Devoted to the Apostles’ Teaching
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42; NRSV).”
Acts 2:41-47 provides us with an important window into the Jerusalem mother church, the source of all holy, catholic, and apostolic churches in the world today. Given that nearly 2,000 years have passed since the day of Pentecost, modern Christians do well whenever they re-investigate the roots of their own faith and practices. When we consider Luke’s description of the earliest Christian church in Acts 2, we find a succinct and sublime account of the core identity of the church. After responding to Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, the first Christians believed in Jesus as Lord and Messiah, participated in the sacrament of baptism, and received the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-41). Then, Acts 2:42 offers a brief description of the practices of this newly formed Christian community. Amongst other things, we read that the first Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42).”
Who Were the Apostles?
Already in the first several chapters of Acts, the apostles play a key role in the life of the church. They will continue to have a significant impact on the church in the remaining chapters of the book. Before proceeding further, it is good to have a clear picture of who the apostles were.
In the book of Acts, the term “apostle” is often used to refer specifically to the twelve disciples of Jesus. These are the men that Jesus hand-selected to be his closest followers (Luke 5:1-11). They spent approximately three years following Jesus, hearing his teachings, learning his commandments, and watching his life. In the earliest years of the faith, the apostles carried out a special ministry as eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is why the eleven remaining disciples recognized the importance of replacing the traitor Judas with another man who “accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us (Acts 1:21).” At this point in history, the four Gospels had not yet been written down. The message of Jesus was still a matter of oral proclamation. Therefore, the apostles were the ones who gave an accurate account of the life and teachings of Jesus.
As witnesses of the Christ event, the twelve apostles have a two-fold ministry of proclamation. The Greek word for “witness” (martus) is the root of the English word “martyr.” The apostles witnessed with their preaching, teaching, and oral telling of the story of Jesus. They also witnessed with their lives, specifically through the act of martyrdom. As we know from Christian tradition, all of the apostles, except for John, ultimately gave their lives as a proclamation of the gospel.
Later in the book of Acts, the apostles, along with other elders of the church, provide guidance at the Jerusalem Council that settled debates about the Mosaic law code and circumcision (Acts 15:1-2). At the end of the council, the apostles send a letter to Gentile Christians in the northern region of the Mediterranean, telling them of their decision. In the letter, the apostles say, “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15:28a).” Through prayer and spiritual discernment, the apostles offer guidance, decision-making, and oversight to the entire Christian church, a ministry that eventually became the continuing work of the bishops (1 Tim 3:1-7).
Even though the term “apostle” can refer specifically to the Twelve and their unique role as eyewitnesses, over time the term broadened and expanded to include persons like Paul who were not eyewitness (Rom 1:1). Although, it should be noted that Paul had to defend his apostolic calling, quite possibly because he was not an eyewitness (2 Cor 10-12). In Ephesians, Paul describes the church as being “built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Eph 2:20).” In short, the apostles, starting with the Twelve and continuing with those who offer ongoing oversight even today, are the bedrock of the Christian church.
What Did the Apostles Teach?
As discussed above, one of the primary duties of the apostles was to bear witness to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This was the core content of their preaching (kerygma). When the apostles select Judas’ replacement, they nominate two men and say, “one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection (Acts 1:22).” In the Apostle John’s first letter, he opens his correspondence by saying, “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life (I Jn 1:1).” Time and time again, we can see in the New Testament that the apostles have a primary duty to orally proclaim the Gospel story of Jesus, specifically the testimony of his death and resurrection.
When the apostles recount the oral tradition of Jesus, they support their preaching about Jesus with references from the Hebrew Bible. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost is an excellent example of this point. In the course of his message, Peter quotes from the prophet Joel once and the psalms of David three times (Acts 2:16-35). If this sermon and the others recorded in the book of Acts by Peter, Stephen, and Paul are any indication of the style of apostolic teaching, we can conclude that the apostles taught frequently from the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible.
We can see, therefore, that the apostles’ teaching has two main components: (1) the oral proclamation of the Gospel story and (2) the interpretation and exposition of the Hebrew scriptures. This is why Paul, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17, says that “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching.” The apostles clearly made frequent use of the scriptures to support their claims about Jesus as God’s chosen Messiah and Lord. However, one thing should be noted about Paul’s comments on the usefulness of scripture. Placed in its historical context, Paul’s remark clearly refers to the Greek Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible. While it is possible that Paul might have had some sense that his personal writings and other apostolic writings would eventually be canonized alongside the Hebrew scriptures, Paul’s words about the scriptures apply primarily to the Hebrew Bible.
Teaching the Hebrew Scriptures
While the content of apostolic teaching clearly made abundant use of the Hebrew scriptures, it seems that Christian preaching today rarely, if ever, makes significant reference to the Hebrew Bible. In some churches heavily influenced by dispensationalism or hyper-dispensationalism, the Hebrew Bible has been completely relegated to the margins, if not entirely abandoned! The shock of this becomes all the more apparent when we realize that Peter, Paul, and the other apostles preached exclusively from the Hebrew scriptures. While this truth is clear to any historian of Christianity, it might be shocking for modern Christians to learn that Peter never preached a year-long sermon series on the book of Romans. Yet, in churches today, congregants are likely to listen sermons with extensive quotation from Paul and only cursory references from the books of Moses or the teachings of the prophets.
If a non-Orthodox Christian attends an Orthodox matins prayer service, one will most likely be struck by the number of readings from the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the readings from the Hebrew Bible will almost certainly outnumber the readings from the New Testament! The liturgy of the Orthodox church, which makes extensive use of the Hebrew Bible, reflects the practices of the New Testament church and the content of apostolic preaching. What a contrast to the vast majority of Protestant worship services where the Hebrew Bible is rarely heard! Orthodox prayer services prove, however, the enduring power of the Hebrew scriptures to train Christians in righteousness and equip them for every good work (2 Tim 3:17).
Acts 2:42, therefore, becomes a call to preachers and teachers everywhere to re-discover the usefulness of the Hebrew Bible for preaching and teaching the good news of Jesus. If the apostles were able to preach extensively from the Hebrew scriptures in ways that edified the first Christians, pastors today should, at minimum, be able to regularly incorporate Hebrew Bible passages into their sermons. In the full spirit of apostolic teaching, pastors should make a concerted effort to preach regularly from the Hebrew Bible. While modern Christian preaching will almost certainly draw upon the New Testament more often than the Hebrew Bible for understandable and justifiable reasons, preachers would be foolish to ignore the wealth and richness of the Hebrew scriptures.