Church – its functions

The beginning of the New Testament church is to be found in the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible.
On the page titled “Church – Composition”, you can read how the church is formed and who composes it.
This page concerns what the church should do.
In verse 42 of chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles we read of the 4 essential activities of the early church:
And they continued steadfastly in
  1. the apostles doctrine and
  2. fellowship, and
  3. in the breaking of bread, and
  4. in prayers.
There is no mention here of a liturgy or of elaborate ritual. There is no mention of keeping to a calendar of events. There is no mention either of importing the musical or instrumental fashions of the world into church meetings or practice.
In fact there is no mention of any of these religious additions anywhere in the New Testament
So let’s consider these 4 activities of the church:
  1. The Apostles Doctrine
The documents which comprise the Old Testament of the Bible were the only holy writings available to the church in its earliest years. There was no New Testament.
The recognised New Testament collection of documents [or Canon]  came later, being established by general recognition and usage over time. It was not until the late 4th century that we see the emergence of a defined and enduring ‘canon’ of the new faith.
The documents of that canon were only just beginning to be written in the first century by such as the apostle Paul. He and others wrote to various churches
  • to correct error and
  • to give authoritative teaching
Now, the Old Testament certainly contains the gospel message.
But it needed Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit inspired apostles to interpret and to explain the meaning of those ancient scriptures for the New Testament (or Covenant). This was critical because Jesus came to establish a New Covenant or Testament in place of the Old Testament – the Old Covenant.
Today we have the doctrine of the Christian faith – the teaching of Christ and his apostles – recorded for us in the New Testament of the Bible. So that is where we go to understand the teachings of the Christian faith.
We have no need of  apostles today, and God does not equip any person as such; if he did, then they would simply confirm what the first apostles taught – they could hardly been seen to change it.
Any man or woman today – or indeed any one since Biblical times – claiming any type of further or different revelation from what we have recorded by Jesus and his apostles in the New Testament is therefore a false teacher.
The Holy Spirit is unchanging and eternal – He can hardly inspire one final message 2000 years ago and then change it later.
The very first Christians, of course, needed the special ministry of the apostles to provide the teaching in  the first place.
But today we have the apostles doctrine – the essential and complete teaching of the Christian faith – in the 27 documents which comprise the New Testament of the Bible.
Those New Testament scriptures or ‘writings’ comprise
  • the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John recording the life, death, resurrection and ministry of Jesus Christ
  • the Acts of the Apostles – the history of the ministry of the apostles [special messengers] in the early church
  • the 14 letters written by the apostle Paul – known as the Pauline epistles – Romans to Hebrews inclusively
  • the 7 letters written by James, Peter, John and Jude
  • the book of Revelation [or Apocalypse] recorded by John
The true and faithful servant [minister] called by God to minister authoritatively for Jesus Christ will always point to God and to the ministry and vital relevance of Jesus Christ by faithfully explaining and teaching the New Testament record.
They will not exalt themselves or other men and women, nor put any ecclesiastical organisation or position above the vital message of Jesus Christ.
Such servants may, or may not,  be found in a formal position in a formal church setting.
2. Fellowship
Associating together is one of the 4 essential activities of the Church.
Why ?
There are three fundamental and vital reasons.
One is that believers should have their most meaningful friendships among other believers in order to have the positive and encouraging influence of others with the Holy Spirit and the teaching of the apostles in their daily lives.
The company we keep is vital to us as human beings. We all need the love and support of others. We are human. It is essential that we associate with those who will encourage a constructive lifestyle. In so doing we are eschewing the company of those who may harm our spiritual life.
Let me make one important caveat here.
It is vital not to forsake the company of non-believers altogether. The apostles clearly teach this. Christian fellowship is not meant to be cultic,  living exclusively among those of the same mind, and becoming incestuously involved.  The apostles teach that we are in the world but not of it: we take a different view – a view which forsakes and keeps away from fleshly excesses such as drunkenness and late night partying.
A second reason is that every believer is spiritually gifted, and that gifting is for the benefit of the body of Christ, ie other believers associating for the life and work of the church. This particular gifting is not always properly understood or encouraged.
It needs to be.
A third reason is this. In associating with others [as opposed to refusing to associate with others] we are going to be personally challenged to live our lives as Christ taught – in love and forgiveness.
This is a fundamental issue. It goes to the heart of the faith because our faith is about death to self and living in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ.
Our personal relationships – both with other believers and with un-believers will be a means of challenging us to live godly lives, showing the love and grace of God.
This process of dying to self in order to live instead in the resurrection power of Jesus Christ is the underlying theme in these 4 essential activities of the church: it is central in the teaching of the apostles, central to fellowship, central to the commemoration of the cross in the breaking of bread, and central to prayer.
3. The breaking of bread
The breaking of bread is often called by other terms such as Communion or even Eucharist. It is one of the two explicit ritualistic type actions Jesus told Christians to do. The other is water baptism when a person has come to faith in Christ.
Each is called a sacrament. This means that when a person consciously obeys the command to do them, that person  receives a special grace from God – God actually imparts his life and presence to them.
Baptism in water is a one time action after a person has come to faith – a person gets baptised having already accepted the Gospel message about Jesus Christ. They undergo it because Jesus told the apostles to go teaching, preaching and baptising [see Matthew chapter 29,verses 18-20 and Mark 16, 15-16].
It shares a very critical meaning with the breaking of bread: it spiritually identifies the believer with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Going down into the water identifies with his death, and coming up again identifies with his resurrection.
Done in faith in Christ, it confirms that person in Christ.
Jesus taught that the bread and wine represented his body and blood. And his command was given that believers should partake of this ritual regularly in order to remember his death and resurrection.
In his first letter to the believers at Corinth, chapter 11, the apostle Paul says this about the meaning of “communion”:
For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, that the Lord Jesus the night in which he was betrayed took bread and when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said: Take eat this is my body which is broken for you. This do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup when he had supped saying: This cup is the New Testament in my blood; this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come.
The breaking of bread is therefore intended to focus the believer on the sacrificial death of our Saviour – the one who shed his blood for us; the one who has bought us for himself; the one who will return to take his own people to himself to be with him forever.
It is therefore a reminder of the central focus of the believer’s life – they now live for Jesus not themselves. They are no longer free but indebted to him evermore.
But this is not negative, but eternally positive. He showed us how much he loves us by going to the Cross and taking our punishment and pain upon himself: it affirms his love.
It affirms his commitment to us in that he died for us …
But it is also a tremendously spiritual act because it shows the Lord’s death till he comes again.
It is a witness in the spiritual places that Christ’s love is supreme and that his return will be an act of supremacy. Why? Because he will not only take his people to himself but he will also punish eternally those who refused his love and sacrifice.
It is a reminder that God’s love is not a sentimental feeling which comes and goes; but that God’s love is an act of grace: of condescending to the undeserving to forgive and save them, even though they do not deserve it; that God would be wholly just and right to condemn them forever, but has chosen instead of his own will to spare them from eternal condemnation.
It is a reminder of our utter dependence on, and gratitude to, a Just but Gracious Creator.
4. Prayer
The Bible contains many examples of effective prayer, and there is important guidance about aspects of successful prayer.
Probably the best place to start is with Jesus own teaching on how to pray recorded in Matthew 6 and in Luke 11.
In chapter 11 of Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus life and ministry, we have these words.
And it came to pass  that as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord teach us to pray as John also taught his disciples. And he [Jesus] said unto them:
When ye pray, say:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done as in heaven, so in earth.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Jesus then goes on to speak about the importance of persisting in prayer. That is vitally  important too.
Note especially the emphasis on “we” and “us”: prayer is to be conducted by believers together. Yes we can – and should – pray as individuals, but Jesus here flags up the vital importance of corporate prayer.
Indeed he says elsewhere in the Gospel accounts that where two or three are gathered in his name he will be there in the midst of them.
So we already know that prayer must be Persistent and prayer must be Corporate.
What else do we identify from this advice in Luke chapter 11 ?
Many ask whether this is the prayer we are to pray, or is it a pattern of how to pray.
The answer must be both.
That said, we must note the priorities Jesus identifies:
Number One, before all else, we look to God himself –
  1. Who he is – Father – Our Father
  2. Where he is – in heaven – ie above all, in charge of all
  3. What to pray – Praise – hallowed be thy name –  simply honouring and worshipping him
We must, then,  focus away from ourselves, our needs, our problems, etc and focus entirely on God as God.
Absolutely Vital.
Then we need to ask for his Kingdom to come – his rule,  his reign, his power, his glory to be manifested in this world as in heaven.
To do that we must align our thinking and our desires with his thinking and his desires – which brings us back to the apostles teaching – and why that is listed first of the four functions. We need to understand God’s ways, and we need to be living God’s ways in order to know how God will see things, and to understand his will [see Romans chapter 12, verses 1 and 2].
We are here to see the rule of God mediated in this world – and that starts with us, but it also means praying for his rule in our families, our communities, our nation(s) and that means our government – see Paul’s first letter to Timothy chapter 2, verses 1 to 4, where Paul also identifies 4 types of praying:
  • supplications – submitting specific requests
  • prayers – pleading – pouring out our hearts – not mumbling by rote
  • intercessions – that is praying on behalf of others who cannot pray for themselves – see for example Abraham’s prayer in Genesis chapter 18, and read from verse 16
  • giving of thanks – so important to thank God, not just for answered prayer, but for the opportunity and for the circumstances which prompt our prayer
Coming back to Jesus outline of prayer, after focusing on God and what he wants, we come to us and our needs.
Our material needs – give us our daily bread; our spiritual needs – forgive us, and keep us from temptation to disobey God.
The person praying must therefore be consistent, not hypocritical: we cannot ask forgiveness if we ourselves do not forgive and walk in love.And we must recognise our weakness in the face of temptation and understand our dependence on God to live godly lives otherwise we will fail. Vital to live right lives in order to avoid putting ourselves under evil influence.
So, living right lives, right conduct,  is essential to effective prayer.
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