Can you imagine what it would be like to go to a huge religious conference in a city a rather long way from your home and while there hearing some things about a new way of life and new teaching that hit your heart to the fullest extent, so that you made a firm commitment to follow this new teacher and new way of life? Just imagine that you left home a week ago as a devoted Jew, bound by the Old Testament Law, knowing you were one of God’s chosen people and you were going to celebrate with thousands of other believers the feast of Pentecost. But while you are there, you hear a loud roar and are drawn to an area where you see men walking around with tongues of fire coming from the top of their heads. You see they are all men who look alike, yet they are speaking in all kinds of different languages and you can understand what is being said in your native tongue. Suddenly one man stood up and began preaching to the crowd about a man named Jesus, who was sent from God as Lord and Savior of the world. Your own people, and people from his own background rejected him and put him to death with the help of Roman authorities. But then the man preaching said that death couldn’t hold him and that God had raised him from the dead and they were witnesses of the whole thing. It was this resurrected Lord who had sent the Holy Spirit upon them and this Jesus was now both Lord and Christ. You were one of the ones whose heart broke at the very thought of being part of the reason Jesus was crucified. You are one of the ones who cried out, “What shall we do?” When you heard the preacher say, “Repent and everyone of you be baptized into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” you quickly turned from your old ways to God and were baptized that day.
What now? You are new to being a Christian. You came from a very different background. Your whole world has turned around and your family as a whole will not understand or appreciate what you have done. So, what do you do now? One of the amazing verses of Scripture is found in Acts 2:42 when it tells of the three thousand people who had been baptized that day and added to the number of Jesus’ disciples. “They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”
Think with me today about being devoted to the apostles teaching. All your life you have been devoted to the teaching of the Law. You have heard thousands of lessons from different rabbi’s explaining what the law said and how we are to apply it to life. But now, your devotion has changed. It isn’t now about what the law said. The focus is on what the apostles of Jesus are saying is involved in following Jesus as Lord and Savior. It would be several years before the very first letters of the New Testament began to be written down. So at this point the concern was what Jesus had taught these apostles as the way to live and follow him. Too often we use the word “doctrine” as some official creedal statement of what people or groups believe. But the word translated “doctrine” in the Bible simply means “teaching.” One of the powerful points to keep in mind when thinking about the apostles’ teaching is that later people like Paul would encourage young preachers and teachers like Timothy and Titus to preach “sound doctrine” or teaching. The word “sound” mean to be healthy. It wasn’t at all the notion that sound doctrine was some list of beliefs that we must give allegiance to, but the teaching that demonstrated how one could live a healthy spiritual life in relationship with God.
I wish we had access to the lessons these early apostles taught and preached to these new followers of Christ on how to live and serve the Lord in their world. But as you read through the Book of Acts the recorded sermons tended to focus on people who were Jews or Gentiles whom they are trying to win to Christ, instead of on how to live for him as a disciple. One would have to focus on the actions of the early church and their treatment of each other and others around them to get any real sense of what may have been involved in the apostles teaching. Jude, a half brother of Jesus will later write a short book to the early church in which he makes a reference to somethings the apostles had said to them. In verse 17-23 he records the following: “But you must remember, beloved, the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ. They said to you, ‘In the last time there will be scoffers, following their own ungodly passions.” It is these who cause divisions, worldly people, devoid of the Spirit. But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. And have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.” It is difficult to know where he stopped quoting what the apostles had warned about and started making application of their teaching as an inspired teacher, even though our translators have put in the quotation marks to indicate where they feel it stops. But there weren’t any quotation marks in the original text. But it is obvious that the whole section related to the kinds of things involved in the apostles teaching.
Think of a few things in this quotation that would certainly be vital for people of all times. First, the notion that there will be false teachers who strive to lead people away from the things Jesus taught wasn’t a surprise, but was recognized as what would happen from the beginning. It started quickly and has been the case ever since. Involved in such false teaching was the longing to divide those who are disciples of Jesus from each other and cause them to look with suspicion on one another. Second, the answer to such false teaching was for disciples of Jesus to build themselves up in the most holy faith, which is simply another way of speaking of the apostles teaching. They were to do that by praying in the Holy Spirit, keeping in the love of God and waiting for the mercy of the Lord that leads to eternal life. Does that sound like what has happened in your life or the teaching you have heard through the years? Nothing is said about keeping everyone straight or attacking others that you don’t agree with. It doesn’t mention anything about making list of who is “sound” and who isn’t. It begins with the focus on staying in a right relationship with God ourselves through prayer and living in his love and mercy.
But notice, he turned to make application of how we are to deal with others out of the apostles teaching. It sounds strange to us to hear him say that we need to have mercy on those who doubt, save others by snatching them out of the fire, to show mercy to others with fear, hating the garments stained by the flesh.” It is right to hate the garments stained by sin, but not to hate the people who are wearing them. It is the need to act with mercy toward the doubting, struggling and questioning. Our heart must be that what we long for is for all to be saved, no matter what may have been going on in their life lately. This fits exactly with the heart we see lived out in Jesus life while on this earth. He was constantly reaching out with mercy toward those who were rejected by the religious world around him, pulling them from the fires of sin, Satan’s rule and the moral and ethical problems of their life. His whole heart seemed to be summed up in the phrase, “And he had compassion on them.” If we had been told that the apostles teaching went in a different direction than that, there would be huge reasons to question if they were really giving us what the Lord wanted them to give. Their teaching, after all, was with the full intent of taking us to Jesus, the Savior and Lord. Think of the extent to which God intended us to go to try to make certain those who are fellow disciples of Jesus either stay right with the Lord or are brought back to the right way after they have drifted off into some wrong way of thinking or doing. The very notion of snatching someone from the fire demonstrates the risks to which we are to go to pull people back into fellowship with Jesus and his people. Way too often we are content to simply let people go because of their problems or the fact they are always challenging things that we don’t like to think about. We must not allow the huge points of making certain we are right and helping others to stay right or get right is paramount to our being true to the apostles teaching.
How do we devote ourselves to the apostles teaching today? Obviously, we have the New Testament so we have access to the full teaching of the apostles, including the letters they wrote about Jesus life and ministry on this earth. We have the record of life in the early church and we have letters written to churches and individuals telling them how to apply the things Jesus taught us to do to every day life. It is vital in every age to remember that the apostles teaching isn’t what we heard someone teach when we were growing up or what was done when we first became a Christian. It is what the New Testament of our Lord actually teaches about life and service to God today. When looked at correctly, the apostles teaching will always drive us right back to the teaching and actions of Jesus who taught them what to believe and teach.