The Early Ecclesia in Jerusalem: A Template for Today

The first disciples of Jesus enjoyed the unique benefit of being directly taught by the Master Teacher for a period of three and a half years. What a privilege it must have been to have access to the skilled and perceptive teaching of the Son of God. Yet despite this special opportunity, the disciples were not prepared for events that took place when Jesus was arrested and condemned to death by crucifixion. They were confused, disillusioned, and uncertain about the meaning of these startling developments.

Two disciples left Jerusalem shortly after the crucifixion. Clearly, they were saddened by the death of the One who they “…thought should have redeemed Israel” (Luke 24:21). Their sorrow and disappointment were evident when the Lord encountered them and questioned the reason for their sadness. “And he said unto them, What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?” (Luke 24:17). As events unfolded Jesus rebuked them for being “…slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). With skill and patience, Jesus proceeded to teach matters they had not fully understood or connected with the current situation: “He expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). From the risen Lord they received new information, new understanding, and new insights that would change their lives from that day forward.

Shortly after this dramatic encounter, the Lord appeared to the disciples that were assembled in the upper room. His presence confirmed his resurrection and Jesus then proceeded to eat with them and to teach them “…that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me” (Luke 24:44). By these Scriptures “…opened he their understanding that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:45). These Scriptures spoke of the suffering of Messiah, His resurrection on the third day and “…that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). Again, Jesus’ followers were given new information, new understanding, and new insights that would strengthen their personal faith and guide them in their mission as disciples.

Full conversion of the disciples was enabled by Jesus’ teaching after his resurrection. Six weeks later the same disciples who fled when Jesus was arrested were now speaking boldly to thousands of people in the temple square in Jerusalem. This amazing transformation was evidence of a rapid maturity of their faith and new courage to serve the Lord as each had originally pledged.

Their message was simple. Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the long-awaited Messiah. He was rejected and killed by the Jewish leaders. Peter said: “This Jesus hath God raised up whereof we are witnesses” (Acts 2:32). His speech was dramatically convincing. About 3,000 people were baptized as a result of the Apostles’ preaching.

These newly baptized disciples comprised the core of the new ecclesia in Jerusalem. They added substantially to the 120 disciples who gathered before Pentecost in Jerusalem. This remarkable growth and very rapid expansion must have presented a great challenge to the disciples as they commenced to guide and organize this assembly of new believers. For several reasons, they would not all be able to meet in one place. It is unlikely there was an assembly hall large enough to accommodate such a sizeable group. As well, it would have been dangerous for such a substantial number to congregate in one place — the followers of Jesus having been threatened in a variety of ways when Jesus was among them. “The Jews had agreed already, that if any man did confess that he was Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22).

What now takes place is a remarkable and thoughtful approach to guiding the formation of this new ecclesia. We are left in no doubt as to how the apostles proceeded with this daunting task. It is clearly stated that the new disciples “…continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:44). Let us now examine each of these four pillars of the first century ecclesia within the immediate context of their application.

The Apostles doctrine

The three thousand Jews who were now disciples of Jesus living in Jerusalem and the surrounding area would have strong belief in the God of Israel, the promises to Abraham, a longing for Messiah and deliverance by God from Roman oppression. These were Godly, serious minded, and devoted Jews. They were in Jerusalem, at the temple, for the annual Feast of Pentecost. When Peter gave his stirring and compelling speech that convinced them of the Messiah-ship of Jesus, there was immediate response and submission to baptism. We should not conclude, however, that these new believers had complete understanding of the new way of life they had just embraced. Indeed the apostles themselves had only six weeks earlier come to understand how Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the prophetic teachings about Messiah.

The new Jewish converts had much to learn. They would need to understand in greater depth the wonderful message of Jesus, how redemption was obtained through His name and what daily life as a believer and follower of Jesus entailed. As well, they would need to understand how Jesus fulfilled the Law of Moses and in so doing how they must now abandon traditional worship as the Law prescribed. All was fulfilled in Christ and it would require a giant step of faith and understanding to lay aside Mosaic traditions that were central to the Jewish religious system. The Apostles’ doctrine (or more correctly, Apostles’ teaching) would center on Jesus as the head of their religious practice and the heart of their devotion and service to God.

The Apostles fellowship

As an assembly of new believers there was also much to learn about fellowship with other believers. In his startling instruction, Jesus had redefined the household of God. It would no longer be comprised only of Jews but would soon embrace a multitude of Gentiles in many distant lands. Christian Jews would need to learn that the people of God were those who followed the commands of Jesus. Part of this new fellowship would require identification of individuals among the Jewish community that were baptized believers. It was dangerous to be a believer in Jesus.
Affiliation with the synagogue was lost. Association with family and friends could be jeopardized. The ability to carry on life as previously lived would likely be seriously hindered. The fellowship of sharing, of Christ-like love and of caring for the practical and spiritual welfare of people not previously known as part of their religious family would constitute a momentous challenge. “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The apostles would teach them the privileges and obligations of this new fellowship.

Breaking of bread

It is very likely that the only people among the three thousand newly baptized Jewish believers who had direct experience eating bread and drinking wine in memory of the Lord, were the immediate disciples of Jesus. The Lord taught them and instructed them how to remember him in his absence at the Passover Feast. This was just forty days prior to Pentecost. The Apostles may have shared this with a few believers but certainly not with the newly baptized believers in Jerusalem. It was the Apostles’ responsibility to teach these new disciples how to remember the Lord in his absence, to show them how bread represented his body and wine his poured-out blood. This was a new religious observance. It would be taught from house to house on a daily basis, showing more and more people this simple, solemn way the Lord commanded His followers to remember Him. “And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart” (Acts 2:46).

Prayer

Throughout their history Jews have prayed to God and no doubt God-fearing Jews in first century Judaea prayed fervently. What need was there for the Apostles to provide instruction about prayer to newly baptized Jews in Jerusalem? There are a number of important aspects they would need to learn about prayer. There was a new mediator between God and man, Jesus, our intercessor. “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1Tim 2:5). The Levitical Priesthood had fulfilled its purpose and was no longer needed for intercession by God’s people. Their High Priest and mediator was Jesus Christ. The next thing they would need to learn was that prayer to God would be made in the name of Jesus. Because of his work and because of his exalted position at the right hand of God, Jesus was the means by which prayer and intercession was made acceptable to God. These were new concepts and would need to be explained and discussed with these recently baptized disciples.

Putting this all together

The work of the Apostles with new members of the ecclesia in Jerusalem is a true example of stewardship and effective guidance. Their work was focused on four key matters that would equip new disciples to be faithful in their walk and to ensure continuity, stability, and growth of the ecclesia.

Members of the new ecclesia in Jerusalem were taught doctrines and teachings about Jesus the Messiah and about Jesus their Savior. They would be given the “keys” to the Kingdom from Peter and the other Apostles. This teaching would be enlarged and enriched in the coming years as Spirit-guided letters were written to individuals and ecclesias by the Apostles.

The Apostles’ Template for Teaching Individual 

and Ecclesial Life in Christ 

Doctrine 

(Teaching)

The Jews needed to understand and accept that Jesus was the Son of God and Messiah. Forgiveness of sins was found only with belief in and obedience to the Lord’s commands. These teachings would require further instruction and development within the new ecclesia.
Fellowship Jesus redefined the Household of God using family terms (brother and sister). The ecclesia was now comprised of baptized followers of Jesus Christ. Disciples must learn how to practice Christ’s love and care for one another in this new fellowship of believers.
Breaking

of Bread

The emblems of bread and wine were the way that Jesus taught his followers to remember him until he returns. New disciples had to be instructed in this observance and its meaning.
Prayer Following the resurrection of Jesus, he became the Mediator and High Priest of God’s people. As Mediator, prayer was now made through the Name of Jesus. Animal sacrifices were to be abolished.
New Teachings for Converted Jews in Acts 2.

 

Newly baptized Jews would need to learn the parameters of a new fellowship defined by Jesus. Their spiritual brothers and sisters were no longer natural Jews by birth but were now spiritual Jews and Gentiles reborn in baptism. Their relationship with other believers should be considered a family relationship with all its obligations of love, care, and support. Other believers were to be considered brothers and sisters and treated as family. As an ecclesia they were all brethren of Jesus. New Jewish converts would need to learn how and why to remember the Lord Jesus in the Breaking of Bread. These symbols would replace their previous commitment and practice of Mosaic religious tradition, recognition of the Levitical priesthood, and offering of regular animal sacrifices. And finally, they would need to acknowledge Jesus as their mediator and High Priest. They would come to understand the purpose and priority of offering prayer through the saving name of Christ Jesus their Lord.

Their conversion required complete rethinking and reevaluation of their approach to God and how they should now worship in a new relationship with fellow believers. All this they learned from men who had only themselves recently learned these concepts and practices.

What wonderful events are shown to us at the end of Acts 2. The Holy Spirit was in action on behalf of God’s people and Christ’s ecclesia. The Apostles carried out their work faithfully and many people responded positively. The message they preached was simple yet profound. Peter addressed “…men of Judea, and all ye that dwell at Jerusalem” (Acts 2:14), and many people were baptized the same day. This preaching was readily understood and accepted. It was not complex. The fundamental message was taught — belief in Jesus as the Son of God, the prophesied Messiah of the Old Testament, belief in his resurrection, his ascension, individual repentance and baptism in the name of Jesus.

The four pillars of individual and ecclesial life in Christ were now in place and provide for us the template to guide our service to God in this age. The four pillars have not changed. Basic doctrine (Apostolic teachings), Fellowship, Breaking of Bread, and Prayer remain the same in concept and principle. For us, they continue as the foundation of our individual spiritual wellbeing and our ecclesial life together.

Ken Curry (Toronto East, ON)