The Church's Top Priority

It's probably not what you expect.

This is the first part of a six-week series for Creekstone Church in Dahlonega, GA. I would be honored for you to follow along. You may listen to the podcast here or read the text below.

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For more information about Rest for the Weary, just go here.


A Metaphor

The metaphor for the next six weeks of sermons at Creekstone is a computer that needs to be shut down in order to restore the original system settings with a reboot. 

You know how computers work. With software applications being downloaded and hard drive storage filling up, the machine begins to lag in speed and performance. It doesn’t run like it used to. 

It doesn’t run like it is supposed to.

So you call tech support and the computer specialist walks you through some troubleshooting questions. If the problem is deep within the system, he may recommend a system restart. The purpose of a re-start is to expunge the excess data from the drives and reset the original system settings, thus, giving the computer new life.

But new life required a shutdown. Optimal performance demanded a reboot. That is where we find ourselves as a church. 

While we never would have shut ourselves down, I think this may be a providential opportunity. While I don’t know all the reasons in the wisdom of God for why this happened, I think one reason is so that churches like ours will be forced to restore the original system settings God designed for the church.

At the beginning of 2020, the Elder Team began to ask some penetrating questions about the health of Creekstone’s ministry. We recognized that after ten years, like a computer, a church may begin to experience some of the same symptoms as a lagging PC. One word we used to describe what we were feeling is “ingrown.” 

That is the last word I ever imagined would be used to describe the church that was supposed to revolutionize our community with the message of God’s radical grace in Jesus. We started Creekstone to glorify God by helping others come alive to the wonder, beauty, and transforming power of the gospel. How could such an outward mission turn inward?

An Unexpected Opportunity

But don’t feel too bad. What we have experienced is not uncommon with churches, businesses, sports franchises, and yes, computers. Over time, we all need a reboot. In fact, we could say that Sundays are intended to be mini-reboots for the soul leading to reboots in marriages and all kinds of relationships as we re-enter into our restored relationship with the Father through the blood of Jesus. 

So, in my humble opinion, the shutdown and re-start is an unexpected opportunity to clean the hard drive, empty the cache, and restore the church with fresh focus, purpose, and alignment with God’s original system settings.

Those settings are found in Acts 2:42-47, which is a picture of the original Christian community just after the resurrection of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. While this passage reflects a season of revival that may not be normative for our experience, the six settings we observe in this text provide at least a framework of the kind of church health that leads to church growth, where a congregation is used by God to impact the broader community with the message of Jesus. 

Our plan over the next six weeks is to explore one system setting at a time. For context, let’s look at the entire passage, with a focus in this message on the first phrase in verse 42.

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.


Two Words

As I mentioned, the focus of today’s message is on the first system setting, which is found in verse 42, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” 

Two words stand out in this statement that deserve our attention. 

Devoted

First, is the word devoted. As a present, active participle, the nuance in translation from the Greek into English should read something like this: “They were continually devoting themselves…” Their devotion was not merely an aspiration of what they hoped to do but was an ongoing practice. They didn’t just say they were devoted, they proved it by what could be observed from their actions. 

This kind of devotion is like a professional tennis player who is committed to training. Players like Roger Federer and Serena Williams don’t just show up for tournaments. They eat, sleep, and drink tennis. They adhere to a demanding practice schedule and maintain a diet and exercise regimen fit for a professional athlete. The focus of their lives is their sport. 

Teaching

For the early disciples of Jesus, the focus of their lives is found in the second word of importance, which is the Greek word didachē, which is translated, teaching. But their devotion is not to teaching in general as if they were interested in intellectual pursuits. The focus of their lives was the Apostles’ teaching. 

In case you are unfamiliar with the Apostles, these are the men who were uniquely commissioned by Jesus to testify to his life and ministry, as well as to speak on his behalf with distinctive authority, just like the prophets in the Old Testament. You know some of the more familiar ones, such as Paul, Peter, James, and John. When they spoke for Jesus, it was as if Jesus were speaking through them. 

In some English translations, the word didachē is translated as doctrine, which tells us that the priority of the early believers was to have their hearts and minds shaped by theological truth so that they would be equipped as mature followers of Christ. In fact, they were so devoted to sound doctrine that they gathered daily at the Temple to receive teaching from the Apostles.

Eventually, as the Christian community became dispersed from Jerusalem throughout the world, followers of Jesus didn’t have the Temple in which to gather, nor did they have direct access to the apostles. Nevertheless, by gathering in homes, by rivers and under trees, in synagogues—wherever they could find a place to gather—believers continued to devote themselves to the apostles’ doctrine through the pastors and teachers who were appointed in local congregations to teach the didachē as originally delivered and preserved in the Scriptures. 

This observation from Acts 2:42 and the growth of the church tells us that the priority of the early church—the most essential system setting—was a commitment to receiving doctrinally sound teaching. This theological emphasis as a priority for the church is reinforced by Paul in Ephesians 2:19-20, where he writes, “19 Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”


The Foundational System Setting

According to the Apostles, the church is a preeminently theological community. I think that is why the apostles’ teaching is listed first by Luke in the list of devotions because it is the most foundational of all the original system settings. It frames how we are to understand God and ourselves. It teaches us about the nature of sin and the necessity of salvation by grace. It reveals where we came from, what has gone wrong with the world, and presents the solution for how the human condition can be restored to its original purpose. 

In summary, sound doctrine provides a referent, a True North of sorts, by which all of life can be rightly navigated. 

However, for some, the word doctrine rings of division and carries a negative connotation. “No creed but Christ,” they say. While I appreciate the sentiment, from a historical perspective that mantra is a bit naive and short-sighted, as many of the creeds formed in the early days of the church were hammered out to address various heresies concerning the person of Christ. For example, teachings such as Docetism and Apollinariansim denied the humanity of Jesus. Ebionism and Arianism denied his deity. While teachings by Nestorius and Eutychus misunderstood the two natures of Jesus. And these false teachings are still around today. 

The truth is that we need theological study, sometimes formulated into creeds, to help us define the apostolic teaching concerning Jesus. And the Trinity. And human origins, the nature of the church, the doctrines of sovereignty, providence, predestination, effectual calling, justification, sanctification, adoption, glorification, and the like.  

It is true that many schisms have taken place in the name of theological correctness. Some were necessary. Some not so much. But the fact that sinners misuse and weaponize theology does not negate the proper place theology is intended to have in the life of the church. That proper place is at the very center as our priority, because if our view of God, mankind, sin, and salvation is skewed, everything else will be out of wack, too.

Must We Choose Between Theology and Mission?

Several years ago I met with a couple who had been visiting Creesktone but eventually left the church. We had just started a course called Theological Foundations for Leadership, which we were planning to make a requirement for folks serving in positions of leadership, such as elders, ministry team leaders, and small group facilitators. One of their complaints was their perception that Creekstone was drifting from an emphasis on missions to a focus on doctrine.  

I’m not sure I adequately answered their questions and certainly didn’t allay their concerns, but I want us to understand that missions and doctrine are not mutually exclusive. In fact, what we are going to see in the rest of our study in Acts 2 is that placing a priority on doctrinal truth actually fuels everything else in the life of the church, including mission. 

This is because at the center of theology is the cross. The core of our knowing of God is the doctrine of grace. What happens when grace begins to flow in our spiritual veins? It deepens our fellowship, fuels our worship, motivates compassion and care, and drives outreach. As we say all the time, grace changes everything. That is where theological study is supposed to lead us. 

Rather than divide, doctrine is intended to unite, especially when that theology centers on the substitutionary atonement of sinners through the blood of Jesus. With that focus in the apostle’s doctrine, it is no wonder that the new believers in Jerusalem attended daily to the apostles’ teaching. They craved the gospel like a thirsty man wandering the desert. Oh, how they savored the grace of God in Jesus!

Everyone Believes Doctrine

It may help to note that everyone lives by doctrine, whether they are a Christian or not. We all have a belief system. The question is whether that belief system is aligned with how God has designed the world and whether we have a works-based or grace-based understanding of how to be reconciled with God—assuming we have a sense of our need for reconciliation.

Unless we have a foundation built upon the rock of truth as revealed by God in the Scriptures by the prophets and apostles, we very well may live our lives upon shifting sand. We will be, as the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4, like unmoored ships tossed to and fro on the sea. It is to this danger of being foundationless that Paul wrote verses 11-14:

11 So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, 12 to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13 until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ14Thenwe will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming.

Paul was an educated guy. He knew that every human lives by a particular worldview, which is fashioned according to one’s doctrine. In this sense, a worldview becomes a lens or a grid through which we process everything from theological issues to cultural and social issues. There is a lot of false teaching out there. Paul knew that before we can effectively engage, we must have our hearts and minds moored to the worldview espoused by the designer of reality in what we call the Bible.

The apostle Peter encourages us in the same way in 2 Peter 3:18, “Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” 

Knowing Jesus

Peter is talking about becoming a mature disciple by growing in the knowledge of Jesus. You really can’t know someone without knowing about them. The way we know God is through the study of theology. 

Yeah, I know that sounds impersonal. But it isn’t meant to be. Just like a husband should study his wife to know her well enough to know what to buy her for her birthday or where to take her to dinner, we should study God to know him in a similar, intimate, personal way.

The English word theology comes from two Greek words, theos and logosTheos means God and logos means, word, or “the study of,” or “words about.” For example, when we speak of biology, we are talking about the study of life because the word biology comes from bios and logos (the study of, or words about). When we speak about theology, we are talking about the study of God—or, the knowledge of God.

This is relevant for us because the primary way we get to know about Jesus is through apostolic doctrine concerning the person and work of Jesus. And at the epicenter of that knowledge is grace, which becomes the hub of the theological wheel for the follower of Jesus. This may be why Peter spoke of growing not only in knowledge of the person of Jesus but in his grace, too.

The centrality of grace in the doctrinal system of the Christian life is reinforced by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, where he speaks of the gospel as of “first importance.”

1 I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day…”


Our Vein of Grace

I recently heard a story about a long time Dahlonega resident who has an old gold mine on his property. While much of the gold was removed years ago, there is still a huge vein that runs along the ceiling of the underground tunnel. Every now and then he chips off pieces of gold and sells it for cash. 

He lives on gold! 

But so do we. Not a vein of gold per say, but a vein of grace that runs throughout the Bible in the Old Testament, into and through the New, and now through our own lives. 

To be devoted to the apostles’ teaching—to sound doctrine—is to be devoted to knowing the one who is most devoted to you. Remember we said that the early believers’ devotion was not a mere aspiration but was something so actively pursued that it could be observed. It marked them as a distinctive emphasis in their lives. That is the kind of devotion Jesus has shown by giving himself unto death as payment for our sin debt before the law of God. His devotion isn’t aspirational either. It is sacrificial, practical, intentional, and continual. 

If anyone’s devotion is a present, active participle, it is the devotion of Jesus for his blood-bought people, the church. It is his devotion to us that compels our devotion to know, follow, and honor him as our Savior and King. It is his devotion to us that causes us to lean in to receive the Word of God in a sermon as if it were the very daily bread—the nourishment for the soul—that sustains life. So, week in and week out, as you lean in, look for Jesus, and chip off all the gold you need.


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