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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Blessed To Bless.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. And in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year ago started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness. As it is written, “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.” – 2 Corinthians 8:9-15 ESV

Paul makes it clear that his call for the Corinthians to give to the needs of the Judean Christians was not a command. “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine” (2 Corinthians 8:8 ESV). He knew that if he commanded that they give, their doing so would be out of a sense of legalism, not love. Their giving would be grudgingly, not willingly. It would be accompanied by regret, not rejoicing. It was Paul’s sincere desire that their giving be based on their understanding of and appreciation for all that Jesus Christ had done for them.

You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. – 2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT

Jesus sacrificed all that He had in order to pay for the sins of mankind. He gave His own life in order to redeem lost men and women, trapped in the debt they owed due to sin, and condemned to eternal separation from God. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul elaborates on the remarkable grace of Jesus and how it should motivate the believer’s life.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
     he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
    and gave him the name above all other names,
     that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
     and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:3-11 NLT

The same attitude that Christ had. That is what Paul is calling the Corinthians to have. Humble. Selfless. Sacrificial. Obedient. Loving. And willing to finish what He started, to complete what He had been called to do – out of obedience to His heavenly Father and love for those He came to save.

Paul calls on the Corinthians to follow Christ’s lead and to finish what they began. A year earlier they had begun the process of giving toward the needs of the saints in Judea, but had evidently failed to finish the job. So Paul gives them a little friendly advice or counsel.

Here is my advice: It would be good for you to finish what you started a year ago. Last year you were the first who wanted to give, and you were the first to begin doing it. Now you should finish what you started. Let the eagerness you showed in the beginning be matched now by your giving. Give in proportion to what you have. – 2 Corinthians 8:10-11 NLT

Paul was not asking them to “give until it hurts” or to give what they did not have. This was not about the redistribution of wealth or some form of socialistic economic equality. It was simply the love of Christ lived out in everyday life, as the body of Christ ministered to itself, one group sharing what it had with those who had nothing. The blessed being a blessing. As Paul had told the Philippian believers, the mutual care and concern of Christians for one another was to be nothing more than an extension of their relationship with Christ.

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose. – Philippians 2:1-2 NLT

While reciprocity or payback should not motivate our giving, Paul points out that the day may come when the tables are turned. We may find ourselves on the receiving end of someone else’s generous and loving aid. When there are needs to be met, we are to give out of what we have – no more, no less. We are to give selflessly, even sacrificially, because we share a common bond in Christ. And in giving, we should be encouraged to know that, should we ever find ourselves in need, our brothers and sisters in Christ will be there for us as well. We are a family. We share the love of God. We have a common bond in Christ.

The principle at play here is the sovereign blessing of God on His people. Paul uses the Old Testament story of the Exodus as an illustration. When the people of Israel were wandering in the wilderness, God had met their needs, including providing them with food to eat. In the evening, God provided them with quail. In the mornings, they found manna. And each day, the people would go out and gather the manna, provided to them by God. They were commanded by Moses:

Gather of it, each one of you, as much as he can eat. You shall each take an omer, according to the number of the persons that each of you has in his tent.” And the people of Israel did so. They gathered, some more, some less. But when they measured it with an omer, whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat. – Exodus 16:16-18 ESV

God had provided and no one had need. And there was no need for anyone to hoard. In fact, if they attempted to keep more than they needed for their own personal needs, it rotted. God did not want them depending on the manna for their needs. He wanted them to trust in Him. He gave them what they needed and no one had any need. No one went hungry. That same principle applied to the people of Corinth. God was meeting their needs. They had all they required to exist. There was no need to hoard or selfishly withhold the blessings of God for a rainy day. Whatever the Corinthians enjoyed by way of abundance had been made possible by God. And their excess was not intended for their own security, but for the needs of others. Just as our spiritual gifts are intended for the body and not for our own benefit, so our financial blessings are intended for the good of all. God blesses us so that we might be a blessing to others.