A few years ago I developed a medical condition with symptoms that began to significantly impact my life. During the process of undergoing test after test to discover the source of these problems, I had a discussion with a health provider who was advising me on how to cope with my symptoms, have more energy, and regain my strength. She asked about all of the things I was involved in related to work, family, church, and social life, and immediately said that I first needed to simplify my life and focus on those things that are most important.
Today I find myself in a different type of struggle, however this one is not related to my physical health. Instead, it involves my spiritual life. Once again, there are symptoms that are severely affecting me. I often find myself out of energy, frustrated, and overwhelmed. As with my health issue, I know the only way I’m going to break free of these symptoms is by simplifying my spiritual life and focusing on those things that are most fundamental to my Christian faith.
This challenge is mostly because the American execution of “Church” has become overly complicated. Anyone involved in the work of a local body knows that today’s church is often filled with politics, competing agendas, feuds, entertainment, marketing, denominationalism, and so many other things that take our focus off of what God intended His believers to be about.
These are the things that have me at a spiritual crossroads in my life, and yearning for simplicity in my church experience and my Christian walk. I want to stop worrying about things that ultimately don’t matter, and focus on the core fundamentals of Christianity.
With this in mind, can there be any better example of the central elements of Christian activity, and the work of the church, than the simple focus of those first Christians who were baptized on Pentecost in Acts chapter 2?
42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42, ESV)
The were devoted to…The Truth (Apostles Teaching)
The word translated apostle (apostolos) literally means, “one sent,” and implies one sent with the full authority of the one who sent them (i.e. their representative or ambassador). These men were the apostles of Jesus Christ, and were therefore teaching with His full authority. The apostles of Christ were also promised a miraculous endowment of knowledge and teaching regarding the gospel that was not given to other Christians.
26But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. (John 14:26, ESV)
13When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. (John 16:13, ESV)
The apostles spoke the word of Christ with his authority, and these first Christians were devoted to this “teaching.” The equivalent for us today would be dedication to the study of God’s word, the Bible. It is critical that we devote ourselves to this study because it is only source of God’s will. As Paul said to Timothy:
14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17, ESV, emphasis added)
One of my biggest pet peeves in driving is getting behind someone driving a dump truck on the road that is spraying gravel all over my vehicle. What really gets me going is when I also see a big sign on the back of the truck that says “Not responsible for road objects.” This is absolutely absurd–of course they are responsible! They want to drive a dump truck and haul gravel, but yet somehow avoid all ancillary responsibilities that come with this type of operation.
Figuratively speaking, the way most Christians live today, and work within our churches, is as if we are wearing a similar type of sign that says we’re not responsible for knowing a lot about what the Bible says. We want to be Christians, be part of the church, offer our opinions, argue our points of view, but not dedicate ourselves to the study of God’s word. It is a task that we leave for the preachers, teachers, or elders.
We come up with excuses to support this:
- We don’t have time (work, family activities, social activities.)
- We can’t really understand what we’re studying
- We say, “Others don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”*
*On the surface this might be true, but it is no excuse for neglecting God’s word. Even if we first reach out to others with compassion, kindness, and friendship, we will eventually have to know the Word of God if we’re going to reach them for Christ.
Our lack of dedication to the study of God’s word has lead to Biblical Illiteracy becoming rampant within our churches. We see evidence of this when congregations:
- Embrace denominational thinking
- Focus on entertainment and trends in worship, classes, teaching, and other activities
- Argue over the most basic concepts in scripture
- Develop deep rifts and divisions among the members or between members and leaders
With all of these things come the politics, competing agendas, feuds, etc., because our focus is in the wrong place. When we don’t study God’s Word, we are essentially telling God that we have everything figured out on our own and don’t need Him. We are also denying ourselves the one true way to build up our faith in Christ and bring unity to His church. If we are going to function as God intended, we must be devoted to His teaching just like the first Christians in Jerusalem.
The were devoted to…The Tie (Fellowship)
Devoted to “fellowship” means that these first Christians were together. Two verses later, we are told:
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. (Acts 2:44-45, ESV, emphasis added)
The New Testament reveals that the church is the body of Christ. As a body, we can only function properly when the individual members work together, the way God intends:
4 For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, 5 so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4–5, ESV, emphasis added)
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13, ESV, emphasis added)
In today’s church we typically spend very little time together, especially as the entire body. Normally this consists of two hours on Sunday, and maybe a few minutes on Wednesday night before breaking for classes. Even with this limited schedule, many members choose to only be a part of the one-hour corporate worship service on Sunday morning.
Some of this comes from our lack of individual dedication to spiritual matters. If our commitment to Christ is superficial, then our commitment to being with the assembly will naturally be extremely shallow. When we make a habit of not being together as a full body, we fail to connect with brothers and sisters in Christ from a variety of backgrounds, ages, and experiences who can be a great source of strength and encouragement. We also lose an opportunity to witness their faith being demonstrated.
23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:23–25, ESV)
Many congregations try to solve this problem by adopting different types of denominational trends in order to spur attendance. However, instead of trying to solve this problem through innovation, we need to start with focusing on our commitment to Christ and His word as the only source of truth. If our commitment to Christ is in the right place, then we will want to be together with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
The were devoted to…The Table (Breaking of Bread)
The phrase “breaking bread” is used in scripture to mean either an ordinary meal:
46 And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts
(Acts 2:46–47, ESV, emphasis added)
Or the weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper by the church, as in Troas:
7On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul talked with them, intending to depart on the next day, and he prolonged his speech until midnight. (Acts 20:7, ESV)
In Acts 2:42, “breaking of bread” most likely means these Christians were devoted to the observance of the Lord’s supper as established by Jesus in the upper room with his disciples:
26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:26–28, ESV)
This memorial is the centerpiece of our corporate worship to God, since it represents the reason why we are gathered together for worship. The “breaking of bread” was established for:
Participation: It provides us with an opportunity to enjoy fellowship (figuratively speaking) with the body and blood of Christ.
16The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16, ESV, emphasis added)
Recollection: It provides us with an opportunity to remember what God did for us through the sacrifice of his son Jesus.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 25 In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:23–25, ESV, emphasis added)
Proclamation: It provides us with an opportunity to declare to others our belief in the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ.
26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26, ESV, emphasis added)
Examination: It provides us with an opportunity to examine our lives against the perfect life that Jesus lived on this earth, and see where we fall short.
27 Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29 For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. 30 That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. 31 But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. 32 But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:27–32, ESV, emphasis added)
The dedication of these first Christians to the observation of the Lord’s Supper shows that they were not just committed to fellowship for the purpose of simply enjoying each other’s company, but also for the worship of the almighty creator and author of their salvation!
The were devoted to…The Throne (Prayers)
Christians are blessed with the incredible privilege of having an avenue where we can approach the throne of the Almighty Creator through prayer. These Christians took advantage of this privilege because not only is it an integral part of our corporate worship to God, but also of our individual relationship with the Father. It is important enough that Jesus took the time to teach His disciples how to pray during the Sermon on the Mount:
9 Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread, 12 and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9–13, ESV)
Jesus demonstrates that prayer provides us with an opportunity to communicate the following things to the Father:
Jesus starts off by saying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Offering praise to God is critical for two reasons:
(1) He is worthy of praise!
33 Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! 34 “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” 35 “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” 36 For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36, ESV)
(2) To remind us who we are addressing and how hopeless we are without Him.
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:28, ESV, emphasis added)
Which one of these two men in Luke 18 truly knew the significance of the God they were trying to address in prayer? Who prayed with humility?
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, ESV)
Jesus ends His model prayer with a series of requests to the Father. We can also have boldness in approaching the throne of God with these requests, because of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, who is now our High Priest:
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, ESV, emphasis added)
In I Samuel chapter 1, Hannah was very specific in her request to God. She didn’t just pray for a child, but a son:
11 And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life, and no razor shall touch his head.” (1 Samuel 1:11, ESV, emphasis added)
We can also take our specific requests to God, because we have confidence in our High Priest. Being specific with our petitions:
- Is a demonstration of our faith in God
- Allows us to see how God is working in answering our prayers (builds our faith)
When we don’t take advantage of the privilege of prayer, we give up an opportunity to make our petitions known to the most powerful being who has ever existed, and to offer Him the praise He deserves. If we do not make a habit of regularly approaching the throne of God in prayer, then our relationship with Him will begin to suffer.
A Return to Simplicity
In many cases our churches have lost sight of these simple, fundamental activities that were the foundation of the first century Church. If we are truly going to overcome the most pressing challenges facing the church today, we must focus on those things that are most critical to the health of the body. Otherwise we are spending all of our effort on things that ultimately will not serve to increase our dedication to the knowledge of God’s will, being in fellowship together, worshiping our creator, or communicating regularly with the Father.