Well, it's New's Years Day, Happy New Year! It's that time when people make resolutions. They resolve to give up this or start doing that. I really don't like January at the gym, it can get really crowed, but I know from experience that in February things will be back to normal. At this time of year people are resolving to do all kinds of things. If you want to make a resolution that will really help you, resolve to read through the Bible this year. If you really want to change your life for the better, there is only one sure way to do it, and that is by the Word of God.
Sadly, today churches are moving away from the Bible and are being driven by fads. The dictionary defines a fad as: "a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal." This could just as well be a description of congregational life of many Christian churches today. There is a new book, a new program, or a new emphasis every year or so.
To name just a few of the church fads I have seen: "Spiritual Gift inventories, Spiritual Warfare, Promise Keepers, Weigh Down Workshop, The Prayer of Jabez, the Left Behind Series, Becoming a Contagious Christian," a long succession of evangelism and stewardship programs, and also, "The Purpose-Driven Life and 40 Days of Purpose." There are many Christians for whom this list is Christianity.
For decades the church-growth experts have told us that if we are to attract the unchurched, we must change the way we "do church." We must offer them new "settings and experiences." We must meet their perceived felt-needs. We must do away with biblical exposition and focus on stories. We must eliminate dogma and become relevant.
While the evangelical church has been chasing the ever changing fads and whims of our society, she has jettisoned her unique message. The Christian community has something to offer that no one else has: the truth as found in Jesus Christ and the Scriptures. Rather than running about trying to keep up with the world, we need to return to the one thing the world cannot give-truth.
In the infant days of the church, as outlined in the book of Acts, we find a newly regenerated people, with no money, no buildings, and no programs having an astounding impact on their world in a very short time. As the newly born church began, what was important to them? This morning I want us to look at a couple of churches in the Scripture and see what it was that was important to them. Let's start with the very first church in Jerusalem:
So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls. Acts 2:41 NASB
They were "added" to what? The implication is that they were added to the Church. As these new believers took their places as new members of the emerging Church, the pattern of organization of the believing community began gradually to take shape. Its form was very simple, but its features have remained as characteristics of the body of Christ:
And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Acts 2:42 NASB
The infant church, the New Israel, now met regularly together, and we learn here of their activities in summarized form. The word "devoting" is the Greek word proskartereo. It first meant: "to be strong towards, to endure in, persevere in." It came to mean: "adhere to, persist in, to continue to do something with intense effort," with the possible implication of: "despite difficulty." It points to constancy, purpose, or resolve. Out of ten uses of the verb and one use of the noun in the New Testament, six are connected with prayer and two with the ministry of the Word.
They diligently observed two things: the apostles' doctrine, which was the New Testament Scripture, and fellowship, which consisted of breaking of bread and prayer.
The Church of Jesus Christ was now alive, and the first thing that marked it was subjection to the Spirit's teaching through the apostles. Having responded to Christ, they were eager to learn about Him from the apostles, and to learn more about the significance of His death and resurrection. Additionally, they would seek to gain an understanding of the Christian application of the First Testament, for that was their "Bible."
In our language today we would say they were continually devoted to the study of the Scriptures, to understand what God has defined as truth. There were three thousand new believers, and the apostles didn't start a new member's class, they didn't have: "Christianity for Dummies"; they studied doctrine.
One of the things that must define us as a believing community is a commitment to truth. This makes us counter culture, because we live in a culture that doesn't embrace truth; it doesn't believe in truth; it doesn't believe in absolutes. It has bought into this ridiculous notion of relativity--which says there is no truth, there are no absolutes; the truth is whatever you need it to be, so create and manipulate your own truth to suit your own means. But we believe in an absolute God, therefore, we believe in absolute truth.
It is very important that we understand that each of us must be passionately pursuing truth through a study of the Scriptures. George Barna, the data gathering guru of the information age, made the statement, "Christianity is so shallow there's no depth to build on."
The whole issue of truth and knowing truth demands that we engage our minds. Paul put it like this to the Ephesian believers:
But you did not learn Christ in this way, 21 if indeed you have heard Him and have been taught in Him, just as truth is in Jesus, Ephesians 4:20-21 NASB
Notice how he uses words that imply the use of the mental faculties in understanding Christian truth: "learn," "heard," "taught," and "truth."
There is a great aversion to doctrine in our day. People are afraid of doctrine. But understanding Christian doctrine is essential to knowing God, delighting in Him, and obeying Him. This passage, like others in Acts (19:9-10; 20:31,32) and the Epistles (2 Timothy 4:2), emphasizes the priority of a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of apostolic doctrine. This alone provides a solid foundation for healthy spiritual growth. Christians who fail to lay this foundation are vulnerable to spiritual error.
John MacArthur writes, "A believer should count it a wasted day when he does not learn something new from, or is not more deeply enriched, by the truth of God's Word....Scripture is food for the believer's growth and power--and there is no other." (MacArthur's NT Commentary, p. 83)
They were not only committed to the apostles' doctrine, but to FELLOWSHIP:
The Greek word used here is "koinonia". It's a favorite word with Paul. This is the only time Luke uses it. The word literally means: "to share in common with." We use the word "community," which is actually a very good translation of the Greek word. It means that we share life together, that we share this Spirit and this life in common as the people of God, that we understand we need each other.
Christianity is relational. We begin by having a relationship with Yahweh. Then we are immediately brought into relationship with other believers, which is known as the Church.
To truly dwell in community means that rather than living in individualism and isolation, we are in this together. Think about the analogy of the body that's used many times in the New Testament. The whole idea of the body is that none of the pieces function until they're a part of the whole. It's only when we're together that we actually function and accomplish the mission. The New Testament has no concept of a believer isolated out there all by himself or herself.
There are a multitude of areas which we can and must be involved in fellow-shipping with one another. These are the so-called "one another" passages of the New Testament: We are to love one another...forgive each other...be kind to one another...accept one another...encourage one another...admonish one another...do good to one another...stimulate one another to love and good deeds...bear one another's burdens.
We need each other. Fellowship is simply the meeting of one another's needs in the body. It is our partnering together to help each other live out the demands of the Christian life. It is the relationship of rejoicing with one another, weeping with one another, lifting up the fallen, coming to one another's aid, giving to one another, and sharing with one another out of the abundance of what the Lord is teaching us. It is the crux of Christian communication--one brother sharing with another brother the things of God and vice versa.
This fellowship is said to consist of two things: 1) BREAKING OF BREAD
There's quite a bit of discussion about whether breaking of the bread refers to Communion or just eating meals together. When you study the first-century church, one of the things you find out is it's hard to separate the two. Communion almost always, almost exclusively, rolled out of a common meal together. So in many ways it may be referring to both. It's hard to separate them out.
One thing worth noting in verse 42 is that Luke uses the definite article, "the breaking of the bread." The use of the definite article in the Greek before "breaking of bread" implies that it was not simply a meal, but a distinct act of worship that had been set apart in the early Church. It was "the" breaking of the bread.
The early Church met on the first day of the week and they observed the ordinance of the Lord's Supper when they met. We know from extra-biblical writings, such as the writings of Pliney, Justin Martyr, the Didache and other first and second century writings, that the early Church began to meet together on the first day of the week to keep the ordinance, the bread and juice.
The Lord's Supper should remind us of the greatest truth in the world, that the Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me, so that I could be forgiven and reconciled to God!
This fellowship also consisted of: 2) PRAYER:
As Jews they were familiar with daily prayers and would continue to use them, gradually giving them a more Christian slant. In all that they did they remembered God and were faithful in praying, and giving thanks, and rejoicing.
The coming together in Jerusalem to worship was to be a sign of the new age:
"And it shall be from new moon to new moon And from sabbath to sabbath, All mankind will come to bow down before Me," says the LORD. Isaiah 66:23 NASB
Luke says they, "were continually devoting themselves to... prayer." Paul uses the same word for prayer in:
rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, Romans 12:12 NASB
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, Ephesians 6:18 NASB
What does this mean? It means that disciples of Christ are to pray often and to pray regularly. Prayer is not to be infrequent, and prayer is not to be hit and miss. Being "devoted to" prayer means that we are not haphazard, and we are not forgetful. It means we take steps to see that it is part of our regular life, the same way eating and sleeping are.
Prayer is vital to a believer's spiritual health. Prayer is a life priority. It connects me with God and it connects me with God's provision for my life. Prayer declares our dependance upon God. Listen to what John MacArthur writes, "I mean, you know, prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscles of omnipotence and if you can get enough people praying then you're going to activate God's power." Does that sound right to you? Prayer moves God? The more you get praying the better you chances? This is not what prayer is about.
They were a praying people because they were desperate, because they were needy. They were dependent upon Christ. We live in a culture of self-sufficiency: We'll be our own gods, thank you very much, and we'll take care of our own needs. But prayer is our recognition that: we are not adequate, we're not sufficient, we need help. Therefore, I'm not praying because I'm going to get God to do what I want. I'm praying because I'm desperate, and I need Christ.
So the first members of the Church spent their time studying doctrine, fellow-shipping, worshiping, and praying together. I think that this should still be what the Church is doing. This is the very first activity of the Church and it should still be the activity of the Church.
What a beautiful picture we have here of the first church. Here we see that the Holy Spirit established certain practices which lay the foundation for churches throughout the centuries. We cannot duplicate the Jerusalem Church, but we can seek to pattern our practices after the example they set.
Let's move on to another church that hopefully you are all familiar with. On Paul's second missionary journey, which is recorded in five chapters in the middle of the book of Acts, he has crossed the Aegean Sea to Philippi, where he preached the Gospel, was beaten and imprisoned, and founded a church. He is then run out of Philippi and goes to Thessalonica where he goes into the synagogue, preaches the Gospel, and establishes a church there. As usual, the Jews cause a riot. So the believers send Paul away by night:
And the brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea; and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Acts 17:10 NASB
Paul and his company proceeded overland southwest from Thessalonica for a distance of about fifty miles to the small city of Berea. The picture Luke paints of this Jewish community at Berea is one that depicts Judaism at its best, the way God intended for His people to be:
Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so. Acts 17:11 NASB
Luke seems to want us to view Berea in contrast to Thessalonica; one contrast is to be seen in the way they responded to the Word of God. The word "noble-minded" comes from the Greek eugeneis from which we get our English word "eugenics." The Greek word means: "well born or high born." In Luke 19:12 the word is translated "nobleman." In Greek and biblical understanding, to be eugenos primarily was to be "of noble birth," but it can also refer to noble character. It is clearly used in the latter sense in our verse.
It is in contrast to the Thessalonians that verse 11 praises the noble character of the Bereans. The virtue of the Bereans was the opposite of the vice of the Thessalonians in that the Bereans "received the word with great eagerness," unlike some of the Jews at Thessalonica, the Bereans did not doubt or resist the Gospel message, and they did not persecute the preachers or give them a hard time. The Bereans were noble in character because they were teachable and receptive to the Gospel.
The noble-minded Jews of Berea were looking for Messiah and did not need to be convinced of anything other than the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah. These Jews "received the word with great eagerness." They obviously loved the Word of God and sought to live by it. It was a maxim among the Jews, that "none was of a noble spirit who did not employ himself in the study of the law." Paul seemed to have to work hard to convince any Jews in Thessalonica. Luke speaks of Paul's ministry there as "reasoning," "explaining," and "giving evidence," and those who believed as having been "persuaded." The same effort is not required at Berea.
The Greek word translated "received" means: "to receive by deliberate and ready acceptance of what is offered." W. E. Vine says the word in this context connotes: "favorable reception of testimony and teaching" (p. 927). They thought about the word, meditated on it, and openly embraced the truth of God's Word. Luke writes, "...received the Word 'with great eagerness.'"
Receiving the Word then and now means a willingness and an eagerness to hear what God says on any topic. We see this same word used in:
Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. James 1:21 NASB
This verse gives us the theme of the book of James. The phrase "save your souls" is the Greek phrase "sozen ten psuche," which is a standard and normal way of saying, "to save your life." There is no text in the Greek Bible where it can be shown to have the meaning: "to save the soul from damnation."
James has been talking about the death dealing consequences of sin:
Let no one say when he is tempted, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. James 1:13-15 NASB
I don't think that this is referring to spiritual death, because that is a result of the fall. I think it is best to see this here as referring to physical death. In 1:21 he suggests that the antidote to that kind of consequence is the life saving capacity of God's Word. Remember, James is a Jewish Epistle and in the First Testament the theme is frequently repeated, "Righteousness leads to life."
Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. 22 But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. James 1:21-22 NASB
James is saying here that they will be saved from the destruction that sin brings if they are doers of the Word. And it all starts by "receiving" the Word.
Although the Bereans were eager to hear from God, they were not at all foolish or gullible people. Their attitude was, "What you are saying makes sense, but let us also see it from the Scriptures."
I want you to pretend for a moment that you are a first-century Berean Jew. Now suppose one Saturday a stranger comes into your synagogue and addresses the congregation. He says that his name is Paul, and he brings you the exciting news that the long-awaited Messiah has finally come! No, he didn't actually restore the kingdom to Israel, as expected. In fact He was murdered a few decades ago by the Romans. But, Paul says that this is exactly what was supposed to happen to the Messiah, and he seems to prove it from Scripture. So now what do you do? If you are of noble character, you begin to search the Scriptures yourself to see if what Paul said is true.
Luke tells us that these Jews at Berea were, "Examining the Scriptures daily, to see whether these things were so." The word "examining" comes from the Greek anakrino, and means: "to investigate." The word is used in the New Testament of judicial investigations. We see an example of this in:
And Pilate summoned the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14
and said to them, "You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. Luke 23:13-14 NASB
The Scriptures, which the Bereans were investigating so diligently, were the Hebrew Scriptures, the First Testament. Paul's preaching about Jesus had to harmonize with the predictions of the First Testament prophets. The Bereans wanted to make sure that what Paul was preaching was indeed the truth of God's word. So they examined the Scriptures daily. We all need to be following the example of the Bereans and search the Scriptures daily.
Think about this: the Bereans were taught by the most famous apostle and theologian of the early church, and the human author of at least 13 New Testament books. They may have heard about him casting the demon out of the slave girl, and the prison being destroyed as they sang praises to God. Yet, they searched the Scriptures when Paul taught, to see if his teaching was truly biblical! They would not accept Paul's word at face value, but wanted to know if these things were so. When they heard Paul teach, their settled reaction wasn't, "This guy has lost his mind." It wasn't, "This is a heretical doctrine, a suffering Messiah." Instead, the Bereans wanted to know, "Are these things so? Is this man teaching us the truth? Let's search the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things are so."
Was it right for the Bereans to check up on Paul? R.B. Theme, a preacher out of Texas, said, "The Bereans were jackasses, they had no business checking up on the preacher." Why would he say that? Were the Bereans out of line to go to the Scripture to check up on the message that Paul was preaching? No, they were not. Why did Theme say this about the Bereans? He said it because he wanted his people to blindly believe whatever he said. It was a form of psychological manipulation.
Notice that the Bereans response to this strange teaching was to examine the Scriptures. It doesn't say they asked their rabbi, or discussed it with their friend who is an expert on the Messiah. They went to the Bible, which is the only inspired document there is. They searched the Scriptures, i.e. of the First Testament, to see whether these thing were so; to see whether the promises and types corresponded with the alleged fulfilment in the person, works, and sufferings of Jesus Christ.
We do not know that a man's teaching is correct just because he is on the radio or television, or because of where and how much he has studied, or any other factor, until he has spoken, and we have examined the Scriptures for ourselves to see if his teaching squares with the Word of God as a whole.
It is the Scripture, and Scripture alone, that is the final judge of all teaching. This is the principle taught by the reformers as "Sola Scriptura." This is the idea that the Scriptures are the only authority for sinful man in seeking truth about God. "Sola Scriptura" is foundational to Christianity. In the words of reformer Martin Luther, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura means: "What is asserted without the Scriptures or proven revelation may be held as an opinion, but need not be believed."
One of the major differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestants pertains to their views of Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church has believed and taught for centuries that only the Pope and other Scripture specialists can reliably interpret the Bible. Such an attitude led the Catholic Church to restrict the Bible's access to common people--including the so-called "lay members" of their own fellowship. For example, Martin Luther was trained as a Catholic priest, but had never seen a complete copy of the Bible until he had earned a doctorate and was teaching at the University of Wittenberg. When he discovered a copy of the whole Bible in the university library, he was enthralled and declared: "If I could have a Bible for my own, I would desire no other earthly treasure."
The Bibles in early Catholicism were in Latin--a language the common man could not read. Luther brought down on his head the wrath of the powerful and politically motivated Catholic Church by translating the Bible into German. Some men, such as, John Wycliffe, who wanted the Bible in the language of their own people--whether German, English, Dutch, or French--had to pay with their lives for translating or attempting to translate God's word.
The Bereans were characterized by a great confidence in the Word of God, as God's authoritative source of revelation and as the standard by which all teaching and conduct should be appraised. In fact, there are a lot of Christians who call themselves Bereans, because they like to identify with these noble folks. This is why we named this Church "Berean Bible Church," we wanted this church to be known for its diligent, daily searching of the Scriptures. We all need to seek to be Bereans in our handling of the Word of God. Let us ask God to give us the love and eagerness to study God's Word and to test the teachings of all men.
Sadly, in our day, not many believers have the Berean spirit. George Gallup says that the majority that profess Christianity don't know basic teachings and don't act differently because of their Christian experience.
Most Christians today don't know their Bibles, they don't examine them daily or even weekly. They hear things taught, and they believe them or reject them without ever searching the Scriptures.
Believers, if we are going to know the God of the Bible, we must read the Bible. We have to spend time in it to learn of our God. Don't believe everything that you hear, examine the Scripture.
Have you ever wondered why Paul wrote letters to certain places, and why he didn't write letters to other places? You never hear another word about Berea in the Bible, but you hear a lot about Thessalonica. Why did Paul write no letter to Berea? I don't really know. No one really knows. But let me suggest to you a possibility. When a church is busy studying the Word of God, and examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things are so, psychiatrists will move to other towns. Psychologists with biblical backgrounds will go to other parts of the city; for they will not be able to support themselves by those who come from that particular congregation.
This text challenges us all to be "Bereans." The noble-mindedness of the Berean Jews is surely set before us an ideal as a goal for every Christian. And remember the Christians in Berea only had the First Testament. We, on the other hand, have the whole Bible. What are we doing with it?
There are few greater privileges than to have the Bible in one's own language. Over 450 years ago Erasmus expressed a hope that some day the farmer, as he followed the plough, and the weaver, as he sat at the loom, would cheer themselves with the message of Scripture. The thought burned in the heart of William Tyndale who longed to give English-speaking people the Bible in their own tongue.
Today more than half the languages of the world have no portion of Scripture at all. This includes about 150 million people. To have the Scriptures in our own language with a ready access to them and complete freedom to study them--these are great privileges.
The Bible is a revelation of what God in Christ has done, what He promises and what He requires. The Christian's great passion is to know the mind of Christ, to understand His Person and His will for His disciples. If I am passionately concerned to know Jesus, where else can I go? "Search the Scriptures," Jesus tells me, for there alone is the authoritative revelation of what God in Christ is and what His demands are upon me.
I think that we all need to have a plan for our daily Bible reading. If you have a plan to guide you, then you will make progress. If you don't have a plan, you will never read the Bible. You may read parts, but never the whole Book, and you will never gain that familiarity with it which is so necessary if you are to benefit from the fulness of its message.
Samuel Annesley, John Wesley's grandfather, at the age of five or six began to read twenty chapters a day and continued that throughout his life. Arthur Pink wrote to a friend: "In my early years . . . I read through the entire Bible three times a year (that would be eight chapters in the Old Testament and two in the New Testament daily). I steadily persevered in this for ten years in order to familiarize myself with its contents, which can only be done by consecutive reading." ("Letters of A. W. Pink," p.23; Banner of Truth). Few Christians today have the stamina for such a scheme.
The chief aim of studying the Scriptures is not the amount read or even the reading itself. The aim is to know God. There are many precious things we will never see unless we read the Word of God in large chunks. We would never read fifteen lines of any other piece of literature and then set it aside, believing that we had thus satisfied the author's original intentions. To see the whole massive movement of biblical thought, the Scriptures need to be read frequently and from Genesis to Revelation. The Christian must be content with nothing less. He will not understand the individual verses unless he has the framework of knowledge, which a larger acquaintance with Scripture provides. The more he reads, the more comprehensible the Bible becomes.
Everybody wants a shortcut to Bible knowledge. They want a gimmick. They want a formula. They want three easy lessons to master the Bible. There is no shortcut. It takes time and work to understand the Scriptures.
It cost a lot of blood, sweat, and tears for you to have your Bible. Many of those who wrote it gave their lives to say what they had to say. Those who have preserved it in history went to extraordinary efforts, copying it meticulously, preserving it, saving it, defending it, loving it, in order for it to last century after century under attack.
Now that Bibles are readily available and very inexpensive, what are we doing with our Bibles? What are we doing with the great freedom we have to read and to study the Bible? The Scriptures are sufficient for us, for our salvation, and for our Christian life. May God help us to realize that and to do what those Bereans did, examine them daily.
We should have the attitude that Job had:
"I have not departed from the command of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my necessary food. Job 23:12 NASB
I think this is why Job did such a great job dealing with the tremendous trials he faced, he loved God's Word.
The twenty first century Christian community in America is a starving, illiterate people. Believers are living lives of frustration and discontent. The only cure is for God's people to take the study and application of His Word seriously. After all God has done for you, is it too much to ask that you spend a time each day reading and studying His Word?