We have been learning from the early church how we can model civility and make an impact in our chaotic world. We’ve witnessed the passion and the power of the early Christians, which came from the Holy Spirit. We saw their devotion to Scripture, community, worship, and prayer. Now we will look at how their priorities led them to be civil by loving others and meeting needs.
What made them the kind of people they were? The kind who would stop on a very busy Sabbath to help a lame beggar no one else had time to see (Acts 3:1–10)? The kind who could turn their world upside down, and ours right-side up?
What were their priorities? What should ours be as we write Acts 29?
An old illustration called “the bricks and the sand” can help us. If we pour sand into a bucket, then add bricks, they will not fit. But if we put the bricks in the bucket first, then add the sand, everything fits.
Using this illustration in our ministry, we need to know what makes up the bricks and what makes up the sand. It all comes down to priorities. When this day is done, will you have used it as best you could? What about tomorrow? What about your life?
The bricks of life
Our dilemma of priorities is not new. Jesus was asked by a lawyer about the same dilemma. His religious leaders had given him 613 laws to keep—everything from the distance he could walk on a Sabbath to whether or not wearing a clothespin violated the Sabbath rest. So his question is understandable: Which law is the greatest? If he can’t keep all of them, all of the time, which ones come first? Which are the bricks and which are the sand?
Jesus answers first with their most sacred commandment, the Shema. Its title comes from the Hebrew word meaning “hear,” the first word in this passage: Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might” (Deuteronomy 6:4–5).
The first brick in the foundation of life is to be a passionate love for God, with all our heart (emotions), soul (life), mind (intellect) and strength (actions). Every part of our lives, every day of our lives, spent in love for him.
This is the “why” of life—why we are here, and why we are to live as we do. Then Jesus adds a second brick to the first, the horizontal to the vertical, quoting Leviticus 19:18: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
When another lawyer pressed the point, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus told him— and us—with a parable (Luke 10:29–37). As the Good Samaritan demonstrated, my neighbor is anyone I see in need. Even if I don’t want to help him (remember that the Samaritans hated the Jews just as much as the Jews hated them). Even if it costs me time and money to help him. When we see someone who is hurt physically or lost spiritually, they become our neighbor. Anyone we can help becomes our neighbor. Instantly.
These two verses are what matter most to God. They should be the two bricks you and I stand on every day. In these days of uncivility, there is a new urgency to these familiar Scriptures.
R. A. Torrey says it best: “If loving God with all our heart and soul and might is the greatest commandment, then it follows that not loving him that way is the greatest sin.”
Everything else is sand, at best.
How the early church loved God and people
The Jewish people made the Shema their mission statement. They placed it in boxes tied to their foreheads and fastened it to the doorposts of their homes. They recited it every morning and evening, and at the close of the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the year. It was the last word breathed from their lips as they died.
Now let’s see if the apostolic Christians built on this foundation, standing on these bricks. Let’s see if these priorities explain their lives and astounding success. We’ll begin by watching them at Pentecost.
Why are they in this upper room? To be in prayer and worship (Acts 1:14). To love God. Why do they leave this room to go out into the throngs crowding the Jerusalem streets and witness? Even though they didn’t know these people, or even their languages? To love their neighbors. They loved God in worship, and their neighbors in witness.
Let’s stay in Jerusalem and watch them for another moment. We see Peter and John going up to the temple at the time of prayer (Acts 3:1). Why? To love God. Then they stop and help this beggar—why? Because at that moment he is their neighbor.
Why will they not stop preaching, even when threatened with their lives (Acts 4:20)? Because they love their neighbors. Why do they continue to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade (Acts 5:12)? To love God in worship. Why do they then heal the sick (vv. 15–16)? Because they have become their neighbors.
Now let’s watch them spread out from Jerusalem. Why does Philip preach to the despised Samaritans (Acts 8:5 ff) and evangelize the Ethiopian (8:26 ff)? Why does Ananias risk his life in going to Saul of Tarsus in Damascus (9:10–17)? Why does Paul begin preaching immediately in Damascus (9:20–22)? Because they have become his neighbors.
Let’s watch them go to the “ends of the earth.” When does God call Paul to his missionary journeys? When he is “worshiping the Lord and fasting” (Acts 13:2), loving God. Then he is sent to make neighbors across the world, to love them to God.
One specific example is in the jail at Philippi. What are Paul and Silas doing there? “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (16.25). Loving God in worship. Then they love their neighbor, in this case the jailer who had beaten and imprisoned them, leading him to Jesus (vs. 27–28, 30–34).
Why does Paul preach to the intelligentsia in Athens (Acts 17:16 ff)? Why in Corinth, Ephesus, and Jerusalem? Remember his trials before Felix, Festus, and King Agrippa? He is not pleading for his life, but for theirs. Remember his journey to Rome, and his compassion for the others on his ship (Acts 27:21–26, 31–36)?
Simply put, wherever he finds himself he embodies civility, seeing those around him as his neighbors. And because he loves Jesus, he loves them.
And so the Book of Acts closes with Paul standing on these two bricks. From his own rented house in the city, he “welcomed all who came to see him.” And then, “with all boldness and without hindrance” he preached to his new neighbors the good news of God’s love (Acts 28:30–31).
If we truly love Jesus, we must love those he loves. This is how we prove that our love for him is genuine—by showing it to our neighbor, today.
Even when we disagree with them.