There are at least three occasions in the book of the Acts where believers are specifically mentioned as entering into the fellowship of a local assembly. In each of the three, a different party takes the initiative. On the day of Pentecost, the initiative is taken by the Lord Himself adding to the Jerusalem “church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47). The passive use of “gathered” in Matthew 18:20 confirms that indeed the Lord is gathering believers to Himself in local testimony. The second occasion is in Acts 9 where Saul is the initiator attempting to join himself to the believers in the Jerusalem church (Acts 9:26-27). The third instance shines the light on Aquila and Priscilla, the prime movers in the case of Apollos. They “expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly” (Acts 18:26), which undoubtedly included instruction on entering into the local body of believers in Ephesus (and eventually Corinth).
For this study, we will consider only the example of Saul and his desire to be part of the local fellowship in Jerusalem. It is important to note that Saul is the first example of an individualbeliever seeking fellowship in a New Testament church. Therefore, his case becomes “the law of first mention” and will set out for us at least five important principles.
1. Individual exercise
The first thing Scripture states about Saul when he arrived in Jerusalem is that “he attempted to join the disciples” (ESV, Acts 9:26). Saul had a personal exercise to become part of this local fellowship. We must keep in mind that this exercise did not spring up overnight. Saul had been saved for about three years when he first came to Jerusalem (see Gal 1:17-19). The principle given here is that we should never seek to become joined to a New Testament church without definite exercise before God. We ought to be convinced that the Lord is truly dwelling in that specific company (1Cor 14:25). We should also be willing to embrace the responsibilities that come with the privileges of assembly fellowship.
2. Meeting with those in authority
It is often overlooked that when Saul desired assembly fellowship, “Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles…” (Acts 9:27). This was a new experience for the Jerusalem church, for prior to this no one dared “join himself to them.” (Acts 5:13) The term “apostles” is being used generally, as the only apostles in Jerusalem at that time were Peter and James, the Lord’s brother (Gal 1:18-19), the rest likely were occupied with the persecuted churches of Judea. But the principle remains that Saul met with those in governing authority over the church at Jerusalem to express his individual exercise for reception. While we do not have apostles today, God has given us elders with governing authority to “take care of the church of God” (1Ti 3:5). It is to these men that we can express our exercise to become part of a local church.
3. Account given of conversion
In this meeting with those in authority at Jerusalem, Saul’s conversion was recounted in detail. The apostles were told “how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that He had spoken to him” (Acts 9:27). Obviously, the details of Saul’s conversion were enormously significant to the Jerusalem church, as it was the very church he had persecuted (Acts 8:1, 3). However, we are left with the principle that in meeting with those in authority in a local assembly, we ought to be prepared to give an account of our conversion to God.
4. Evidence of a genuine link with Christ
Please note that when Saul’s conversion story was told to the apostles in Jerusalem, Barnabas confirmed it. The word of Saul alone was not sufficient. This was true even of the Lord Jesus Who said, “If I bear witness of Myself, My witness is not true” (John 5:31). Not only were the specifics given of Saul’s testimony, but also there was stated proof of his link with Christ, for “he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus” (Acts 9:27). Therefore, if I am seeking fellowship in a New Testament church, there ought to be definite evidence of my link with the Lord Jesus. Perhaps you have heard the following announcement made to a local assembly: “The elders have met with ______. We are satisfied with his/her conversion and individual exercise to become part of the assembly. ______ has been baptized and will be received if there are no Scriptural objections.” This is important to announce to the assembly for at least a couple of reasons. First, the elders do not receive individuals into fellowship; the entire assembly receives, with the elders acting in leadership on behalf of the church. Second, this gives an opportunity to establish evidence of the individual believer’s link with Christ as there may be those in the church who can add their witness to his/her testimony.
5. Assembly reception
The last thing said of Saul in our passage is that “he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem” (Acts 9:28). Evidently, not only were the apostles pleased with his testimony, but the entire church in Jerusalem was pleased as well. Therefore, the church acted to receive him. “Coming in” refers to his gathering with the Lord’s people for assembly meetings, while “going out” demonstrates his public testimony to the outside world. Let us never forget that while we may have the privilege to be inside a local testimony, our responsibility includes reaching out to those on the outside.