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.
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.