top of page
  • Writer's picturemww

The Difference a Spirit-Powered Church Can Make -- the example of Acts 2:41-47

Updated: Jun 13

God created the church to change its community.


Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 2:41-47

In this beloved passage, we learn about a church in which every "member" was grateful for salvation, loved one another, reached into the community, wanted to grow in faith and knowledge, and was willing to sacrifice for the needs of all. And here's the biggest takeaway: the Holy Spirit that built that church is the Holy Spirit at work in us today.

Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (2:47)

Getting Started: Things to Think About

Teamwork

The Lifeway material suggests this topic, and I used it the last time we studied this passage: what are the elements of a good team?

I enjoy watching the NBA, and we are in the middle of the 2024 Finals as I write this. It's a contrast of two team styles: five all-star-caliber players on the Celtics vs. perhaps the best player on the planet in Luka Doncic. In game two of the series, it looked like a big part of the Celtic's game plan was to force the ball into Kyrie Irving's hands and force him to play what's derisively called "hero ball". So far, the Celtics have won both games.


No series is as simple as the "best team" vs. the "best player", but it has sure stirred up NBA fans to argue about that. (Btw, Michael Jordan always made his team the best team. Just saying.)


Long story short, I think that's a fun topic. What makes for a great team?


This week, we're going to learn the foundational qualities of the first Christian church. You should discover some overlaps between what made the early church successful and what makes a sports team successful today.


Extending a Vacation / Trip

Have you ever enjoyed a trip so much that you extended your stay? I'm too much of a planner; even considering that is making my skin crawl. But I've heard that some of you have. What are the qualities that make you want to extend a stay?


Now let's shift into spiritual matters. Have you ever had such a powerful spiritual experience that it caused you to change your upcoming plans? My hope is that at least one person in one of our groups has been so moved by a mission trip that they stayed on for another week. Perhaps you decided to work at a Christian camp because of your experience as a camper. Or you decided to get a Christian degree because of an interaction you had with a professor or a class. (I have two degrees from Southwestern because of a friendship I had with someone who became a professor there.)


That's basically what happened in this week's passage. People had traveled from all over the world to Jerusalem for their Pentecost pilgrimage, and they unexpectedly became Christian. All of the Christians in the world were in Jerusalem, so they really wanted to stick around and learn more about Jesus and what He taught. (Understandable, don't you think?) But they weren't prepared to do that, and so much of the earliest church activity is helping the new believers "stick around", so to speak.


The Most Baptisms You've Seen at One Time

Every once in a while, I read a story about a "big baptism" event. Last summer, when the "Jesus Revolution" movie came out, Greg Laurie's church in California had a big baptism event at the cove where the Jesus Movement really got started, and he said they baptized more than 4,500 people.

[The cynic in me re-read the fine print of the story on Baptist Press about it and couldn't help but notice that they held this event two months after a similar event by another church that baptized 4,100 people, which had then become a "world record".]

As far as churches around here? Every once in a while, our Georgia Baptist newspaper puts out a story about a little church having a big baptism event. One church baptized 21 people in a creek on May 5. A prison ministry baptized 49 women back in April. (On the other extreme, this fun story talks about a church's first baptism in 7 years back in April.)


What's the most baptisms you remember seeing at once? If it was at a church, how do you remember the church feeling about it? In my experience, baptisms = excitement, so more baptisms = more excitement. Can you imagine the excitement of the Pentecost baptisms?


It's Father's Day!

Happy Father's Day! The obvious Father's Day tie-in is too easy -- how important the men of the earliest churches were to helping their churches grow strong. But this is the ultimate example of a "preaching to the choir" lesson -- anyone who is actually attending your Sunday morning Bible study seemingly cares about the things we will focus on today.


So let me take this a different route. One you're not going to see coming. How important are dads to helping their daughters stay in church?


You might not know this, but young women are leaving churches in startling numbers. And the solution is in dads and the male leaders of churches taking this very seriously.


Do you remember the once-famous "gender gap" in church attendance, that about 60% of adults in church were women? (See this famous Pew Research study from 2014.) Well, that's flipped with Gen Z. Young women are less likely to attend church than young men. This secular thinktank believes it can tell us why: young women have different values than conservative churches. According to their surveys, young women are more likely to be pro-abortion, pro-LGBTQ, and pro-feminist, and so they reject their churches. If that's true, this suggests that churches have done a poor job of discipling their young women why Jesus held certain views on such matters. But also, this means that dads need to model Christlike leadership in their homes and churches so their daughters grow up understanding how valued they are, why the Bible teaches what it does about sexuality, gender, and human life, and how they ought to be treated by a man who is a true disciple of Jesus.


Dads, do you realize how important you are not just to your sons but also your daughters? Men, even if you don't have daughters, do you realize how important the way you treat the women (and girls) in your church is? (And not (just) from a sexual harassment angle!) The way you treat someone reflects Jesus.


Fathers, you are critical to the future of your church. How seriously are you treating that?


Happy Father's Day!

 

Our Context in Acts

Well, this is pretty simple. We pick up right where we left off last week. The most important thing to remember is that Peter has just preached to a crowd consisting of Jews from all over the known world. They were in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, and they probably had only planned on staying for so long. But when they suddenly and unexpectedly became followers of Jesus, they realized they needed to stay a little longer and learn more about who Jesus was and what He taught.


But that immediately posed a problem -- where would they stay? what would they eat?


And that's where we start.

 

This Week's Big Idea: The Function of a Church

So far, Luke has introduced us to key concepts that I hope you remember:

  • A church's identity: selfless witnesses of Jesus.

  • A church's message: the gospel of Jesus.

  • A church's power: the Holy Spirit of God.

Anything that takes us away from that takes us away from our foundation.


This week, Luke introduces us to four key functions of a church:

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.

We'll cover this in much greater detail when we get to that part of the lesson, so I'll keep this short. Before you get started, ask your group: what do churches do?


Keep track of those answers. When you start talking about these verses, compare this list against what you read in the Bible. How does each "typical" church activity line up against Acts 2? To be sure, I'm expecting that most of the functions your group comes up with can be in line with Acts 2, but I guess we'll see!

 

Part 1: The First Church (Acts 2:41-42)

41 So those who accepted his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand people were added to them. 42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer.

Verse 41 is so important, and yet I'm going to fly over it because everything else is also so important.


Who were baptized? The people who accepted Peter's message.


What was Peter's message? That Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, is the Messiah. Forgiveness of sins is only found in repentance and publicly identifying with Him.


Remember how last week I introduced all of the ways that churches have misinterpreted Acts 2:38? Coming up with doctrines like baptism is necessary for salvation or forgiveness of sins? That baptism should only be done in the name of Jesus? Things like that?


Well, to me, the behavior of the crowd pretty much puts all of those bad doctrines to rest. These are people who have responded to Peter's gospel presentation. They believe that Jesus is the Son of God. They have repented of their sins. They are willing to identify with Christ in a hostile world (suggesting that their decision is legitimate).


[Note: that's what baptism is -- an identification with Jesus, a hyper-symbolic, powerful, undeniable identification. Peter's audience had no trouble understanding that. We have trouble with that today, 2000 years later on the other side of the world in another culture.]


That first day, 3000 people were baptized! !!! Go Holy Spirit!


Where were they baptized? Great question. Wherever they could, I guess. In my mind, they made a pilgrimage to the Jordan River, where John baptized Jesus. It would have been a day's walk, and we know from the Gospels that Jews made that trek. But the Bible doesn't tell us.


And then verse 42, a foundational verse for every church, gives us priceless truth:


At the very beginning, the church focused on

  1. Learning the apostles' teaching

  2. Fellowship

  3. Breaking bread

  4. Prayer

What do you think those things mean?


We can assume that the apostles were teaching "everything Christ commanded them" per Jesus' instructions in the Great Commission. Today, we have all of that today in the Bible.


The word "fellowship" is the Greek koinonia which means participating in life together. It's not an event that we "schedule for the Fellowship Hall" -- it's about sharing life. And the reason we do that is to help one another understand how Christ wants us to live in each circumstance; we bear one another's burdens, we share one another's joys, and we hold one another to account. the word we use today to represent this is "discipleship" (not a course that we take on a Wednesday night, but true Jesus/disciples discipleship).


"Breaking bread" can mean one of two things -- actual eating meals together (what we think of as fellowship), or the Lord's Supper (which is called "breaking bread" in the New Testament). I think it means both. I think the church members' fellowship/friendship spilled over into their spiritual relationship. We know from Paul that at least some early churches shared the Lord's Supper as part of a "church fellowship meal". In other words, the early Christians didn't try separate their friendship from their worship. When was the last time you had a fellowship gathering that broke out into a worship event?


Prayer is the one thing on this list that nobody has any questions about. And yet, it's also the one thing we seem to have the hardest time doing as churches. Isn't the "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting" generally the least-attended event on the church calendar?


So let me rephrase this list into words that I think apply:

  1. Bible study

  2. Discipleship

  3. Fellowship (spiritual)

  4. Prayer

If you believe that "breaking of bread" refers to the Lord's Supper only, then you will probably replace #3 with "worship".


Don't "evaluate" your list of church activities just yet! There are things we're going to observe in both upcoming sections that also show us what the early church did.

 

Aside: The "Five Functions" of a Church and of Sunday School

I really, really hope you remember this graphic we have talked about a few times.

Just about every church I know has some version of this breakdown in their foundational documents. You might have heard it this way:

A great commitment to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission leads to a great church.

David (FBC pastor) led our church through a re-focusing process which resulted in us honing our mission and principles. Let's see if these things ring a bell to you:

  • Our Mission: Loving God, loving people, and making disciples of Jesus from all generations.

  • Our Process: We want all church members to come to worship, grow in small groups, serve from their SHAPE, and go make disciples.

  • Our Core Values: Biblically faithful. Authentically worshiping. Prayer dependent. Missionally engaged. Compassionate serving. Family affirming. Relationally centered. People empowering.

  • Our Measures: Our goal is to have church members who are learning to think, be, and act like Jesus.


Every church has something like this. If you aren't a member of FBC, go and find it for your church.


I've also said, following the lead of people who have been doing Sunday School for many years, that Sunday School is the perfect microcosm of a church in this regard. For example, here is the one-sentence summary of Sunday School from Lifeway:

Sunday School is the foundational strategy in [First Baptist Church] for leading people to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and for building Great Commission Christians through Bible study groups that engage people in evangelism, discipleship, fellowship, ministry and worship.

I go into a lot more detail about what that means in this article:

If you've not read it before, please do.


Btw, if you're wondering how they handled 3,000 new people as a church, keep reading the passage.

 

Part 2: A Generous Church (Acts 2:43-45)

43 Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. 44 Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. 45 They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need.

Let's just get this out of the way -- we don't know what the signs and wonders were that were performed through the apostles. I doubt it was showing off things like walking through walls or reading minds. These were things that validated the apostles' place as leaders of this new movement and true representatives of Jesus. Note the careful choice of the preposition "through".


[Aside: remember that these apostles had a public reputation for abandoning Jesus at His greatest need, so they had great need for the Holy Spirit to help them with public reputation repair.]


"Awe" is an important word. This word is more clunkily translated as "reverential awe". It's a sense that's difficult to describe, but if you've felt it, you know what it means. The people weren't necessarily "afraid", nor were they necessarily "amazed". They were experiencing the presence of God in a way no one ever had before, and it had their full attention.


[Aside: I have my opinions about the so-called "Asbury Revival" (Feb 2023) and how it became so quickly commodified, but testimonies of people who there at the beginning spoke of a difficult-to-describe "sense". To them, at least, I believe they had set the noise of the world aside and were experiencing the Spirit of God in a group of worshipers in a way that God does not intend to be unique. I think that's the feeling the Pentecost Christians had.]


Verses 44 and 45 tend to get people riled up, and I'll talk about "Christian Socialism" below. But this is where context is key. Who are the vast majority of these early Christians? Pilgrims from far away from Jerusalem. They probably did not have the means to stay in Jerusalem indefinitely. Well, not all of them. Some of the early converts were well-to-do. And in the first, perfect demonstration that everyone in a church is equally valuable in the eyes of the Lord, the wealthy Christians sold what they could to help care for the poorer Christians.


To me, this goes back to an exchange Luke reported in chapter 9 of his Gospel:

12 Late in the day, the Twelve approached and said to him, “Send the crowd away, so that they can go into the surrounding villages and countryside to find food and lodging, because we are in a deserted place here.” 13 “You give them something to eat,” he told them. “We have no more than five loaves and two fish,” they said, “unless we go and buy food for all these people.”

You know what happened next -- the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 men, plus their families.


There, Jesus' point was that God's provision was inexhaustible for those who believe. Here, we see the first practical application of it. Surely you've heard the favorite preacher line:

I have good news: our church has all the money we need to take care of our business. But there's a catch -- it's all in your wallets.

These Pentecost Christians understood that truth in a way that has inspired Christians for centuries. "We can give everyone something to eat. God has given us the resources."


[Fun aside: does that mean the "feeding of the 5,000" people had enough food to share but were being too stingy? Probably not. Remember that that event was spontaneous -- those people weren't planning on being there so late -- and as the disciples said, there were no Little Caesar's nearby. That's going to be similar to what was happening among the Pentecost Christians -- they had probably brought a little extra for contingency, but not enough to sustain them for weeks or months.]


Note that I think we're still mostly focused on the pilgrim Christians. They had brought stuff with them that they realized they didn't need. They could sell it and use the money to buy a meal for others. Eventually, the Jerusalem Christians would join in (we will talk about this in a few weeks), but right now, the Christians in need are the pilgrims.


This leads to another function of the early church -- what we often call "member care". We're going to talk about that in even greater detail when we get to Acts 6 (here's a link to a church that connects Acts 2 directly with Acts 6 in explaining why they have a member care ministry), so I'm just going to give us Paul's words from Galatians 6:

9 Let us not get tired of doing good, for we will reap at the proper time if we don’t give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us work for the good of all, especially for those who belong to the household of faith. [emphasis added]

Paul did not intend this to be a "blank check", so to speak -- "In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” (2 Thess 3:1)) -- but that certainly did not apply to the Pentecost Christians. They were all being generous. They were all being selfless.


(The phrase "held all things in common" is about their attitude toward their property, not a commanded social structure by the apostles.)


Can you imagine a church like that today, the impact they would make not just on their church family but their community?


Aside on charitable giving in the US.

I've reported before that Americans are by far the most generous country in the world, but our numbers are skewed by our ultra-wealthy who account for 38% of all charitable giving. Americans give approximately 2% of their wealth each year. This fascinating article comes from the company that powers our on-line giving platform --

They calculate that if every Christian tithed, there would be $139 billion (!) more for churches to use for kingdom causes.


Food for thought.

 

Aside on "Christian Socialism"

This seems to be what many Bible readers get hung up on. They read these verses and believe that the early Christians were socialists, and maybe we should be socialists today.


That's a very similar reaction to 2:38, which I said last week that a superficial reading of led churches into the doctrines of unitarianism, baptismal regeneration, sacramentalism, and other stranger things.


I'm going to copy a paragraph from my last post on this passage:

And that’s because Acts doesn’t promote socialism. At most, we would say that it promotes a kind of communalism, one in which people still have private property, but they can contribute as much of that as they want to the community. And the community doesn’t withdraw from society but lives in it and engages it. You see, the early Christians freely and willingly gave of their own goods to the needs of the church; in a socialism model there are no choices to do so. There is no discipleship in this matter, only control and command. In Acts, those who had been successful and built up great wealth were able to use that wealth for others. Such is not an option socialist or compound approach. As a Christian church, we contribute to the needs of the church community (we call it our “budget”) and we contribute to the needs of the outside community (through “benevolence” or “missions”). This is not so different than the early church—what is different is the extent of our own operation (buildings, bills, etc.) that the early church didn’t have to worry about.

Does that make sense?


In the early church, the Pentecost Christians saw the financial need, realized that they were in a position to meet it, and were moved by the Spirit to contribute generously to it. No one forced them to do anything. They weren't doing it to gain credit with anybody. (We will see in a few weeks what happened when early Christians tried to "game the system".) That's not socialism. That's generous, Christian living.

 

Part 3: A Unified Church (Acts 2:46-47)

46 Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

This is where we see the practical implications of this growth. Where did this instant church of 3000 meet? In the temple -- the only place in Jerusalem that could hold them. And also in small groups in houses all over the city (and probably outside of the city, too.).


It might seem extreme that they met every day. But remember the circumstance -- they were on pilgrimage! They had extended their stay in Jerusalem precisely for the purpose of continuing to meet together.


This is where we begin to see the role of the Jerusalem Christians. Somebody had to actually own a house and also let these guests use it for meetings (and also for sleeping). They couldn't meet constantly in the temple (that would have certainly gotten them in trouble), but they also couldn't crash in a local house for 24 hours a day if the homeowner had to work or had family. So they moved from house to house, "spreading the hospitality around" so to speak.


[Aside: hospitality was a huge deal in those days -- a day when "hotels" didn't have great reputations. A hallmark of the early Christian church was the willingness of homeowners to share their homes with traveling Christians or apostles like Peter and Paul.]


There are two common implications drawn from this:

  • The practicality of a large-group gathering. There are only so many places that a large group can gather; today, churches build "sanctuaries". That would put a cap on the size of a church and necessitate the creation of a network of "house churches".

  • The value of small groups. The Pentecost Christians would gather in the temple and hear from the apostles. But there were only 12 apostles! There must have been hundreds of "house church gatherings" across Jerusalem. This suggests that other Christians got into group leadership and developed close, discipling relationships with the Pentecost Christians. To me, this is like a Sunday School model. There's not a practical place for church members to ask a pastor a question during a sermon, but that's exactly what should happen in a small group Bible study.


Aside on "House Churches"

I have heard some Christians today say that church ought to go to a "house church model" because that's what they did in Acts. Remember, in the book of Acts, they didn't have a choice. There were no church buildings for them to use. Today, we have church buildings. Church buildings are wonderful for ministry! Right now, our church is hosting a Vacation Bible School; it's so much easier to do having a building of our own where we can host it.


The questions and complaints about church buildings come from the operating costs. And this is simple -- the fancier the building, the higher the maintenance, and every dollar that goes into maintenance is a dollar that doesn't go into ministry. So, churches should take the time to design and build the space they need for ministry (with an eye toward the future) and avoid the trap of unnecessary or expensive additions. There's no set rule for this -- every church is different, and every ministry context is unique. Go before the Lord as a church and seek God's wisdom in what He would have you build.


And guess what, God might be telling you to do in-home Bible studies rather than build a building of classrooms. The house church model can work, and it is well-suited for many cultural contexts around the world.


Back to the passage.


The description "joyful and sincere hearts" really stands out to me. It's almost as if the Christians who reported this to Luke were thinking longingly about "the good old days". Remember what Paul had to say to the church in Corinth? "17 Now in giving this instruction I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. 18 For to begin with, I hear that when you come together as a church there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it." (1 Cor 11) It doesn't take long for factions and rivalries and divisions to set in -- even among Christians, amiright? If we are reaching sinners with the gospel of Jesus, or if we ourselves are sinners reached with the gospel of Jesus, we're going to bring our issues into the church.


But here at the beginning, the people were soaking in the warmth of the power of the Spirit, and they were so glad. (Don't worry, pessimists -- opposition will appear soon enough!)


I encourage you to spend time talking about a very difficult topic: what does it take for a church to enjoy the favor if its community?


We can safely say that rumors about infighting, greed, controversy, hurt feelings, and selfishness are certainly not going to improve a church's reputation in the community.


But for this early church, the people of Jerusalem saw them gathering together to learn from their leaders, generously and sacrificially helping each other, and sharing the message of a Messiah who loves the world so much that He gave His life to make forgiveness of sin possible. Who doesn't want to learn more about that? What is it going to take for your church to enjoy that kind of favor?


But guess what -- and this is the real key -- they weren't just enjoying favor. That "favor" resulted in a fair hearing of the gospel, and people were being saved. Luke wasn't reporting favor for favor's sake, but favor for the gospel's sake.


This is the foundation of the early church.


Go back through all of these verses and compile a list of actions in the early church. I'll give you a very simplified list to start (starting with what I said above):

  • Bible study

  • Discipleship

  • Fellowship

  • Prayer

  • Large group worship

  • Small group gatherings

  • Benevolence

  • Evangelism

  • Community outreach

What else?


Take that fuller list (and don't worry, the book of Acts will tell us many more things the early churches did) and compare it against the list you created about what people think churches do.

 

Closing Thoughts: Sunday School Class Identity

This is a perfect lesson for your group to talk about who you are and what you do. Use the "five purposes" as a framework --

  • worship

  • ministry

  • evangelism

  • fellowship

  • discipleship

How are you doing with them? What goals do you want to set for yourself for the rest of the year?

Comments


bottom of page