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Third Quarter 2018 • July, August, September
COMMENTARY—THE BOOK OF ACTS
Week 3: July 14–20
COMMENTARY ON "Life in the Early Church"
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
It’s both interesting and frustrating to address the Bible teaching of a false church that is posing as the Bible-believing, one true church of Revelation. Unpacking this week’s Sabbath School lesson is no exception. Entitled “Life in the Early Church”, this week’s Quarterly studies hopscotch between passages from Acts 2, Acts 3, Acts 4, and Acts 5. None of the lesson’s passages are used in the context of the entire chapters, and the author uses these verses to support the Adventist worldview and doctrine.
Judaism or something new?
Saturday’s and Sunday’s lessons emphasize the communal unity of the earliest believers and the explosive growth in converts as the apostles preached day by day. Significantly, the lesson emphasizes the believers’ meeting daily at the temple and their common use of their own material possessions to provide for one another. While the full context of Acts 2 puts the believers’ meetings in the temple in the context of teaching the Jews, the Adventist concern is to stress the continuation of the law and of, ultimately, the Sabbath.
In fact, Acts 2:42 outlines the core practices of a local church:
They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
The lesson (Sunday, p. 32) quotes this verse but them summarizes it this way: “The four items noted appear to be basically teaching and fellowship. According to verse 46, the teaching was carried out in the temple, while the fellowship was in private homes.”
The author continues by pointing out that sharing their homes, their food, and their material possessions also marked the early believers.
While none of the things this lesson states are overtly wrong, they are incomplete. In fact, Acts 2:42 is a central passage for what a church should be to this day. Furthermore, these four things cannot be casually clumped into the categories of “teaching and fellowship”. Those four activities are distinct and indispensable.
First, devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching meant they were hearing God’s word preached and taught day by day. The apostles weren’t just teaching that Jews needed to “accept Jesus”. They were teaching expository lessons from the Old Testament (as Peter did on the Day of Pentecost as recorded in Acts 2) and showing how Jesus was the One whom God promised would come. They emphasized that the audience, the Jews, killed Him, their own Creator and the Author of life, but on the third day He rose.
The believers were learning how all of the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament were fulfilled in Jesus!
This kind of teaching—contextual expository Bible teaching showing that Jesus is the Way and the One through whose shed blood we are eternally saved—is still what defines the gathering of the local church.
Second, fellowship of the believers defines a true gathering of the body of Christ. Adventists are quick to hold “fellowship lunches” in the “fellowship rooms” of their churches, but the fellowship in Acts 2 was not the fellowship of people gathered around a false gospel. Adventism does not teach contextual Bible study showing how Jesus fulfilled everything spoken of the Messiah in the law, the prophets, and the Psalms (Lk. 24:44).
Adventists are not defined by believing in the finished work of our Lord Jesus; they are defined, rather, by accepting the Sabbath, the state of the dead, and the prophetic authority of Ellen White in addition to “believing in Jesus”. New converts may not fully understand that these beliefs are implied in their Adventist baptisms, but they are. People who rally around Adventism are not, generally, born again through belief in the name of Jesus. Rather, they are convinced by the Sabbath and the twisted teaching of the law.
Christian fellowship, on the other hand, is not defined by common denominational beliefs but by the unity of the Holy Spirit as His gifts minister to the church through evangelists, pastors, and teachers—and in the founding of the church through the apostles and prophets as well. The unity of the Holy Spirit is unable to be generated by people desiring to have a common goal. It is miraculous, and it is only possible in a group of truly born again people dedicated to the apostles teaching—even today.
Paul explains this unique unity of the body of Christ this way in Ephesians 4:11–13:
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Eph. 4:11–16).
Third, the “breaking of the bread” listed in Acts 2:42 almost certainly refers to sharing the Lord’s table together. The following verses clarify that the believers shared their homes and their food and their money with each other “with gladness and sincerity of heart” (v. 46), but the “breaking of the bread” refers to the meal the Lord Jesus gave to His disciples. It is a meal which only those who have trusted in Christ and have been born again may eat. As Hebrews 13:10 says,
We have an altar from which those who serve the tabernacle have no right to eat.
In other words, those who cling to the law which was the basis of the tabernacle and all its services, have no right to eat from the altar of the cross of Christ. They have no right to partake of communion unless they have been ushered into the new covenant in Jesus’ blood through faith in His finished work. Sharing the breaking of the bread cannot be casually dismissed by saying it simply defines “fellowship”.
Finally, praying together is the fourth activity the early church embraced. Again, prayer is not a mere component of getting together. Prayer is the continual command of the New Testament for believers. Paul is forceful in Ephesians 6 that our battles are not with flesh and blood. Rather, we struggle against “the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
We are commanded to “continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God” (Heb. 13:15). We are commanded to devote ourselves to prayer, “keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving, praying at the same time…that God will open up to us a door for the mystery of Christ” (Col 4:2–3). We are to pray “at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints” (Eph. 6:18). We are to “rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes. 5:16–18).
When the local body of Christ prays together, sharing their unity in Christ through the indwelling Holy Spirit, they are praying for God’s will, agreeing together with God about their own need and about God’s faithfulness and provision. The local body praying together is engaged in warfare against cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
In other words, the lesson’s diminishment of these four activities eclipses the true nature of the church and what it is called to do. These can’t be seen as general categories that can be transplanted onto the doctrinal structure of a false gospel.
The lesson quotes Ellen White from her book Gospel Workers p. 156–57: “of all professing Christians Seventh-day Adventists should be foremost in uplifting Christ before the world. The proclamation of the third angel’s message calls for the presentation of the Sabbath truth. This truth, with others included in the message, is to be proclaimed; but the great center of attraction, Christ Jesus, must not be left out.”
This quotation reveals the true shape of Adventism. It is not the gospel of the Lord Jesus. Rather, it is a message built around Sabbath and the commandments. This teaching is not Christianity. Rather, it claims for itself the law and the “specialness” God gave Israel—and it is NOT Israel. Instead, Adventism is built around spiritual disciplines to which it adds Jesus.
Obscuring Jesus’ Sacrifice
On page 33 in Monday’s lesson, the author significantly eclipses Jesus and His eternal sacrifice. The author says, “Five main points characterized early Christian preaching: Jesus was the suffering Messiah (Acts 3:18); God resurrects Him (Acts 3:15); Jesus was exalted in heaven (Acts 3:13); He will come again (Acts 3:20); and repentance is necessary for the forgiveness of sins” (Acts 3:19).
The deliberate choice of the proof texts in the preceding paragraph is designed to keep the reader from the full impact of Jesus’ death, resurrection, and the need to bow before Him and His shed blood. Here is the full passage of Acts 3:11–26:
While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, utterly astounded, ran together to them in the portico called Solomon's. And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
“And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness” (Acts 3:11–26).
The passage shows us that Christian preaching was not simply marked by identifying Jesus as “the suffering Messiah”. In fact, such a message would be easily embraced by the gospel of Adventism. They teach that Jesus did die for sins…but that believing in His death is simply part of the “puzzle”. One must believe and keep the Sabbath, believe in soul sleep, and also believe in annihilation.
The passage quoted above, however, shows that the message of the apostles was that one must have faith in Jesus’ name in order to be saved. There is NO forgiveness apart from belief in Jesus’ name and in His finished work. Simply saying we have to repent for forgiveness is to miss Jesus. Only through believing and having faith in Jesus are we born again. Jesus is all we need.
Adventism does not teach this biblical truth.
What about the Holy Spirit?
The lesson acknowledges that the believers were filled with the Holy Spirit, but the significance of this amazing reality that defines the church is missed. Tuesday’s lesson refers to the opposition that arose in Acts 4 to Peter’s healing of a lame man in the temple. The author, however, presents the issue as jealously for power on the part of the Jewish leaders in the face of the apostles’ miracles. He says on page 34:
“The apostles were before the highest Jewish body; yet, they were in the the service of a much higher authority. These men were simple, unschooled Galilean fisherman; thus, their courage and eloquence struck those who were there. Although the leaders did not realize it, the point was that the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit, exactly as Jesus had foretold (Mat. 10:16–20).”
While nothing is wrong with the words of this passage, it misses the point: the apostles, like all the believers, were indwelled by the Holy Spirit because they trusted in the Lord Jesus. They had been born into and adopted into the Father’s own family, and they had become joint heirs with Christ through their belief and new birth (Rom. 8: 16–17). The apostles were given the gifts of signs and wonders to validate their message as they preached Jesus in the world. They did miracles that only God could do; God endorsed His message in their mouths by giving them the same marks of His authority in the world which Jesus had during His ministry.
In fact, the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 further emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit n the new covenant. Wednesday’s lesson deals with this story, but again, the real significance of this story is eclipsed. The lesson says,
“Though Luke has not given us all the details, there is no question that the fundamental problem of Ananias and Sapphira was not the attempt to keep the money, but the practice of deceit within the community. Their sin was not the result of an impulsive act but of a carefully laid plan, a deliberate attempt ‘to test the Spirit of the Lord” (Acts 5:9, ESV)≥The bottom line is that, from the beginning to the end, they had acted sinfully, and sin is a serious matter in God’s eyes (Ezek. 18:20, Rom. 6:23).”
Again, these things are true. Ananias and Sapphira did sin, and God does take sin seriously. Nevertheless, they were not the only sinners in the early church. Their deaths, however, were significant enough to warrant a role in God’s eternal word.
Ananias and Sapphira usurped God’s authority and power. They did not take seriously the fact that God now dwelt in the temple of His body, the church, and not in a temple made by hands. Each member of the body is indwelled by God Himself, and this husband and wife thought they could ignore their promises made to God who indwelled the apostles and the believers who knew of their pledge. Instead, they believed they could privately agree to keep part of what they pledge, and their deceit would be undetected. They simply ignored the gravity of believers being indwelled by God!
Thus, at the very beginning of the church, in the earliest days of the new covenant being God’s provision for His people, He confirmed His holiness and His omniscience and let the new body of believers know that He was God even though there were no majestic temples or public ceremonies to remind them. He was intimately present among them, and if anyone attempted to hurt, deceive, or otherwise sin against others, He would see, and He would deal with it. They were not to take Him for granted. The new covenant administration was for His glory and His purposes, not for the people’s pleasure. They were His servants, and He was their Lord.
Their story echoes the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu were serving in the tabernacle shortly after they and their father had been ordained and established as priests of God after He gave the commands for offering the sacrifices and performing the ceremonies. They had been given specific instruction about how to offer incense and fire before the Lord, but they flaunted God’s instructions and offered their own “strange fire” to God. Leviticus 10:1–3 tells the story:
Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace (Leviticus 10:1–3).
At the very beginning of the Mosaic covenant, God showed Israel that they could never take Him for granted. He is a holy God, and worship of Him must be done the way He says to do it; people cannot decide that whatever they want to do is good enough. God reveals what He demands. He is sovereign.
Both stories occurred at the very beginning of the eras of the Mosaic and of the new covenants. Like Nadab and Abihu, Ananias and Sapphira assumed that they would be permitted some autonomy in how they served God, but God demonstrated that the covenants existed for Him, not them. The people could not deceive God, even though they did their deceptions privately.
Adventism teaches that God is gracious and considers the directions of our lives. If we are trying our best and obeying as well as we can, He makes up the rest. The Bible teaches, however, that God is holy, and our sin can never be ignored. We cannot trample on God’s grace; we can only throw ourselves on His mercy on the basis of Jesus’ blood and allow Him to make us completely new.
This week’s Sabbath School lessons do not teach what Acts actually says about the founding of the church. God is holy, and those who have faith in the name of Jesus and His finished work are born again. They are sealed by the Holy God indwelling them in the person of the Holy Spirit, and they are also holy.
Adventism doesn’t “see” or understand the new birth because it denies the existence of the human spirit. Adventism doesn’t teach “original sin” and our natural depravity. It doesn’t understand that God doesn’t makes us GOOD; rather, He makes us ALIVE through faith in Him and by His Spirit.
Acts seemed incredibly boring to me when I was an Adventist because I did not understand the truth about my nature or the nature of God and the gospel. Now I see that Acts is an account that describes the founding of the body of Christ. Every person who trusts in Jesus is born again into the “church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). When we believe, we become part of the whole body, both those alive now and those who are already in the presence of the Lord awaiting our glorification together!
As long as Adventism clings to the authority of Ellen White and refuses to believe that the gospel teaches we are saved entirely and eternally through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus alone, it will misunderstand Acts and also the entire Bible. Only those who abandon false prophets and give up the behaviors they’ve added to the gospel will be able to experience the wonder of life in the body of Christ.