What is the church? Many people the wrong idea when we talk about the church. When we say church they immediately think of church buildings. But although people call the buildings “churches” the buildings aren’t the church. Or people think of “church services”. But the services aren’t the church. For some people the word “church” actually means a whole denomination, “The Church of England” or “The Roman Catholic Church” or “The Methodist Church.” Or when you say church, many people just think about clergymen and clergywomen, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Father Ted and the Vicar of Dibley. But priests and vicars and ministers are not the church – we just serve the church.
So what is the church? You may have heard the riddle about the man who was out walking one Sunday when he discovered the most marvellous church. The worship was heavenly, the teaching inspiring, the fellowship warm and uplifting (North Springfield Baptist Church, naturally). But when he went back the next day, the church had gone – it had vanished – he couldn’t find that church anywhere! How could this be? Oh, he found the building – but he didn’t find the church. The church wasn’t there because the people weren’t there. The church is the people!
In the New Testament the word for church is ekklesia which means an assembly or gathering of people – specifically people who are followers of Jesus, the people who believe in Jesus.
Sometimes the Bible has in mind the whole church or what we could call the universal church, the collection of everybody everywhere who has ever followed Jesus. At other times the New Testament talks about local churches, specific groups of Christians in a particular place at a particular time. Then the Bible talks about the church as the family of God and the household of faith. The church is God’s forever family which includes everybody who has a personal relationship with God as their Father, and this makes them brothers and sisters in Christ. The Bible also calls the church “the Body of Christ.” And it uses two other pictures. The church is a spiritual building, where God lives, and the church is the Bride of Christ, which speaks to us about God’s amazing love for the church as a husband loves his wife.
The church is the body of people who believe in Jesus and who follow Jesus. Over the next few weeks we are going to think more about what it means to be the church and to follow Jesus together and for that I am going to unpack a few verses which give us a picture of the life of the first Christians right from the birth of the church in Acts chapter 2. On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus’s disciples. The apostle Peter preached the gospel, and this is what happened next.
Those who accepted (Peter’s) message were baptised, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
Becoming a Christian, being baptised, led on automatically to being “added to the number of believers”, added to the company of believers – the church. Then from Acts 2:42 we read
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer…. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common…. 46 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… . And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
To become a believer automatically means to be added to the number of believers – the church, God’s “Forever Family”. As there in Acts 2:42 we have a picture of the things the first Christians did together as the church. Four activities which have been at the heart of what it means to be the church ever since.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Let’s look at the first of those statements today. They devoted themselves to the Apostles’ Teaching. As more and more people put their trust in Jesus, so the apostles taught them about Jesus. Because that is exactly what the Risen Jesus had commanded them to do just a week earlier in what we call the Great Commission. Jesus said this.
Matthew 28 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
So the Apostles were teaching those new Christians about Jesus. The word disciple means “learner” – a person who is taught. And everybody who follows Jesus our Teacher will want to become more like Him and learn from Him and try to obey His teaching.
John 8:31 31 To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Only Jesus has the words of eternal life. We need to obey His teaching.
John 14 23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 He who does not love me will not obey my teaching.
Jesus’s teaching was at the heart of the life of the Early Churches.
Ephesians 4 21 Surely you heard of him and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
You were “taught in Christ,” Paul says. Christ is the school. Christ is the subject. Christ is the teacher. And teaching and learning are not just for new Christians. Every Christian needs to keep on learning from Jesus all our lives. Each of us should be keeping on growing as Christians. Growing towards maturity. Growing in our relationship with God. Growing in knowledge and understanding. Growing in witness and service. Growing in the image of Christ. Growing in love and in holiness. Growing in victory and spirituality. Growing in passion.
And growing and learning and teaching are intertwined. We grow by learning and to learn we need teaching. The first Christians devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching about Jesus and that teaching now comes to us in the words of the New Testament. So as Christians more than anything else we need to learn from Scripture. We need to learn about God and His love for us and his grace towards us. We need to learn from Jesus the Son of God as He revealed God to us by His words and His actions. We need to learn about the Holy Spirit of God, the Helper, God living inside us. Then the Bible also reveals to us the things that are pleasing to God and the things that make God angry. So we need to learn how to serve God and become more like Him in love and Holiness. There is so much to learn about creation and the fall, about God’s plan of salvation, about heaven and hell and the return of Christ. A lifetime of learning!
Those first Christians devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. They were “continually devoting” themselves – not a one-off action but a continuous activity. They committed themselves to it – the old King James Version says they “continued steadfastly” in the Apostles’ teaching. The enthusiasm which the Early Church had for Jesus’s teaching is an inspiration for us – and a challenge to us as well. People put huge amounts of effort into learning all kinds of things. How to speak a foreign language. How to play a musical instrument or how to play a game or a sport. Never mind the subjects we learn for academic exams or the things people need to learn to do their jobs. Compare all those with the small amount of time and energy many Christians put into learning about Jesus. Can we really say that we devote ourselves to the Apostles’ teaching?
I am sure we all agree that it is important that Christians keep on learning. So let me be very practical and suggest 8 things any of us could do to devote ourselves to learning about Jesus. You might like to try one or two in the weeks ahead.
Evening Services – We do actually have two services every Sunday. Our evening service is much more informal. You choose the hymns and songs we sing. Sometimes there is a sermon. Sometimes there is a discussion. We often have times of open prayer. We will be talking over the next few weeks about whether 6.30 is the best time for that service or whether it would work better if it was earlier or later.
Reading the Bible every day – If you started reading the Bible every day at the beginning of Lent you may be needing a new set of daily notes this week to help you in your reading. There are a number of free copies on the table.
Learning Bible Verses – We learned some Bible verses 18 months ago as part of our series learning to talk about Jesus “Prepared to Give an Answer.” The little leaflet called “Words of Eternal Life” gives us a Bible verse for every day of May starting tomorrow. Together these 31 verses sum up our Christian faith. Our need of salvation. Who Jesus is. What Jesus has done for us and the salvation He has given us. Prayer and Faith. The Bible and Christian Living. The Holy Spirit and our hope of heaven, You may like to use it as a verse to meditate on each day, or you may decide to make the effort to commit those verses to memory. We are going to reflect together on these verses in our evening services through the month of May.
Bible Study meetings. We have three separate Bible Studies meeting at different times during the week. Ask me for details.
Reading Christian books – I have put on the table at the side a selection of Christian books from my own bookshelves. I have read all of them over the years and I can recommend them all. If you would like me to suggest a book on a particular subject, just ask me over coffee.
Christian Events: Every couple of months on a Wednesday evening Mike Shelbourne organises “Celebrate Jesus” and those are great evenings of lively worship, inspiring teaching and powerful ministry. Then there are the big annual events like Spring Harvest and Soul Survivor, Keswick Convention and New Wine.
Reading old sermons – rereading a sermon you just heard and catching up with ones you missed. My online blog reached a milestone over Easter when I posted the sermon from our Maundy Thursday Communion service. There are now 500 posts on that blog. That’s about 450 separate sermons in around 60 separate sermon series. Especially if you don’t usually come to our evening services think of all the sermons you have missed. Whole series of sermons on Bible books like Galatians and Romans and Hebrews and discussion series like Understanding the Bible and Everyday Christian Living. All there for you to enjoy online on the blog at www.pbthomas.com.
Christian Radio and TV and websites – some are good, some are bad, some are ugly!
So there we go – 8 ways to know Jesus better.
Evening Services. Everybody is invited – every week!
Reading the Bible every day. Free Reading Notes on the table.
Learning Bible Verses. “Words of Eternal Life” – a verse a day for May.
Bible Study meetings. Ask Peter for more details.
Reading Christian books. Borrow one from the table today.
Christian Events e.g “Celebrate Jesus” with Mike Shelbourne.
Reading old sermons. www.pbthomas.com/blog.
Christian Radio and TV and websites. Try a few.
8 Great Ways to know Jesus better. 8 ways to learn from the Bible and to grow in our Christian faith. The first Christians devoted themselves to the Apostles’ teaching. So should we!