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And they devoted themselves

Posted by on Sep 10, 2009 in community, discipleship, scripture | 20 comments

Acts 2:42 is often called a summary verse concerning the early followers of Jesus Christ. Luke records:

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42 ESV)

I think the ESV missed something in the translation here. The phrase “they devoted themselves” is a translation of the Greek verb phrase “ἠσαν προσκαρτεροῦντες“. For those who are familiar with Greek grammar, this is a periphrastic participial construction – a verb of being along with a participle. According to several Greek grammars, the periphrastic participle is the most marked verb form when it comes to verbal aspect. Thus, this verb phrase focuses on the continuous aspect of the verb. The NASB translation tries to bring out this continuous aspect by translating the phrase as “They were continually devoting themselves…”

Lexically, the verb προσκαρτερέω can mean “devoted to” which we see in both the ESV and NASB translations. According to BDAG (the standard Greek lexicon), in Acts 2:42 it carries a meaning of “hold fast to, continue or persevere in”. The context should help us understand what Luke is communicating to us about these early followers of Jesus Christ.

Luke says that the believers were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. This does not mean that they were “devoted” to listening to what the apostles were teaching. Instead, it means that these early Christians were continually persevering in living according to the message that the apostles taught, as well as continuing to fellowship (share life) break bread (eat together), and pray.

Think about it this way: If the phrase “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” conjures up an image of people sitting around listening to the apostles teach, then the translation is NOT communicating the image to you properly.

On the other hand, if you read that phrase and picture the early believers attempting to live their lives in accordance with the message that the apostles taught, then you’re understanding what Luke wrote.

We see that Luke helps us understand what he means in the following verses:

And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:43-47 ESV)

This passage demonstrates how those early believers lived according to the gospel (the apostles’ teaching), and how they shared their lives and their meals with one another. On the day of Pentecost, God did not create individuals who loved to sit and listen to teaching. Instead, God created a new community who now lived new lives – lives that were not lived for themselves any longer. Instead, they lived their lives for God by sharing their lives with one another and with the world around them.

The world noticed… and the world found favor on this new community and new way of life. (2:47)


20 Comments

  1. 9-10-2009

    How would the first followers of Jesus know how to live out the apostolic teaching, unless the apostles were teaching them to do so? Surely the distinction you’re making here is a modern one, and not Luke’s. I think Roger Gehring’s House Church and Mission is instructive on this passage, demonstrating that this refers to the apostle’s actively teaching. But I would not therefore want to reject what you’ve noted about the early followers living out what they had been taught.

  2. 9-10-2009

    I think you missed a “NOT” shortly after “conjures”. Gotta watch those typos. ;-)

    Awesome, awesome, awesome. Thanks, Alan. LOVE this!

  3. 9-10-2009

    Sean,

    I am certain that the apostles WERE teaching. But the point here is that Luke is not saying that the believers devoted themselves to listening to the apostles teach (a verb). He says that they devoted themselves to the content of what the apostles taught (a noun). This passage is not about listening to teaching, but living according to that teaching.

    Bill,

    Yes, I did! Thank you!

    -Alan

  4. 9-10-2009

    So I guess what you’re saying is a clearer reading would be something more like this?:

    And they devoted themselves to living out what the apostles had taught, with fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. (Acts 2:42 Paraphrase)

    I know I am changing nouns to verbs, but the meaning may be more clear this way.

    What do you think?

  5. 9-10-2009

    Alan,

    Apart from a truly Biblical relationship with Christ, this is where true Body life begins, in a never stagnant, constantly growing, and maturing, relationship with one another.

    Only this strikes at the root of the artificiality of traditional, and much modern, churchmanship.

  6. 9-11-2009

    Stephen,

    That’s a pretty good interpretation. Living according to the apostles’ teaching probably encompasses more than fellowship, eating together, and prayer, but it would definitely include those things as well.

    Aussie John,

    I’ve found that it is very easy to replace relationship with activity. But, it is very difficult to move from activity back to relationship.

    -Alan

  7. 9-12-2009

    Thanks for sharing this insight, John. Very instructive.

  8. 9-15-2009

    Question: Does “devoted” also cover fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers, or only the apostles’ teaching? In other words, are you taking fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers as ways to live out the teaching or as other activities (for lack of a better term) to which they were devoted?

  9. 9-15-2009

    Laura,

    Excellent question! No. The early church “devoted themselves to” (meaning, they “continually practiced”) the apostles’ teachings, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers. All of the above.

    -Alan

  10. 9-15-2009

    So, now another question:

    Realizing all these things are interrelated, how does one “continually practice the apostles’ teaching” as contrasted with continually practicing the other three?

    (I’m a bit into definitions these days. :-)

  11. 9-15-2009

    Laura,

    I’m not sure that “apostles’ teachings” would be contrasted with the other three. But, perhaps aposltes’ teachings would include more than the other three.

    -Alan

  12. 9-16-2009

    Alan,

    Rethinking the last question, “contrasted” was the wrong term. A better version of the question would be, are the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers somewhat discreet elements, or are fellowship, breaking bread, and prayers subsumed under the apostles’ teaching?
    - Firstly, I mean this in a grammatical sense: are all four elements objects (?) of the verb?
    - Secondly, I mean this in a logical sense: mainly, what does it look like to be continually devoted to the apostles’ teaching?

  13. 9-16-2009

    Laura,

    Actually, there is some disagreement there caused by the text itself. There is a textual variant in which the “kai” (“and”) does not appear between “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread”. So, there are two possible readings:

    1) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, that is, the breaking of bread, and to prayers.

    or

    2) They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship and to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.

    Either way, the items are grammatically separate elements (whether there are three or four elements). However, even though the items are separate grammatically, they can still be related.

    What does it look like to be continually devoted to the apostles’ teaching? I think it means that they were continually and consistently trying to live their lives according to what the apostles taught. Thus, the point of this post is that Luke was not saying that they continually and consisted listened to the apostles teach, but that they way of loving changed based on what they taught.

    -Alan

  14. 9-17-2009

    Alan,

    Thank you for the grammatical insight.

    Two observations:

    It amazes me how the big idea of a passage can be clear despite textual variants. This is something to take to heart.

    This passage certainly does pull the rug out from under those who think intellectual knowledge of theology is sufficient.

  15. 9-17-2009

    Laura,

    I think you’re correct with both observations.

    -Alan

  16. 2-21-2010

    Thanks very much for this post, I very much enjoyed it, and will be incorporating some of it into a message tomorrow.

  17. 6-1-2012

    When read carefully – even in any English translation, they were devoted to the teaching(s), not to the apostles. Well, not in anymore sense than would be the devotion toward one another, anyway.

    Excellent post!

  18. 6-4-2012

    John and John,

    Thank you very much for the comments!

    -Alan

  19. 7-26-2012

    Hi Alan!

    Once again I think you’ve made a great summary of the text in view.

    I think an additional thought would be that being devoted to the apostles’ teaching did not just mean living it out once they heard it, but also teaching others also. In this sense, it wouldn’t have only been the apostles who were teaching.

    The extremely rapid spread of the gospel message is not indicative of having only 12 or 120 teachers teaching. The Great Commission was that every disciple would make disciples. Paul later wrote the expectation in 2 Timothy 2:2 that Timothy would pass on what he learned from Paul to faithful men who would also pass it on beyond them. So, the New Testament idea, which I think works into the Acts 2 passage, is that being devoted to the apostles’ teaching includes teaching others too.

    When we get to Acts 8:4 we see that the followers of Jesus proclaimed the gospel of Jesus everywhere they went. I don’t think it is tenable to say that they only began to do this when they began running for their lives. Rather, they did this while running for their lives because it was so much a part of who they were as followers of Jesus that they continued this bold proclamation even in the face of persecution.

    All this, not to disagree with you, but to add a different angle to what you have already written.

    Blessings – Stan

  20. 7-26-2012

    Stan,

    I don’t take your comment as disagreement at all. I think it’s a great addition, and I completely agree with you.

    -Alan

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