Great Texts of the Bible
And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.—Acts 2:42.
1. In these words are set forth the characteristic marks of the new Christian life to which the converts of Pentecost were pledged by their Baptism. The Apostles stand out as the core of the Church. About them the new disciples are gathered; from them the doctrine and discipline of the infant society proceed; they constitute a visible centre of unity.
2. The Church was not only holy, catholic, and apostolic, but it was also one. The world recognized that unity, and felt its power. A bishop of the Church in Ephesus was a bishop of the Church in Lyons, and a member of the Church in Alexandria was a member of the Church in Arles. The Church newly planted in Armenia was immediately brought into relation with the Church wherever it was already existing. There was a principle as real in the Church which was producing this unity, as the principle of gravity in the solar system which is binding it into unity and harmony. It is not difficult to discover that principle. If we turn to the inspired history of the Church, we shall find that principle of unity clearly stated. “They continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Here are four things—the teaching, the fellowship, the sacrament, and the worship.
We greet one another cordially as brethren, and we meet in committees and on platforms and in various other ways. Some of us have become members of the Evangelical Alliance, and we have various ways of expressing the unity that remains to us across the divided lines of our Churches. Ah, but there was a time, gone by long, long ago, when all those who in any place confessed a common Lord exercised their unity around the same communion table, and in the courts which Christ had set up, and not in such committees and alliances as we have been compelled to plan because we had fallen from the others. There was a time when it entered into no Christian mind that, in any place, those who confessed our common Lord were to sit down contented with a unity that was not expressed and could not be in Christ’s ordinances and Christ’s institutions. There was a time when, if anything fell out to break it, men were grieved and humbled and Apostles wrote moving letters to the Churches concerned; and after the Apostles were gone, the Church of Rome sent her letter to the Church of Corinth to entreat them to be visibly one in the institutions and ordinances which Christ gave them to express and to exercise their unity. There was such a time, and if since post-apostolic times the Church has gained something—and I think it has gained much—yet surely it has lost something too. There was something they had in the early Church, when they met around the same communion table and in the same institutions just as naturally as they went to one martyr-death together—there was something then which we have not now. Therefore we are bound to aim at it—we are bound to seek it as we Song of Solomon 1 [Note: R. Rainy, in The Life of Principal Rainy, i. 168.]
There are two notions of unity in men’s minds. One of them is really the notion of uniformity. It has no place for diversity. It wants almost complete identity between the things which it compares. The other rejoices in diversity, and finds its unifying principle in the common motive or purpose out of which an infinite diversity of many actions may proceed. How vain the search for any unity but this! It is the unity of nature. The budding, bursting spring is full of it; a thousand trees all different from one another are all one in the oneness of the great life-power which throbs and pulsates in them all. And souls the most unlike, most widely separated from each other, are one in Christ. Christ is their principle of unity. The thinker pondering deep problems, the workman struggling with the obstinacy of material, the worshipper lost in his adoration, the men of all centuries, the men of all lands,—they are all one, if all their lives are utterances of the same Christ. It is beautiful, the way in which each new Christian strikes into this unity and becomes a part of it immediately. A man has been living by himself, seeming to find all his sources of activity in his own life. By and by the change comes and he is Christ’s. The pulse of universal Christian life begins to beat through him. Now he is one with all men who, anywhere, are doing anything by Christ for Christ! How he lays hold of and comprehends the ages!2 [Note: Phillips Brooks.]
The text names four elements as expressive of the variety in unity of primitive Christian life. They continued steadfastly—
I. In the Apostles’ Teaching.
II. In the Fellowship.
In the Breaking of Bread.
In the Prayers.
The great Christian thinker and preacher of Protestant Lausanne, as he compared the splendour and enthusiasm of the Roman Benediction with the shorn and meagre rite of Genevan Calvinism, exclaimed in melancholy tones, “Rome has worship without the word, we have the word without worship.” But the earliest Church, as delineated by its great historian, combines all these elements, and appeals to man through all his faculties. It appeals to his intellect by its doctrine. It awakens his social feelings—whether towards contemporary Christians, or spirits waiting in the world unseen, or great predecessors in the faith; nay, something higher still—“And truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his son Jesus Christ.” It deals with the soul in its most mysterious depths by the consciousness of a Presence at once awful and blessed. It has treasures, and it opens for every one of its children a language of sobs and rapture, of penitence and joy—a wealth of words that set themselves to some far-off music, which linger along fretted roofs, yet nestle in our hearts, and in our last hours sing us into the sleep of death as if with the lullaby of God. Thus, as in the description of her first structure, the Church is doctrinal, social, sacramental, liturgical. She is a school of teaching, a centre of social unity, a shrine of sacraments, a home of worship. The child of heaven, destined to an inheritance so splendid, was strong and radiant in her cradle. All the possibilities of her history and her being lay folded in her heart from the very first.1 [Note: W. Alexander.]
The Teaching of the Apostles
1. “The teaching of the Apostles” was the necessary instrumentality for bringing the new converts to full discipleship. Their rudimentary faith needed a careful and continuous instruction, an instruction which replaced that which the scribes were in the habit of giving, so that in the most literal sense the Apostles might now be called scribes become disciples to the kingdom, bringing out of their treasure things new and old, the new tale of the ministry and glory of Jesus, the old promises and signs by which Law and Prophets had pointed onward to Him and His kingdom.
2. But, further, the teaching of the Apostles had a far wider range when their disciples were not converted Jews, but converted heathen. Then they had to create a new morality, to lay firmly that foundation which the Jews had received from their long tradition of legal righteousness, to adapt the principles to the novel conditions of Gentile life.
3. Can we tell what the teaching of the Apostles chiefly consisted of?
(1) Even a superficial study of St. Paul’s Epistles enables us to understand the magnitude of the task which rested on the Apostles as religious teachers. Take, for sufficient example, the First Epistle to the Corinthians. We find clearly indicated there a teaching extraordinary in depth, range, and variety. St. Paul brings to the Corinthians the knowledge of Christ’s life and death, and the substance of His revelation. He interprets the Old Testament in the light of Christian belief; he develops a detailed doctrine of the person and work of our Saviour. Consider how large a background of theological knowledge, built up in the Corinthians by systematic teaching, is implied in such a verse as this: “But of him (i.e. God) are ye in Christ Jesus, who was made unto us wisdom from God, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” Is it not suggestive that we should find the great keywords of the Pauline theology in the least theological of his Epistles? In this same Epistle to the Corinthians we find a very definite and rich teaching about the Holy Spirit, an eschatological doctrine of great range and richness, the most careful moral teaching, and the delivery of practical rules, customs of the Christian society, which the Apostle does not hesitate to impose on the Corinthians. No doubt St. Paul stood out from the apostolic company as a great constructive theologian, and we cannot suppose that the other Apostles, with the exception of St. John, were able to bring to their converts so rich and varied a volume of sacred science; but then we must remember that St. Paul, to use his own phrase, “laboured more abundantly than they all,” and that, even in the apostolic age, his Epistles were widely disseminated. In the New Testament, then, alone we have abundant evidence of the active vitality of the teaching of the Apostles.
(2) But we can also bring evidence outside the New Testament. Two documents have come down to our own time with the claim to embody “the teaching of the Apostles,” and though neither can vindicate an apostolic origin, yet both do certainly perpetuate aspects of the work of the Apostles as the teachers of the Christian society. The oldest of these documents is a curious moral treatise dating probably from the first half of the second Century, though it may be much older, and actually entitled The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. It illustrates the work which, especially among the Gentile converts, fell on the Apostles as creators of a Christian morality, which should replace the depraved and perverted traditions of heathen life. The other document, later in actual composition, is not less apostolic in character. It is known throughout the world as “the Apostles’ Creed.” Of course we must be watchful against the anachronism which would credit the Apostles with precise dogmatic forms, such as were afterwards received in the Church on the authority of their names. But though the so-called Apostles’ Creed did not exist in apostolic times, we must admit that the substance of its teaching was primitive. The Ignatian Epistles, which are the connecting link between the Pastoral Epistles and the Apologists of the second century, prove that instruction was given in Antioch on all the points characteristic of the teaching of the developed creed.
(3) But by the “teaching of the Apostles,” in which the first Christians continued, we are not to understand a detailed moral code, or an elaborated creed, but rather a progressive instruction, which included both morals and doctrine, which addressed itself with rare versatility to the novel and ever-varying requirements of a quickly expanding society; and always laid the emphasis on the things which were fundamental.
I like the advice which Mr. Birrell gave at Whitefield’s Institute: “Do not worry too much over the many things you are in doubt about; hang on with all your weight to the things, however few, about which you are certain, and on the top of these certainties pile up work, work, work!” May I take a little liberty with one of the great sayings of Shakespeare, a liberty which does no fundamental violence to the text, “The truths thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy heart with hoops of steel.”1 [Note: J. H. Jowett, in Examiner, 9th February 1905.]
4. Thus from the beginning, the Church has possessed and depended upon a “teaching ministry”; and, though in later times the reason of that dependence may seem less evident, and though, for obvious reasons, the functions of the ministry have taken a less exalted character, yet, when we consider that every generation comes fresh to its problems, and that the unalterable principles of the Gospel have to find application to circumstances which are always novel, we shall be little disposed to question the title which the teaching ministry can still advance to the regard and consideration of believers. It is still the case of loyal and prudent Christians that “they continue steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching,” when they impose on themselves as a standing obligation of a well-ordered Christian life, the regular and devout attendance on the work of the Christian preacher.2 [Note: H. H. Henson.]
The word translated “fellowship” (χοινωνία) comes from a root which means literally sharing in common. The practical nature of the fellowship is very clearly seen by comparing the ways in which the same word is translated in other places in the New Testament. As a rule Scripture is its own best interpreter. In Romans 15:26 the same word here translated “fellowship” is rendered “contribution”—“It hath pleased them of Macedonia and Achaia to make a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem.” In 2 Corinthians 9:13 it is “distribution”—“Your liberal distribution unto them, and unto all men.” In Hebrews 13:16 it is “communicate”—“To do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” In 1 Corinthians 10:16 it is “communion”—“The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ.” While in Php 1:5; Php 2:1; Php 3:10 it is plainly used in the sense of “participation.” From all these Scriptures, the meaning of the word is clearly defined. It was the word used for the collection of money for the poor saints, and for the share which believers took in transmitting these alms to those in need. Fellowship in this sense is a most exalted and noble thing, and a privilege not to be lightly esteemed. It showed the oneness of the whole body of the faithful in state, in privilege, and in Obligation. Sharing thus in common there was created a spirit of mutual recognition, a manifestation of common interests, and a closer partnership with each other in the blessings and privileges of the Gospel—leading them to share joyfully their goods with others. Taking the word in the meaning thus given, we cannot fail to see that the contribution or collection became a regular, an abiding institution in the Church of Christ.
1. There are thus three aspects in which to regard the Fellowship—
(1) It is evident that they encouraged each other in the things of God and continued to do so. They were as one loving family, and loving each other they took every means in their power to keep the glow of love aflame. “As iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.” What better means of encouraging the members of the Church can there be than by conversing freely together of the things of God? As the fellowship meant participation, communion; so in their intercourse with each other there was a constant interchange of thought in matters of spiritual experience.
I fear this aspect of fellowship has been sadly lost in these days. How seldom we talk about God! We talk about anything—everything else—about leaders, teachers, sermons, books; but how seldom do we find the conversation, even among a party of Christians, centring round God; and yet one of the sweetest of the “precious and exceeding great promises” is given to those who practise the habit of speaking about God, and the things of God. In the same chapter in which we read of bringing “all the tithes into the storehouse,” and so paying attention to the contribution, the collection, and proving the Lord of Hosts herewith, we also read these precious words: “Then they that feared the Lord spake one with another; and the Lord hearkened, and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name. And they shall be mine, saith the Lord of Hosts, in the day that I do make, even a peculiar treasure, and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him. Then shall ye return, and discern between the righteous and the wicked, between him that serveth God and him that serveth him not” (Malachi 3:16-18).1 [Note: J. D. Gilmore.]
(2) They had a mutual regard for each other’s welfare, and continued to show it. Communion, participation, fellowship cannot exist where one member is indifferent in the smallest degree to anything that affects the interest of another. The member who takes no interest in the welfare of his fellow-members is guilty of violating the partnership in which all believers are embraced. If I am one with him, what touches him, touches me; his sorrows, dangers, duties, joys, prosperity, or adversity are mine. In true fellowship there can be no isolation, no independence: all are sharers in common. If we are members of the body of Christ, then, in a very real sense, “there should be no schism in the body; but the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffereth, all the members suffer with it; or one member is honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12:25-26).
(3) There was also regular, systematic provision made for practical help as it was required. Continuing in the Apostles’ fellowship, it is clear that the members of the Church gave freely and willingly “as the Lord had prospered them” for the relief of poor saints, and that a regular distribution of the contributions so given was made to those in need. Later on, “when the number of the disciples was multiplied,” it was found absolutely necessary to appoint deacons to take this matter in charge, that they, overlooking the temporal affairs, might leave the Apostles free to attend to the purely spiritual matters. That these contributions became a regular institution, a weekly ordinance, in the Churches of Christ, is clear from Paul’s words to the “Church of God at Corinth.” Following immediately upon the greatest, the profoundest treatise ever written upon the fundamental doctrine of the “resurrection,” the Apostle, without pause or break, says, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the Churches of Galatia, even so do ye. Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him, that there be no gatherings when I come” (1 Corinthians 16:1-2).
2. St. Luke, according to the translation adopted in our versions, links together “teaching and fellowship”; but he certainly does not mean that the early Christians were taught to combine as they did. They entered into an intelligent unity sustained by intelligent communication; but their intercourse was the spontaneous outflow of the new life which, as believers in Christ, they had received. It was a Divine instinct, a soul of brotherhood, a disposition which breathed the atmosphere of “the household of faith.” Good nature could find no sphere large enough for its expression. It was the observance of the second commandment in the most Christlike form the world had ever seen. It was the attainment of the mind of Christ in a measure which overflowed all human relationships. From the first we get an impression of wonderful unity and brotherliness as marking the Messianic Community. With what moving power would the Master’s words be rehearsed by men in whose imaginations the Speaker’s looks and tones, as He had spoken them, still lived and gave each saying life! In the atmosphere of soul thus created self-contained isolation was simply impossible to believers. The impulse to “fellowship” of the most intimate and complete character mastered every other feeling. And in that fellowship they found their strength and stability.
One of the most remarkable methods of preventing the encroachments of the sea upon the land, and fixing the loose sand along the shore, is by means of plants specially adapted for the purpose. These plants belong mostly to the grass tribe, though some are furnished with the flowers and foliage of higher orders. But they all possess in common the peculiarity of creeping underground stems, which at short intervals send up fresh shoots above the surface, and root themselves in the soil. These creeping underground stems enable them to subsist in the barren sand, and endure long periods of drought and sterility; while the rooting of the stems at frequent intervals, producing new individuals at every joint, all linked together, enables them to offer an effectual resistance to the storm. If undisturbed, these wonderfully constructed plants would speedily cover the largest tract of sea-shore spontaneously, prevent the loose masses of sand thrown up by the waves from drifting, and render the soil sufficiently stable to support higher vegetation. Man has taken advantage of the peculiar habit of these seaside plants, and planted them along the banks which he erects as a barrier against the sea, and which without these would be blown away by the first hurricane. The enormous dykes which the people have constructed in Holland, to keep out the inundations of the German Ocean, owe their stability to these plants, which are carefully protected by the Government; and along the low eastern side of England, where the sea is seeking continually to encroach upon the shore, and is with great difficulty kept back, a large quantity of dry land has in this way been reclaimed from the waters. It is the social habit of these seaside plants that gives them their wonderful tenacity of life, and admirably adapts them for the conditions in which they grow. Each separate plant is weak and fragile; and if left to itself it would speedily perish in its sterile situation, and would be uprooted and swept away by the fury of the tide. But when linked and interlaced in the closest fashion, by a vital bond, with the whole mass of similar plants growing around, it can hold its own against the strongest forces of the ocean. It is as nearly indestructible from natural causes as anything can be; and it is one of the most striking proofs of the power of feeble things that are endowed with life, to resist, when in combination, the mightiest forces of mechanical nature.1 [Note: Hugh Macmillan.]
The Breaking of Bread
We pass on now to the breaking of bread. There can be no question that here we have “the Holy Communion in its primitive form as an Agape or supper of communion,”2 [Note: F. J. A. Hort.] or rather as a commemoration associated with an Agape or supper of communion. For it is manifest that, in considering the language of St. Luke, we cannot separate it from that of his great master, St. Paul. We are compelled to seek in the First Epistle to the Corinthians the meaning of this simple expression, characteristic of the Acts, “the breaking of bread.” Now, in the tenth and eleventh chapters of that Epistle, St. Paul evidently describes the Agape as preceding the Eucharist. The latter he clearly asserts to be an institution of Christ, and to bear a character of the utmost gravity. He rehearses the history of that Institution, and bases on it some stern and awful censures of the profaneness which marked the Corinthian practice. The “breaking of the bread” was something more than the formal act by which a social festivity was inaugurated. It was more than an eloquent symbol—more than a solemn act of commemoration. It was the current phrase for a religious rite to which the Apostle evidently attributed the greatest importance. The very phrase had historic reference; it was an appeal to the devout recollection of Christians—it recalled and set before them the Master Himself in “the night in which he was betrayed.” The bread which then He blessed and brake was identified with the bread there placed on the table of the Eucharist, and the cup was the same. So the Apostle links together the profanities of the Corinthian Eucharist and that last supper in the room at Jerusalem, where Christ Himself had instituted the sacrament. “For as often as ye eat this bread and drink the cup ye proclaim the Lord’s death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. But let a man prove himself, and so let him eat of the bread, and drink of the cup. For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body.”
How much lies behind that simple phrase “the breaking of bread!” However close the association of the Eucharist with the Agape was in the apostolic age, it never went so far as to submerge the distinctive character of the Sacrament. St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians, not to say, also, the Gospel of St. John, which certainly reflects the eucharistic doctrine of the later apostolic age, absolutely prohibits the popular notion that the unique and awful significance of the Holy Communion belongs to the later period of the Church.1 [Note: H. H. Henson.]
It is not uninteresting to compare with St. Paul’s language the eucharistic prayer preserved in The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles. “As this broken bread was scattered upon the mountains and gathered together became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom, for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever” (Didache, i. 4).
1. Now we have seen that St. Paul was very careful to dwell on the deep significance of the Holy Communion, and circumstances proved at this time how necessary this was. But the great precaution which was taken to guard the sacred observance of the Holy Communion does not preclude the joyful association which essentially attached to the “breaking of bread.” The “Eucharist,” the name given to that service, in itself indicates the manner in which the primitive Christians regarded it. “And this food is called among us Eucharistia, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but in like manner as Jesus Christ our Saviour, having been made flesh by the Word of God, had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so likewise have we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.”1 [Note: Justin Martyr, Apol. i. 64.]
In “The Breaking of Bread” the Apostolic Christians possessed one abiding and unchanging secret in which their whole spiritual being stood rooted, in possession of which they could face all that was before them, whatever the long and cruel years might bring. Here that secret was embodied. The innermost soul of this integral life was an act of organic worship, “the breaking of bread.” Christ has passed out of sight, they see Him no more, and they now therefore have sorrow. Sorrow there must be. Nevermore would they have His visible presence in their midst, His voice in their ears, His breath on their brows. Nevermore would they move and walk and talk together, and sit at the same table, and eat in the same room. Nevermore the intimate and enthralling joy of that brief earthly companionship. “And ye now, therefore, have sorrow, but I will not leave you comfortless; I will come unto you, and your joy shall be full, and that joy no man can ever take from you.” So He had promised, and the pledge of that promise being fulfilled came out of the heart of those days now gone, when they had eaten and drunk with Him as His friends that last meal in which the sweet earthly companionship had crowned its blessed intimacy, that last meal in which the old days of friendship had come to a close, and had said their last farewell—so that it seemed to them that a meal of wasted hope and broken hearts was indeed never to pass away. Protected from the fickleness and frailties of change, it was itself to become the undying form of that new companionship with the risen Master, by which and in which, through the working of the Spirit, He, with the Father to whom He had gone, would for ever come again to them and sit down with them, and eat and drink with them, and make His ever-living abode with them, drinking with them the new blood of the grape, as it is drunk in the kingdom of God.
2. Observe the witness which the Sacrament bears to the truths of Christian belief.
(1) And first of all the wonder that such a thing as this, a little bread and wine given as a keepsake by a Jewish man about to die the next day, should have become what the Christian Sacrament has been in the world for two thousand years, should have been found such as it has certainly been found by men—a treasure of truth to great thinkers; of sweet grace to saints and heroes; of simple blessing to homely and plain people; of deep mystery to philosophers and poets; that it should have gone with equal power through times so extraordinarily different, and among men of so many races and lands; nay, should have borne this witness of itself to men, who were engaged sometimes in keenest unhappy controversy about some part of its nature and meaning.
(2) Then what are we to say of Him who, on the edge of death, calmly appointed this thing? Nothing gives stronger witness to the Divine Power, hidden in the Death of Christ, than this, that these words and acts of a dying man became at once the best offering to God, all other sacrifice being put away. And the observance of it, not as a sad memorial of a departed saint, or prophet, or teacher, but as the glad remembrance of a living Lord, is the best of witnesses to the truth of the Resurrection. It was a great Protestant theologian in Germany who spoke of it as the “climax of the early Christian worship,” and found “in its continuing celebration the first proof of the constant belief of Christians in the Divine nature of Christ.” Could any mere memorial of the dead have kept its place, and shown the power of the Eucharist all down the centuries till now?
Sometimes I hear the happy birds
That sang to Christ beyond the sea,
And softly His consoling words
Blend with their joyous minstrelsy.
Sometimes in royal vesture glow
The lilies that He called so fair,
Which never toil nor spin, yet show
The loving Father’s tender care.
And then along the fragrant hills
A radiant presence seems to move,
And earth grows fairer, as it fills
The very air I breathe with love.
And now I see one Perfect Face,
And, hastening to my church’s door,
Find Him within the holy place
Who, all my way, went on before.1 [Note: Horatio Nelson Powers.]
Finally, there is mention made of “the prayers.” These, in Dr. Hort’s opinion, are probably Christian prayers at stated hours, answering to Jewish prayers. If we knew more of the synagogue services in Palestine as they were before the fall of Jerusalem, we should perhaps find that these Christian prayers replaced synagogue prayers (which, it must be remembered, are not recognized in the law), as the Apostles’ teaching may be supposed to have replaced that of the scribes.2 [Note: Judaistic Christianity, 44.] We know that the Christians in Jerusalem, so long as the temple existed, were accustomed to attend its regular services, and it may well be the case that they also developed a synagogue service of their own. St. James, who presided over that Church, speaks of the Christian “synagogue.” It is certain that the synagogue provided the model after which the liturgical services of the Church were originally fashioned—although from the first there were new elements, such as the reading of the apostolic epistles, the exercise of spiritual gifts, the use of the Lord’s Prayer, and, possibly also, Christian hymns, which gave a distinctive aspect to the worship of the Christian synagogue.
Now let us notice two points in connexion with “the prayers” of which we may well make practical application—the place of prayer in public worship, and the value of united prayer.
1. The Place of Prayer in Public Worship. Those who were converted by St. Peter’s address remained steadfast in prayer: by which it is intended, not merely that they prayed privately by themselves, for this probably they did before, but that they were regular in attending the prayers of the Christian Church. The Church, though in its infancy, had yet its public Services, and those who joined the Apostles’ fellowship joined them in their united worship before the throne of God’s grace. And this, it should be observed, is the proper fruit of a sermon; the sermon is rightly appreciated, is manifestly blessed by the Holy Spirit, when it leads persons to value and join heartily in the Church’s prayers: the prayers are not the mere introduction to preaching, but preaching is intended to make people pray. This is the right order of things, and this is what we find in the history of the great Pentecostal Day. Whether or not this is so in these days is a question to be determined by experience; but this is certain, if any preaching is followed after merely for its own sake, and if the effect is not found to be greater earnestness and devotion in the prayers, then it may be the fault of the preacher, or it may be the fault of the people, but there is a fault somewhere, the preacher has missed his aim, his arrows have flown wide of the mark. The same Holy Spirit who came down upon the Church upon the Day of Pentecost, and made the preaching of St. Peter effectual to the conversion of three thousand souls, is with the Church still; and if it is found that in these days many people listen to sermons and yet do not show forth in their lives such clear, practical, almost unmistakable marks of the preaching having touched their hearts, then there is a fault somewhere. It cannot be with God’s Holy Spirit; therefore it must needs lie between minister and people.
It is said about us Free Churchmen that we think a great deal too much of preaching and a great deal too little of the prayers of the congregation. That is a stock criticism. I am bound to say that there is a grain of truth in it, and that there is not, with too many of our congregations, as lofty a conception of the power and blessedness of the united prayers of the congregation as there ought to be, or else you would not hear about “introductory Services.” Introductory to what? Do we speak to God merely by way of preface to one of us talking to his brethren? Is that the proper order? “They continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ teaching” no doubt; but also “steadfastly in prayer.”1 [Note: A. Maclaren.]
2. The Value of United Prayer. Can there be any one who has never felt how the sympathy of others multiplies joy and mitigates sorrow? and in the domain of religion this is doubly and trebly true. Prayer and meditation upon God come so reluctantly from my heart when I pray and meditate alone, but seem as if they were winged when hundreds begin to pray and sing along with me, and seal the same confession with one general Amen.
I often think of the woman who was once asked by the governor of Surinam why she and her fellows always prayed together. Could they not do it each one for himself? He happened to be standing at the time before a coal-fire, and the woman answered: “Dear sir, separate these coals from each other, and the fire will go out; but see how brisk the flame when they burn together.” From the mere circumstance that when in fellowship with others our hearts grow warm, we can easily understand what the Saviour means when He says, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” And again, “If two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” This, says a devout man, is as when the whole children of a family take heart, and with one accord beseech the father for a boon. It is then far harder for him to refuse.2 [Note: A Tholuck.]
Prayer is much weaker than its real self if many do not join in it.3 [Note: St. Basil, Ep. 68.]
O grant me, Lord, that in my fight
With foes unseen by day and night,
Whether I watch, or praise, or pray,
Victor or vanquished, still I may
Know myself one of an unnumbered host,
Nor feel, like severed branch, my labour lost.
When singly I the foe provoke,
I fall beneath some sudden stroke
Aimed at my solitary head;
But if in compact rank arrayed,
I fight with millions at my side, no foe,
Whoe’er he be, has power to lay me low.
They Continued Steadfastly
1. Sudden conversions are not always lasting. Many causes besides enlightened conviction may bring about a change of view; and not the least powerful of those other causes is moral contagion. When a mass of men is moved deeply by impassioned eloquence, it is difficult even for a man of calm self-possession to retain the mastery of his emotions, and keep himself free from the influence of that strong sympathetic feeling which, like an electric current, runs through a crowd, and moves many souls, as the mighty rushing wind heaves and tosses the waves of the deep. And what is too often the sequel? Why, the utter absence of steadfastness in the doctrine of Christ. When the cause ceases, the effect disappears. The sympathy dies out for want of fresh Stimulus. Then all is dead. Like a house without a foundation, the assumed Christian profession may be swept away into utter and irretrievable ruin by the first tempest that beats upon it. It is like a human body whose spinal column has been materially damaged; artificial props and stays are necessary to shore it up and prevent its collapse. One test then of sincere adhesion to Christ is steadfast adherence to His doctrine or His teaching—a walk and conversation in accordance with His mind and His precepts.
I have sometimes heard of converts and workers at exciting revivals, who afterwards became limp and languid. When the missioner had departed, they felt like a wedding party when the bride and bridegroom have gone. When the huge choir was disbanded, the little chapel choir appeared so tame and commonplace, and worship indeed had come to its dregs! But here in the apostolic times the exciting day was over, the wonder had somewhat passed, but there was no perilous relapse. They continued in the same road, stepping out determinedly, continuing steadfast in the way of life.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
2. Steadfastness implies in particular two points. It implies definiteness and it implies diligence. It suggests either a definite standpoint and diligence to maintain it, or a definite aim and diligence to achieve it. Examples are plentiful to illustrate our meaning. The sentinel at Pompeii who remained firm at his post until the stream of lava engulfed him in its fiery embrace—he was steadfast. The soldiers on the ship Birkenhead who stood in their serried ranks on deck while the women and children got safely off in the boats, and who went down in unbroken order into their vast and wandering grave—they were steadfast. They had a definite standpoint, and they were diligent to maintain it. Nor are instances wanting of definiteness of aim and diligence to achieve it.
Perhaps one of the most striking is presented to us in the history of the famous Warren Hastings. Hastings, when but a boy, conceived a passionate longing to regain for his family the ancient home of his forefathers, Daylesford, which, owing to monetary losses, had passed into the hands of strangers. He was but a poor lad when first the desire seized his mind; but all through his long and chequered career this desire never left him, until towards the end of his life he accomplished his object, and purchased the ancestral home, where he ultimately died.2 [Note: S. C. Lowry.]
Alexander (W.), Verbum Crucis, 147.
Arnold (T.), Sermons, ii. 24.
Bamford (J. M.), The Burning Heart, 151.
Davies (D.), Talks with Men, Women, and Children, iii. 610.
Fairbairn (R. B.), College Sermons, 264.
Gilmore (J. D.), The Church and its Privileges, 25.
Goodwin (H.), Parish Sermons, 3rd Ser., 242.
Henson (H. H.), Godly Union and Concord, 90.
Hort (F. J. A.), Judaistic Christianity, 39.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions of Holy Scripture: Acts, i. 79.
Martyn (H. J.), For Christ and the Truth, 168.
Mylne (R. S.), The True Ground of Faith, 57.
Reichel (C. P.), Cathedral and University Sermons, 185.
Talbot (E. S.), Some Titles and Aspects of the Eucharist, 75.
Tholuck (A.), Hours of Christian Devotion, 227.
Vaughan (C. J.), The Church of the First Days, 41.
Wilson (J. M.), Sermons in Clifton College Chapel, 2nd Ser., 21.
Christian World Pulpit, lvi. 145 (Scott Holland).
Contemporary Pulpit, 2nd Ser., ii. 257 (Alexander).
Examiner, 9th February 1905 (Jowett).
Plain Sermons by Contributors to Tracts for the Times, i. 295.