In this and following articles it is proposed to examine the chief features of those churches which figure prominently in the Acts in the hope of learning some practical lessons for present application. Any serious study of this book must take into account the fact that it deals with a transitional period in which Judaism only gradually faded out and the Church only gradually emerged into clear light. If this is kept in mind it will help to explain much which would otherwise be perplexing, but which must not detain us now.
Perhaps the thing which at first most impresses the reader of the Acts is the phenomenal growth of the first local church. On the day of Pentecost the existing company of ‘about an hundred and twenty’, 1.15, was augmented by the conversion of ‘about three thousand souls’, 2. 41. A little later we are told that ‘the Lord added to them day by day those that were being saved’, 2. 47 R.V. Another stage is reached when ‘many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand’, 4. 4. It would be most interesting to know how many women there were in the company but we have to be content with the statement that following the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira ‘believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women’, 5. 14. It is astonishing to read of still further expansion following the appointment of the ‘seven’ when ‘the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly’ and it requires little imagination to visualize the electrifying effect of a great company of priests becoming obedient to the faith, 6. 7. The enemies of the Church must have wondered where this continual progress was going to lead. Despite opposition from without and difficulties within, the work went triumphantly on so that when Paul visited the city some years later his attention was drawn to the ‘many thousands (actually myriads – tens of thousands) of Jews there are which believe; and they are all zealous of the law’, 21. 20. It would seem that these tens of thousands were additional to the more enlightened believers who were more conscious of their liberty in Christ. We have simply recited the bare facts but their full impact will be felt only by the mind which is prepared to meditate on them.
It will now be profitable to enquire how far the recorded conditions of the Church contributed to the amazing success of its witness.
In considering the early triumphs of the Church it would be unrealistic to overlook factors which cannot enter into the situation today – namely the presence and influence of Spirit-filled and specially commissioned apostles who had conversed with the Risen Christ and the effects produced by the signs and wonders which they performed. On the other hand we must remember that the Spirit of God does not change – He has lost none of His power. What He has lost is the sovereignty that God’s people once gave Him over their lives. Although we live in a different epoch, we dare not question the Spirit’s present ability to empower believers to meet whatever demands faithfulness to Christ may impose upon them.
The apostles were called of God to lead, and therefore, being fitted to lead, they undertook this responsibility. Many become quite agitated when leadership is mentioned, despite the fact that it is clearly God’s way to raise up leaders for His people. Perhaps this is due to bitter experience of men who have asserted themselves for the satisfaction of their own inflated ego, but if sufficient discernment had been exercised such men would not have been allowed to attain positions of responsibility. Possibly aversion to leadership more commonly arises from jealousy, lest a man gifted of God should exert an influence which is beyond those who cling to a position they are unable to justify. It is worthy of careful note that although Peter was unquestionably the outstanding figure in Jerusalem, he was careful to work in harmony with his brethren and to submit his actions to their judgment. The leaders of the early church were Spirit-filled men, who did not need to be pushed on by pressure from the rear, but who responding to the onward call of God could inspire others to follow. Spirit-filled men – there lies the secret! It is most important to observe that when the need arose for men who would administer the assembly funds, it was regarded as essential that they should be ‘men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom’, 6. 3. It will be obvious that the affairs of such a vast congregation called for men of exceptional organizing ability, but too often men have been given responsibility simply because they were ‘born organizers’; indeed, such has been their competence that they have sometimes almost organized the life out of a church. How great a need there is for men who can agonize life into a church, Gal. 4. 19, Col. 1. 29, 2. 1, 4. 12. The apostles realized what has often been forgotten with tragic results, namely that all service in the Church calls for spiritual men.
Almost as great as the miracles, was the super-human courage displayed by the apostles and by men like Stephen; these stood unafraid where their Master had recently stood, facing the same hostile and unscrupulous judges. Commissioned to preach and teach they did it with a boldness which caused their enemies to marvel, 4. 13. The threats made against them were simply re-iterated in the ear of God and request made for that help which would enable them to speak God’s word with all boldness. It need not surprise us that a prayer like this was granted, 4. 29-31. When these threats materialized and they were unjustly and inhumanly beaten, their resolve was none the weaker and far from being silenced they were found daily teaching and preaching in the lions’ very den, 5. 40-42. Undoubtedly the unflinching courage of Stephen left an indelible impression on the conscience of Saul of Tarsus which gave him no peace until he had surrendered to the claims of the Christ whom he had formerly hated.
So far we have been thinking of the leaders, but what about the people?
The first thing that we are told of the future nucleus of the church after the ascension of Christ is that they ‘all continued with one accord in prayer’. This oneness of mind was maintained so that on the day of Pentecost we find them all with one accord in one place, 2. 1. It is pleasant to think that their example must have played some part in encouraging the converts to continue steadfastly in the fellowship, 2. 42. ‘All that believed were together’, 2. 44, and they continued daily with one accord, 2. 46. When Peter and John returned after being arraigned before the rulers, the assembly ‘lifted up their voice to God with one accord’, 4. 24. Surely it is not without deep significance that after mentioning that ‘the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul’, the record goes on to say ‘and with great power gave the apostles witness … and great grace was upon them all’, 4. 32, 33. Here was seen that good and pleasant thing spoken of in Psalm 133 which leads to the blessing of God, ‘even life for evermore’. The Babel confusion of the professing church today is in sad contrast to this alluring scene. We can be thankful that the shame of this is stirring many consciences but we cannot now stay to do more than warn the unsuspecting against being deceived by present day trends which, we doubt not, will end up in unified religion contrary to God. To us it seems obvious that the only real solution is for us to promote unity of heart where God has placed us. If all believers did this the cumulative effect would be tremendous, and at the risk of being misunderstood (and perhaps being misrepresented) we venture to say that, if the companies which for convenience we call ‘assemblies’ sought grace and power from God to put into warm and living effect the principles we regard as being of God, they could give a welcome lead to many bewildered Christians. Far from such a statement arising from complacency we are too painfully aware of the urgent need of being awakened and revived if we are going to rise to the opportunities of usefulness awaiting us. To us it is a baffling and frustrating sight to see Christians enthusiastically chasing after some nebulous idea of unity whilst neglecting to promote unity of heart and purpose nearer home.
The narrative connects the daily growth of the church with the believers’ complete freedom from materialism – they ‘sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need’, 2. 45. This spirit of complete unworldliness was also manifested by later converts of whom we read that ‘neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; … as many as were possessors of is or houses sold them … and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need’, 4. 32-35. Limitations of space forbid us going into the reasons for thinking that such astonishing abandonment was unwise and that the policy advocated by Paul to meet such a situation would have proved more satisfactory, cf. Gal. 2. 10 with 1 Cor. 16. 1-3. Even so, we must not allow ourselves to evade the challenge of the disciples’ Spirit-born love and generosity. Though we may consider that their selfless enthusiasm was unwisely directed we may well ask ourselves whether we have gone to the other extreme and are so little different from the world in our eager pursuit of material wealth for selfish ends that our lip-service to eternal verities sounds feeble and hollow to the man of the world before whom we flaunt our affluence.
Perhaps if we could see things from heaven’s standpoint we might be shocked at the way we wallow in luxury when millions are in dire need both of the bread that perisheth and of the bread that endures to eternal life.
Those who surrendered their substance so willingly did not go about with the air of martyrs as if to emphasize by their dolefulness the extent of their sacrifice. They ‘did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart’, 2. 46. Would they have been happier at our loaded tables? When the apostles had been cruelly beaten they did not resort to their company for sympathy but rather rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer for Christ’s Name, 5. 41. Of the whole company it is said that ‘great grace was upon them’. That wonderful word ‘grace’ eludes definition but here it appears to convey the idea that the grace of God had imparted an attractiveness to their personalities, which made a most favourable impression on the populace. They were marked by a praising spirit and had ‘favour with all the people’, 2. 47. This was not a passing mood engendered by the disciples’ unexampled generosity, for even when fear fell on people following the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira so that ‘of the rest durst no man join himself to them’, yet ‘the people magnified them’, 5. 13. Even the rulers were well aware of the general esteem in which the believers were held so that, when they would have punished the apostles, they were for a time restrained by fear of popular reaction because ‘all men glorified God for that which was done’, 4. 21. When in exasperation the priests ordered the re-arrest of the apostles, the captain and his officers were careful to avoid violence, because they feared that the people might stone them, 5. 26. We are not forgetful of the Saviour’s warning when all speak well of us, but this was far removed from flattery – it was unstinted admiration for an unselfish and happy people who clearly enjoyed the favour of God, and who found their joy in His praise. Perhaps it will be better to let the significance of all this make its own impression on us, without further comment.
There never was an Eden into which the devil did not try to enter and when outward persecution failed to quench this bright flame of witness he engineered difficulties within. This will form a profitable study for a later paper.
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