We Gather Together (2) — To Learn

Last week, we began a new sermon series entitled, “We Gather Together”, and we’re taking a look at what happens when Christians gather together in the same room.  This morning, we’re going to be in Acts chapter 2.

            But first, a quick show of hands – how many of you enjoy going to school?  How many of you don’t like going to school?

            I’m someone who usually enjoys going to school, but I do have to say that it depends a lot on the teacher.  Sueanne and I had some teachers in school that we absolutely dreaded going to their class, and we had other teachers that we were excited to learn from.  And when you have a teacher like that, you just want to learn more and more.  They make you want to learn more.

            Today, when it comes to education, we’ve got lots of options. You don’t actually have to go to school anymore.  You can go online and take classes.  And there are some online classes that are very fulfilling. You can get some really good teachers, get good information.  And they give it to you in a very compelling manner.

            Well, it’s the same when it comes to the church.  We’ve got lots of options.  You don’t actually have to go to church anymore.  You can go online and hear just about any gifted preacher or teacher these days because most of them stream their lessons. 

            Think back about four years ago, when COVID pretty much shut everything down.  Churches shut down.  For several months, I came to this building and I preached to empty chairs in an empty room, and it wasn’t a great experience.

            But as time went on, people started slowly coming back.  And we were very blessed here at Cruciform because all of our members came back.  But there are a lot of other churches that were not as fortunate, and there were some people who never did come back.

            But a lot of those folks still watch sermons online.  According to one poll (Pew Research), they found that 27% of those who stayed home to watch worship online during COVID are still doing that. That means almost a third of the people who left and had an online experience are still watching from home.  They have different reasons for doing that.

            One person said, “It gives me more freedom and extra time to multitask and do some other things.”  In other words, while the preacher is preaching, I can cook a meal, fold some clothes and play Candy Crush.  Another person wrote, “I don’t have to get dressed to go to church. I can watch and listen more than once, and I don’t have to worry about being infected with other people’s germs.”

            Then, there are some people who do both – sometimes they worship in-person but sometimes they watch online.  They may miss a week at church because they’re traveling or somebody’s sick.  And we get that.  In fact, I’m very thankful that we have the convenience of that option.

            But, of the people who do both in-person and online worship, they overwhelmingly say they prefer coming in person — 76% to 11%.  So, here’s my question.  Does it really matter whether or not you come in person to hear the preacher preach?

            I mean, a sermon is a sermon.  It’s an oral presentation before an audience.  Is going to church even worth it anymore?  When I can listen to better preaching online, why would I want to the in-person experience?  And so, we’re doing this series, “We Gather Together” with that theme in mind.  And what we want to do is to look at the very first church in Jerusalem in the second chapter of the book of Acts.

            I’m stating the obvious when I say that this was way before there was an internet.  They didn’t have the option to stream the apostle Paul live in their homes.  They couldn’t get online and check out Peter.com to see what he preached last Sunday.  They couldn’t do any of that.  They gathered together.

            Now, before we even read the text, I want to say something to the people who may be listening to this sermon online, because we recognize that you are there,

            Most of you here probably don’t realize this but we actually have about 15,000 people a month who are watching these sermons on our church website.  Other than the United States, most of those viewers come from the Philippines, Nigeria, South Africa, India, Kenya, Canada and the United Kingdom.  So, we love the fact that you are there.  In fact, we would like for our online audience to grow.  

            It’s not that being online is bad, and being in person is good.  All I’m saying is — don’t do it all alone.  Someone has put it this way — virtual church is convenient, but it’s like a takeout meal compared to a gourmet feast at a fancy restaurant.  We need to have a community of people around us where we can feed on the Word of God together. 

            So, with that in mind, let’s go to Acts chapter 2, verse 1 — “When the day of Pentecost arrived…”  The Jewish Pentecost is 50 days after Passover.  It usually falls around the end of May or the beginning of June.  This year, Pentecost was last Sunday, May 19.

            But Pentecost is always 50 days after Passover.  So, that means this was about seven weeks after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It’s all still very fresh to them, and there were 120 of these disciples gathered together in an upper room.  “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.”

            Let’s go down to verse 40. “And with many other words he [Peter] bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’  So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” (Acts 2:40-41)

            Talk about some sudden church growth!  In one day, they went from 120 disciples to 3,000 disciples.

            Verse 42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles.  And all who believed were together and had all things in common.” (Acts 2:42-44)

            “And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people.  And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:45-47)

            What a beautiful scene this is!  And it must have exciting to be a part of that early church.  But, for the leaders of that church, it must have been a challenge.  What do you do with 3,000 new Christians?  As the apostles try to deal with this massive crowd, what are they going to do?  What activities are they going to engage in?

            This morning, I want us to look at one of the things they did, and I want to share with you four guiding principles — To grow, you must learn. To learn, you must hear. To hear, you must commit. To commit, you must come.  Those are the four principles.  So, let’s take a look at them one at a time.

1.         To grow, you must learn.

            Look again at verse 42.  This is the verse we’re going to focus in on.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”

            I like that the English Standard Version uses the word “teaching” here because some of the translations use the word “doctrine” and that can turn some people off because it sounds kinda stuffy, it’s a church-sounding word.  And so, people will sometimes say, “I’m not all that interested in getting into doctrine.”

            But let’s not get hung up on that word, because it just means truth or instruction, truth that is taught by a teacher to a group — that’s what doctrine is.  It just means good, solid teaching because to grow spiritually, you have to learn.  So, these new Christians devoted themselves, they continued steadfastly, in the apostles’ teaching.

            Maybe one of the reasons we don’t like the idea of doctrine is because we approach life the same way we approach our cars.  I would imagine that most of you have in the glove compartment of your automobile this little thing called an owner’s manual.  Let me ask you a question — how many of you here have read your owner’s manual from cover to cover?   Maybe one or two of you, but most of us don’t do that.

            You want to know when you read the owner’s manual?  You may say, when there’s a problem with the car.  But the truth is, you probably don’t even read it then.  Because when there’s a problem with your car, you know what you do?  You go online, you go to YouTube and you find a video on how to fix the problem because that’s the quickest and easiest way to do it.

            Well, a lot of people approach life that way.  We have the manual of truth on how our lives should be lived.  But what do we do when we’re in trouble?  We get online and we go to YouTube.

            Dr. Michael Vlach has made the statement, “There is a crisis of biblical knowledge in the American church.”  And the prophet Hosea would agree with that.  In Hosea chapter 4, God said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge…you have rejected knowledge.” (Hosea 4:6).

            But, in the early church, there was this large group of new Christians who were learning.  And they’re excited about learning.  And they’re growing spiritually because they’re learning.

            I like the way John Stott described it.  He wrote. “One might say that the Holy Spirit opened a school in Jerusalem that day.  The school teachers were the apostles whom Jesus had appointed and trained, and there were 3,000 pupils in kindergarten.”  

            These Christians didn’t know much, but they weren’t expected to know much because they were new Christians.  So, they needed doctrine, they needed teaching, they needed instruction, because if you want to grow, you’ve got to learn.  By the way, this wasn’t the only thing on the list of what those early Christians did.  They did more than just that – there was the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, prayers.

            But teaching was the first thing on this list, maybe because this was their most important priority.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be a priority for a lot of people today.  People go looking for a church and they want to know, How’s the kids’ program?  How good is the singing?  What time do they get out?

            Now, I’ve got to say that I’m impressed with the number of visitors we have here at Cruciform who say to me, “One of the things I like about this church is that I finally get to hear sermons that are Bible-based.”  And while it makes me sad to know that there are other churches where they didn’t have that experience, it makes me happy to know that’s what they want and it makes me happy to know that that’s what they find here.

            Because, when I preach, I’m not here to just give you my opinion.  I want to always be saying, look at what this verse says.  Look at what the text says.  Because scripture is the basis for our authority – it is our guide for what we do and how we live.  If I just give you my opinion, frankly, that’s not worth very much.  But when I share with you what God has to say, I can do so with great confidence because that’s where our authority lies.

            That’s why Peter wrote, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18).  If you want to grow spiritually, then you need to come to a better knowledge of Jesus Christ.  But, to do that, you’ve got to look to the scriptures.

            Because as I learn more and more about the Bible, I come to know more and more about Jesus.  And I come to know more and more about God.  I get a better understanding of who he is, what he likes, what he hates, what he’s into, what he wants from me.  I get to know him.  Now, you can learn a lot about God by looking elsewhere. In fact, you can look around at this world and understand that God is powerful and creative.

            David wrote in Psalm 19, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (Psalm 19:1).  I can look around, go to the mountains, go to the beach, and go, wow, God is creative, and he’s powerful, and he’s glorious.

            If I want to know about God, I can look around.  But if I want to know God, I don’t look to the world.  I look to the Word.  God’s Word tells me much more about God than looking around can ever tell me.  Because the Word of God doesn’t just tell you about God.  You get to know God.

            So, as we gather together to worship God, we’re also here learn about the God we worship.  And as we do that, we grow spiritually.  So that’s first.  To grow, you must learn. 

2.         To learn, you must hear

            Look again at verse 42, and notice the word right before the word “teaching”.  “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”  What does that mean?  What’s the apostles’ teaching?

            That just meant the apostles instructed those New Testament Christians.  They taught them about Jesus.  They taught them the significance of the crucifixion.  They taught them the truth about the resurrection.  They taught them all the things that Jesus did and all the things that Jesus said while he was here on this earth, and they taught them what Jesus expected from them – what they needed to stop doing and what they needed to start doing.  So, the apostles taught those young Christians.  

            And while they were teaching, those new Christians were listening.  They’re hearing.  Because to grow, you must learn.  But then, to learn, you must hear.  In Romans 10, Paul put it this way, “How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14)

            Let me say this about preachers and teachers because I am one.  God uses preachers and teachers to speak his Word.  But speaking mouths require listening ears.  That’s one of the reasons why COVID was so frustrating.  I knew people were listening out there somewhere, or at least I hoped they were.  But I’m preaching to an empty room, and that dynamic is lost.  So, speaking mouths require listening ears.

            Eight times, Jesus said, “He who has ears to hear let him hear.”  That was his way of saying, “Pay attention!” or “Listen up!”  When Jesus said that, he was making a distinction between two different kinds of people.  Everyone has ears, but not everyone has ears to hear.  Not everyone is willing to hear the Word of God and open themselves up to understand it and accept it so that it transforms their life.

            I love what Charles Spurgeon once said. “We as preachers, take the Word to people’s ears; only the Holy Spirit can take the Word from the ear into the heart.”  So, the general rule is — people grow by learning, and they learn by hearing.  

3.         To hear, you must commit

            Back to verse 42.  Notice that this verse doesn’t say, those early Christians listened to the apostles’ teaching.  It doesn’t say they heard the apostles’ doctrine.  Notice what it says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.”  That takes it to a whole newlevel.

            That describes an audience that’s committed.  They’ve given their lives over to hearing this teaching.  Other translations put it this way, “They continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine” (NKJV).   Another translation, “They gave constant attention to the apostles’ doctrine.”  Another translation says, “They were regularly present.” (TCNT)

            This wasn’t something they did at first and then they moved on because they wanted something more exciting.  Can you imagine any of those Christians saying, “Yeah, I used to go to the apostles’ church.  I used to be into the apostles’ teaching, but now I’ve moved on.  Now I go to a church that makes me feel good.”

            No.  They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching because the apostles explained to them the foundation of what we believe and why we should believe it, and how we ought to live. 

            So, for a person to say, I used to be into doctrine, but I’m not anymore — that’s like saying, “I used to be into eating, but now I’ve moved on.  My mom’s cooking, that was great.  It was very nourishing.  But now I’ve graduated to junk food.  It’s more exciting, it’s more fun.”

            Listen to how Peter described our desire to learn more, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation.” (I Peter 2:2).   We’ve all listened to a baby’s cry when he wants something to eat.  And he will cry and cry and cry until you finally give him some milk. 

            Peter says that’s the way it ought to be in our spiritual lives.  God’s Word is our food, and we need to desire that food the way a baby desires milk.  Because that’s how we grow.  And if we’re not taking in that spiritual nourishment, that spiritual food, we become weak and malnourished.  Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy, said, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”  

            But here’s the thing about hearing the truth.  If you stop listening to it for a while, you will very quickly grow deaf to its instruction for a very simple reason.  There are many other voices out there, even louder voices out there, telling you to do exactly the opposite.  

            So, we need to learn so that we might grow. In order to grow and learn, we have to hear. But, to hear, we’ve got to commit.  Because the spiritual growth that comes by learning takes place slowly and gradually over time.

            It’s like taking vitamins. Anybody here take vitamins?  I take a vitamin every morning.  I don’t take vitamins expecting a surge to happen after I swallow it.  No, I take vitamins — and you do too — for the long-term benefit.  It’s the same way in our spiritual lives.  Our spiritual growth that comes by learning takes place slowly and gradually over time, so we need to commit ourselves to stay with it.

            Jesus prayed in John 17, “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your Word is truth.”  We get sanctified, we get changed into the image of Jesus Christ by constant exposure to the truth of God’s Word.  That’s how it happens. So, to grow, you must learn. To learn, you must hear. To hear, you must commit.  And then, finally…

4.         To commit, you must come

            Go back to verse 1, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place.”  And then in verse 44. “And all who believed were together and had all things in common.”

            I want you to see that the greater context of all this learning is their gathering together.  They were committed to hearing, to learning, to growing, and that’s what brought them together.  Now, that’s not to say that you can’t enjoy a sermon on TV, or that you can’t learn from watching a sermon online.  Because, if I believed that, I wouldn’t be posting these sermons online.

            But there is tremendous value in learning together with other people, having others around you as you hear and learn.

            I like the way Francis Chan describes this.  He talks about the fact that, in Philippians 3, Paul describes our Christian lives as a race to reach the prize.  And Chan says, in the past, he tended to view himself as an individual runner in this race, where we are all racing against everyone else and our goal is to run the race well and reach the finish line, and it doesn’t matter whether anyone else crosses the finish line or not.

            But Chan says that he no longer sees the Christian life as that kind of a race.  Because we know that God designed us to work together and to rely on one another in the church.  And, if we apply this idea to Paul’s race imagery, it’s not a me-against-the-world type of race.  Instead, it’s more like a three-legged race where one of your legs is strapped to the leg of the person next to you.  And depending on how many Christians God has placed around you, this is a many-legged race.  It’s not about me crossing the finish line alone; it’s about all of us crossing the finish line together.

            The reality of the church is that I am not responsible only for my own spiritual growth; I’m also responsible for the people God has placed in my life.  It should matter to me that those people “attain the prize” as well.

            So, teaching is not about us building ourselves up – it’s about us strengthening the people around us.  If all that mattered was my own spiritual growth, then I would just study the Bible at home and never share it with anyone else.  But that’s not the way God designed the church to function. 

            The church is designed to be a beautiful give-and-take where every person learns and grows and takes the time to help the people around him or her to learn and grow at the same time.  But, to do that, we need to be together.

            Yes, sermons online can be a valuable tool.  But social media can never replace the church. It can supplement the church, but it can never replace the church.  

            Elizabeth Segal in Psychology Today wrote, “No matter how sophisticated we make the technology, it will never replace the feelings and connections of being physically with others, face-to-face. Being with others in person is the answer to building human connections. It can be aided, but not replaced by technology.”

            So, I say to you, use the technology. But don’t let the technology replace the theology of gathering together as the church.  Someone has said that online church is like fast food — it’s quick and convenient, but lacking that homemade goodness.  Sure, it’s got its perks, but nothing beats the real deal, gathering together, breaking bread, and digging into God’s Word as a community.

            To grow, you must learn. To learn, you must hear. To hear, you must commit.  To commit, you must come. 

            One of my favorite stories about Bible teaching is found in Nehemiah chapter 8.  I like it because Ezra and the men who are with him are reading God’s Word to the people and then explaining what.  

            It starts this way, “And all the people gathered as one man into the square.” (Nehemiah 8:1), very similar to what we saw in Acts 2.  And then, Ezra brought “the Book of the Law of Moses” and he read that law to the people, teaching from it.

            And in verse 4, “the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.”  They were listening, they were hearing, they were learning and growing.  Then in verse 6, “all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen,’ lifting up their hands.  And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.”

            It’s a beautiful scene with all the people gathered together and everyone responding together after hearing God’s Word.  Because when we gather with other Christians as we listen to the word of God, it’s a much deeper and much richer experience.

            Because when we come together, it’s not just a sermon, it’s a spiritual feast, a banquet where we grow, learn, and thrive together. So, come hungry, come expectant, and let’s feast on God’s Word together!


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