I have mentioned before that I am not a huge fan of the megachurch model. Those which I have visited seem too commercial, too insincere, and too showy for my tastes. I would not, however, say that they are objectively wrong – just wrong for me at this time. I am certain there are some megachurches which teach good Scripture and have sincere good works and are not just program-driven, money-hungry, and self-serving (like others). So please understand that these next three posts are not a critique in any way of megachurches in general.
What I will be discussing in these next three posts, however, is a horrible abuse of Scripture which is all too common among megachurches – specifically, the referring to themselves as an "Acts 2 Church."
Any of you who have been around evangelical Christian circles for long will know exactly what I mean: it is very common to talk about getting back to the model of the first apostolic church, the Church of Jerusalem, as described in Acts 2. I have heard this passage used to justify all manner of church organization schemes, from giant thousand-person arenas to socialistic communes to tithing rules to small group ministries.
I absolutely love the idea of using ancient principles in our modern cultures of worship; the ancient-future worship concept is one which holds great appeal for me personally. The problem is that almost without fail, those who refer to their church organization as based upon the “Acts 2 Model” bear no resemblance to what the church of Acts 2 actually looked like.
In the next three posts, we will investigate what I call the “Myth of the Acts 2 Church”—that is, the myth that the first Christian church was a megachurch with several thousand members meeting every Sunday for worship, with services basically like ours and positions in the church basically like we use today, meeting in homes for life groups and Bible study throughout the week. (Note: I am not saying these things are bad, just that they weren’t the Acts 2 Model in any way, shape, or form!) The breakdown of the short series will go like this:
Part I – The Setting: discover what the typical Jewish worship life looked like when we come into Acts 2
Part II – The Scripture: discover what Acts 2 actually says and what the first church was like
Part III – The Application: what some should (and should not) take from the passage, and what a modern church based upon Acts 2 might look like
PART I – THE SETTING
Before we read Acts 2 and see what happened in the Scripture, we must understand a bit about normal Jewish life at the time. Failure to understand culture is one of the biggest flaws in modern Christian exegesis: it leads to placing your own worldview over the Biblical author’s, and thus reading the Scripture as you wish to read them rather than as God intended them to be read.
So it is helpful to begin with an understanding of what early Jewish worship life was like.
Special Worship – The Temple
Many Christians wrongly place the Temple at the center of Jewish religious life, and certainly it was the most prominent and important part of worship; however, note that the Temple was often visited only a few times per year by even the most observant Jew, and not at all by some in faraway lands. Nor did a Temple even exist for the long period between the Babylonian Captivity and the building of the Second Temple by Herod. The Temple was the dwelling-place of God, the location where sacrifices were made on behalf of the people of Judaism, and the destination of pilgrimages. But it was not the location of “ordinary” worship practices.
The Temple’s only role in the Acts 2 church was as the setting from which the story began. Acts 2 opens during the Feast of Weeks, also called “the fiftieth day” (pentecost) because it occurred 50 days after Passover. This was a harvest festival celebrating the end of spring harvest; in Judea, seeds were planted in the fall, grown in winter, and harvested in late spring. The Feast of Weeks began as a celebration for the harvest, bringing firstfruits of the harvest into the Temple (Exo 34:22, Deut 16:10).
So our passage in Acts 2 will begin as thousands of Jews from around the world pour into Jerusalem to worship at the Temple and celebrate the Feast of Weeks; this was the cause of the many foreigners present in a highly religious atmosphere.
Ordinary Worship – Home and Synagogue
Worship for first-century Jews was not simply something done occasionally or on Sabbath days; it proceeded throughout the week.
Worship began in the home, with daily devotionals. Twice every day (once in the morning and once at night) each Jew would recite the Shema (Deut 6:4-9, also during prayer time often Deut 11:3-21 and Num 15:36-41):
“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. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” (Deut 6:4-9, ESV)
In addition to this “rising” and “sleeping” prayer which bookended each day, there were regular prayer times in the morning and evening of each day. Those in Jerusalem would do these regular prayers at the Temple together. All meals were also blessed before eating, and a prayer of thanksgiving given at the end.
In addition to these daily devotionals, every Sabbath day was a day of rest. No work was allowed to be done, and the day was looked forward to with great anticipation: the best meal of the week was prepared beforehand, the entire family gathered together in the home for an entire day of rest and peace. No one was allowed to go mourning or visit the sick or imprisoned—it was a day for joy.
Also on Sabbath day, a worship service was held at the local synagogue. The word "synagogue" was roughly synonomous with "church" today - it was used to refer both to a physical building and to a community of believers.
When I say the synagogue was local, I mean truly local: due to interpretation of the Old Testament, you were allowed to walk only 2000 cubits on Sabbath day. (Some argument existed as to whether this was one-way or round-trip.) Basically, this meant that you could walk about 2/3 of a mile in each direction, per Sabbath day. Thus the synagogue had to be located extremely close to the home.
Most synagogues were fairly small - perhaps the size of a modern home in the suburbs. The key feature was the main hall for prayer and worship services, and generally there were offices and other rooms there as well. Larger towns had larger synagogues, however. Capernaum, for example, with its population of some 1,500 people, had at least one major synagogue which has been excavated whose prayer hall was about 4,800 square feet. So if you wish to picture the size of an ancient synagogue's worship "auditorium", picture a medium-to-large sized house in the suburbs today, but without the interior walls.
So we see that the synagogue had a very local feel - it was not a huge setting like one tends to think of in modern churches. Even the large synagogue at Capernaum (one of the largest uncovered from this period) was tiny compared to modern auditoriums for churches in America: you could put 125 synagogues the size of Capernaum just inside the main preaching auditorium used by Joel Osteen each week!
After arriving at their local synagogue, they would gather with, on average, 35-100 people. The limitations of Sabbath walking distance and the relatively small locations naturally limited the congregation sizes. Each synagogue was truly a community-focused affair. There was a minimum requirement of 10 full-grown males to start a synagogue, and most synagogues were probably around 50 people on average.
Joining with the other 50-75 people, the women and children would sit on one side of the synagogue building while the men sat on the other.
The weekly worship service had two primary points of focus: prayer and Scripture study. The service went something like this:
• Opening – prayers of blessing, often reciting of or chanting the psalms; this was generally done a capella. There seems to have been no prohibition against instrumentation, but it was not culturally common at this time to use them.
• Confession of Faith – the congregation would repeat the Shema aloud, chanting it in unison
• Prayer – while standing, the congregation would pray aloud a series of 18 standard prayers (3 of praise, 12 of petitions, and 3 of thanksgiving)
• Priestly blessing – a prayer with hands raised from Numbers 6:24-26
• Scripture readings – two readings each service, one from Torah and one from the Prophets; in the New Testament era there was no set cycle to the readings so these were likely different at each synagogue
• Sermon – a sermon is given if anyone in the audience is qualified to teach on the subject being read; sermon types differed just as they do today, some being topical and some expository. Visiting dignitaries were often invited to give the sermon as a guest of honor.
• Collection of Alms – not necessarily collected each week, but community ministries were supported through alms-giving at the church. Often this was done simply by having a box at the entrance, which money was dropped into before or after service. Tithes did not go to the synagogue but to the Temple.
Overall, there was an extreme focus on learning the divinely given word of God--this was the primary focus of the worship, the receipt of God’s inspiration. Recall that the Bible was not mass-produced at the time, being written in Hebrew and Greek on scrolls, stored at the synagogue. (Even if it had been widely distributed, some 90% of the population were likely functionally illiterate.) Thus if you wished to study the Bible, it had to be done at synagogue time--either in worship or in Scripture study days. Most of the Biblical knowledge came from their intensive education as youth, in which the students were required to memorize long portions of the Hebrew Scriptures. This is also why the repeated daily devotionals were so strictly adhered to--for many, that was the only chance at a "daily Bible study" that they had. Concepts such as "Bible study quiet time" are thoroughly modern concepts, available only because of our technological advancement; these were not commonplace in ancient Judaism.
The Synagogue - Organization
In addition to being the weekly house of worship, the synagogue fulfilled many other roles: it served as the community schoolhouse during the week; it often hosted Scripture studies on Mondays and Thursdays for those who wished to join; it was a meeting-house serving as the town hall; and it was the courthouse where prisoners were judged. Often, the synagogue also had a room or two for traveling guests and dignitaries to use as an inn.
The synagogue was run by a local council (sanhedrin). The council consisted of elders, called presbyteroi, who made the decisions for the synagogue and in the lives of the people. The chief elder was called the gerousiarch—the ruler of the council.
This council served as the governing body for the communities. Jews took very little interest in Roman politics, and generally did not seek Roman governance or judgment even during disputes; these were handled within the community, at the synagogue. The synagogue thus was the central feature of the community life, providing for the needs of the poor within that community, providing education and healthcare for the community, serving as a meeting place and post office and town hall and church all in one. The synagogue cared for its own community’s needs, including charities—but only in rare circumstances did they provide for the needs of other communities. The focus was on the community in which they lived. In this community they fed the poor, cared for the sick, taught and raised the orphans, buried the dead, and raised money for dowries for poor girls.
During synagogue services, any male could serve to lead the worship, translate, or preach – there was no special priesthood requirement for the synagogue. The Jewish priesthood was dedicated toward Temple service, and the New Testament does away even with that, embracing the synagogue model of universal priesthood.
Regarding staff, the majority of the work at the local synagogue was done by two men: the ruler of the synagogue (archisynagogos) and the servant of the synagogue (hypestes). The ruler of the synagogue (which we might call the senior pastor) was generally not a salaried person, but rather usually a wealthy or influential elder and often (but not always) the leader of the presbyteroi council and influential in the local community. He made arrangements for who did what at the synagogue. He was not always the teacher, but was responsible for leading the church. The servant of the synagogue (which we might call a deacon) was generally the only salaried person at the church, and he had a variety of roles: care for the church scrolls, maintenance of the building and grounds, preparation for service (chairs and benches and cleaning and the like), and teaching the children during the week.
However, in very large cities—-there weren’t many, but a few—-some much larger synagogues existed. They had more than one servant of the church who would take care of everything. A small synagogue could easily be handled by the two regular positions; but a large synagogue like the one in Capernaum, which had perhaps a few hundred weekly attendees, likely employed multiple synagogue servants to split up the duties.
Conclusion – Part I
As you can see, the synagogue of the New Testament era was organized and looked much different from our modern day churches. This is the culture within which every member of the Jews in Acts 2 lived, so as we read Acts 2 in the next post, we need to keep this in mind.