Consider the Example of the Early Church and Then Follow It
We’ve already talked about the three main ways Jesus changed our perspectives for following him when he fulfilled the Old Testament prophets. The early church applied this by meeting in homes, serving as priests, and helping those in need. As Jesus’s priests they minister to those in the church, tell others about Jesus, and worship him.
That’s a great foundation for how our church today should function, but there’s more. Consider these New Testament practices that we will do well to follow today.
1. Holy Spirit Power and Direction
The Old Testament focuses on God the Father and looks forward to the coming Messiah, Jesus. In the New Testament, Jesus shows up as a central figure in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). Then the Holy Spirit takes over for the rest of the New Testament, amplifying what Jesus set in motion.
Even so, Jesus is the central figure of the Bible—with God the Father pointing to him and God the Holy Spirit building on what he accomplished. Aside from being the key figure in the Bible, many say Jesus is the most important person in all of history. I agree.
Jesus does all his work on earth in about three years. He spends that time teaching his disciples and preparing them to take over when he returns to heaven.
Despite this, however, they aren’t fully ready to assume their critical role when he is ready to leave Earth. Instead, Jesus tells them to wait, wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Holy Spirit power is the missing element they need before they move forward and advance the kingdom of God. In this, the Holy Spirit plays a leading role. He’s prominent in the book of Acts, guiding the early church and empowering its members.
The book of Acts mentions the Holy Spirit fifty-five times, with close to a hundred references. It’s clear that the Holy Spirit acts in Jesus’s place to lead his church.
In one instance, Jesus’s followers debate a theological issue about circumcision for new converts. After they reach a consensus, they write that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28).
Listing the Holy Spirit first suggests he took a lead role and the people aligned with his perspective. I wonder how often we do just the opposite, where we decide and then try to manufacture Holy Spirit support.
Another time, as the church worships and fasts, the Holy Spirit tells them to send out Barnabas and Saul on a missionary journey (Acts 13:2). The Holy Spirit also speaks to Philip (Acts 8:29), Peter (Acts 10:19), Agabus (Acts 11:28), and Paul (Acts 20:22).
But the Holy Spirit isn’t just in the book of Acts. He appears in nearly every book of the New Testament, including Revelation.
For Jesus’s church, the Holy Spirit is in charge. He leads their meetings and directs all that they do. This is the first of our New Testament practices to follow.
We’ve already talked a lot about worship. The appropriate worship of God is a central tenet of our faith. The Old Testament mentions worship in 179 verses. The New Testament continues this theme with seventy-five more.
Many come from the Gospels as well as Acts. The book of Revelation mentions worship more than any New Testament book and comes in second overall, just behind Deuteronomy.
This makes it clear that worshiping God is in our history, our present, and our eternal future. Worship is the second of our New Testament practices,
In the most profound verse about worship, John reminds us that God is spirit. Therefore, those who worship him must worship him in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
But what exactly is this verse telling us? There are two elements: Spirit and truth.
First, we have the Spirit, with a capital S. This means Holy Spirit. To fully worship, we must worship through the Holy Spirit. He will direct our worship and guide us. We must follow his lead and do what he says.
Though we often think of our worship as a physical act, there must also be a spiritual element to it. And the spiritual aspect is the more important one.
Second, we must worship God in truth. This means our worship must be honest, pure. To worship God in truth suggests integrity.
This means that we don’t make a show of our worship to impress others or gain their attention. That makes for disingenuous worship and doesn’t honor God. It doesn’t matter what others think of our worship, it only matters what God thinks.
The opposite of not making our worship a display for other people is holding back our worship for fear of what others may think or say. We must feel free to worship God as the Holy Spirit leads us.
This is how we worship God in Spirit and truth.
In addition to worship occurring throughout the Bible, we also have prayer. Half of the books in the Old Testament talk about prayer, and most of the books in the New Testament address the subject. Prayer is the third of our New Testament practices.
James writes that the prayers from a righteous person are powerful and effective (James 5:16). Paul tells us to pray in all situations (Ephesians 6:18) and confirms that everyone should pray (1 Timothy 2:1).
The book of Revelation gives us some insight into our prayers. Three times John connects prayers with incense, which God receives from his people. First, we see golden bowls of incense which represent our prayers (Revelation 5:8).
Then we have an angel who offers the incense and our prayers before God’s throne (Revelation 8:3). And last, we see the smoke of the incense mingling with our prayers, rising to God (Revelation 8:4). Whether we use incense or not in our spiritual practices, these passages in Revelation gives us a powerful image of how God receives the prayers of his people.
When it comes to praying, however, many people think of the Lord’s Prayer. Though a better label might be the Disciple’s Prayer. This is because Jesus gives the prayer to his disciples as an example of how the pray. It is their prayer, not his.
The Lord’s Prayer—sometimes called the Our Father, after its opening line—occurs twice in the Bible. People are familiar with Matthew’s version, with many having memorized it and with some churches reciting it as part of their worship practices (Matthew 6:19-13).
The version in Luke is far less familiar. It’s shorter and more concise (Luke 11:1-4).
Neither of these prayers are for us to memorize or recite as much as a model to follow. Here’s an interpretation of how we can apply it to inform our prayers.
- We open the prayer by reverencing God.
- Then we ask that his kingdom will come—implicitly with us helping to advance it—and that we will accomplish God’s will here on earth.
- In the one personal, tangible request, we ask for our daily bread. That is, we ask God to provide for us each day what we need to live. It may be food or something else that’s essential.
- Then we pray that God will forgive us, just as we forgive others. And if we withhold our forgiveness this implicitly allows God to withhold it from us. Hopefully neither will happen.
- We end with a request that God will steer us away from temptation and give us victory over Satan’s attacks.
- And some versions of the Bible tack on one more phrase. In this we celebrate his kingdom, his power, and his eternal glory.
But this is just one example of how the pray. The key is that prayer is an essential part of our faith journey.
Another concept that occurs throughout the Bible is fasting. To fast is to go without food for a time. This isn’t an act of mortification to abase ourselves before God or try to gain his attention.
Instead it’s to focus our thoughts on God, seeking to better connect with him and align our thinking with his. When fasting, one recommendation is to take the time normally spent eating and use it to pray and listen to the Holy Spirit.
There are two key teachings in the Bible about fasting.
When Jesus instructs the people in his epic message that we call the Sermon on the Mount, he talks about this practice. He says “When you fast . . .” Not “If you fast . . . ” (Matthew 6:16-17).
From Jesus’s perspective, fasting is not an optional activity but an expectation.
Second, Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:2). He serves as an example to us all. Since he fasted, is there any reason why we shouldn’t?
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t require that his disciples fast, but this is a short-term reprieve because he is with them. He adds that once he leaves, it’s time to resume fasting (Luke 5:33-35). Since he has returned to heaven and is no longer here on earth, it’s again a time for us to fast.
Fasting is the fourth of our New Testament practices. Jesus wants us to fast, and so we should.
The early church also spends a lot of time with each other. This isn’t a once-a-week meeting for an hour or two. It may be an everyday occurrence (Acts 2:46, Acts 6:1, and Hebrews 3:13).
They don’t live their faith in isolation. They need each other. They thrive on community. Just as the godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit function as one, so too do Jesus’s followers (John 17:20-21, 2 Corinthians 13:14, and 1 John 1:3). Through mutual support they edify one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11).
This is how they grow in faith, with iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17). It’s two—or more—people traveling down the road together, keeping each other on the right path and headed in the right direction. It’s picking up another when they stumble (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
Living in community is the fifth of our New Testament practices. It is central to who they are and what they do. Without the encouragement and support of each other, they’ll certainly falter in their faith. Together they are better.
Together they can remain focused on Jesus and all he calls them to become. Community is key in making this happen. Think of this as true biblical fellowship (Acts 2:42 and 1 John 1:3-7).
What do they do when they hang out? They spend time in prayer (Acts 1:14, Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 4:2, and James 5:16). They worship (Acts 13:2 and Romans 12:1). They also sing (Ephesians 5:18-20, Colossians 3:16, and James 5:13).
The more established disciples of Jesus teach the newer followers about the basics of faith. Think of this as a new members class (Acts 2:42). And we’ve already covered how they share their material blessings with each other and listen to the Holy Spirit’s prompting.
Come back next week to learn five more things the early church did, five more New Testament practices.
Read more about this in Peter’s new book, Jesus’s Broken Church, available in e-book, audiobook, paperback, and hardcover.
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical Christianity to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices.
Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.