1.The community of faith
It has been said that the church was not born in the upper room – it was conceived in the upper room but born in the market place! On the day of Pentecost the promised Holy Spirit came to all those who were gathered together waiting on him. They then left the room where they were gathered, went in to the market place and began to tell people about what had happened..
Peter who was the disciple that denied that even knew Jesus and along with the other disciples had been hiding ever since Jesus was crucified now somehow had become a man of courage and he stood before the crowd and preached to them about their sin. When he concluded his sermon as recorded in Acts chapter 2, many of his hearers, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit asked what they needed to do to escape the judgment of God. Peter responded that having believed in Jesus they should turn from their sins and as an evidence of their belief be baptized. On that day 3000 people were added to the number of the disciples – this was the birth of the church. Baptism was the method by which new believers became members of this body.
This new church was not an organization as such but a gathering of people drawn together by a common desire to identify in their shared faith in Jesus. As they met together there were some things that they did which were particularly noticeable. They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles – they were eager to learn all about Jesus and how they should give evidence of their newfound faith in daily life. They participated together in all of life – they ate, learned and prayed together. They demonstrated fellowship at its deepest level.
As these new believers met and prayed, ate and learned together they discovered more about the person of Jesus and all that he had given to them. The consequence of this was a sense of awe felt by everybody. They witnessed many miracles that were an evidence of the Holy Spirit in their midst, however there was also a very practical aspect to this new found faith and fellowship.
The common faith the people shared resulted in unity and concern for one another. So much so that those who had the ability shared their own possessions with those in need, they took every opportunity to meet and worship God and to visit each other in their homes and to share meals.
The attitude that pervaded this first church was joy, cheerfulness, sincerity and love. They spent much of their time giving thanks and praising God. The result, not surprisingly, was that they enjoyed the favour of the whole community. So attractive were they in their lives together that the Lord added to their number new believers every day.
As believers in Jesus we become part of a household of faith that worships and serves together seeking to know more about Jesus. As we demonstrate his forgiveness and love we should expect God to make himself known through miraculous acts and also to gain the favour of the wider community. As we do, God will add new believers – every day.
- How would you answer someone who said that they didn’t believe that is important for a Christian to be a member of a local church?
- What were the characteristics of the early church as it met together?
- What was the result of these early church meetings?
- Growing Through Difference
1 Corinthians 12:4-7
As individual believers join together as the church they are described in the Bible as the ‘body of Christ’. This is a reflection of God’s desire that the church continue to do on earth the things that Jesus began to do in proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
While it is clear that all believers everywhere comprise one church or body, it is also true that any group of believers meeting together also represents the body of Christ. Indeed, even when only two or three meet in his name, his fullness is present with them. Each local congregation of believers is made up of a diverse group of individuals who are often quite different from each other in matters of taste, social and ethnic background, talent and ability. Nevertheless, they are moulded together by the Holy Spirit to become one body.
In this process of moulding the Holy Spirit gives to each person a particular gift that he intends to be used to build up the other members. These spiritual gifts differ from one person to another and are not decided by an individual’s own personality, talent or abilities but by the sovereign choice of God himself. As we use our gifts not only do we build each other up but we make known to the world the nature of God. Each gift is a representation of God’s character, as it is used his very essence is displayed. When all the gifts are on display, so too is the manifold nature of God.
The gifts that God gives vary in function. Some gifts have to do with the explanation and preaching of the Word of God, others include healing or exhortation, acts of compassion and mercy while yet others have to do with the practical aspects of our life together. In each case the gift is given with the expectation that it will be used in the household of faith that is the church. The gifts are not intended for the benefit of the one using or having the gift, nor are they to be exercised outside of a relationship with the broader body of Christ. The gifts we have are not only intended to build up the church but to reveal God to those who have yet to have faith in Jesus. It is only as each gift is used, as the Holy Spirit enables and as Jesus as Lord directs, that the who nature of God is revealed.
No two people are the same; we all have different characteristics including our personality and abilities. However, although we are different we are equal in God’s eyes. One member is not more valuable than another or more important than another. God by his grace gives good gifts to all his children so that they may work together in building up the Church. As we work in harmony God’s nature will be made known and people will be drawn into the community of faith.
Do you know where you fit into the body? Have you identified the gift God has given to you and are you using it? Each day seek opportunities to build up your brothers and sisters in faith as you exercise your God given gift.
- What is the purpose of gifts given to the body?
- Which of the gifts do you think the non church community would most want to see?
- How do you see this working out in your life?
- Having Favour with The People
The first church grew day by day with the addition of new believers because it had favour with all the people. Those people included the religious Jews who didn’t share the beliefs of these first followers of Jesus and the Romans who were occupying Jerusalem as a foreign power. The enthusiasm the new believers had for the teachings of Jesus and their desire to serve each other and the wider community meant they looked on favourably and church that is well thought of if it is an asset to the community. The sense of fellowship, love and unity that existed in the first church not only benefited them, if benefited the whole town!
When Jesus stood up and told his hearers that he was fulfilling Isaiah’s prophesy, as recorded in Luke 4, he didn’t intend that only those of faith enjoy the benefits of the Kingdom– they were for everybody. It is by no means clear that all those that Jesus healed, or fed or ministered to became his disciples– but their needs were met anyway. As the church is the embodiment of Jesus we are to continue doing the things that he did when he was physically here on earth. He healed the sick, he fed the poor, he set the captives free and he bound up the broken hearted – and so must we. The Church must continue to do these things and of course if it does, it will gain the favour of all the people.
Jesus didn’t heal people just to be a person pleaser – he was motivated by genuine compassion for the needy and the hurting. We too as his continuing presence in the world need to experience this same compassion and demonstrate his love to those we meet. As Mathew records in his gospel, Jesus, in the middle of busy ministry engagements stopped and saw the people and had compassion on them. He saw their need and he responded to it. In the midst of our busyness we must stop and see the people and do what we can to alleviate their need. (Matthew 9).
Among the gifts God gives the church are mercy, compassion, liberality and healing. It is as we use these gifts that not only do we see the evidence of changed lives but we also make known to our community the whole nature of God. The added benefit is that we will enjoy the favour of the people. The church should never be just a social agency, its primary responsibility is to tell people the good news about Jesus, but it does this in while responding and meeting the needs of a hurting community. Of course it is neither intended nor possible that we as individuals do the work alone. One of the advantages of the church as an organized body is the increased ability to work together to meet genuine need. But that doesn’t mean that was as individuals leave it all to an organization, we must also do what we can with what God has given to us.
It is as we manage our gifts, resources and abilities effectively that we are able to meet the needs of the lost and the hurting in our world. God expects us to see people as he sees them and then to do all in our power, individually and collectively to meet their needs.
Are there ways you can put your talents, gifts and resources at the disposal of the church that will assist it to meet the needs of our community?
- In what ways would the activities of Jesus help establish favour with the people?
- How might the spiritual gifts you have been given be used to help in this task?
- According to Jeremiah 29:5-7 how else can we seek the benefit of our communities?
- Now The People
1 Peter 2:4-10
Coming in to relationship with Jesus Christ results in our having a new status given to us. We are now the People of God. Before this we represented different nationalities, social classes, educational groups, races and so on – we were not ‘a people’ but now we are! We are special – we have been chosen by God to be his people, we are a royal people a holy nation set apart for God’s own possession. It is natural to identify with our country of birth or the one in which we live and be loyal to it. If we were disloyal we may even be called traitors! But once we become followers of Jesus, we are citizens of a new ‘country’ – the Kingdom of God. It is that nation that to which we owe our loyalty and whose values we adopt.
The people that we have become is characterized by Peter as a building, a spiritual house. Each one of us is a living stone that is shaped to fit perfectly into the place prepared for us, a building that is perfectly fitted together built upon the foundation that is Jesus. But the building that we have become is not just any building. It is a spiritual house, a place where God chooses to dwell. Peter goes on to say that this spiritual house becomes a place for a holy priesthood to offer up spiritual sacrifices that are acceptable to God.
But what are these sacrifices? A little further in the text Peter tells us that the reason that God has chosen us as his special people is so that we can tell the whole world about his glory and majesty. We can explain that we have been called out of darkness into his marvelous light. The highest form of sacrifice we can offer our God is to tell others about him. We are to be a holy people – to be holy means to be set apart for a special purpose. The purpose we have been set apart for is to tell others the good news.
We are to be living stones that grow. We are to grow in such a way that we will be better able to fulfill the purposes he has for us. Our growth is to be spiritual growth and it is to be continuous. As we contemplate our lives over recent times, are we able to discern how we have grown spiritually? As new believers our growth can be quite rapid and obvious to others, but as we get older in our faith the growth becomes a little less evident. Sometimes it seems that we have achieved a certain stability as a Christian and no new progress is made. While this might be acceptable in our physical lives, and unfortunately as we get older sometimes our faculties decline, this is not to be the case in our spiritual life. God wants us to keep growing, to be daily changed and increasingly conformed into his image. Dr. D. James Kennedy once said that the problem with most people today is that they are satisfied with where they are spiritually, but dissatisfied with where they are materially. It ought to be the other way around.
The building that we are part of is expected to grow, as the stones grow. That is not the physical place we meet in one or twice a week, Jesus is not impressed by the size of our building, the number of people that fit in it or the colour of our walls. He wants the community of his followers to grow together, to stretch and adapt to one another so that it increases in its ability to make the change in the world that his kingdom will bring. Our challenge is to never stop growing which means that the building we are will also always continue to grow
- What new status does a Christian have?
- What does it mean to be a ‘living stone’?
- What are the spiritual sacrifices that you can offer up?
- Plants in the Garden
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
Of the many metaphors or pictures that are used in the bible to describe the people of God, gardens or vineyards are popular. Any gardener knows that the quality of the flowers and fruit of the plants in his or her garden depends upon the quality of the soil. (Please no one bring up hydroponics!) For this reason considerable time and effort is spent on getting the soil right. Rocks and debris need to be removed, compost, fertilizer and trace elements need to be added and water made available. The more time that is spent on cultivation, the better the result.
Jesus tells the parable of a farmer who went out to scatter seed. All of the seed was good quality; it was all capable of becoming a plant that would bear good fruit. Unfortunately not all of the seed fell on good, well prepared soil. Most of it still took root and survived for some time, but only the seed that fell on good soil produced fruit. Some seed never even took root, it was snatched away immediately. All of the other seed had a chance to grow – if the ground had been more receptive it would have done.
The good news of the gospel is the seed that is scattered into the hearts of the people in our community. We are those who sow the seed, but we have an added responsibility – to prepare the soil of the hearer’s heart so that it can receive the seed and ultimately bear fruit. Jesus said that Satan snatches away the seed that is sown into the heart of the one who doesn’t understand. Our responsibility is to do all we can to bring understanding to the hearer, to explain things in word and action in such a way that the message is clear.
In other illustrations that Jesus used the primary responsibility for bearing fruit rested with the hearer. However the Christian community still bears responsibility. Sometimes a person may respond emotionally to the good news and when the pressure of life comes on, the shallowness of this response causes the plant to whither. We need to ensure that the person who receives the good news responds intelligently and not just emotionally. They need the knowledge of truth and encouragement during times of testing.
The person who receives the gospel but isn’t prepared to separate themselves from their old world and values are like the seed growing among thorns. Eventually these thorns will grow up and strangle the good plant to death. It may struggle on, but there is no vibrancy, no life and no fruit.
All of these people exist in the body we call the church. Many have responded, often with joy, but their lives have become stunted because of the reasons mentioned above and we as the church have a responsibility to care for and nurture these people just as a gardener tends his or her plants. We must work to remove the weeds, rocks and debris that choke out growth. Pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to add the nourishment that brings growth and that he will also apply the pruning shears to areas of deadness. But even after pruning the wound that is caused to the plant may need to be treated and protected so that no disease gets in.
Of course the church also contains those that bear much fruit and we celebrate that together. But those that are fruitful still need to be pruned, fertilized and to have the soil in which they are planted improved. Our task is to collectively work together to create and maintain a garden in which all the plants of the kingdom can flourish.
- How important is it to sow seed in good soil?
- How can we improve the soil before we sow?
- How can the church tend the plants in the garden, for example pruning and applying improvements to the soil?
6. Belonging to God’s Family
The Christian life is one that has a different nature to normal physical life. While all of us share the common thread of humanity – some have an added dimension which gives to them a quality not possessed by all. Jesus explained to Nicodemus that while all men and women are born of water not all are born of the Spirit. It is only those that are born of the Spirit that can know that they have the promise of eternal life. Jesus told Nicodemus that he needed to be born again (or from above). This was not only true for Nicodemus it is true for all who want to enter the Kingdom of God and receive the promise of eternal life. The Kingdom of God is present in the world today in the life of the church. It is only those that have had this experience of being ‘born again’ that are truly members of the body of Christ that is the church.
Not everyone who is a genuine believer in God can point to a specific time when they knew without a doubt that they had gone through the experience of new birth and yet they know that it happened. Few of us can remember the events or details of our own physical birth, and yet we know it must have occurred. There is evidence of life and growth, the testimony of others and probably family resemblance. Others may have witnessed the birth and can tell us about it. We know we have been born because we have life! So that may be true of your birth into God’s family – you may struggle to name a time and date it happened, but you know it did, all the evidence is there!
The person who is born of the Spirit has the witness of the Spirit within. There is evidence in their life and resemblance to other family members. There is something about the Christian that binds him or her together with other family members. The organised or institutional church will sometimes contain persons who, while having some of the characteristics of other family members do not share the same life giving Spirit. It is not sufficient to attend ‘church’ or to involve yourself in the activities of Christian life, you must be born again. Each person must come to an experience of receiving the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. Even those who have grown up in the Church and enjoyed the benefits of membership in the body must know that they have personally been born of the Spirit.
It may be that you have always been part of a community of faith and you have participated in the life of the Church, but still you are not sure that you have in fact received this new life personally. Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal himself to you and confirm the fact of your new birth. If you are not sure, there is no shame in asking him to baptize you with his presence and establish the fact of your birth, filling you with his love and grace and guaranteeing you an inheritance as a child of God. The word baptize can cause some confusion, it means to be overwhelmed or immersed and that is how it is meant when referring to an experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. It does not mean that there has to be dramatic evidence but it will produce certainty in the believer of their acceptance into God’s family. Some people will have an immediate emotional or spiritual response, but that doesn’t always happen. When Peter, Paul and others baptized new believers it was to signify that they had been immersed in the body of Christ and adopted into God’s family. Water baptism is a public testimony of an inward reality. If you have come to faith in Christ and have not been baptized, then it a great (and Biblical) way to make sure your friends all know!
- What is required to become a member of a family?
- Can you live in the same house with others but not be of the same family?
- In what ways does your church demonstrate that it is a family?
- That the World May Know
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
The passage in 1 Corinthians 13 is often used in wedding ceremonies as an illustration of the love that should exist between a husband and wife. While this is a most reasonable thing to do, the passage actually is intended to explain the relationship that exists between the members of the church. Jesus said that the world would recognize his disciples by the way they loved each other. Sometimes it seems that Christians believe that what Jesus meant by love was grudging tolerance, however he intended the type of love described by Paul in his letter to the Corinthian Church.
That Paul used this illustration in the midst of his teaching on the use of spiritual gifts in building up the body is no accident. The type of love required of Christians is a gift of God’s grace. It is not possible to act toward one another in this way unless the Holy Spirit enables it.It is also noticeable that it is more important to love one another than to exercise any or all of the gifts. In 1 Thessalonians 4:9,10 Paul encourages the church to make it their ambition to excel at loving one another-the evidence of God’s presence is not the use of charismatic gifts but of love. The type of love that is patient and kind, that is not arrogant or boastful, doesn’t always insist on its own way or remind others of their past failures. It doesn’t get irritable but bears and accepts injustice. This love doesn’t take pleasure in the failure of others but is always glad when the truth is made known.
If the church typifies this type of love then the world will sit up and take notice. God is not asking us to tolerate one another, but to love each other and to do it in such a way that the world notices. We need to remind ourselves that love when used in the Bible is not an emotion, but a verb, a doing word! When we are told to love someone, just as husbands are instructed In Ephesians 5, it means to do the things are that show we love, like the list in I Corinthians 13. It is more than showing an emotional reaction.
In writing to the church at Ephesus in Revelation 2 God commends the members for their hard work and perseverance. They had even suffered physical persecution and had not surrendered their faith. They had worked hard to maintain good doctrine – by all accounts they were doing everything they should, as God would want. But after this encouraging pat on the back, God delivered a stern warning – they had lost their first love and if they didn’t recover it he would remove the Holy Spirit from their midst.
While this first love related to their attitude to God himself it also concerned the relationships of the individual members to one another. God required that they do the things they did at first, that is, love one another. They were to show this love by demonstrating the qualities of love spoken of by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians.
Do we as a church love one another? Is there evidence in our lives of the presence of God’s love? Perhaps individually and collectively we need to seek a fresh baptism of the Holy Spirit of love so that we can convince the world that we are his disciples.
- According to John 13:34-35 what is it that will convince others that we are disciples?
- How would you expect this to be demonstrated?
- How do you see the description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 lived out in your church?