Early Christian Worship
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, September 19, 1999
Copyright © 1999, P. G. Mathew
What is the message of this passage? If you asked a child, he might say, "Don't sit on the window sill when you go to church," or, "If you go to church and decide to sit in the window sill, try to talk to the pastor beforehand and ask him to preach a very short sermon."
Of course, neither of these are the real lessons we learn from this passage. In these verses we find a description of early Christian worship and its dominant elements: the day of worship, the preaching of the word, and the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. We also find the most unambiguous declaration that the early Christians worshiped on Sunday, not Saturday.
In Acts 20 we find the apostle Paul concluding his third missionary journey, having realized that his ministry in Asia had come to an end. We see an indication of this realization in Acts 19:21-22, where we read, "After all this had happened, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem, passing through Macedonia and Achaia. 'After I have been there,' he said, 'I must visit Rome also.' He sent two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, to Macedonia, while he stayed in the province of Asia a little longer."
As Paul was bringing his ministry to the Greek-speaking world to a conclusion, he decided to go west to the Latin-speaking world of Rome and Spain. Before he could leave Ephesus, there was a riot initiated by Demetrius the silversmith, but in God's will it amounted to nothing, and now we find Paul, led by the Holy Spirit, preparing to leave Asia.
Paul Speaks to the Ephesians
For the last time this great apostle called for a meeting of the disciples of Ephesus. Before he left them, Paul, as a pastor, wanted to encourage his flock to remain true to the Lord Jesus Christ for the rest of their lives. How did he do this? Through the word of God. For God's people, true encouragement, strength, and comfort will never come from psychology or human opinions or from anything in this world, but only from the revelation of God's word. That is one lesson I hope we will learn from this passage.
What was Paul's message to the disciples of Ephesus? He told them that life has its troubles, and they would be experiencing some of those troubles in the future. Why? Because not only does the world oppose God's people, but Satan also opposes them. In fact, it was to these Ephesians that Paul later wrote, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph. 6:12-13). Paul wanted to fortify his people against these troubles by giving them the word of God.
Paul knew it is not man's word that encourages and strengthens us, but the word of God. We get a glimpse of this type of ministry of the word of God later on in Acts 20, when Paul spoke at Miletus to the elders of Ephesus. In Acts 20:20 Paul said, "You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that will be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house." And in verse 32 he said, "Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." We can conclude that this is exactly what Paul did. He committed these people to the word of God's grace which alone was able to build them up, comfort them, strengthen them, and anchor them in the gospel.
Comfort from the Word of God
After Paul left Ephesus he went to Troas to meet Titus, who was to bring him news about the affairs of the church of Corinth. As we read in 2 Corinthians 2:12, Paul did not find Titus in Troas, so he traveled west to Macedonia, visiting the churches of Philippi, Berea, and Thessalonica to encourage them also.
It is possible that Paul even traveled at this time all the way to Illyricum, which is modern Albania and Yugoslavia, preaching the gospel, as we read in Romans 15:19. It is possible that he spent about a year in this type of itinerant ministry, going from church to church. He knew this could be the last time that he would be able to do this, so he went around to all the churches in the area, encouraging the disciples in each city to remain faithful to the Lord. We read about this in Acts 20:2: "He traveled through that area, speaking many words of encouragement to the people.
True comfort, as we said before, comes not from listening to our private opinions, but from listening to the word of God. For example, in 1 Thessalonians 4 Paul speaks to the Thessalonians about what is going to happen to those who die in the Lord. In verse 13 he says, "Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope." Then Paul reveals God's plan and purpose for those who have died in Christ. He says that at the coming of Christ they will be raised up, and concludes in verse 18, saying, "Therefore, encourage," meaning comfort and strengthen, "each other with these words."
Why do you get troubled, anxious, and fearful? It is because you are not drawing comfort from the word of God. You are looking to your mother or your government or your employer or your husband or your wife or your children to take care of you. But can they comfort you? If you want real comfort and strength, if you want to be built up in the Lord so that you can meet any trial that comes, look in the word of God. "Therefore encourage one another with these words," Paul says. And in Romans 15:4 he writes, "For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope."
May God help us to draw comfort from God's word! May we also be able to give comfort to others, not from our own fallible opinions, but from the abiding word of God. And may we study diligently the word of God, that we may have comfort and may comfort others. If we only have little knowledge of the word, we will have little comfort. If we desire to have fullness of comfort, we must enrich ourselves in the word of God, which alone gives us the full comfort of God.
Paul's Plans Change
After traveling around and encouraging the churches, Paul finally arrived in Greece and went to the city of Corinth. There he stayed for three months, probably during the winter of A.D. 56-57, at the house of his friend Gaius, whom we read about in Romans 16:23.
What was Paul doing during this time? He was writing his longest and most systematic epistle, the epistle to the Romans. Why do you think he did that? To comfort the Roman Christians, whom he had never seen. Now, when we read the book of Romans, we also receive comfort, because in this epistle the righteousness of God is revealed. It speaks of the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes. It explains that Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification. It declares to us, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." What more comfort could we have than that? So while he was in Corinth, Paul wrote this letter and sent it to the church in Rome.
Paul planned to sail from Corinth to Syria so that he could reach Jerusalem in time for the Feast of Passover, but it didn't work out. Just as he was about to leave Corinth, he received the information that his enemies--probably some unbelieving Corinthian Jews--were planning to kill him and throw him overboard. We read about the enmity of these people in Acts 18. It may be that the Holy Spirit revealed their plot to Paul. Paul changed his plans and took a detour back to Macedonia, intending to sail later on from Troas to Palestine. Because of this change, he was not able to arrive in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, but he would arrive in time for the later feast of Pentecost.
Our plans do not always work the way we want them to, and neither did the plans of the apostle Paul.
Comfort from the People of God
In Acts 20:4 we read that several people accompanied Paul as he traveled back to Jerusalem. These men, representatives from various churches he had founded, were going with Paul to Jerusalem to help bring the collection from the other churches to help the poor in the Jerusalem church.
Just like our Lord Jesus Christ, Paul rarely traveled alone. He enjoyed fellowship with the people of God and received comfort and strength from them. We already said that one place to find encouragement is in the word of God, but another source is in the people of God.
I often think about what the meaning of life is. Most Americans might say life is the amassing of things, the amassing of money, the ownership of a lot of temporal things, or the achieving of power and fame. But that is not what life is all about. Life is relationship, first with the triune God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and, second, with the people of God. This is the true meaning of life. May God help us to invest in building up relationship to God and to one another.
The apostle Paul had wonderful relationships with others, and we find some of them traveling with him in this passage. Who were they? First, there was Sopater, son of Pyrrhus, who represented the great church of Berea, the church in which people carefully examined the Scriptures. Then there was Aristarchus, which means aristocrat, whose name signifies that he perhaps was from the upper class of the church of Thessalonica. Next, there was Secundus, which means second, who was probably a slave, but also a representative of the church of Thessalonica. Next, there was Gaius, representing the small church in Derbe, and Timothy from Lystra. Not named but present was Luke, the physician and historian, whose presence with Paul was last detected in the language of Acts 16:16. Luke now traveled with Paul probably as a representative of the church of Philippi. Finally, from Asia, there was Tychicus and Trophimus, who probably represented the church of Ephesus.
Paul Arrives in Troas
In Acts 20:4-5 we read that Paul and his companions arrived in Troas, where they stayed seven days. Paul had visited Troas on his second missionary journey, when he had received the vision of a man from Macedonia calling to him to preach the gospel in Macedonia. He had also been there recently looking for Titus, as we read in 2 Corinthians 2. This was Paul's third visit to this city. He arrived there, it seems, on a Monday and we are told that he stayed there for seven days. Why do you think he stayed there for that amount of time? I suspect it was so that he could worship with the church of Troas on Sunday, the Lord's Day.
In Acts 20:7 we read, "On the first day of the week we came together to break bread." In this verse we find the earliest and most unambiguous evidence of the early Christian practice of worshiping on Sunday, the first day of the week, rather than on Saturday, the seventh day, or the Jewish Sabbath.
First Day Worship
The text tells us the church of Troas came together in the evening on the first day of the week for the specific purpose of breaking bread, which is a technical term for celebrating Holy Communion. Now we should ask the question, "Why did they not come together on Monday or Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday or Friday or Saturday? Why did they come together on Sunday, the first day of the week?" We already read that Paul and his companions were in Troas a full seven days, but we have no report of their assembling together on any other day than on the first day of the week, which is Sunday.
It is not difficult to find reasons why the church in Troas met on Sunday. Jesus Christ himself had sanctified the first day of the week, not the seventh day, by his own resurrection from the dead on the first day of the week, as all the gospels testify. Luke, the author of this book of Acts, tells us about it in his own gospel account in Luke 24:1.
Not only did Jesus rise from the dead on the first day of the week, but he also appeared that same day to ten of his disciples who were together in the upper room. It was at that time that he breathed on them, saying, "Receive the Holy Spirit."
And we read in John 20:26 that, one week later, Jesus appeared to all eleven disciples who had assembled together. Thomas, who was now present with them, believed when he saw Jesus, and cried out, "My Lord and my God!" This reference to "a week later" tells us that when Jesus appeared again to the disciples, it was not on the Jewish Sabbath, but again on the first day of the week.
Because of these reasons, Sunday became the day for Christian worship in the early church. In other words, it was not Emperor Constantine in the fourth century who initiated the practice of Christian worship on the first day of the week, but Jesus Christ himself.
This customary gathering on the first day of the week by the church of Troas was, therefore, based on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead on that day. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead had sanctified that day. (PGM) Additionally, the great Pentecostal outpouring occurred on the first day of the week--on a Sunday. And the practice of the early church to change their day for worship from the seventh day to the first day of the week, as recorded several times in the book of Acts, gives strong proof to the fact that Jesus Christ did indeed rise from the dead.
In 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 we find another mention of first-day worship in Paul's instructions to the church of Corinth concerning the collection for the poor: "Now about the collection for God's people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made." Paul was exhorting the Corinthian church to contribute to the needs of the poor of Jerusalem. He tells the people to set aside money--not every Monday or Tuesday or Friday or Saturday--but "on the first day of every week" --every Sunday, in other words. This reference to Sunday suggests that the Christians in Corinth, like Christians in Galatia and Troas, met on Sunday for their regular times of worship.
The Lord's Day
In the first chapter of the book of Revelation we find another scripture concerning the day of Christian worship. At the end of his life the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos off the coast of Asia Minor. In Revelation 1:9-10 John writes, "I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. On the Lord's Day I was in the Spirit. . . ." The Lord's Day was a day of worship for the apostle John.
John was in exile on the island of Patmos, away from his church in Ephesus. He missed the church, but, as his custom was, John was worshiping on the Lord's Day. Though he was away from his flock, he was not away from his God. I am sure he was thinking of Jesus' words, "Where two or three come together in my name, there I am with them," and "surely I am with you always, to the end of the age."
As John was worshiping on the Lord's Day, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. That should give us some idea of how we be when we come together in the presence of God on the Lord's Day.
This phrase "the Lord's Day," like the phrase "the Lord's Supper," means the day that exclusively belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. For instance, all our monies belong to the Lord, because God owns everything, but the tithe belongs to him especially and particularly. In the same way, all days are God's, but Sunday, the first day of the week, is the Lord's Day, which means it belongs to him particularly and especially. This is true also of the Lord's Supper. It is the Lord's supper, not our supper. He invites us to come to it as guests, but it is not our supper. In the same way, Sunday is the Lord's Day.
A Sabbath Rest for God's People
The term "the Lord's Day," then, has reference to the first day of the week. It is Sunday--the day of Christ's triumph over the grave; the day when he was declared, or appointed, to be the Son of God in power by the resurrection from the dead; the day when Christ entered into his rest, having accomplished our redemption.
So in Revelation 1 we read that on the Lord's Day John saw the Lord, who said to him, "Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades."
That is what we should experience when we come together on the Lord's Day. As we are in the Holy Spirit, we should see Jesus. This is the ministry of the Holy Spirit--to show us Christ as the triumphant one who accomplished our redemption. And just as he came to the apostle John, so the Lord Jesus Christ will come to all of us who gather in his name and comfort us, saying, "Fear not! I am alive forevermore as your Lord and as your Savior. Like John, you may be exiled or persecuted by the world, but I am here for you. The world can do nothing to you. I have accomplished your redemption and entered into my rest. I have conquered death so that you need not fear it. I will give you my rest--the sabbath rest of God."
When we come together on the Lord's Day, we should experience rest. We should come to God with all our troubles, miseries, and problems so that he can take it all away and give us rest. "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," Jesus told us in Matthew 11:28.
Christian worship on the first day of the week, on the Lord's day, is the remembrance of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It reveals the triumph of God's redemptive purposes in regard to his people. So when we come together to worship in his name, we should celebrate, rejoice and praise God for his victory over sin and death and thank him for our salvation. In that way we shall sanctify this day from all other days.
The Final Sabbath Rest
Now, even the rest we enjoy on the Lord's Day is not our final rest. In Hebrews 4:9 we find a very important verse. Even Joshua did not give his people the real rest. He brought them into Canaan, but that was not their final rest. The writer to the Hebrews says, "There remains, then, a Sabbath rest for the people of God."
The Sabbath rest of the first day of the week, the Lord's Day, is a foretaste of the fullness of the eternal rest that remains for the people of God, which we shall enjoy at the coming of the Lord. Paul speaks of this rest in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, "And so we shall be with the Lord forever." What is true rest? What is blessing? It is to be with the Lord forever. It is to behold him face to face without the hindrance of sin. That is rest in its fullness.
We find a description of this final Sabbath rest also in Revelation 21, beginning with verse 3: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.'"
That is great rest, isn't it? Let me assure you, when we come together Sunday as a church to worship God, we experience a foretaste of what is waiting for us, but when we get to heaven, we will experience fullness of rest.
Celebrating the Lord's Supper
In Acts 20:7 we read that the church of Troas gathered together on Sunday evening on the third floor of a house. We must note here that, by and large, these were not rich people in the church of Troas, and this was probably a tenement house.
Who was at this meeting? Paul was there, along with Luke, Aristarchus, Gaius, and others, as well as the people of Troas. There was also a young boy of about fourteen years of age named Eutychus. I am sure Eutychus had heard that Paul was coming to preach, and said to himself, "I want to be there." He probably was a slave who had worked hard during the day, but he said, "I have to go to church tonight. Yes, I am tired and worn out, but the apostle Paul has come. He will be preaching the gospel and I want to hear him." So Eutychus came, but as there was no place on the floor for him to sit, he sat on the window sill.
What was the purpose of this gathering? Luke tells us "to break bread." Very rarely do churches come together today for that purpose, but here we see that the ancient church practiced it regularly, probably every Sunday, as we do in this church. Luke says they came together for the purpose of breaking bread, which is a technical term for the celebration of the Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper, as we find also in Acts 2:42 and 1 Corinthians 10:16.
These early Christians came together to eat and drink by faith the body and blood of Christ and thus remember their Lord in the observance of this sacrament. They came together to feast on Christ in their hearts and to experience the spiritual presence of the risen, triumphant Christ. They came together to receive grace sufficient for all their needs from the Lord of grace through this sacrament.
But there is no sacrament without the word. The sacrament and word go together. So, notice, before the breaking of bread, there was the breaking of the bread of life, meaning the word of God, by the apostle. This meeting probably began around six o'clock on Sunday evening.
An All-Night Sermon
The clock did not regulate the worship of the early Christians. This was not a one-hour meeting conducted in a formal, ritualistic manner in a beautiful sanctuary. No, this meeting was held in a very crowded room where many lamps were hanging--smelly lamps that filled the air with their smoke. It was stuffy, smelly and crowded, yet everyone there was very eager to hear the word of God. That was why they came. As we said before, only the word of God will sustain you, support you, build you up, and strengthen you. You are a poor man, a poor woman, if you do not come to church to listen to the word of God.
These people treasured the word of God and so they crowded into the room to hear Paul's preaching. Additionally, they were no doubt well aware that this would be the final sermon they would hear from the great apostle Paul. Paul realized this also, and so he preached for five hours or so, until midnight.
Now, in today's churches, there would be a riot if anyone preached for five hours without a break, or, after an hour or two, everyone would probably very nicely, politely walk away. For most people today, it would be unbearable to listen to the word of God for five hours.
The young boy Eutychus tried to stay awake in the stuffy, smelly, crowded room, but after a while he fell asleep. He may have then been startled and overbalanced himself, or just fell down in a deep sleep. The text tells us he fell from the window sill all the way to the ground three stories below, and Luke the physician tells us that he was taken up dead.
The apostle Paul went downstairs, prayed for Eutychus, and he was raised up from the dead. Now, raising someone from the dead is not an everyday occurrence, and even in the Bible it is rare.
But after Paul raised Eutychus from the dead, he told the people, "Don't worry. He is alive," and they all came back upstairs. Paul celebrated Holy Communion with the people, ate the fellowship meal with them, and then preached another five hours until early Monday morning. Then he left.
The Importance of the Ministry of the Word
Imagine ten hours of the ministry of the word! Why did Paul preach so long? For the comfort of the church of Troas. I told you nothing but the word of God will bring true comfort. As we read earlier, Paul was committing them "to God and the word of his grace" that alone was able to build them up.
The central element of the ancient Christian worship on the first day of the week was the preaching of the word as well as the celebration of the Lord's Supper, which is the declaration of the word in a sign form. This is very different from most Christian churches today. Many Christians today do not tolerate preaching that is longer than fifteen minutes, and they prefer preaching that is more of an emotional experience, a form of entertainment, rather than biblical exposition. Most people do not tolerate today strong biblical preaching--the preaching of the word that rebukes, corrects, instructs, comforts, and trains in righteousness. Many people will not tolerate preaching that commands them to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ alone for eternal salvation, that declares that Jesus Christ is the alone Savior, and warns that he is also the Judge of the world who is coming again.
May We Worship God!
Weak preaching produces weak churches. Brothers and sisters, may we learn from this passage how to sanctify the Lord's Day and preach the word of God on the Lord's Day. May God help us to worship as the ancient church did, devoting ourselves to the apostles' doctrine, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer. May we, whenever we meet together, celebrate the triumph of our Christ who accomplished our redemption and entered into his rest by his resurrection. May we, as we worship, experience in the depth of our being a foretaste of that rest that remains for the people of God, that eternal rest.
As we worship, may we look back upon Christ's resurrection and derive comfort from his present Lordship. He is the one who says, "I was dead, but I am alive forevermore." He is our Lord and Savior. May we place our hope in his future coming in glory as King of kings and Lord of lords. May we look forward to that day when we shall be forever with the Lord, when he will wipe away every tear, and there will be no more pain, no more discomfort, no more persecution, no more troubles, no more death, no more sickness. Everything will be over, and we shall be ushered into the fullness, the plenitude, of the rest Christ has accomplished for us.
What do we do after worship? Well, if we are strengthened, if we have heard the voice of Christ saying, "Fear not! I was dead, but I am alive forevermore for you. I have the keys of hell and death," then we shall go out with joy to serve him. Amen.
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Copyright © 1999, P. G. Mathew
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