Bible Study

New Study commences Sunday 9th January 2022

Becoming A Church

Introduction

The Book of Acts gives us a fascinating insight into the life, fellowship, and worship of the early church, as it developed post-Pentecost. The six verses that form the backbone of this study are very familiar, often referred to as ‘Holy Habits’, and are always worth spending a little time with, as they speak to us about our own ‘habits’ and how they might change, or adapt, to the greater benefit of God’s call on us to share our faith and make disciples ‘of every nation’.

Acts 2:42-47 42
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favour of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Commencing Sunday 9th January 2022

Becoming A Church

Study 1 - Learning and Growing Together

Acts 2 42
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship…

The word translated as ‘devoted’ infers single mindedness in a course of action. Here it is about concentrating minds on the teaching of the apostles because this is a message about Jesus taught by people with authority, having walked with Jesus, heard his voice, learned from him, felt his touch and the warmth of his friendship. The fledgling church would hear about parables Jesus told, people healed, opposition dealt with, the horror of the cross, the triumph of the Resurrection, and what this meant for the emerging church.

 That Luke mentions ‘fellowship’ in such a way would show that this was a distinctive part of their collective experience, and with over three thousand responding to the message of Peter and the other apostles in those early days, this rapidly expanding community of believers would create quite an impression on the local population.

The word koinonia, uses by Luke for ‘fellowship’ is a favourite word of Paul, and it denotes a real intimacy within the fellowship, as seen by Paul’s use of the word to describe ‘the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Corinthians 13:14).

This was a worshipping community that continued to attend the synagogue and observe the Jewish rites and customs, whilst holding to the centrality of Jesus of Nazareth in God’s redemptive plans. Their proclamation of Jesus, as Israel’s promised Messiah, would certainly have set them apart within Jerusalem.

Question

  1. What does the word ‘fellowship’ mean to you?

 

Teaching and Learning
Read 2 Timothy 4:1b-3; 1Thessalonians 1:2-7

The importance of sound teaching comes across in Paul’s closing words to his ‘true son in the faith’ (1 Tim 1:2) and faithful helper. He entrusts Timothy with ensuring that the message preached and taught in Ephesus is true to its source, even when faced with fierce opposition from within the church leadership, and if that involves both rebuking some and encouraging others, then so be it.

Paul knows from experience that when demands are great, people will look elsewhere for a ‘comfortable’ message more suiting their own desires and lifestyles, a real problem in Ephesus when he wrote this letter. Paul writes whilst in prison and facing an uncertain future, but knows he has a willing and reliable helper in Timothy.

The importance of sound teaching had also been an issue in Thessalonica, where Paul, with Silas, and Timothy had established the church. Sometime later, Paul, worried that the believers there were in danger of falling away, sent Timothy back to encourage them.

In this letter Paul writes of his joy in hearing that their faith has stood firm despite trials and challenges, and they are patterning their lives on the example of Paul and his companions, in the same way that he patterned his own life on that of Christ.

Some questions

  1. Teaching and learning was important for a growing church. Do you rely solely on a Sunday sermon for this, or have you some ways of engaging with Scripture outside of church?
  2. How does your faith support you when times are hard?
  3. How much has the example of others influenced the development of your own faith?

 

A Life of Fellowship
Read Hebrews 10:19-25, 13:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-15

We’ve already established that Paul was eager that the Word being proclaimed in the church should be true to its roots, and in Hebrews, the writer picks up the same theme, emphasising the priesthood of Christ. Here, he encourages believers to embrace the truth of the Good News shared with them, not only in minds but also in lives, and to take advantage of the privilege of drawing near to God, so graphically offered in the tearing in two of the temple curtain; as Jesus died on the Cross.

They should worship together, enjoy fellowship, love each other as brothers and sister in the faith, meet regularly, encourage hospitality, care for those in need, and put their faith into action as they look toward the day when Christ will return in glory. This was a crucial message for readers who were seeking something a little less challenging, a more comfortable life in the here and now.

It was not just the ordinary members who needed encouraging, but also the elders among them, and Paul had words for them in his letter to Thessalonica. He asks the fellowship to be gentle with their elders and show respect, as their work could be demanding. Paul also encourages everyone to play their part in the life and growth of the fellowship, showing patience, encouraging those who are struggling, helping the weak, and striving always to do that which will build up the fellowship.

Some questions

  1. How important is meeting together in fellowship, and what we can lose by missing out on this part of church life?
  2. What activity would you like to do as a group that is not currently part of the life of your church?
  3. How can a church fellowship best support those who are in positions of leadership?

Living in Harmony
Read Philippians 2:1-4, Ephesians 4:2-5, Colossians 3:12-14

Engaging in worship and fellowship is important, but as any group of believers get to know each other, there are points at which personalities, ambitions, and opinions can clash, and this was as much of an issue in the early church as it is now. Paul talks of being ‘like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.’

Addressing the believers in Philippi, he lists four incentives, based upon their spiritual relationship with Christ, preceded by the word ‘if’ but assumed to be true. If their hearts are in the right place with their Saviour, then it should show in their relationships with each other.

The harmony that Paul longs to see comes from a humility that recognises the true value of all people, and looks not to their own interests and ambitions, but to the interests of others, a radical message for any age. He stresses this in his letter to the fellowship in Ephesus, naming four qualities desirable in a Christian community: humility, gentleness, patience, and love. Writing to the Colossians, he adds compassion and kindness to the list, alongside a willingness to forgive.

Some questions

  1. Do we see enough humility shown today, and if not, then why?
  2. How easy is it to achieve that ‘like-mindedness’ that Paul talks of within a church fellowship, and what can we do to encourage this quality?
  3. If you are visiting a church whilst on holiday, what do you look for in the building and fellowship?

 

Pause for thought
Spend a few minutes through the week thinking and praying about your own experience of fellowship and what it means to you.

 

Prayer

Teach us, Servant King what it is to serve; to be your hands, feet and voices in an unbelieving world. Teach us, Servant King what it is to give not counting cost and see the signs of selfless love unfurled. Amen

We give thanks for the many saints who have walked the path we take and known the joy of your company, listened to your encouraging words, stumbled occasionally, and fallen, felt the blows of adversity, and yet found, within your Spirit, strength to carry on, knowing that nothing can separate us from your love. For all who have, and are, walking this path of pilgrimage with you and in the company of others we offer this, our grateful thanks. Amen

Study 2 - Breaking Bread Together and Prayer

Key verse
They devoted themselves… to the breaking of bread and to prayer. (Part of Acts 2 verse 42)

We can understand the reference to ‘breaking of bread’ in several ways. There was a Jewish custom of pronouncing the blessing and breaking and distribution of bread at the commencement of a meal. There were also daily fellowship meals which developed into the Agape or love feast, a custom developed in the early church as a time of fellowship, and where the Eucharist was often a part (until around 250 AD, when they became separate celebrations.)

Writing in 1815, the author Jonathan Crowther describes the function of the Agape meal as, ‘seeking to strengthen the bonds and the spirit of harmony, goodwill, and congeniality, as well as to forgive past disputes and instead love one another.’

Luke would know that the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and fellowship meals were part of the life of the early churches, so his specific mention of breaking bread may signify the Lord’s Supper, particularly as in verse 42 three other features – teaching, fellowship, and prayer – may also be spiritual activities.

Question
Is the Agape, or fellowship meal, something that could be a beneficial part of your own fellowship, and what form could it take?

 

Breaking Bread Together
Read Mark 14:22-26, 1 Corinthians 10:15-17

While the disciples were together with Jesus for this Passover meal, Jesus takes the unleavened bread, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples with the words, ‘This is my body.’ The significance of Jesus’s action was both in the breaking (his body broken on the Cross) and the distribution of the bread, symbolising the promise of his abiding presence, to be remembered as this act became an essential component of their fellowship in the developing church.

Jesus shares the third cup of the Passover meal, giving thanks (the verb is ‘eucharisteo’ from which comes our word ‘Eucharist’). The cup symbolises the sacrificial offering of his life, and his use of the word ‘covenant’ emphasises the relationship between God and all who acknowledge that sacrifice in their hearts and lives. This, says Jesus, is the last Passover meal he will share with them until the kingdom of God is revealed in all its glory.

Paul has been chastising believers for participating in pagan temple festivals, which he considers a dangerous practice, and points them to the spiritual reasons for sharing the bread and wine of the Last Supper. This participation in drinking from the cup and eating the bread shows a continuation of the desire of Jesus, that his disciples would remember his sacrificial offering in this symbolic meal.

Some questions

  1. Denominations use a variety of liturgies for the Eucharist, but what does the celebration mean to you as an individual?
  2. Can any meal become a part of our faith experience?
  3. Should a celebration of the Eucharist be a more regular part of our worship?

The Importance of Prayer
Read Acts 17:27-28, Matthew 6:5-13

Acts 17 has Paul engaging with teachers and philosophers in Athens regarding the large number of religious sculptures and other objects of worship in the city. He argues that the four walls of a temple cannot constrain the God who created this world. God gives life and breath to everything and provides for the needs of all people, hoping that they might reach out and find him, ‘though he is not far away from any of us.’ Our prayer is very much a part of this ‘reaching out’ and embracing the relationship that exists between believers and God.

Jesus gives his disciples what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Within Matthew’s Gospel, it follows instruction about the act of praying. Jesus assumes his disciples pray regularly, but it’s not the location or action that is important, more the motive. He uses the example of those seen and heard on street corners or standing in the synagogue. Their reward comes from the admiration of others.

Jesus’s message is that those who pray more in public than private, uttering long, repetitive, and often confusing prayers are more interested in human approval, but God understands our needs, and the language of our hearts, however articulate or not we are, is sufficient.

The framework of the Lord’s Prayer reflects their own fellowship as it begins ‘Our Father…’. The prayer does not start with self but with God, acknowledging his sovereignty and power in heaven and earth, and looking toward the fulfilment of God’s kingdom on earth. Only then it turns to the needs of believers for their daily provision, and a need for forgiveness, guidance, and protection in the daily journey of faith.

Some questions

  1. Can we be guilty of trying to constrain God to the four walls of our worship space, be it cathedral, church, chapel, or community building, and how can we avoid that happening?
  2. Why is the Lord’s prayer such a part of our worship today?
  3. Do you use a contemporary or traditional version of the Lord’s Prayer, and does it matter?

Praying together
Read James 5:13-16, Acts 12:11-14

Prayer can be both a personal conversation with God and a gathered offering where, with the friendship and security of the fellowship, individuals can share their own needs for prayer and concerns for others known to them.

Within a loving fellowship, says James, we can have the freedom to share joys, sorrows, and sins, and receive the prayerful support of those gathered. This time of prayer can involve songs of praise, anointing with oil and the laying on of hands.

Confessing sins to each other might refer to members of the fellowship who have fallen out, with the mutual confession bringing an opportunity of healing to both parties.

We can glimpse the power of prayer in the passage from Acts with Peter miraculously released from his prison cell. His first thought is to go straight to the home of Mary, the mother of John, one of the early meeting places meeting places of the church and presumably a substantial building, where Peter finds a room full of people in prayer.

We can see that he was the centre of their thoughts and prayers by the behaviour of the servant Rhoda, who is so excited at hearing his voice outside that she forgets to let him in before dashing to tell the others!

Some questions

  1. How easy is it to share your own need of prayer within the wider fellowship, and could the church do anything to help?
  2. Have you had your own ‘Rhoda’ experience, with the shock of an answered prayer?
  3. How much time does your fellowship spend together in prayer, and is it enough to experience the benefits that James talks about?

 

Pause for thought

Take a few minutes in the week thinking about that act of breaking and sharing bread, and what it means to your faith.

Bread of Life, you feed us through word. The bread we share a remembrance of your presence with us. Strengthen us for service, that seeds we sow in fertile places might grow and flourish, that food we share in fellowship might nourish and revive, that words we share in our daily walk might glorify your name. Bread of Life, you feed us through word and sacrament that we might feed others. Blessed be your name!

When the journey is long and we hunger and thirst, Bread of Life, you sustain us. When the road is hard and our bodies weak Bread of Life, you heal us. When our spirits are low and we can’t carry on Bread of Life, you revive us. When we offer our hand in love and in service Bread of life, you bless us. When the challenge is great and the workers are few Bread of Life, you empower us. When the victory is won and we see your face Bread of Life, you will rejoice with us!