Paul is still on his third missionary but this begins a new section in a sense that from here on out Paul is moving toward Jerusalem and then on to Rome. That is the focus and the last eight chapters of Acts will detail that journey from Ephesus to Jerusalem to Rome. We see a bit of that journey in these verses.
What is a church to do? This question is pondered by many church leaders today as the fear grows that the church is becoming more and more irrelevant and ineffective. Church researcher, George Barna, writes, “Today’s church is incapable of responding to the present moral crisis. It must re-invent itself or face virtual oblivion by the mid-21st Century.” He then prescribes as one prong of a three-prong solution, “We must develop new forums and formats through which people will experience, understand, and serve God. New models of the church must be allowed to blossom.”
Barna is not completely remiss in his observations, but what appears to be happening in the life and the ministry of modern-day American church is absolute confusion and chaos in regards to this question: what is a church to do?
The call to throw off some of the former formats and programming of ministry from the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s is necessary for the church to consider. But the vital question remains: what is a church to do?
Many church leaders behave as though the Bible is absolutely silent on ministry methodology and act as though God has given us no model for His church to follow, so the churches leave the question open to the authority of church leaders, imaginations, and personal preferences. One may say, “I believe that a church needs to have a worship band to sing choruses.” Another may cry, “I believe that a church needs to have an organ and sing only hymns.” “I believe a church needs to develop a drama team and do sketches.” “I believe the church needs to open a soup kitchen to feed the poor.” “I believe the church needs to plan a time of meditative silence with candles and with incense.” “I believe the church needs to create a worship dance team to involve the arts.”
Who is right in all of these questions and how do we know? We could create an endless list as to what the church is permitted to do and what God permits a church to be about. But, the question before us today addresses what a church “must” do, and for this we look to the authority of the Word of God. Churches often make one of two mistakes when considering what a church must do and what a church is to do.
The first mistake that traditional churches often make is looking to the methodologies of the past to determine what a church must do; “Since this is the way the church has done it over the past forty or fifty years, this is what a church must continue to do today.”
The second mistake is made by innovative churches. They often make the mistake of looking to cultural trends or to personal creativity to discern what a church must do. Both of these miss the biblical standard of holding the Word of God as the absolute and final authority for us. God does tell us what a church must do.
God allows His church to use creativity in the discovery of new ministries and new methods and new forms, and we should pursue such creativity with zeal. There is nothing wrong with creativity and newness, but God also teaches us some essential practices that His church must embrace in every culture whether it is in the United States or Africa or Europe or Asia, in every culture and in every era, whether it is in the 1st Century or in the 21st Century, and on these essential practices we should not be confused. Yet, we are. Both in the name of tradition and in the name of innovation these essentials are often given a nod and set in the corner and neglected. These essential practices form the foundation upon which all Christian ministry produces good fruits. What are these essential practices?
In this study we will discover four of these essential practices of the church. I do not believe that this list is exhaustive. More, certainly, could be added, but this list is instructive as to what we find model for us in these verses.
The first practice a church is to do is collect an offering to advance God’s purposes. Second, a church is to meet together weekly to worship God. Third, a church is to preach the Word of God faithfully. Finally, a church is to celebrate Jesus through the Lord’s Supper. We could add to this list the ministry of prayer, evangelism, praise through singing, and a number of other essential practices, but this is the list that is before us and this is the list we set our minds upon.
These four essentials are described as being a part of the early church in Acts 20, and we will find, as we study some of the epistles and letters, that they are not only described, but they are also prescribed. They are given to us as commandments from God to observe.
The first essential practice is the practice of collecting offerings to advance God’s purpose. There is much cynicism that exists with regards to the churches collection of offerings. This cynicism often is grounded in the fact that churches and Christian ministries have not always used the offering to advance God’s purposes but rather to line the pockets of the people within those ministries. But, consider the practice of the early church, and here we go back to Acts 20:1,
1 When the uproar had ended, Paul sent for the disciples and, after encouraging them, said good-by and set out for Macedonia.
Remember, Paul has been in Ephesus for three years. His time to leave is now at hand so he travels northwest from Macedonia to the churches that have been established in that region to encourage them. One of the purposes that he has is to strengthen the churches that have already been established, but there is a second purpose and another main-driving purpose behind this visit. That purpose is collecting an offering from these churches for the believers who are in Jerusalem who are suffering because of persecution and a famine that has broken out in that region.
Your question might be: “Where is that? I don’t see anything about “the offering” in Acts 20 and you don’t, but what we do find in other epistles speaking of this time in Paul’s life and his visit and they tell us of a collection that was necessarily being made. Let’s take a look at a couple of Scripture references. The first is 1 Corinthians 16:1-4. Paul, when he visits Greece later in Verse 2, he going to go to Corinth and he writes to the church in Corinth:
1 Now about the collection for God’s people (the people in Jerusalem): Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. 2 On the first day of every week (Sunday), each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. 3 Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. 4 If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me.
Let’s also look at Romans 15:25-27,
25 Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. 26 For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. 27 They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.
Paul is probably writing the letter to the Romans from Corinth in Greece after he has traveled through Macedonia.
One last verse of Scripture is 2 Corinthians 8:1-4:
1 And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2 Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3 For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4 they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.
Chapters 8 and 9 completely speak of this offering and the visit through Macedonia to collect this offering. We see that this collection was of vital importance and it was commanded then of the churches to participate and be involved.
Why was the collection important to the life of the early church? There are three reasons. First, the collection caused the givers to receive an eternal treasure and it benefitted those who gave. Paul saw this as a vital importance to the church. In 2 Corinthians 9:6, Paul says,
6 Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
Paul is saying that the more you give, and he is talking about a monetary gift, the more you will reap in return. This is a way to follow Jesus’ commandment when He says (Matthew 6:19),
“Lay up treasures for yourselves in Heaven where moth and rust do not destroy, where thieves cannot break in and steal.”
The second reason that this collection is so important is that the collection glorified God through the joy of those who were helped along the way. In 2 Corinthians 9:13,
13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, men will praise God…
Paul is telling that because of their gift men will praise God for the obedience that accompanies their confession of the Gospel. They will see that it is not just in word only that they follow Jesus, but it is through their whole life and for their generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. Paul is telling them that as God uses them and their gift other people will rise up to praise God all the more.
The third reason why this collection is so important in the life of the church is that this collection strengthens the unity of the church. Remember how earlier, in Romans, Paul said, “Since they gave to you spiritually you owe it to them to give to them materially.” Paul is saying that there is a give and take within the body of Christ. Remember how difficult it was for the Jew and the Gentile to become one and how difficult that was even for the church after the Spirit of God had worked the miracle of new life? Paul understood that by the Gentile church’s giving to help the poor in Jerusalem that that couldn’t help but bring about unity as they received love and kindness from these Gentiles.
Jesus led His church by way of example. 2 Corinthians 8:9, tells us that He who was rich became poor so that we might become rich and have eternal treasure in Heaven. If we, the church, follow Jesus Christ then we will follow Him in this example of collecting offerings. So taking offerings to advance the glory of Jesus Christ has always been, and always will be, an essential practice of the church of Jesus and those who are followers of Jesus are sacrificial and joyful in their giving. That is who we are! We are a people who have been given so much by God and out of rich joy we pour back to Him so that we might honor and lift up His name.
In fact, we as a people are those who welcome collections; not only when we receive notes in the mail from a legitimate, Christ-honoring ministry telling us they need funds to continue to advance the name of Jesus Christ. We don’t roll our eyes and say, “Oh, brother, here is another one,” but rather we say, “Isn’t this awesome! The opportunities we have to give to Jesus Christ are so many and so full and so complete to reach the whole world with the Gospel.” This is our value.
Sam Houston was a famous Texas soldier and politician. Rather late in his life he amazed all when he came to faith in Jesus Christ. Immediately, he declared that he wanted to give a rather large gift to the church to advance the name of Jesus Christ. People asked him why he wanted to do that. Sam Houston replied, “Because when I was baptized my pocketbook was baptized with me!” He understood that he had a whole new nature and it turned him all around in relation to money and what was important and what was valuable. It is our new nature that loves these opportunities to give in such a way so as to honor Jesus Christ.
I want to read to you a brief section from the book, The Treasure Principle, by Randy Alcorn. He writes of a visit he had with some missionary friends to Egypt, Pat and Rachel Thurmond. “My family and I followed the American missionaries to the graveyard of missionaries who have died. Pat pointed to the sun-scorched tombstone that read, ‘William Borden, 1887 – 1913’. William Borden, a Yale graduate, an heir to great wealth, rejected a life of ease in order to bring the Gospel to the Muslims. Refusing to even buy himself a car, Borden gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars to missions. He was heir to the wealthy Borden fortunes. After only four months of zealous ministry in Egypt, he contracted spinal meningitis and he died at the age of 25. I dusted off the epitaph on Borden’s grave. After describing his love and his sacrifices for the Kingdom of God and for Muslim people, the inscription ended with a phrase I have never forgotten: ‘Apart from faith in Christ, there is no explanation for such a life.’”
I wonder if that can be written on our tombstone.
Randy Alcorn continued, “The Thurmond’s took us straight from Borden’s grave to the Egyptian National Museum. The King Tut exhibit was mind-boggling. King Tut was only seventeen years old when he died. He was buried with solid gold chariots and thousands of golden artifacts. His gold coffin was found within gold tombs within gold tombs within gold tombs. The burial site was filled with tons of gold. The Egyptians believed in an afterlife, one where they could take earthly treasures, and all of the treasures intended for King Tut’s eternal enjoyment stayed right there where they were until Howard Carter discovered the burial chamber in 1922. They hadn’t been touched for over three thousand years.
“I was struck by the contract between these two graves: Borden’s was obscure, dusty, and hidden off of the back alley of a street littered with garbage; King Tut’s tomb glittered with unimaginable wealth. Yet, where are these two young men now? One who lived in opulence and called himself a king is in the misery of a Christ-less eternity. The other who lived a modest life on earth in service of the one true King is enjoying his everlasting reward in the presence of his Lord. “King Tut’s life was tragic because of an awful truth discovered too late. He couldn’t take his treasures with him. William Borden’s life was triumphant because of instead of leaving behind his treasures, he set them on ahead.”
Beloved, that is the nature of a Christian.
The second practice of the church that is essential is that we meet together weekly to worship God. In Acts 20, verses 2 and following, it tells of Paul’s through the area and of his traveling companions and we notice in Verse 5,
5 These men went on ahead and waited for us at Troas. 6 But we sailed from Philippi after the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and five days later joined the others at Troas, where we stayed seven days.
Notice in Verse 6 that Luke says “we” which means he joined the troop again. Luke had stayed behind in Philippi and that is why he didn’t use the first person, plural pronoun from Chapter 16 to Chapter 20 because he was left behind.
Paul relied on others on his team; he was not a Lone Ranger, but he recognized the value of team ministry and that is an important principle for all of us. Then we read in Verse 7,
7 On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.
This is the first mention of Sunday worship, but it is not the last. Sunday became the official day of worship for the church of Jesus Christ. This is a huge, monumental change from the tradition of the Jews. The Mosaic Laws, as we know, commanded the Sabbath which was not Sunday, but it was Saturday, as the day of worship. Yet, when we read Acts and the Epistles and early church history, Christians, and most of whom were Jewish in the beginning, switched their day of worship. It was not because they had the day off, because they didn’t. They had to work on Sundays. They would get up early and work all day long. Then they would worship God on Sunday night in order to keep this principle of weekly worship which for them was the first day of the week. Remember how Paul suggested the offering be taken in Corinth on the first day of the week.
The question arises: why would this change take place? The answer is very simple: it is because Sunday is the day that Jesus rose from the dead and the early church, and the church since then, desires to honor and remember the day of Jesus’ resurrection. A whole new era began when Jesus rose from the dead and they wanted to mark this new era with a new day of weekly worship. John, in Revelation 1:10, is going to call this day “the Lord’s Day”.
Listen to some of the early church fathers as they write in regards to this change. The Epistle of Barnabas was written shortly before 100 AD. Revelation was written in 90 AD. This is what this letter tells us: “Therefore, we keep the eighth day with joyfulness; the day also when Jesus rose from the dead.”
Then in the 2nd Century, shortly after 100 AD, Ignatius will write: “Let every friend of Christ keep the Lord’s day as a festival, the resurrection day; the queen and chief of all days.”
Justin Martyr, shortly before 200 AD, describes how Christians of his day worshipped: “On the day called Sunday all who live in the cities, or in the country, gather together in one place and the memoirs of the apostles, or the writings of the prophets, are read as long as time permits. Sunday is the day in which we hold our common assembly because Jesus Christ our Savior, on the same day, rose from the dead.”
The major point that I want to address is that Christians commit themselves to gather weekly to worship God. That is what we do. This commitment was difficult for early Christians as it is for many of us. I have mentioned that they had a full day of work behind them by the time they were able to gather together, and yet in their weariness they didn’t sit home and watch what was on television that night. Instead, they said that worship was important because it was the Lord’s Day and they had to get together with other saints and worship God together. That his how God is honored and that is what they needed.
In Acts 20, they began this, undoubtedly, around six or seven o’clock in the evening because this was a work day. Hebrews 10:24-25 is a famous verse for some, but I want to consider it because it reveals that even early on in the life of the church that there was a temptation to neglect the faithfulness to this commitment. There is also a temptation today, isn’t there?
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
This commitment was not once-per-quarter or a couple of times per year, but it was a weekly commitment. Someone might protest, “That is such a legalistic standard that you are setting up to make one day, or a commitment that is hard and fast, to meet together weekly.” This is not a legalistic standard if you love the Lord, but rather it is a rejoicing commitment and a commitment that we realize brings us vigor in our faith and also allows us to encourage other people in their faith; others who need a kind word or prayer or someone to come along side of them.” There are many reasons why we might be tempted away from a weekly commitment of meeting together with God’s people for the sake of worship. Perhaps, most of you have committed yourselves in that way, but I would encourage you to keep it up. Don’t let anything steer you away from it.
Perhaps there are others that this is your one-time in the quarter that you come to church and you have not made this a weekly practice. If you are a believer in Jesus Christ I urge you to commit your way to this. This is God’s prescription for you.
Why are we tempted away from this weekly meeting? There are two answers. The first answer is: other commitments. We put on our schedules so many other commitments and these other commitments lure us away slowly but surely; commitments, for instance, of little league baseball during the summer – “It will be just for this season and just for this time. It will be three months out of the year and then we will start back in the fall.” Then the fall comes and there is hunting. Then the winter comes and there are drama practices. Then spring comes and there is golf – “I haven’t golf all winter long and I can’t wait to get out there. The days are wonderful and beautiful and there is fish to find in the lakes…”
Beloved, meeting together weekly is a Godly discipline and it is one that God calls us to submit our schedules in order to embrace and attain, so that when we are away for other commitments, whether it be on business trips or on vacations, that we would seek out and find a place to worship God with other Christians that week or that we would arrange our schedules so that we would be back home so that we could get together with the people that we normally gather with on Sunday to worship. It requires a commitment or otherwise other commitments will crowd this one out and away.
The second reason why we are tempted away from weekly meetings is the sin in our lives. We get lulled asleep like Sampson when we get bored by Spiritual Truths and the church becomes boring to us. So, we stay away because no one wants to go to a place that is going to be boring. Why is that place boring? It is because sin has entered into our life and we are spiritually asleep if not spiritual dead. Not only are we spiritually asleep but there is a shame and a guilt that is connected with our sin and that is a real guilt and a real shame. It is not a psychological fiction, but rather it is something that is real to our soul when we sin. We recognize that we don’t feel right about it and going to church makes us feel worse because in church we start thinking about God, and our eternity, and God’s Holiness, and about His standards and we don’t like that so our shame says, one way or the other, that we don’t want to think about that or our shame and our guilt is so great that in thinking about it we don’t have any answers.
Here is the good news: there is an answer for guilt and there is an answer for shame. You don’t have to come to church feeling that weight of burden because Jesus Christ has died for you to set you free. Immediately, as you call out to Him in faith and repentance, God will free you and give you joy in your heart, but you must humble yourself before the Lord. What happens to those who respond by staying away from church because of guilt and shame? The chains of sin that bring corruption and enslavement grow heavier and tighter around the soul of such a one. Beloved, I would urge you to keep this Godly commitment.
The third practice that we want to study is that we need to preach the Word of God faithfully. This is a requirement for Christ’s church. Notice how much time is invested by Paul on this Lord’s Day, in Acts 20, Verse 7 and following, in teaching the Word of God.
Paul spoke to the people and, because he intended to leave the next day, kept on talking until midnight. 8There were many lamps in the upstairs room where we were meeting. 9Seated in a window was a young man named Eutychus, who was sinking into a deep sleep as Paul talked on and on. When he was sound asleep, he fell to the ground from the third story and was picked up dead.
Again, Paul spoke and taught the Word for four or five hours straight. This prompts the question: should preachers follow Paul’s model today? Probably not, but I believe that there were some special circumstances. It tells us that this was the last time that Paul was going to be able to talk to them. He had to get everything good in. It tells us later that he didn’t stop at midnight, but that he continued to talk to them until daybreak because this was his last shot to impart God’s Truth with the church in Troas.
I am frankly very encouraged by Eutychus. I am not discouraged by Eutychus. Here was a fellow who is described as a boy, maybe some ten to fourteen years old, and he wanted to hear what God had to say through Paul and that is why he was there. I believe that is why he was sitting in a window because he really wanted to stay awake. The words that are used tell us that he slowly nodded off. You, perhaps, can understand how that might happen in a church setting. You don’t want to be sleepy but you are and your head starts nodding and you can’t stay awake. You may have had the experience of being in a car late at night and you are having a hard time staying awake. What do you do, you role the window down because you want to get some fresh air. This is what Eutychus did because he wanted to stay awake and listen to Paul, so he sat in a window. None-the-less, he fell asleep, but I am encouraged by Eutychus because he wanted to learn.
Secondly, I am encouraged by Eutychus because, even though he wanted to learn, the Apostle Paul could not keep him awake. That is a great encouragement to me as a preacher. I am confident that Paul was not boring and that Paul was very relevant and what Paul was saying was very important and he said it in the right way, and yet he still had one fall asleep on him. What an encouragement that is.
From my vantage point I see some who are Eutychuses each Sunday and I have great sympathy for them. I am not angry with those. I know that some have very busy schedules and some have to work and stay up into the late hours of Saturday evening working. It is hard to get up and be here on time. I know that some have such stressful lives that church is the one time all week that they can sit down and relax. I know sometimes that it gets hot in the sanctuary and the environment is sometimes difficult to stay alert.
This kind of sleepiness does not concern me so I don’t have any animosity towards Eutychus or anyone who follows in his bold and brave tradition, but what is a concern is the sleepiness not that comes from the weariness of the body, but the sleepiness that comes from the apathy of the soul and a spiritual rebellion. It is the kind of sleepiness that is not interested in listening to God’s Spirit speaking through God’s Word what-so-ever. It is this kind of sleepiness that will destroy your soul. If you find yourself in spiritual settings nodding off and often having a hard time staying alert or even desiring to stay alert, I urge you to ask yourself, “Why?” Could it be that your heart is not alive unto God? Could it be that the things that excite God do not yet excite you? I would urge you, if you find yourself in such a sleepy state, and I do not come here to condemn you, but I come here to say that there is a grave concern for your life. I call upon you to seek out God and to ask God to awaken your soul, because the things that should quicken your imagination and should thrill you emotion you are dead to and you have no power to change that but God does because He is the God of the resurrection and the God who rose Eutychus physically from the dead and He is the God that can take your weary, apathetic, and dead soul and make it alive in Christ.
Call out to Him in this way. He will be gracious to you if you call out in faith, believing, and in humility desiring Him.
Preaching the Word of God faithfully is an essential practice of the church. Paul will write to Timothy, “Preach the Word of God in season and out of season”. (2 Timothy 4:2) Beloved, I believe that we are living in these last days that Paul is talking about also in this chapter (2 Timothy 4:3-5).
3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. 4 They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
Paul goes on to encourage Timothy to preach the Word in season and out of season. I believe that we are living in these last days and I have to ask the question: why is it that there are so many churches with so little preaching from the Bible? This missing practice is not just some oversight and something that they forgot about, but this negligence of preaching the Word of God is a well thought out decision by church leaders across our nation. It is a decision to trade the preaching of the Word of God for personal talks about marriage, money, and morality. This is a decision that is a conscious one. The advice that is given is not to abandon the Bible altogether, but the advice that is given is simply to move one’s self away from opening up the Bible and explaining what the Bible has to say to us today. This practice is no longer in vogue and is no longer effective and can no longer reach the heart and mind of the modern man and women. The expositional preaching of the Word of God is a command of God upon His church from the beginning of church history and all the way to the end when Jesus Christ will return. This preaching may be “out of season” meaning that many people may not want it and may not even be responding to it, but the preaching of the Word is necessary to build the church, to honor Jesus’ name, to win the lost, and to call us back to repentance.
The last practice is to celebrate Jesus through the Lord’s Supper. We read again, in Verse 7,
7 On the first day of the week we came together to break bread.
Luke talks about this again in Verse 11,
11 Then he went upstairs again and broke bread and ate.
These are references to the Lord’s Supper. Luke in his Gospel records Jesus’ commandment (Luke 22:19),
“…do this in remembrance of me.”
This is a commandment that Jesus intends for His church to observe these elements, the bread and the cup, throughout all time. We have to ask the question: “Why is the Lord’s Supper such an essential practice?” God not only wants us to hear the Gospel and the preaching of the Word, but He wants us to experience the Gospel through these other senses – our eyes and our taste and our touch – and He does that by giving us two specific symbols. These symbols remind us of the essential Truths of the Bible: that God sent His Son Jesus to be a man; that Jesus died for sins as a substitute for us and that He took the wrath of God upon Himself so that we might be right with God; that Jesus rose from the dead so that a new covenant is established between us and God and is a whole new relationship; that God purchased for us forgiveness through His Son Jesus Christ. It is the Lord’s Supper that reminds us that our biggest problem is not our parents, or our boss, or our wife, or our kids, or our neighbors, or our circumstances, but my biggest problem is my sin. That is what the Lord’s Supper reminds us of and my biggest problem has this all encompassing solution: Jesus died and He rose again and I can come to Him to receive life.
Communion reminds each one of us that we need to receive Jesus Christ personally. No one can take communion for you and no one can receive Jesus Christ for you. In order for you to receive Jesus Christ you must take Him in and the bread and the cup are symbols of that and that the church is to come back to earth.
At Thanksgiving, when you see that feast laid out before you on the table, was it enough to simply look upon it and say, “Yes, that feast looks great!” and then walk away from it? No, it wasn’t enough was it? It wasn’t enough to smell the feast. It wasn’t enough to put some on your plate and to have a personal sense of that feast being for you. It wasn’t enough just to put a little in your mouth and taste it. What did you do with that feast? You did all those things and then you chewed and swallowed and you took it into yourself. That is what a banquet is for and that is what Jesus is for. It is not enough to look at Him, or to smell the aroma or fragrance of His beauty and of His glory and of His work, or to put it on our arm and say that you have a little slice of Jesus before you, or even just to taste just a little bit. Jesus said for us to eat His flesh and drink His blood and He reminds us that we must personally appropriate Jesus Christ.
Have you appropriated Jesus Christ for yourself? No one else can take Jesus in for you. You must be born again through a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Thankfully Jesus offers Himself and what a privilege it is to remember that.