Descriptive, Not Prescriptive.

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. Acts 2:42-47 ESV

This is one of the more familiar passages in the book of Acts. In it, we have a brief description of what the newly founded church in Jerusalem looked like in the early days following the events of Pentecost. Things had begun to change rapidly and dramatically. After a single sermon, more than 3,000 converts were added to the original number of 120 disciples or followers of Christ. The Holy Spirit had come, the disciples had been empowered with the ability to speak in foreign languages, Peter had given a Spirit-inspired message to the assembled crowd, and thousands accepted his offer of redemption through Jesus Christ. Then, the next thing we read is that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” There are many who believe that what we find written by Luke in the verses that follow is a description of the true New Testament church. In other words, he is providing us with a prescription or required mode of operation for every church in every age. Signs, wonders, communal living, sharing of goods, and breaking of bread in homes are said to be evidences of a legitimate New Testament church.

But are the characteristics Luke provides meant to be prescriptive or merely descriptive? Is he attempting to give us a divinely inspired and required methodology for church practice? Or is he simply describing the unique, point-in-time manifestations of the early days of the church as it exploded onto the scene among the Jews living in Jerusalem? It would seem that Luke, the detail-oriented physician/historian, was most interested in describing and chronicling what he had seen take place. What he witnessed and recorded were once-in-time, never-to-be-repeated events that accompanied the coming of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the start of the church age. The truth is, in the book of Acts there is little in the way of actual instruction given regarding how the church was to operate on a daily basis. We are given no mandatory, clearly defined order of worship. When you consider the amount of detail God provided to the Israelites regarding worship in the Old Testament, it is surprising how little information is given about things like order of worship, music, dress, sermon content, church government, or ordinances. What Luke seemed most interested in detailing was the external expansion of the church. Everything was happening within the unique confines of Jerusalem, among a predominantly Jewish population. And the early converts to Christianity after the events of Pentecost were, for the most part, Jews. In the crowd that gathered outside the upper room and who heard the message delivered by Peter, Luke describes people from a wide range of provinces with the Roman Empire…

Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome – Acts 2:9-10 ESV

But he also describe them as “Jews and proselytes.” In other words, they were either native-born Jews or converts to Judaism. But for the most part, they were all worshipers of Yahweh, the God of the Jews. So, what Luke describes in these verses is the immediate result of the 3,000 Jewish converts coming to faith in Christ and how they responded to their newfound faith. The church went from 120 to more than 3,000 in less than an hour, creating a unique problem for the apostles. How were they going to minister to this many people and begin the process of teaching so large a number of disciples? It must be assumed that there were those in the group who were not residents of Jerusalem. They had come to town for the celebration of Passover and Pentecost. But now that they had been saved, there was no doubt a desire among them to remain under the care and training of the apostles. But where would they stay? Who would feed and provide for them? Luke describes the scene:

44 And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. 45 They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. – Acts 2:44-45 NLT

They gathered together in order to hear the teaching of the apostles. There was instruction involved. Peter’s sermon, while impactful, was not exhaustive in nature. There was far more these new believers needed to know. One of the things Jesus had commanded the apostles to do was to make disciples, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20 ESV). There was much that needed to be conveyed to these new converts. And the Holy Spirit was providing the apostles with new insights into all that Jesus had taught them over the three years they had spent with Him. Jesus had told them that the Holy Spirit would act as a divine interpreter, opening their eyes to the truths contained in all that He had said and taught.

25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But 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 14:25-26 ESV

Not only could they remember things Jesus had said, they could understand what He meant when He had said them. His words, at one time cryptic and difficult to comprehend, suddenly made sense. So, they taught them to the new converts, explaining what life in the Kingdom of God was meant to be. And Luke tells us, “They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2:46 NLT). There was no church building. They had no facilities. So, being Jews, they gathered together at the Temple grounds, and they did so daily. Luke describes them as celebrating the Lord’s Supper in homes and as sharing communal meals together marked by joy and generosity. Again, what Luke provides us is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive. He is not demanding that all worship take place at the Temple. He is not dictating that the Lord’s Supper only be celebrated within a home context. These were situations unique to the setting. They took place out of necessity. By the time the church began to spread beyond Jerusalem, we see it taking on new forms depending upon the surrounding environment. In his letters, the apostle Paul will spend far more time discussing the internal structure and organization of the church. But at this point in time, in the early days of the church in Jerusalem, the apostles and the growing number of new converts found themselves dealing with some very unique circumstances that required one-of-a-kind solutions.
And Luke tells us that “each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 NLT). The church continued to grow. And many of these new believers, having come from the various Roman provinces listed in the early verses of this chapter. eventually returned to their homes. And when they made their way to their respective towns and villages, they took their newfound faith in Christ with them. They became ambassadors for the Kingdom of God, spreading the good news of Jesus far beyond the city walls of Jerusalem, and out among the Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia.
What we have in these verses is a description of the work of the Spirit of God. He had come just as Jesus had promised and, with His arrival, the message of Jesus had taken on new life. The original disciples of Jesus had been transformed and their understanding of Jesus’ words became suddenly clear and concise. The Spirit was convicting and converting. The disciples were boldly proclaiming and proselytizing. The church was just beginning, and it would soon be spreading. The gospel would quickly move beyond the streets of Jerusalem and out into the world. And the church would continue to evolve and expand, developing a more formal infrastructure designed to meet the growing demands of a richly diverse and rapidly expanding network of community based congregations. Love, fellowship, teaching, sharing, community, prayer, worship, and evangelism will always mark the life of the church. But Luke was less interested in telling us what we should be doing as the local church, than emphasizing what the Holy Spirit was doing to make the growth of the church possible. Without the Spirit of God, the church does not exist. Without the power provided by the Spirit of God, true life change cannot take place. If Luke was prescribing anything, it was the non-negotiable necessity of God’s Spirit in order for God’s work to be done.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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