The following was adapted from a sermon delivered by Jacob Abshire on June 5, 2013. It was preached at Christian Tabernacle’s The Journey, a Wednesday Night Bible Study. It was part of a series called The Church in 3D which was based seeing the first century church’s devotion to God.
As planned, we are starting a new series tonight that will span the months of June, July and August. It is our summer series. Our aim is to get on the same page, to make sure we are all rowing the boat in the same direction, to get us all chewing the same gum, you might say. Someone recently asked me,, “What is The Journey all about?” And that is the big question, that is what we plan on answering during the summer.
In case you missed it, the series is called “The Church in 3D” or “3D” for short. It is a play on words really. Pictures in a book are very flat and two dimensional. Life, on the other hand, is not. Figuratively, you might say that life is three dimensional and so we will look closely at the life of the church.
Technically speaking, “3D” refers to three dimensions of space usually described as the X, Y, and Z axis, which, unless you are an architect, doesn’t mean a lot to you. But it is a way to describe horizontal, vertical, and near and distant space. Early filmmakers discovered that by separating red and blue hues from the light in a picture and slightly offsetting them they could give the viewers the illusion that some objects in the film were closer to you than others. Of course, it could only be accomplished with those fancy glasses that made one eye red and the other eye blue.
Jaws 3D was the first film that I saw that took advantage of this technology. You might remember seeing it yourself. It kept me out of the water for quite a while. They mastered the technology today and so films are even more real than ever before, more like real life, you might say. So, in one sense, we will be looking at the real life of the church.
In the other sense, we find that the first century church, in their real daily lives, were devoting themselves to three things: teaching, fellowship, and prayer. And so those three devotions from our title, “3D” or “The Church in 3D.”
Turn with me to Acts 2:42. You might find it a relief that we will only be covering this one verse tonight, at least when it comes to our study. We will certainly see how God’s word interpret itself using other passages, but this passage is our main course. It is the meal that we will be chewing on. So you can keep yourself there.
The verse reads, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” It’s a short verse. Not a lot of complex words. Not even a whole lot of theology here. Very plain. Very simple. But the treasure that this uncovers is running over with application and it will take us more than 10 weeks to get through it all and I imagine that we will not even scratch the surface. Applying this text will take a lifetime. But we will spend a summer making our way through it.
Breaking the Bread?
This verse simply says that the church, that’s the true believers of Jesus, devoted themselves to three things: the teaching, the fellowship, and the prayers. Now for you who are keeping count, you might have found four things that the church devoted themselves to, and you would be correct. The “breaking of bread” is there between fellowship and prayer. This is either a reference to the Lord’s Supper or a shared meal. In any case, it is viewed as a description of the kind of fellowship that the church had—one that was centered around Christ and His work. For that reason, we will focus our attention on the other three. And I think that it will make more sense as we make our way through this.
God is Building the Church
Now before we get into the nitty-gritty here, let’s set the context. You never want to go to the dinner table with it not first being set. You can easily make a mess of things, especially when you have children. So set the table, figuratively speaking, so that we can really sink our teeth into this truth because the story here is just fascinating and it should put your in the right state of mind, with awe and wonder.
Now I’m going to do this pretty quickly. After all, this the popular Day of Pentecost. Most of us are familiar with this part of the story. It takes places after our Lord was murdered on the cross, after his resurrection and even after his ascension. So Jesus is in heaven and he is sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in and among those who believe in him.
So it is Pentecost. Thousands of Jews are in Jerusalem and right here with them is a small group of disciples of Christ. We see that there are about one hundred twenty cooped up one place and a sudden sound and rushing wind sweeps in and fills the house. The disciples then start speaking in tongues as the Spirit of God fills each of them. The Jews who were there for Pentecost, outside of the house, hear the people magnifying the wonders of God in different languages and they are bewildered.
Peter seizes the opportunity to explain what happened and preach the gospel. Peter is what is called an apostle now. He stands before the crowd and just lays it on them. He preaches a hard sermon. Listen to this: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst … this Jesus … you crucified and killed, God raised him up loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” I mean, just a strong sermon that went straight to the heart and didn’t hold any punches.
The Jews who heard this “were cut to the heart” according to verse 37 and cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter says, “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” Then in verse 41, “So those who received his word were baptized,” this means that they believed and obeyed, “and there were added that day about three thousand souls”—that’s people.
Isn’t that fascinating. In one day, the church of Christ when from 120 to more than 3,000 and there was only one sermon. Just fascinating. Verse 42 says that they devoted themselves to the teaching, the fellowship and the prayers. Verse 47, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
So, we start with 120. Then God adds 3,000 the first day. Acts 2:47 says that this continues. Well, let’s see that. Acts chapter 4 verse 4, “many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men came to about five thousand.” Now this is not long after, the Lord grows the church from over 3,000 to 5,000. And folks, that is just 5,000 men. If you count the women and children you might find a number near 20,000. And it doesn’t stop there.
In chapter 5 verse 14, “more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes of both men and women.” So they are through keeping count. They can’t do it. They just know that it is too much to count. From 120, to 3,000, to 20,000, now to an uncountable multitude.
Then, in Acts chapter 6:7 we find the death of Stephen. Now, the idea here is that if you kill someone in a movement, you scatter and eventually snuff out that movement. And that happens today. People won’t stand for something false if it cost them their life. But Stephen believed the true God and it cost him his life but instead of snuffing out the movement, verse 7 says “the number of disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Even the priests were converting! So not even death will prevail, you see?
That is not all, we skip ahead to chapter 9 verse 31. The church explodes and expands passed Jerusalem, passed Judea, passed Samaria, and passed Galilee, and “it multiplied.” No numbers, they can’t keep count. Luke wants you to know still, that the church was growing. God was building the church.
Do you want to hear some more?
Acts 12:24, “the word of God increased and multiplied.”
Acts 16:5, “they increased in numbers daily”
Acts 17:2, “a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women”
Acts 19:20, “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily”
Acts 28:31, (final chapter and final verse) Paul is imprisoned and preaching and Acts closes with even more people being added
The church is just exploding in quantity and, if you read through it, quality. God is building His church in numbers and in maturity. So what is happening here? What is all of this? This is something that Jesus said He would do back when he was still with the disciples.
Matthew 16 records this account. Beginning at verse 13, we find Jesus with his disciples and he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter, the spokesperson of the twelve responds by saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” What Peter just did is make a public confession of the nature of Jesus. It may not seem like much, but he was saying a lot. In fact, this is the very confession that has Jesus killed for blaspheming. Peter knew that Jesus was in fact the Son of God and very God Himself. And in short terms, Peter was saying that all that Jesus said and did was the truth.
Jesus says to Peter, “Blessed are you. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter,” that means rock, “and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Now, what does He mean that the gates of hell will not prevail against it? Well, hell was a place for the dead unbelievers. The gates are passages or doors by which you get there. To get to hell, you have to die. So the gates of hell means death. Death is Satan’s ultimate weapon. And Jesus is saying that not even death will prevail against the church. But there is one condition. It is this: that God builds the church. You see, if God builds the church, then nothing, not even death, will prevail against it. If God builds it, nothing stops it. Very simple.
The other thing to notice here is this stuff about the rock. Jesus says “on this rock I will build my church”? Well what rock? The rock of the apostles. Well what does that mean? It is the confession of God’s revealed truth given by the apostles. Ephesians 2 explains this very well. It says this: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles.”
The Church Devotes to God
Now that is some awesome stuff there. Nothing stops God from building His church. If He wants to build it, He will. And so you might be wondering what do we do? If we build the church, we make a church that has no guarantee, it has no strength, no godliness, just sinful people interested in pleasing themselves. If we are to let God build His church, then what is God wanting us to do?
Folks, the answer to that might just shock you. Listen now as I read Acts 2:42. “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” That’s all. Be devoted to the teaching, the fellowship and the prayers. Now, you might say, “Well, what about the breaking of bread?” The breaking of bread is a reference to what they did when they fellowshipped together. The sacrament we call The Lord’s Supper. “Do this in remembrance of me,” the Lord said. Fellowship was more than a social get together, they actually joined and remembered the Lord. They talked about the Christ and His work in their lives and that was fellowship. So when the text talks about them being devoted, it says that they were devoted to the teaching, devoted to the fellowship, and devoted to the prayers.
Now before we get into the first devotion, teaching, I want to talk quickly about what it means to be devoted. The only verb in this sentence is translated as “they devoted themselves” and so the only verb here in English is the word “devoted.” This word means to “be earnest towards” something. It is to persist, to remain. It comes from two words that mean “to endure” and “toward” so you can say that it means to endure toward something. To be devoted to something means that you are loyal to it no matter what. Even more, you are after it, thinking about it, tending yourself to it, examining it, participating in it. To be devoted to something, with this word in mind, means that you are all about it. In my own personal notes on this passage, I defined the word like this:
It is “a strong giving of one’s whole self to something with unyielding diligence and patience.”
Now we might flippantly say things like, “Prayer? Yea, I’m about prayer.” Or, “I’m all about eating healthy.” But we usually don’t mean that we truly devoted to those things and it shows. We don’t pray as we ought. We don’t eat as we ought. And so forth.
Devotion, in this context, involves a few key elements:
First, it involves you—all of you. Devotion means that you are pressing toward something with all that you have. Football players train by pushing toward what is called a football sled. It is a padded resistance that forces against the player as he pushes into it moving it backward.
Second, it involves the giving of you—all of you. Devotion does not happen when we are divided in our loyalty and attention. We must attend all of ourself to be truly devoted. We lend all that we are toward something to show our devotion to it. If it requires your thinking, then you give your thinking over to it. If it requires you affections, then you give your affections over to it.
Third, it involves unyielding diligence. Devotion means that you are persisting toward something. You are carefully making ongoing efforts toward something. You do not stop. You do not slow down. You do not turn. You are persistent. You are committed.
Fourth, it involves unyielding patience. Devotion means that you are also suffering without getting angry. Did you know that that is what patience means? You are actually suffering the work of pressing toward but you are not troubled or upset by it. You do not complain because you are committed. In your patience, you are unyielding. You never stop being patient. You persevere without complaining.
Fifth and finally, it involves an object. To be devoted to nothing is ridiculous. You must be devoted to something. And in this context you must be devoted to the teaching, the fellowship, and the prayers.
Devoted to Teaching
With that in mind, let’s look at the first devotion. Acts 2:42 says that they, that is the true church, “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” Now there is a subtle nuance found in the Greek that will set us in the right direction here. The Greek word “teaching” is not a verb. It is a noun. Remember a verb is an action like the word “run” and a noun is a person, place or a thing. In this case, it is a thing. So the text does not say that they were devoted to teaching people. It does not mean that all they did, these 3,000 disciples, was teaching to everyone because that would be a mess, wouldn’t it? Rather, it is a noun. It is the word where we get our English word “didactic.” It means “doctrine.”
Doctrine is a scary word to some people because they associate it with dogmatic arguments and debates that usually amount to heartbreak and people getting upset. And I suppose that could be the case at times since Jesus said that He would set friend against friend with His truth, but this is a poor way to look at the word. Doctrine is simply a collection of truths. When we talk about the doctrines of salvation, we are talking about the truths that categorically fall under the matter of salvation. When we talk about the doctrines eschatology, we are talking about the truths of the end times. So doctrine just refers to a collection of truths.
Now there is another nuance in the Greek. The word “teaching” has a definite article. The definite article is the word “the” in English. If I were to say to you, “There is a scripture for that.” You would wonder, “Which scripture do you mean?” But if I were to say to you, “This is the scripture for that.” You would know which scripture I meant. Its easy to understand. We used to say to each, “You da man!” which in slang meant “You are the man,” which doesn’t sound as cool. But we were distinguishing each other from all the men. We didn’t say, “You are a man,” because that doesn’t mean anything in particular.
Here in the text, it is “the teaching.” It is not a verb. It is a noun. It is not just any teaching. It is a particular teaching. “Teh didake,” the teaching. So the question is which teaching. And in the ESV it is spelled out for us. It is the teaching of the apostles. Now just a little more Greek here. It is the teaching “ton apostolon” or “of the apostles.” It is in the genitive case which means possessive. Just like you possess a phone. The apostles possess the teaching. Or, the teaching is “of the apostles” which means that they are the ones who have it and give it.
You put it all together and you have “the teaching of the apostles”. It is a specific teaching. It is one that the apostle have and give. It is not one that is given any other way. Jesus said that He would build His church on “this rock” according to Matthew 16:18. The rock is the revelation of Christ. Why call it a rock? Because a building is built on a rock. A rock is the foundation. He says to the Peter and the other apostles, “this is the rock and you are going to lay it.”
Paul speaks about this. He says in Ephesians 2:20 that the church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” In those days, similar to today, they would build their structures on a solid foundation, one that was stable like a rock. You might remember the parable of the man who built his house on the rock. They would find a strong rock to build a structure on and they would put on top of this rock what is called a cornerstone which was a large rock that would anchor the rest of the building. Jesus says that he is the cornerstone, that anchors the living stones (that’s us) and all of this is built on top of the foundation that the apostles lay.
So there you have it all summed up. The apostles have the revelation of God, they lay the foundation of the church for all times, they have Christ as the bedrock, the cornerstone, that holds the rest of the living stones together, which is the all who believe and the church is built into a temple of worship.
This is why the first century church devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles. The apostle were laying the foundation so that God would build His church upon it. The foundation can only be laid once. And it has been laid. And folks we can be devoted to the teaching of the apostles too. You know how? By reading the New Testament. The New Testament is a collection of the apostles teaching. Someone said once that the Old Testament is the gospel concealed and the New Testament is the gospel revealed. When you read the New Testament, you are reading an collection of teachings from God that explain what the Old Testament was talking about. Did you know that? If you want to know what the Old Testament was teaching, you can turn to the New Testament to find out. So the apostles laid the foundation and we ought to devote ourselves to their teaching. And, that simply means the teaching, or doctrine, of the Bible.
How they Devoted Themselves
Well let’s put it all together. Devotion is “a strong giving of one’s whole self to the teaching of Scripture with unyielding diligence and patience.” The church was never intended to be a spectator organization. No one is to come to the house of God and watch and be entertained. Paul tells Timothy in his second letter (2:2) the way it works. He said, “Timothy, you were instructed by me. Now you instruct others and have them turn and instruct others, too.” That is the pattern of the church. The church is a reproductive teaching cycle where faithful men teach others to be faithful men and they repeat.
That is to say that they were giving themselves to learning and obeying the truth of the Bible. Listen, you will never worship or obey God if you don’t first learn what He desires. You have to study, then teach. You can’t teach until you study. Peter said, “like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” He means that you will mature more and more like Christ if you study the Scriptures and find the truths and obey them. Growth cannot occur where there is no teaching, where there is no learning. Do you see that? Paul says that it is by the renewing of your… what?—your mind. Listen to a handful of Scriptures that say this:
Colossians 3:10, “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge”
1 Peter 1:13, “prepare your mind”
Titus 1:9, “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that you may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also rebuke those who contradict it”
1 Timothy 4:6, “be trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine”
1 Timothy 4:16, “keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Where there is no teaching, there is no growth. There can be no maturity if there is no teaching. In fact, the Bible says that a man who cannot teach cannot be a pastor. Did you know that? The shepherd of a local church, one who leads and feeds the assembly must be able to teach according to 2 Timothy 2:24. Otherwise, he is not fit for the role of the pastor. Its not good enough that Pastor Joe is handsome. He must also be able to teach. And friends, you cannot teach if you do not devote yourself to the teaching.
Now I want you to think about that. Do you give yourself to the study of God’s word? Do you long for the truth of God’s revelation? Do you wake up wanting to read and understand the Bible more fully so that you might obey it and worship God? Are you giving your mind and will to the rule of God? If devotion to the teaching is a strong giving of one’s whole self to the Scripture with unyielding diligence and patience, can you say that you are devoted?
If not, then you should be. We rely on you to. You rely on me to. We are the church together. And if God is going to build the church that we belong to and we are going to be built according to the pattern of God, then we all need to be devoted to the teaching of God. And as brothers and sisters, accountable to each other, we all need to stir up the devotions of each other. Help each other learn. Help each other study. Help each other get into and press toward God’s word. Talk about the truth with each other. Discuss it, correct each other, mold and shape each other, sharpen each other, work at cultivating devotion in each other. And when we do, we have this guarantee: The gates of hell will not prevail against us. Do you know why? Because when we devote ourselves to the doctrine of Scripture, God builds His church.
Well look. Getting to the meaning is the easy part. I mean, we can understand what being devoted to the teaching is, that’s not the problem. No, getting it to happen in our real life, going 3D with this devotion is another story. And over the next two weeks, we are going to try and help you find some practical ways to devote yourself to the teaching, the doctrine of Christ. We will look at how to be devoted in a service here, and how to be devoted at home, with your spouse, with your children, with your friends, at work, at dinner and so forth. Lord willing, that is the plan. But let me leave you with just five small points. These are just some small practical points to get you going.
So how can you be devoted to the teaching? Number one, make a habit of reading the Bible. That is where the teaching is. You know, the teaching of the apostles, the foundation of the church, the truth of Jesus Christ, is found in the Bible. So the place you need to start is there. If you are not a good reader, get with someone who is. Challenge yourself. Get a friend to challenge you. But get to reading.
Number two, make a habit of studying what you read. After you read it, investigate it. Ask questions and find the answers. Try to get inside it and pull out all of the meaning and implications in it. Get to know the depths of it. Study what you read.
Number three, make a habit of considering what you study. By this, I mean to meditate on what you read and study. Think about it. Talk about it. Talk with friends, neighbors, children. Heck, talk with yourself—if no one is around, of course. Make a habit of meditating on what you study.
Number four, make a habit of obeying what you consider. Listen, there is a tremendous danger in learning the commands of God and not obeying them. James says that you are like a man who looks in the mirror and sees how dirty he is but walks away without cleaning himself. Doing that will make you cold and judgmental, condemnation will set in and it will make a mess of your life and those around you.
Number five, make a habit of teaching what you obey. So you read, study, consider, obey, and finally, teach. Whatever you take you need to give out. That is one way you learn and it is a way for others to learn. God designed the church to be an education cycle. You learn and you teach. So get it in and dish it out. Find a friend and weekly sit down and tell each other what you are learning. I have found that to be a wonderful way to stir up your devotions.
Well that is all we have time for. Next week we will look at how you can devote yourself to the teaching in a corporate setting, namely, a worship service like we had tonight.