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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-1-3 Prayer Meetings

They “continued” in the doctrine, [example of] prayer and fellowship of the apostles (Acts 2:42,46; 8:13). The same word is used of how we must “continue” in prayer (Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2), i.e. follow the example of the early ecclesia in prayerfulness. The disciples had “continued” in prayer after the Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:14), and now their converts continued in prayer too. Note in passing that we continue in the pattern of those who convert us. Thus to start with, Simon “continued with Philip” (Acts 8:13). This means that who we are affects the spiritual quality of others. So important was prayer in the early community that the seven deacons had to make arrangements for the practical running of the ecclesia so that they could give themselves more time for prayer (Acts 6:4); prayerfulness was more important than petty administration. Husbands and wives abstained from sex for short periods so as to more powerfully pray individually (1 Cor. 7:5). Communal prayer was a source of their fellowship, their “one accord”: “They continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42 NKJ). And they were “instant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). They got on their knees straight away. In Acts 12:5 they called a prayer meeting about Peter’s imprisonment. 1 Tim. 5:5 shows that the sign of a true widow was that she continued in prayers night and day. She was supported materially so that she could keep up this work of praying for others (abused into the Catholic system of paying for prayers to be said). There was a specific group of “widows” in the early ecclesias, as in Acts 7. Their duty was to pray for others; so important was prayer seen. 1 Pet. 3:7 gives an unexpected reason for appealing for husbands and wives to get along with each other: that your prayers be not hindered. So important was prayer in the thinking of Peter. Comparing ourselves with the first century community, it seems to me that we simply don’t give prayer the place of importance which they did. 1 Tim 2:1 reflects their balance: “I exhort therefore, that, first of all [the Greek implies ‘most importantly’ rather than just being first in a list], supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men”. The scant information which we are given about Lydia and Cornelius before their conversions includes the fact that they were given to prayer; indeed, the implication is that they came to the Gospel as a result of their prayerfulness and the witness of the prayer meetings (Acts 10:31; 16:13,16).  

The prayerfulness of the first century prayer meeting movement should shock us into improvement. We can be shy to ask each other to pray, embarrassed to immediately suggest we pray as we sit there together discussing a problem or another brother’s misfortune. We have much room for improvement here. But there are some good examples within our own ranks. I telephoned a sister recently. Her young daughter answered. I asked, ‘Can I speak to mummy please?’. ‘Well, err, could you call back?’ she replied. ‘Well, is mummy at home? I can hold…’, I went on. ‘Well, you see mummy can’t come to the telephone because she’s praying. She always does after lunch’. Like a picture worth ten thousand words, so was this to me, as an exhortation to regular and unashamed prayer, in the midst of life’s myriad distractions. 

And it’s worth enquiring what the early church prayed for at their prayer meetings. It wasn’t just for physical deliverance and for the Gospel to prosper. An analysis of Paul’s prayers reveal that they were overwhelmingly for the spiritual development of the new converts. He must have been surrounded by so many more ‘material’ things to pray for, such as safe keeping, help for the persecuted and those who had lost their homes and families due to persecution, better economic conditions etc. Paul was one of those people who saw to the essence of things very quickly; and the ultimate essence is that people grow spiritually in whatever situation they are in. And he also perceived that personal spiritual growth is what will be the most powerful witness which will spread the Gospel yet further. Thus he prays for his converts to have unity (Rom. 15:5), overflowing hope (Rom. 15:13), abounding love and moral purity (1 Thess. 3:12,13), hearts encouraged (2 Thess. 2:16,17), continual peace (2 Thess. 3:12), perseverance (2 Thess. 3:16).