How do you identify the true church? That’s important if you are looking for a church. But it is also important to reflect on the question as we consider our own identity. Are we what we should be? How can we better show the marks of the church? Acts 2:42-47 helps to answer that question.
Devote yourselves to the apostles’ teaching. Proclaiming the good news about Jesus is the most basic mark of the church. The Spirit filled church in Acts devoted itself to the teaching of the apostles. In Acts 2 Peter has just proclaimed Jesus as crucified and risen. Faithful preaching is not just moralism, telling people how to live. Nor is it simply providing information about Jesus. Rather, in faithful preaching Christ himself is presented—Christ crucified, raised, exalted, and coming again. God’s call summons the nations to repent as the blessing of the Holy Spirit extends beyond Israel. The command grows out of a conviction of sin, v. 37. Don’t allow the call to repentance to be minimized as you present the gospel. Ambiguity regarding man’s sinfulness makes it impossible to appreciate the depths of God’s grace in Christ. Repentance involves a change of mind, leading to a new life. It not only marks conversion, but also characterizes the entire Christian life this side of heaven. The primary mark of the church is the preaching of the Word. No church is perfect in that, but faithfulness in the Word is essential, or the church loses its reason for existence. The kingdom belongs to those who have turned (and continue to turn) from sin to Christ.
Focus on the Word! The central place of the Word of God means that the preacher needs to be concerned to carry out its proclamation with faithfulness, clarity, and zeal. The elders of the church have a responsibility ensure that is happening. But the devotion to the apostolic teaching in Acts 2 describes more than just effective preaching and instruction. Because the Word is central, do the hard work of concentrated listening, of continuing study, and of consecrated living that flows out of the Word. Fathers leading family worship is part of that commitment to the Word, seen as the church lives Monday through Saturday. Children learn more by your example in this than by your talking about it. When you brought your child for baptism, you promised to pray with and for him. Are you doing that? Are you leading him or her in the Word? As you read and study the Word, keep clear its focus on Christ and his work for you.
Devote yourselves to the things that supplement the Word. Recognize how important the sacraments are. A true church is marked by the administration of the sacraments in a Biblical way. Baptism marks those who belong to the church of the Jesus Christ. Repeatedly in Acts conversion is indicated by baptism. Note the difference in emphasis from the decisionism and individualism of much contemporary evangelism. (Yes, it is crucial that you personally trust in Christ. Remember that when too many people place their trust, not in Christ, but in the act of baptism. Also remember that coming to Christ also implies an involvement with his church. Those baptized were counted. People were being added to the number.) Baptism is a sign of separation from sin and cleansing from its guilt. It seals your union with Christ, Romans 6. It marks you as belonging to your Lord. In the Lord’s Supper we use real bread and real wine, the fruit of the vine. That is indicated in the breaking of bread (the breaking of bread in Acts 2:42 occurs in the context of public worship, while the breaking in Acts 2:46 in the homes likely means eating together). Do you really hear what God is saying to you in the sacraments?
Be disciplined! Although church discipline is not explicitly described in Acts 2, mutual accountability is implied in the fellowship. It is not long before the implication is explicitly carried out, as you see in Ananias and Saphira, Acts 5. A church that is faithful to the Lord will not ignore sin, but will encourage repentance—because the church belongs to the Lord. And discipline starts with a with self-discipline (we talk of a disciplined athlete). It includes being willing to listen to the Word as you read it and hear it proclaimed. It means being willing to listen as fellow believers, and particularly those who have been set apart to provide oversight–your elders, speak to you.
Reflect your Savior’s love. Although love is not usually listed as one of the marks of the church, it is essential. You see it in this text in being devoted to the fellowship, the concern of believers for one another. And you see love for God in the devotion to prayer. This is not just a mechanical making requests, but a living relationship with God. He speaks in the Word, you respond in prayer. Jesus, the ultimate servant, speaks of his sacrificial love, summons you to love, and tells you that this will be the distinguishing mark of those who belong to him, John 13:34-35. Although the specifics of how that love came to expression in Jerusalem were not mandated for all the churches, the mutual concern and care is required. But it’s not just a task, something you have to do whether or not you feel like it. Rather, it is your response to the depths of Christ’s love for you. “It is the Lord whose prerogative it is to add new members to His own community: it is the joyful duty of the community to welcome to their ranks those whom Christ has accepted.” (F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts, NICNT, p. 81).
Because Jesus himself is the Word made flesh, the Word written and proclaimed is the essential mark of the church. Do you see it in your church? And do you see it in your life and that of your family?