Text: Acts 2:41-47
Devoted. The Dictionary.com unabridged dictionary, based on the dictionary from Random House, defines “devote” as “to give up or appropriate to or concentrate on a particular pursuit, occupation, purpose, cause, etc.” The example phrase is “to devote one’s time to reading.” When we devote ourselves to something, we give up the right to do or say something else. If we are going to devote ourselves to a book, it will be at the expense of cleaning the house, going out with friends, folding laundry, chatting on the phone, or watching television. We are devoted to the book, to seeing how it’s logic works out and learning what we can from it. Our attention is undivided by other distractions. The book garners all of it to itself.
Likewise, at a wedding, a man and woman vow to devote themselves one to the other. This precludes the right to date others. It dissolves any former relationships with other love interests. It even dissolves the relationships and rights that a man or woman’s biological family would have. As God commanded in the Bible, the two leave their homes and cleave together, becoming one flesh. They are devoted to one another. No one should come between them. The marriage and the bond is theirs and theirs alone. By entering into the marriage, the bride and the groom both give up their lives to the other, for the sole purpose of being with, satisfying, and loving the other.
When we devote ourselves to something, other things don’t just fade into the background. They fall away completely. Someone devoted to running a marathon does not entertain eating outside their specific diet. They don’t consider the possibility of skipping a training run to spend a night out with friends. Their entire calendar shifts around one thing: the 26.2 miles they will run on a specific date at a specific place. All of life becomes centered around that goal, that end, and that accomplishment. They devote themselves to it.
To what things or people or commitments are you devoted? What things for you are non-negotiables? What in your life do you cater to, plan around, and sacrifice for? The world offers many suggestions and opportunities: technology gadgets (people stand in line for days in order to get the latest Apple gadget), television shows (have you ever caught yourself saying, “I have to get home so I can watch my show or shows”?), sports teams, career, the big catch or kill, pleasure, accumulation of stuff, and on and on. Our time gets sucked away as the things we are truly devoted to demand our attention.
At the end of Acts 2, following the tremendous success of the first Christian sermon of the post-resurrection epoch, Luke records a statement about this very early first church that was coming into existence as new members were being added day by day. And what does Luke say about them? He says that they devoted themselves. To what? Well, we’ll get to that. But let’s ponder for just a minute on this word devoted. I won’t make you learn Greek today, but I do want you to learn about Greek. As speakers of English, we work in translation, and translation is always a touchy form of art. It is trying to communicate the same thing using different words that have different meanings, backgrounds, and uses. The most obvious challenge is the word love. With one English word we try to cover the same ground for which Greek had at least four. So when it comes to Bible study, it is useful to get a good understanding of the word that the author chose.
This particular word that Luke chose to use for what the new additions to the body of Christ were doing as they formed the first church, this devotion, was most often used in the New Testament in connection to prayer. Jesus urged his disciples, and Paul likewise urged his readers, to persist in prayer. I think of the Samaritan woman who begs for the scraps from the table for the dogs when Jesus first brushes off her request for aid. Jesus was moved by her persistence and granted her request. Or the story of the man who has visitors come stay with him at night and he goes to his neighbors looking for something with which to be hospitable to them. The persistent banging on the door eventually arouses the neighbor to open and help his neighbor provide the customary accommodations for his guests.
In other words, the word describes someone who refuses to give up. They have no interest in backing down or retreating. They have one end and one end only, and that is their entire focus. They will not cease or rest until they achieve it. I was reading an news article this week on the web that spoke about the new practices of credit counselors whose industry has been recently heavily regulated by a law that went into effect last month. The former ubiquitous ads begging those in severe debt to contact them for help with their products are now severely limited. But there’s money in this industry, so they are already working on alternative means of reaching potential customers. They aren’t giving up. They are persisting. They are persevering. Luke would use the same word to describe these credit counseling industry marketers as he used to describe the church. If you’re curious, the new method the companies are using is unwanted text messages sent to cell phones, a shady area where the law has not yet reached.
So this is the image of devotion I want us to have this morning: unceasing persistence toward a goal or end from which nothing will distract or turn away. This is the devotion that those first believers who responded to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost had towards the things that would become essential and vital to the church.
And that answers the next obvious question: if we understand what it is to have devotion towards something, what is it that we should have devotion to? There are many possible answers, many suggestions that Scripture would provide. But Luke identifies four things that these first believers after Pentecost specifically devoted themselves to. They are found in verse 42 of our Scripture lesson today.
The first thing the earliest church devoted themselves to was to the apostles’ teaching. This was mere weeks since Jesus had been crucified, buried, resurrected, and ascended. There was nothing to read that would fully explain everything. So they listened. They listened to every word that any of Jesus’ original followers would say. “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations … teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” These were Jesus’ parting words, and now the apostles had the opportunity to fulfill them. And those to whom they were speaking were as eager to hear the teachings as the teachers were to give them.
David Platt, pastor of The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, wrote a book called Radical. In that book, Platt talks about his own experiences in traveling throughout the world and speaking to people who have only very limited access to Scripture. He tells of one trip to China where he is supposed to teach for a few hours on a particular topic to a group of house church leaders who have no other access to training of any kind. Platt begins his teaching, and when he finishes with what he is supposed to teach, the gathered leaders beg him to tell them more, because they have not heard such things before. Platt had knowledge of the truth, and they were desperate to hear it. They were devoted, at the risk of their freedom and possibly their lives, to hearing what this preacher from Alabama had to say.
Could you describe your attentiveness to the Word of God as devoted? Do you drop things, sacrifice things, and set aside other activities so that you can spend some time learning what the apostles taught. Those in Jerusalem at Pentecost didn’t have a New Testament to which they could turn. They did not have a Lifeway or other Christian store to go to for materials. All they had were the people who had lived it, who had walked with the Lord and Savior. We, however, have much in our favor. Unlike the Chinese that David Platt spoke to, we have abundant resources. And perhaps the very abundance of it leads us to devalue it. For we say, “We can always read the Bible, but this football game won’t come around again! We can always go to Wednesday Bible Study, but this opportunity to advance my career won’t come again.”
We need to be devoted to studying the Word of God, to learning it. We need to be eager for it, so that nothing will stand in the way of our getting it. We need to be accustomed to setting aside other activities and interests to avail ourselves of the opportunity to learn and hear the truth – whether in our own devotions, here at church, at a Bible conference or retreat, or in whatever avenue it may come. We need to be devoted to this, the apostles’ teachings, as the first believers were.
The second thing that Luke describes the church being devoted to was to fellowship. Or, possibly, THE fellowship. Luke could be referring to two different things here, but I like to think he is referring to both. He could mean that the people were devoted to the act of fellowshipping together. They were committed to spending time as a people who were following the same course – what would soon come to be known and referred to as The Way. Life in the time of the Romans was not easy, and yet these people made sure – they devoted themselves – to find a way to spend time with others who were also taken by the message taught to them by Jesus’ apostles.
The other way that Luke might mean this word is that the people devoted themselves not to the ACT of fellowshipping, but to the group that fellowshipped together. After all, Luke goes on to talk about how they held things in common and sold things as needed in order to meet each other’s needs. That would only be possible if they actually knew each other’s needs and were interested in each other. Luke talks a lot about their togetherness.
I wonder, how devoted are you to our fellowship? We have a strong fellowship here at Monte Vista. No one need worry about how they will be able to make it to a doctor’s appointment or whether they will be able to eat a good meal. We take care of one another. And that is how it should be. But what about you? Are you giving everything you can be giving for the good of our church, particularly this group of people? Do you sacrifice time you would otherwise spend elsewhere whenever there is an opportunity to fellowship with this body of believers? Are you helping out everyone from our midst whom you are provided to help out? What would you be willing to sacrifice for the other people in this room? What would you hold on to, whatever the cost?
Acts will later record the story of Ananias and Sapphira. They were a couple who belonged to the church. They owned some property that they sold. They took the profits back to the church so that it could be used for the good of those in need, just like Luke talks about here in Acts 2. For the sake of their reputation and appearance, they claimed to be turning over all of the money to the church, but the apostles knew better by the Holy Spirit. Both Ananias and Sapphira died for their sin. That was not devotion to the church, but devotion to their own pride. The church isn’t a place to make a better name for ourselves. It is a place to be redeemed and to serve the redeemed.
What would you give up for the church? What do you continually sacrifice in order to be able to teach, to watch the nursery, to prepare some meals, to play games, to share meals together in the fellowship hall, to participate with the Relay for Life team, to attend Missions time together, to provide wheels to someone who cannot drive themselves, to leave the comforts of familiarity and go to a foreign atmosphere – whether a soup kitchen in the city or literally a land on the other side of an ocean? How devoted are you to the fellowship?
The third thing that Luke says the people were devoted to was the breaking of bread. It was perhaps too early for the ordinance of communion to be ritually observed. But the events of the Last Supper were still fresh, and it was with the weight of that last meal together that the people who believed in Jesus – the original disciples and the new ones – would gather to eat together. They would literally break bread, which was the normal start to any meal at any household in the region. There was nothing especially significant except that they were doing it together and they were at the same time remembering what it was that brought them together.
They were committed to this observance. And they were committed to doing it together. We observe the Lord’s Supper once a quarter here. When was the last time you went out of your way to make sure that you were here on that day, with this people, in order to share in the bread and the remembering together? The people of Acts 2 were devoted to it. They let nothing stand in their way. We take of the meal together on the first Sunday of each calendar quarter, so our next observance will be January 2. What are you willing to give up in order to be here that morning? It will be the end to the long winter holiday break. Campbell County schools will start back on the 3rd, but students in Pittsylvania County will not return to classes until the following Wednesday. Would you cut short a vacation or trip in order to be with your church for our breaking of bread? Would you give up the last vestiges of Christmas and New Years holiday for this? How devoted are you to remembering what Christ has done through this one of two ordinances that we observe as a body? How important is it to you?
The last thing to which the people who formed the first church devoted themselves to was prayer. This is fitting, because as I already mentioned, most of the time when this word that we translate as devoted is used, it is used in connection to prayer. The people were not interested just in hearing God’s word, just in being with His people, just in remembering what He had done. They were interested in being with Him through prayer.
Prayer connects us to God. It is our conversation with Him. It is where we air our grievances, our concerns, our hopes, our fears. It is where we beg and plead. It is where we praise and adore. It is where we commune with God as friend does with friend. Prayer is where we not just petition and speak to God, but also where He speaks to us, if we listen. Jesus, God Himself walking on earth, made a commitment to pray. He would rise early in the morning, while it was still dark, so that He could find a quiet spot in the mountains to retreat to and pray before the crowds pressed in around Him.
How devoted are you to prayer? Again, devotion that lets nothing interfere with, get in the way of, or prevent from accomplishing or doing. Is prayer something that you do only occasionally as a token before sharing a meal together? Or do you give yourself over to this precious burden of ours so that, as Paul tells us to, you pray ceaselessly, with every breath, every thought, every challenge, every success, every encounter?
The earliest church devoted themselves to four things in particular as Luke tells it: the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. If we took up these four things ourselves and committed to them as much as the early church devoted themselves to them, we would be well on our way to functioning as a healthy and thriving church that lives out the call to take the Gospel to the world. If we are doing these four things in a truly devoted manner, then the evangelizing, discipling, equipping, and sending that we’ve been talking about over the last weeks will come naturally to us.
Where do your devotions lay? We all have things we are devoted to. We all have things that we willingly allow to occupy our time, that we are not willing or eager to see laid aside for something else. What are yours? What would it take to make these four things the things that we here at Monte Vista devote ourselves to?
Luke goes on in Acts 2 to describe other things that the church does. They performed miraculous, awe-inspiring deeds. They met together. They held things in common. They attended the temple together. They praised God. They had the favor of the people. They added to their numbers daily those who were being saved. But all of these other things that they did were merely outcroppings of the devotion they had to four things: apostles’ teachings, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers.
To these things we must also take a firm stand of commitment. These are the things that should occupy our attention and our time. For as we do so, we will become a stronger, healthier, vibrant church that will see the same great successes that the earliest church saw. As we Imagineer our church into a better and greater future than anything that has been accomplished so far, let us Imagineer ourselves as a people who are devoted. Not just to random worldly things, but to these things that Luke describes in Acts 2. And may God be glorified as we do.