A Devoted Church: Word, Fellowship, Sacrament, Prayer

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It’s been said that every great Christian has been gripped by a single passage—a word from the Lord that becomes the theme of their ministry. For Luther, it was Romans 1:17: “the just shall live by faith.” For Wesley, it was Hebrews 7:25: “saved to the uttermost.” I’m an ordinary Christian, and I’ve been gripped by many passages. But one that I return to constantly is the description of the church in Acts 2:42–47. It is central to my vision of what the church is to be, and I preach from it almost every year as one of my “standard sermons.”

The passage comes at a pivotal point in salvation history. The Spirit has just been poured out on the church at Pentecost. The gospel has been preached. Thousands have been baptized. And now we are given a picture of the church that the risen and ascended Christ shed his blood to create. It is beautiful in its simplicity.

42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43 And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44 And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45 And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Devoted

The opening phrase is crucial: “And they devoted themselves” (ESV). The NASB is stronger: “they were continually devoting themselves.” The KJV offers another good translation: “they continued steadfastly.” The word (proskartereō) can entail spending much time together. The early church knew what they were supposed to be doing, and they did it with a steadfast and single-minded devotion.

Compare this to Acts 6:4. Widows were in need of assistance, but the apostles firmly refused to be distracted from their God-given course of action: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

This is the key question: Is the church devoted to the right things? Some churches are like McDonalds: trying to do a hundred things, but not doing anything very well. We need to be more like Chic-fil-A: clear on what we are supposed to be doing, focused on doing those things well, and firm in saying “no” to whatever would deter us.

Four Pillars of Devotion

Acts 2:42 notes four pillars of the church’s devotion. Verses 43–47 expand on these four pillars and describe the results.

  1. First, the apostles’ teaching. Apostolic teaching comes first in the baptized community, for the Great Commission is to baptize and teach the words of Jesus. The church is a pillar and ground of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15) that contends for the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3).
  2. Second, the fellowship. The Greek word koinōnia means “participation” or “sharing,” and includes having all things in common (Acts 2:44–45). The church is a family that shares life together and cares for one another’s needs.
  3. Third, the breaking of bread. This refers especially to the Lord’s Supper. The sacrament was originally celebrated in the context of a larger meal, and so this includes eating together with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46).
  4. Fourth, the prayers. This includes “praising God” (Acts 2:47). The church is a temple in which priestly sacrifices of prayer and praise are continually offered.

In his Notes on Acts 4:24, John Wesley comments, “their daily Church communion consisted in these four particulars: [1] Hearing the word; [2] Having all things common; [3] Receiving the Lord’s Supper; [4] Prayer.”

Over a hundred years after Pentecost, the church had not swerved from its devotion to word, fellowship, sacrament, and prayer.

The most famous extra-biblical account of the church’s early worship is found in Justin Martyr’s First Apology. Chapter 67, the “Weekly worship of the Christians,” is strikingly similar to Acts 2:42: over a hundred years after Pentecost, the church had not swerved from its devotion. Justin records,

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things.

Here we have, first, devotion to the apostles’ teaching: reading of their memoirs, as well as the Old Testament Scriptures from which they preached, and expositional sermons on these writings from qualified pastor-teachers.

“Then,” Justin writes, “we all rise together and pray.” He continues:

When our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought [for the Eucharist], and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.

This is, thirdly, the breaking of the sacramental bread and the drinking of the sacramental wine (in those days, mixed with water). Earlier, in Chapter 66 (“Of the Eucharist”), Justin explains in greater detail the church’s weekly practice of the Lord’s Supper. Justin concludes,

They who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succours [aids or assists] the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.

To put it simply, they shared all things in common, making sure that the poor and oppressed members of the family were well cared for. From the earliest times, the church was steadfast in its course of action: Word, fellowship, bread, and prayer.

Pillar 1: Apostolic Teaching

First, the church is to be devoted to the apostles’ teaching, learning and obeying the words of Christ as a discipleship community. “The apostles’ teaching (didachē)” likely refers to an established body of teaching. It was summarized in creedal form from the earliest times. From the first confession that “Jesus is Lord” or “Jesus Christ is the Son of God,” the Apostles’ Creed soon developed, providing a concise summary of “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). The Creed was recited by every Christian at baptism and was the foundation for further discipleship.

As we have already seen in Acts 6:4, this teaching was overseen by men whom God appointed to be constantly devoted to the ministry of the word. Ephesians 4 explains that God has given pastor-teachers to equip the church “so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine (didaskalia)” (Eph. 4:14). Pastors are commanded to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching (didachē)” (2 Tim. 4:2).

The Word of God is at the heart of the church, which is why most Protestants place the pulpit at the front and center of their church buildings. Pastors are called to “labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17), and every Christian is called to follow the Bereans in “[receiving] the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily” (Acts 17:11).

Here are a few common marks of a church that is devoted to the Word:

  • Every believer has a firm grasp on the apostolic faith. They have memorized and been instructed in the Apostles’ Creed.
  • The pastors systematically expound the Scriptures, and the church has a receptive attitude: they take notes, ask questions, and meaningfully discuss the sermon with other members in the congregation.
  • The church does not rely on their pastors alone to learn the word; rather, they search the Scriptures like the Bereans, reading and studying the Bible every day.
  • The word is not just heard; it is also obeyed (Jas. 1:22).
  • The pastors refuse to allow anything (even good things, like caring for widows) to deter them from their teaching ministry.
  • The church accesses solid Christian books, articles, podcasts, and other resources to deepen their knowledge of the Word.

Pillar 2: The Fellowship

Second, the church is to be devoted to the fellowship, sharing our lives together and providing for one another as members of God’s family. The description of the church’s koinonia is beautiful: “all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44–45). I have heard many preachers comment on this verse, and their first point is usually the same: This is not communism. That’s true enough. Participation was voluntary, and many Christians kept their homes. But if this is the main point that we are eager to make, we may need to, as David Platt puts it, take back our faith from the American dream.

It’s easy to dismiss texts like these because “things were a lot different then.” But were things really so different? In Acts 5, we read about Ananias and Sapphira, a couple who sold their property, but deceitfully withheld some of the proceeds because of greed; they were struck dead. This is the point: everyone likes the idea of a church that shares life together, but are we willing to pay the price?

Everyone likes the idea of a church that shares life together, but are we willing to pay the price?

Christian koinonia is costly. It costs our time, energy, and resources. It is easier to withdraw into an emotional self-quarantine than to reach out to others and meet a need. It is easier to isolate ourselves and keep up appearances than to admit, “I have a need of my own. I am not okay. I need help.” It is easier to build our own little kingdoms than to build up the church. It is easier, but it is not what Jesus intends for his church. Jesus has more for his people: abundant life in community. As John Chrysostom preached, “the fellowship was not only in prayers, nor in doctrine alone, but also in social relations” (cited by Pelikan, Acts, 59).

Here are a few common marks of a church that is devoted to the fellowship:

  • The weaker members of the church, especially widows, are actively cared for.
  • Church members are generous and sacrificial in their giving. If their church practices tithing, they tithe.
  • Each member has an opportunity to use his or her spiritual gifts to build up the church.
  • People are not withdrawn and isolated; they invite others into their messy lives instead of trying to keep up appearances.
  • People admit, “I’m not okay.” They are willing to accept help.
  • People do not neglect the assembling of themselves together. They refuse to be Lone Ranger Christians.
  • The world is able to look on and see a family, not just another religious organization or social club.

Pillar 3: Breaking Bread

Third, the church is to be devoted to eating our meals together, especially the Lord’s Supper, extending the same hospitality which we have received from the Father. Acts 2:42 says that the early church “devoted themselves … to the breaking of bread” (cf. Acts 20:7). Throughout history, this has been universally recognized as a reference to the Lord’s Supper, as seen in John Wesley’s commentary. John Armstrong notes, “Biblical scholars have no doubt that this reference to ‘the breaking of bread’ is a reference to the Lord’s Supper.’” Paul refers to the Lord’s Supper in this way in 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” This manner of speaking goes back to when “Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body’” (Mt. 26:26; cf. Mk. 14:22; Lk. 22:19).

In the early church, the Lord’s Supper was actually a supper: it was served in the context of a broader fellowship meal, as we can observe in the church at Corinth (despite their other failures at the Table; see 1 Cor. 11:17–34). Verse 46 goes on to report that “day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts.” Hippolytus records that, when taken in the context of a meal, the Eucharist was to be served first (On the Apostolic Tradition 36).

Wesley comments on verse 46 that they were “continuing daily – breaking the bread – in the Lord’s Supper, as did many Churches for some ages.” In the year 400 AD, Augustine mentions that some churches still shared the Eucharist every day, while others only broke bread on Saturday and Sunday, and others still partook only on the Lord’s Day (Letter 54.2). Monthly or quarterly communion was unheard of, let alone annual communion, which Calvin called an invention of the devil (Institutes 4.17.46). Armstrong summarizes, “There is no real doubt about this simple historical fact—through the centuries this meal has been the central and characteristic action of the church at worship. If the church is a community that remembers Jesus as Lord, then the chief way this has been done in public has been through the Supper.”

Jesus longed to eat the Last Supper with his disciples, and he still longs to dine with his church. He has invited us to the Table. Why wouldn’t we want to commune with him every time that we gather?

Here are a few common marks of a church that is devoted to the bread:

  • The Lord’s Supper is received constantly (see Wesely, Sermon 101, “The Duty of Constant Communion”). In my view, this means at least weekly communion, since this is the biblical and historical practice (see “How Often Should We Receive the Lord’s Supper?”).
  • The Eucharist is celebrated reverently, joyfully, and prayerfully.
  • Fellowship meals are common.
  • People invite one another into their homes for meals.
  • People get together for breakfast or coffee.
  • Biblical hospitality is practiced, especially towards the needy (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9).

Pillar 4: Prayer

Fourth, the church is to be devoted to prayer, praising God with one voice and interceding for one another and for our neighbors. The word translated as “devotion” in Acts 2:42 is associated with prayer more than any other word in the New Testament (cf. Acts 1:14; 6:4). Colossians 4:2 urges, “Continue steadfastly [proskartereō] in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Col. 4:2). Romans 12:2 commands, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant [proskartereō] in prayer.”

We prefer programs to praying because we want to be in control of the results—as if true results are something that we can manufacture. It’s easier to study Scripture or knock on doors than it is to wait on God, because prayer is less likely to yield immediate results. But prayer is at the heart of the church because the church is not in control of the church. Prayer is asking the Lord of the church to do what only he can do.

My friend Travis Johnson has frequently drawn my attention to Acts 4, which provides a beautiful example of one of the early church’s prayers. Two features are evident. First, the church’s prayers were worship-based. The prayer begins, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 4:24). Acts 2:47 likewise notes that the people were “praising God.” Second, their prayers were Scripture-fed. The prayer continues by citing two verses from Psalm 2: “who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit …” (Acts 2:52). For nearly two millennia, the Psalms have been the prayer book of the church.

Here are a few common marks of a church that is devoted to prayer:

  • The gatherings are marked by a spirit of prayer.
  • The prayer times are worship-based, not consumed by requests.
  • Scripture shapes the priorities in prayer.
  • The church prays about the things that are important to God: the hallowing of his name, the coming of his kingdom, and the doing of his will on earth as it is in heaven (Mt. 6:9ff).
  • Supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings are offered for all people, since God wants all people to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:1–3).
  • Members have a strong private prayer life that very naturally carries over into the corporate prayers (Mt. 6:6).

The Results

Acts 2:47 records the results of the church’s devotion: “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Craig Keener notes, “Whereas Peter’s preaching leads to many converts on one occasion in Acts 2:41, it is the believing community’s lifestyle that leads to continuous conversions in 2:47.” If we want the church to grow, the single most important thing that we need to do is to be the church.

If we want the church to grow, the single most important thing that we need to do is to be the church.

It is the Lord’s prerogative to add to our number. Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Mt. 16:18). It is our responsibility to be devoted. If Jesus sent a letter to your church, what would he say about your devotion to the Word, fellowship, sacrament, and prayers? Would he commend you or call you to repentance?

Johnathan Arnold
Johnathan Arnold is President and Founder of Holy Joys. He serves as a preaching and teaching pastor in Newport, PA, where he lives with his wife Alexandra and son Adam. You can connect with him on Twitter @jsarnold7.