Partnership in the Gospel (Acts 2:37-47)
Passage: Acts 2:27–2:47
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Partnership in the Gospel
Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.
D.T.R. When I was in college, girls and guys often talked with friends of the same sex about the right time to D.T.R.
When a relationship was getting beyond the “Hey I kind of like you and kind of like spending time with you stage”, it was always a good idea to “define the relationship”.
Was this a dating relationship, or merely a friendship, or were this young man and young woman squarely on the path to matrimonial bliss? What was the other person thinking? Who could tell? That’s why it was important to D.T.R., to “define the relationship”.
Of course, we do this all the time. Everyday we are either consciously or unconsciously defining those relationships that we encounter. For example, what is my relationship to the guy behind the register at the grocery store? Are we buddies, or are we merely retail associate and customer? The way I define that relationship determines how I behave toward this guy.
If I think we’re buddies and we’re not; if I am, in his eyes, just one more nameless customer he has to help before he clocks out, then my friendly small talk and joking around will probably seem misplaced.
Or, if I am currently and unconsciously defining my relationship with my spouse as more of a roommate situation, I will fail to give my spouse the affection and attention that relationship deserves.
As you read this, I want to ask you, “Do you personally need to D.T.R. with God’s people, with Christ’s Church?” If you already have, how do you “define the relationship”?
Keeping Records in the Jerusalem Church (Acts 2:41, 47)
Listen to just two verses from Acts 2: verses 41 and 47…
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls… (v. 47) And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:41, 47)
Notice the word those two verses have in common? It’s the word “added”. Who was being added here? “Those who were being saved.” (v. 47) To what were they being added? To “their number” (v. 47), that is, the number of Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem. And by the time you get to Acts 5, this group is referred to as “the church” (5:11). When you get to Acts 8, as the geographic window is expanding, this community is the called “the church in Jerusalem”. (8:1)
But notice two other things: First, it is the Lord who is adding to their number, as verse 47 makes clear. Isn’t this a fulfillment of what Jesus himself said to Peter in Matthew 16... “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
But also notice a second fact: this church that Jesus is building is responding to what God is doing by baptizing these new believers. As God is adding to the body of Christ through salvation, the apostles are adding to the Jerusalem church through baptisms.
In addition to that, consider this question: how did they know there were about 3000 souls added to the church? Maybe it was more like a 1000? Does the word “about’ in verse 41 mean that someone was just ‘ballparking’ the number? I don’t think so. I think Luke uses the phrase “about 3000 souls” for the simple reason that “two thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine” or “two thousand nine hundred and ninety five” is way too wordy.
I think they knew there were “about 3000 souls” because all those souls were not only spiritually added to the people of God, but were formally added to the Jerusalem church.
Formalized Commitment and the Birth of the Church (Acts 2:37-47)
Let’s look at a larger chunk of verses in Acts 2. But before we do that let me explain why all of this is so important for us. What I believe Acts 2 will show us is that right from the very beginning of the church of Jesus, what is most important is not simply attending a local church, but belonging to a local church.
If we “define [our] relationship” to the church according to God’s word, we cannot simply be ‘attenders’. That’s not a biblical category, is it? No, God’s word defines that relationship in a number of ways: we are “parts” of the Christ’s body (cf. I Corinthians 12:27); we are “living stones” in God’s temple (cf. I Peter 2:4, 5). But even more regularly we are defined as “siblings” in God’s own family (cf. I Timothy 3:14, 15).
No matter where you are in terms of your definitions, if you are a true follower of Jesus Christ, a genuine Christian, then I want to convince you that in light of how God’s word defines your relationship to God’s people, you need to be committed to Way of Grace Church (or another local church) and you should formalize that commitment through what we call Partnership.
Now, when it comes to words like formalization, or formalize, or formality, or formal, most people start to get uncomfortable. The room starts to get stuffy, right? We prefer words or terms like casual, laid back, easy going, organic, natural, and of course, informal.
But I think it’s fair to say that we like the idea of formalization when it benefits us in some way.
As we drive down the road, we like that there is some kind of test people must pass before they can operate an automobile. As we enjoy some level of national unity and homeland security, we like the idea of a formal process for new citizens. As we struggle through periods of conflict or distance with our spouse, we appreciate the idea that there is a formal bond that connects us to him or her. When it works for us, we like the idea of a college degree. When it works for us, we like the idea of a mortgage or other similar contracts. Formalization is wonderful when it means we will get what we want.
But just as often, we see formalization as something that, doesn’t help us, but instead, handcuffs us; something that hampers our freedom. “I don’t want this house if it really has lost that much of its value.” “I don’t want to stay in this marriage if this is the way it’s going to be.” “I can do that job. I shouldn’t need that degree or certification.”
There are generally two dangers when it comes to formalized commitments.
The first danger is to see the formalization as unnecessary when it comes to the commitment. When it comes to the church, some people set their own level of involvement and declare “I’m committed”. For many, becoming a member or partner of the church seems unnecessary.
The second danger is to confuse the formalization with the commitment itself. Some people think of church membership or partnership with a church as an end in itself. But so many churches across this country have people on their membership rolls who are most likely, and tragically, not even members of God’s own family. And sadly, those people are holding on to their church membership for assurance, rather than to Jesus and his cross.
But formalization shouldn't douse the fire of commitment. It should fuel it! For example, a healthy marriage is one that thrives with a passion that is anchored in a covenant commitment. Couples who simply live together are missing the blessing and foundation of that covenant commitment, and couples who take their covenant commitment for granted tend to forget the passionate commitment that originally led to the covenant.
As continue to work this out, we need 1) to understand what God calls us to in terms of passionate commitment to a local church, and 2) we need to understand why we should formalize that commitment through a Partnership process.
What is the Commitment?
Let’s work through Acts 2:37-47 in order to understand a fuller picture of what God desires for us in terms of a commitment to the local church. Let’s break this passage up according to four principles we discover in these verses.
First, a commitment to Christ’s Church begins with saving faith in Christ.
Look at verses 37 through the first half of 41: Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized…
What we see clearly here is that knowing the groom always precedes knowing His bride; a commitment to Jesus Christ should always precede a commitment to His church. There is ultimately only one reason to join a church: because Jesus commands us to commit to His community, and through the grace of God and His gospel, we now want to love Jesus as our Lord by obeying His commands. Full stop.
No one should join a church because of the music or because it’s like what you grew up with or because it’s close to your house. No, we should love the church because Jesus loves the church, because the church is His own body.
In light of this, the church must do its best to open Partnership up only to those who are genuinely converted, not just people who are consistent attenders or who are friendly or helpful, or have gone to church their whole life. This is connected to the next point.
Second, a commitment to Christ’s Church reflects our connection to Christ’s Church
Look at the entirety of verses 41: So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
As we see in this verse, saving faith led to immediate obedience. When it says that Peter’s listeners “received his word”, it doesn’t simply mean they heard it. It means they believed it was true and true for them. And this saving faith led to their first act of obedience: baptism.
Now, we’ve already discussed the term “added” and how verse 47 makes it clear that it was God who was adding to their number. It is that fact that brings us to what Paul told the Corinthians about baptism and being added: 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. (I Corinthians 12:12, 13)
Water baptism is simply a picture of what happens to us the moment we believe on Christ as our only hope. Not only are we forgiven, not only are we justified, not only are we born again, but we are born again into a new family. That’s how God “defines the relationship”! The moment we believe is the moment we join the Church (with a capital “C”); which is all believers everywhere, throughout all time.
But the primary way in which we live in the reality of the Church (captial “C”) is by joining ourselves to the local church (little “c”). The overwhelming majority of times the NT uses the word “church”, it is speaking of a local church in a particular city or town.
If you belong to Jesus Christ then you belong to His Church as well, and God wants us to live in light of that fact by living in commitment to the local church.
Third, a commitment to Christ’s Church connects us to God’s context for, obedience, growth, worship, and shepherding.
Look at verses 42 through the first half of 47: 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.
Now there is a lot going on in these six verses, and there is no way we could unpack everything at this point. But it is abundantly clear from this passage that for these newly saved, newly baptized, newly added Christians, the progress of God’s artistry on the canvas of their lives was going to be worked out within the frame of the local church.
The church is the only institution that God has established for the sake of His work in this world and His work in your life.
Christian conferences, Christian colleges, and Christian bookstores cannot accomplish this goal. Community Bible studies, para-church ministries, and Christian relief organizations cannot accomplish this goal. Christian websites, Christian television, Christian publishers, and Christian radio cannot accomplish this goal.
All of these have value, but they are not the local church.
Only in the local church do we find THE biblical context for using our spiritual gifts, for baptism, for the Lord's Supper, for fulfilling the “one anothers” of Scripture, for worship and outreach. It is local churches being addressed in the letter of the NT. When the Bible describes Christian life together, it is always describing the local church.
And this life as God’s flock takes place under the oversight of the Chief Shepherd, who chooses to use human shepherds to feed and lead the church, to protect and guide the church (just as we see the Apostles doing here in Acts 2).
I think the author of Hebrews had these leaders in mind when he encouraged his readers to, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” (Hebrews 13:17)
In what other context do all of these things come together?
Fourth, a commitment to Christ’s Church reveals true belonging to a world adrift.
Look at the final verse of this passage, Acts 2:47. Luke tells us here how the Jerusalem church was praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
When we commit ourselves to the local church in obedience to Jesus, in love for another, in humble submission and servanthood to God’s people and God’s leaders, we are also making a radical impact on the world. Commitment to the local church is the firm grip that holds on to the lamp of God’s love because we are revealing true belonging to a word adrift.
God’s greatest outreach tool is the church being the church. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.
In light of Acts 2 and in light of these four principles, I hope it is clear to you that commitment to the local church is a non-negotiable for anyone who calls himself or herself a follower of Jesus.
Why Formalize This Commitment?
But why formalize this commitment? Does Scripture explicitly command us to formally join a church? No it doesn’t. But it doesn’t have to.
Is it wrong for a church to pass out a bulletin (i.e. an order of service) on Sunday mornings? Of course not. Does the Bible explicitly command us to print up a bulletin? No. Or even to have a set order for worship? No. But it does every church to worship as a people, and to read the word publicly, and to sing, and to pray, and to teach, and to do all these “decently and in order”. (I Corinthians 14:40) The formalization we bring to these things is just a tool to help us to do what God’s word tells us to do in a more effective manner.
So again, why formalize this commitment? Formalizing this commitment is our chance to “define the relationship” for our everyday lives and for the watching world. It our chance to declare, “I am defining this relationship with the church according to how God has already defined this relationship.” We want to live in that reality!
Let me share six reasons why this is so important:
First, formalizing your commitment to the local church conveys the seriousness of both the relationship and the responsibilities.
We always formalize the most important things in life. Think about it: marriage, adoption, a college education, citizenship, and the list goes on. Even when certain responsibilities are important, we formalize the specifics of and the mastery of or fulfillment of those responsibilities, like with a loan or with vocational certification or licensing of a contractor. How much more serious are our responsibilities in the church?
Second, formalizing your commitment to the local church provides an opportunity for the church to clearly and systematically explain His plan for your place in our family.
Giving every potential church member a comprehensive understanding of what a local church believes and what the Bible teaches about their place in that church is a task that cannot be accomplished effectively in a Sunday morning sermon or by letter or pamphlet. There needs to be a more focused approach that is informative, interactive, and personal. That's why a formalized partnership or membership process is so helpful.
Even though we don't like taking the test ourselves, all of us appreciate that there is a formalized process when it comes to driving. We appreciate the fact that every person has to learn and know the rules that govern how we drive. When it comes to marriage, pre-marital counseling is another example of this same idea.
Another reason is that formalizing your commitment to the local church fosters genuine unity around a common confession and a shared vision.
The result of this kind of clear and systematic teaching should be a more unified church body. I remember a family that came to our church not long after we started and they that got very involved in a variety of ways. But 8 or 9 months later this same family was leaving because they had assumed that we believed the same way they did on a number of issues that were very important to them. But their assumptions were wrong.
It's important to that a local church be truly united around what God has revealed in His word, and it's important that you know what the leaders of that church believe. Yes, there are issues Christians can disagree on, but as a local church, we need to be in agreement when it comes to essential doctrines.
A formalized commitment process can help do that very thing.
Fourth, formalizing your commitment to the local church is an opportunity to communicate, not only your agreement, but your involvement with God’s work in and through us.
When it comes to defining the term “commitment” in regard to our church, we want people to know that even though we desire unity in terms of what we believe and in terms of our vision for ministry, we also believe God is calling people to “get in the game”. We're not interested in spectators who agree with us. We're not interested in bench warmers who agree with us. We believe God is calling “team players”, that He is calling us to be co-confessors and co-laborers, to unity in belief and ministry.
Ken Sande, founder of Peacemakers Ministry put it this way: The church should be less like a cruise ship and more like a battleship…it's time for churches to raise the bar, to focus on a serious mission, and ensure that every person aboard serves a vital function. (Ken Sande)
In his book “Stop Dating the Church”, Joshua Harris explains a common problem today. He writes that our attitude toward church tends to be me-centered. We go for what we can get—social interaction, programs, or activities. The driving question is, “What can church do for me?” (from Stop Dating the Church by Joshua Harris)
A formalized partnership process is a clear and effective way for a person to communicate to the church body and to the church's leadership, that they are committed to using their gifts for God's work in and through the local church.
Reason number five: formalizing your commitment to the local church enables the shepherd-leaders of the church to provide more effective oversight and care.
If God has placed human shepherds over his people, then how do we define the flock which shepherds like myself are called to feed and lead?
Is it every person who comes on three out of the four Sunday mornings each month? Maybe it’s only those who stay for the church lunches? Is it those whose names are found in the church directory? Maybe it’s those who are serving in some way? What about those who are sporadic attenders? What about those shopping for a church? How long do they have to come to be considered part of the flock?
Listen, if someone comes to this church and is a follower of Jesus Christ, then they are part of His flock and we will shepherd them in whatever way is appropriate. But when a person formally joins with a church, he or she is allowing God to use the shepherds leaders of this church to more effectively “watch over their soul” (as Hebrews 13 puts it) because they are saying formally, “I am a part of this flock. This is my church family.”
Finally, reason six:. formalizing your commitment to the local church provides you with a bond that protects you spiritually through accountability and discipline.
The critical importance of marriage as a formalized commitment is that it is intended to provide a covenant bond to protect the unity of the husband wife through the best of times and, maybe more importantly, through the worst of times.
In the same way, our commitment to the local church should not simply be a consumer commitment, one that can be easily discarded or redefined when times get tough.
No! As we’ve already seen, the most common image used to describe the church in the NT is the family. And all of us know that the bond of family is not simply discarded or redefined when times get tough. It is that bond that helps hold us accountable for our actions with other family members, that drives us to work things out in light of what is most important.
Are we committed to God's people in such a way that we eagerly desire the kind of biblical fellowship that will spur us on to love and good deeds (Hebrews 10), that would steer us in the right direction when we are veering, that would rebuke us if stubborn sin ever got a foothold in our life, that would rebuke us in grace and love and call us back to our Lord? That's the kind of fellowship I want...the kind I need. We all need that kind of bond.
My invitation to you, reader, is simply: join us. Join this church family. Formalize your commitment to the church, to the glory of God.
Maybe you’re hesitant as your read this because you don't know what your future holds. Listen again to how Pastor Joshua Harris addresses that feeling:
A common attitude toward the church is “I’m here…tentatively…at least for the immediate future…I think.” But this [attitude] keeps people from really experiencing church. It’s so much better for you and your church when you declare, “I’m here, all of me, and I trust God with my future. Christian martyr Jim Elliott once said, “Wherever you are, be all there. Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.” Adopt this mindset with your local church. Be all there with you heart." (from Stop Dating the Church by Joshua Harris)
Let me conclude with a quote from Donald Whitney. In this excerpt, he writes about an article he once read in which...a writer made an interesting observation about the hitchhiker. He wants a free ride. He assumes no responsibility for the money needed to buy the car, the gas to run it, or the cost of maintenance. He expects a comfortable ride and adequate safety. He assumes the driver has insurance covering him in case of an accident. He thinks little of asking the driver to take him to a certain place even though it may involve extra miles or inconvenience. Think about the "spiritual hitchhiker" who has settled all his major questions about the matters and has definitely decided where he wants to attend church, but now wants all the benefits and privileges of that church's ministry without taking any responsibility for it. His attitude is all take and no give. He wants no accountability, just a free ride. Church membership involves many responsibilities, but we must never lose sight of the great privilege that it really is. "We must grasp once again," said Martyn Lloyd-Jones of London in the mid-twentieth century, "the idea of church membership as being the membership of the body of Christ and as the biggest honour which can come a man's way in this world."
Wherever you are in regard to God’s people, whatever your perspective toward formalized commitment in the local church, I ask you simply to love what Jesus loves. Love His bride. Love the local church. I conclude by borrowing a line Paul uses in II Timothy 2:7...Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.