During my fourth year at Nebraska Christian College I had a roommate from China. David worked for a well known company in China and had a good job, but he wanted an American education. Even though he was not a Christian David ended up at NCC because it was one of the few colleges that would admit him.
One day during second semester David asked me a question that haunts me to this day. He asked, “Are you a Christian?” David explained his question by saying, “All I ever see you do is play games and watch movies with your friends.”
A quick survey of the Church in the United States would show us that that question could be asked of most people who claim the name Christian. They might be faithful in church attendance, in saying daily prays, and in reading Bible, but the love, hope, peace, and joy that is to characterize their lives is absent. Why is that?
I think part of the reason is found in the way the Gospel is presented to people. We have emphasized belief and have not talked about the necessity of true Biblical repentance. This has resulted in people who intellectually believe in Jesus, but who have not given their loyalty to Jesus.
A second reason is because many church families have been content to make members rather than disciples. Members are happy to attend a worship service one day a week, but they are not prepared to have Jesus disrupt their lives. What is missing from many church families is true discipleship. We don't know how to help people mature in their faith.
How do we move people from having a belief in Jesus to becoming disciples of Jesus? Remember that on the day of Pentecost 3,000 people believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, repented, and were baptized. This presented a huge task for the 120 or so disciples of Jesus, because they were now expected to help mature these new believers into disciples.
How did this first group of Christ followers respond to the challenge? Acts 2:42 gives us the answer: And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (ESV).
In this one sentence Luke shows us the foundation of discipleship that the early church used. Their discipleship process focused on four priorities. As we take a look at these four priorities we can get a clear picture of what we need to do in order to help people move from merely claiming to be Christians to truly being disciples of Jesus Christ.
I think the first thing that needs to be emphasized is that the early church was devoted, in other words committed, to these four activities. We need to understand that woven within every effective discipleship process is a commitment to these four priorities.
The first priority that the early church was devoted to doing was learning from the apostles. If you continue reading Acts 2 you discover that these first Christians met daily in the Temple for prayer and teaching. They knew they needed the truth in order to know God's will.
This is the starting point of all true discipleship: having the humility to be a student of the Bible (the New Testament being the collection of the apostles’ teaching). Being a student not only requires learning the material, but it also requires apply the lessons learned to our lives. James tells us:
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. (James 1:22-25; ESV)
The true benefit of teaching isn’t the information that we receive, but it is the knowledge that we gain. True knowledge is seen in applying what we have learned. To be devoted to the apostles' teaching requires the dual actions of hearing and doing. True discipleship requires both.
The next priority that the early church was committed to doing was fellowship. True fellowship is more than spending time together, it is being involved the lives of each other. This truth is plainly seen in Acts 2:23-27. Here we discover that the first Christians ate together, worshiped together, and generously helped each other.
To be committed to the fellowship isn’t about attending events and “hanging out”, but it is about doing life together. One of the place where we see this taught is in Hebrews 10:22-25:
[L]et us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (ESV)
The key phrase in the passage is let us. You need to realize that Hebrews was a book written to Jewish Christians who were struggling with persecution. The persecution had them considering a return to Judaism. the encouragement the writer of Hebrews offers these people is: Do life together.
That is what true fellowship is all about. It is hard to come by in our culture, even in the Church, but it is essential for discipleship to be effective. We need people who will encourage us, offer a shoulder to cry on, and help in a time of need. They will also work alongside of us as serve the greater community. Discipleship requires true fellowship with fellow Christians.
The third priority is the breaking of bread. Now there is some debate over what this means. My position is that this a reference to communion.
The reason I believe that is because Greek it literally says; the breaking of the bread. While breaking of bread refers to the simple act of sharing meals, the extra “the” I think indicates something specific, and that would be the Lord’s Supper (which was observed during a common meal, so in a sense both meanings fit).
The reason Communion is so vital to our discipleship is because it is our time to examine our hearts and our commitment to Jesus. Yes, it is a time for us to remember Jesus and His sacrifice, but that is not its only purpose. The apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 wrote:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. (ESV)
One question that we have to consider when it comes to Communion is: “Do I want to be a part of God’s Kingdom?” The answer to that question will tell us a lot about the condition of our heart and whether or not we will surrender our lives to Jesus. When we take Communion we are reaffirming our desire to be part of God’s covenant people, and thus it provides us with a brand new start to our lives. That is why Communion is so vital to our lives as disciples.
The last priority we find mentioned in Acts 2:42 is that of prayer. The early Christians were not only devoted to prayering, but they were specifically devoted to praying at certain times of the day.
It is my belief that they continued the tradition of the Jews to pray at 9AM, Noon, and 3PM. One reason I think this is the cases is because in Acts 3:1 we read that Peter and John went to the Temple at the time of prayer.
To be devoted to prayer isn’t just about feeling comfortable about praying throughout the day, but it requires having a set time each day to pray. This is a sacred time for us and we do not let anything else interfere with our time of connecting with God.
A great example of this is found in the Old Testament. Daniel was a man of prayer, and because some people were jealous of his success they were able to trick the king into passing law that forbid praying. The penalty for praying was death. This is what Daniel 6:10 tells us:
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem. He got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously (ESV).
Not only did Daniel pray in the face of death, but he also thanked God while he was in exile. Right there we find two excuse many of us would use for not praying. How can we pray when it would cost us our life? How can we thank God when our lives aren’t what we hoped they would be? That was not Daniel's attitude. He was committed to praying three times a day, even if it cost him his life.
If we are going to follow Jesus then we must understand how vital it is to have a daily time of communication with our Heavenly Father. Prayer was an essential part of the life of Jesus, therefore, it needs to be an essential part of our lives.
I have quickly walked you through the four priorities the early church had as the sought to make disciples of Jesus. Much more could be said about each of these priorities, but hopefully you can see how vital these things are to the life of a Christian.
If we are going to have disciples of Jesus Christ in this country then we must insist that our church families make these four priorities the foundation of their discipleship program. After all, if the early church found these four priorities to be essential for their growth, then it is a good bet these priorities will be essential for our growth as well.