that is divided cannot stand, and the body of believers in the twenty-first century has never been more divided than it is now. Doctrinal debates over the course of two millennia have muddied the waters so that the Gospel has become a cause of conflict – something which it was never meant to be. The future of the church lies in stripping away the layers of interpretation and returning to simply devoting ourselves to the truth of the Gospel message.