How do we know that the three thousand souls that responded to Peter’s preaching on the day of Pentecost were truly saved? The initial test of course was that they repented and were baptised (Acts 2: 38, 41), but the real proof that the seed of the Word of God had fallen in good ground was their continuance: “they persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, in breaking of bread and prayers”, (v42). It was because they persevered in these things that we know that their faith was authentic. These were the four outstanding features that marked the early Church, and which the Spirit of God has taken delight in recording for our learning. Men may point to all kinds of things for evidence of the reality of faith; God would draw our attention to continuance in the apostle’s teaching, the apostle’s fellowship, the breaking of bread, and in prayers. This is authentic Christianity. Is it yours?
The order of these things is very important. Some would say that for the saints to be in fellowship together is of first importance in the Church, others that the remembrance of the Lord in the breaking of bread must take precedence. Still others would argue that prayers should occupy the chief place. God, however, in His Word begins with doctrine. The order of the words in Scripture is never arbitrary or haphazard: It is the teaching of the apostles, then fellowship, then the breaking of bread, then prayers. This may not have been the arrangement that we would have used, but there is wisdom in the divine order. The teaching of the apostles must underlie everything we have in Christianity.
The apostolic doctrine or teaching (Greek didache) is where we begin: We were all once bondmen of sin, but in accepting the glad tidings, we obeyed from the heart the form of teaching (didache) into which we were instructed (see Rom. 6: 17). It is not only impossible, but ridiculous to say that we can “come to [the] knowledge of [the] truth” (1 Tim. 2: 4) without doctrine. We are saved through believing the teaching of the Gospel. Give up the necessity for doctrine and you effectively do away with genuine Christianity. The natural man can tolerate the vague mysticism of what goes for Christianity with some, but bring in the definite teaching of Scripture and his opposition is at once aroused.
Now if we begin with the apostolic teaching, ought we not to continue in it? Ought not the rest of our Christian pathways to be governed by their teaching? Unfortunately, doctrine has had a bad press. Many view any emphasis on doctrine as divisive, and avoid anything more definite than the most basic generalities of the Christian faith. Strange then, that the early Church should be commended for its occupation with the apostolic doctrine! Significant too, is the apostle’s closing plea to Timothy to “proclaim the word; be urgent in season [and] out of season, convict, rebuke, encourage, with all longsuffering and doctrine” (2 Tim. 4: 2). Ministry that fails to deal with the issues (that is, ministry that downgrades the role of doctrine), is ultimately powerless. It is imperative in a day of “various and strange doctrines” (Heb. 13: 9), that we have a continuous and faithful presentation of sound teaching lest we be carried away. Too many of us are still babes, and in danger of being “tossed and carried about by every wind of that teaching [which is] in the sleight of men, in unprincipled cunning with a view to systematized error” (Eph. 4: 14).
The vast majority of Christian books published today either relate persons’ experiences in living out their faith, or attempt to tackle the practical problems of our daily lives. These have their value, but it is a sad reflection of the day in which we live that there is so little exposition of the truth! Of the teaching that is available, it is increasingly divergent from the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). The time has already come when many “will not bear sound teaching; but according to their own lusts will heap up to themselves teachers, having an itching ear; and they will turn away their ear from the truth, and will have turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4: 3, 4).
It is not enough to be taught - it must be instruction in the apostolic doctrine. Christendom has spawned a vast mass of theology, both good and bad, but the business of the Christian is to get back to that which is “from the beginning” (1 John 2: 24). What the apostles taught is to be our rule for everything we do in Christianity - and the inspired record of their teaching is contained in the NT epistles. What is not according to their doctrine is to be avoided (Rom. 16: 17, 2 John 1: 10). This is not hard-heartedness, for the teaching of the apostles is the teaching of our Lord Himself (Acts 13: 12).
Of course care must be taken as to how these things are held, particularly in relation to one another. There is always a danger of mere head-knowledge, and formalism. It is very significant that when Paul exhorts Timothy to “Have an outline of sound words, which [words] thou hast heard of me”, that he does not leave it at that, but adds, “in faith and love which [are] in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1: 13). The doctrine must be possessed and heeded, but not without faith and love.
The reason that there are so many ‘fellowships’ in Christendom is precisely because the apostles’ doctrine is not heeded. People form their fellowships according to their own tastes and opinions in blatant disregard to the fact that Scripture knows only one fellowship, the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (see 1 Cor. 1: 9). This is not an abstract communion which cannot be practically realised, but the only fellowship that is recognised by God. We are not free to lay down our own principles of fellowship, but to attend to the apostles’ doctrine on the matter. There are many communions around us, but the only one of any value is that founded upon the teaching of the apostles, whose fellowship “[is] indeed with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1: 3).
It may be as well to ask ourselves how much we really are governed by the apostles’ doctrine in the matter of fellowship. Is it on the grounds of that doctrine that persons are included or excluded or do other things intrude? The fact is, we are not at liberty to act according to our own wishes in the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9). It is His fellowship and we are to follow the instructions He has given through His holy apostles and prophets.
When we reach the “breaking of bread” we reach that which more than anything else is a heart-matter. Doctrine by itself is dry and lifeless - it must be made to relate to the person of the Christ Himself. It is “this do in remembrance of me” (Luke 22: 19 - my emphasis). The saints here in these early chapters of Acts not only had the apostolic teaching, but the practical reality that goes with it too. Thus they expressed their fellowship in the breaking of bread. (It is inconceivable that we are to understand from this Scripture that the disciples persevered in the partaking of mere food - the phrase “breaking of bread” clearly refers to the Lord’s Supper.) The Lord is thus the centre of His people, the object around which they are gathered, and that in the solemn remembrance of the way in which He has expressed His love to them. This is no formal service, but the fruit of an affectionate desire to be carried out “until he come” (1 Cor. 11: 26). It will be found that in proportion to the wilful disregard of apostolic doctrine, the more barren will be the observance of the Lord’s Supper.
Finally we have “prayers”. Now just as the order of these features is important, so it is vital that not one of them is missed out. For an Assembly to forget its “prayers” would be disastrous. The moment we lose our sense of dependence upon God, we are on the fatal road to a company of Laodicean character, a church that says I have need of nothing (see Rev. 3: 17). In being doctrinally correct let us ensure that all is maintained in living dependence upon God.
It has been well said that the health of a Christian company can be reliably ascertained by its attitude to collective prayer. The company that knows that everything it has depends upon the continued blessing of God will have prayer meetings that are well attended, fervent and real. Power in the assembly depends upon power in the prayer meeting (read Acts 4: 23-37). Where prayer is perfunctory and attendance sparse then we may be sure that the days are not far off when the Lord will say to that assembly, ‘I will remove thy lamp out of its place’. Solemn thought!
These then are the four features that so marked the early Church, and which God has seen fit to record for our instruction. We need not examine Church history or consult books of theology to find out what genuine Christianity is. Here we have it: the original, authentic thing itself. We do not look for great preachers or magnificent buildings. Nor need we search for splendid robes of office, for pomp and ceremony, for choirs and oratory. What we seek are those persevering in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles, the breaking of bread and prayers.
The Apostle's Doctrine
Suppose that the apostle should have lived until the present day, say in one of our English towns, and that they were still meeting in the simplicity of divine order as at the beginning; that is gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus (Compare Matt. 18: 20 with John 20: 19), remembering Him in the breaking of bread on the first day of the week, waiting for His coming again (Acts 20: 7; 1 Cor. 11: 23–26), maintaining Scriptural discipline (1 Cor. 5: 9–13; 1 Tim. 5: 20; 2 Thess. 3; 6, 14, 15; 1 Thess. 5; 14; 2 Tim. 4: 2; Titus 2: 15; Gal. 6; 1), endeavouring to maintain the truth in practice that “there is one body” (Eph. 4: 3, 4), and recognising the presence and authority of the Lord Jesus Christ in the midst to guide by the Holy Spirit, whom He will and as He will, whether in worship or ministry, thereby ignoring, of course, all human rules and human order. Now ask yourself, to what denomination would THEY belong. It will not take much spiritual discernment to answer “surely none at all”.
But bring the matter close to home. If you were living in the same town yourself, would you not like to have the apostles’ fellowship? Of course you would. Well then, in order to get it you must first leave every kind of sectarian ground set up by man since the beginning of the Church, and accept the apostles’ doctrine and its consequences. Then having got upon their ground of “fellowship”, you would have the privilege of expressing it with them in “the breaking of bread”. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the fellowship of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break is it not the fellowship of the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10: 16). But you may say, perhaps, that the apostles are not living on the earth now. Well no, but thank God their doctrine is—“the word which liveth and abideth forever”; and that puts me in this day on the same ground of fellowship that they were upon in that day; that is, if I submit to be guided and governed by it. It is no good introducing my terms of fellowship. The word for us is to get on the ground of their fellowship, and continue steadfastly in it (Acts 2: 42).