History of the early church
By Luke, the physician
The Acts of the Apostles, written by Luke as a sequel to his Gospel, presents a selective history of the early church from Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the dispersion of the good news from Jerusalem to Rome, the center of the known world. Luke writes in the manner of an apologist, describing how the amazing growth of this Kingdom movement could have come only through the power of God.
He presents it as an outgrowth of the Jewish faith and not a new religion in the Roman Empire. It begins in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life, and fulfills the promises spoken centuries earlier by Israel’s poets and prophets. Acts shows how the gospel message moves culturally from the Jews to the Samaritans to the non-Jews, and geographically from Jerusalem to Asia Minor to Greece and, finally, to Rome.
The Heart of Luke’s Story
As with his Gospel, Luke dedicates Acts to Theophilus, likely a high-ranking Roman official. He describes this account as the continuing story of what Jesus began to do and teach. Now the risen Jesus is working through people He chooses to carry the message of redemption to the ends of the earth. Despite the name of this book, not all of His apostles or emissaries are discussed in this history.
Luke focuses his account on the contributions of two men: Simon Peter, one of “the twelve,” and Paul (also called Saul), a Pharisee who persecuted the movement until he encountered the risen Jesus on his way to Damascus.
Luke also traces the history of two churches: the church in Jerusalem, the mother church consisting mainly of Jewish Christians, and the church in Antioch, consisting of both Jewish and non-Jewish believers. It is the church in Antioch that helps to launch Paul’s missionary efforts to Asia and Greece, and it is there that believers are first called Christians.
At the heart of Luke’s story are the conflicts and changes that take place as Jesus’ kingdom message goes from place to place and people to people. Jesus was a polarizing figure in His day, so it’s no wonder that Jesus’ followers also create controversy as they carry on His message.
Spreading the Good News
In spite of persecution by the Romans and disagreements within the church, the early church grows rapidly. When believers are forced out of Jerusalem and into other cities, they take the good news with them. Believers use their suffering as a catalyst to spread the message of Jesus, which is a lesson that will continue to inspire the church into the future.
Luke, in this his second volume concerning the genesis of the Christian movement, doesn’t preserve Jesus’ teachings during those mysterious meetings with His emissaries after His death. Surely they are filled with joy, curiosity, and amazement as His followers hang on His every word and gaze on the reality of His bodily resurrection as He describes the kingdom of God.
His words are undoubtedly intended to prepare each of them for this journey, a journey with a clear destination in sight — the kingdom of God. An integral part of this kingdom is the activity of the Holy Spirit to empower the people of God as they expand the kingdom beyond the region of Palestine.
Luke records surprisingly little about the day-to-day life of these early Christians, about how they integrated their faith into their culture; but he does emphasize the work of the Spirit who empowers miracles and gives believers the means to testify of their faith before Jews and the outsiders.
The Creator of heaven and earth is orchestrating a redemptive story that will radically change the course of history. The most significant supernatural event in the history of this newly formed church will be the filling of the Holy Spirit. Through the Holy Spirit, God will direct the church’s growth.
But how does the early church make important decisions before the Holy Spirit descends on them? The company of disciples turns to the practice of “drawing lots,” a practice used by saints for centuries to discover God’s providential leading. After much prayer, Joseph and Matthias most likely write their names on scraps; then someone draws the replacement’s name out of a bag.
What seems like a 50/50 chance is, in fact, God’s way of imparting His will. The disciples aren’t putting their faith in “chance”; they are putting their faith in a God who lives. This living God isn’t distant; He is a player in their lives, active when His people seek Him and His will. They know God directs the process, start to finish, and determines whose name is drawn to join the eleven.
This miraculous sign of God’s kingdom is astounding. The followers of Jesus are not known as people who drink too much wine with breakfast, so this fantastic episode requires some other kind of explanation. Unfortunately it is impossible to comprehend or explain what transpires on Pentecost.
But this is not a novelty performance; rather, it is the foundation of the kingdom of God in that it establishes the church as the place where God moves on the earth through His Spirit. They expect a political kingdom, but God moves in people’s hearts to transform individuals and communities.
Although this young and thriving church has no political influence, property, fame, or wealth, it is powerful. Its power is centered in living the gospel. The people value one another more than any possessions. They come together as a large, passionate, healthy family where it is natural to pray and share all of life together.
The kingdom of God is blossoming on earth as these lovers of God embrace the teachings of Jesus. In the days ahead, the church will lose much of this initial beauty and appeal; it will become consumed with a desire for material possessions, cultural influence, and power.
The Holy Spirit changes everyone and everything. If there is any doubt about the power of the Spirit, just take a look at Peter. When Jesus was captured, Peter cowered in fear that he might be identified as a man who loved Jesus.
Now this same man is preaching, healing, and pointing his finger in the face of Jewish officials who have captured him and John. With a boldness that is not his own, he blames them for the death of Jesus and does not cower at their show of violence.
This portrait of the early church as an unselfish community is captivating and inspiring. It presents a challenge for many followers of the Anointed One who want to show sacrificially their love to Him and His church. Many today wonder how to translate this into a modern culture so shaped by consumerism and self-interest, but no translation is necessary.
These problems weren’t foreign to the early community. In contrast to the generosity and sincerity of some like Barnabas, Luke now explains that others gave not out of love, but out of a desire to be honored by the community.
In these formative days, God sends some strong messages about His work in the church: the power to heal, the beauty of life in the Spirit, and His hatred for arrogant religion. If God does not rebuke the married couple who chooses to make a show of their supposed generosity, then Christianity might drift in the wrong direction.
While the Jewish leaders are using religion as a means to gain power and increase their reputations, the teachings of Jesus lead down a path toward the kingdom of God rather than toward human advancement. God chooses to expose these bad motives quickly, so that the church can give out of pure motives rather than out of a desire to appear righteous.
These emissaries of Jesus inspire us with their passion to serve Jesus and advance the gospel in the face of torture and abuse. After a night in prison and a public flogging, they moved forward with smiles on their faces. Believers in the Western church often enjoy the benefits of social and political power and are unwilling to suffer persecution for their faith as these men did.
At the same time, many believers throughout the world face daily pressure to renounce their faith but choose boldly to remain faithful despite social, economic, and even physical persecution. These believers follow closely the path trodden by the Anointed One and His early followers.
Life in the new community isn’t perfect. However, the believers don’t allow their linguistic and social barriers to divide the church; instead, the emissaries seize this opportunity to create greater unity between disparate groups. They appoint seven leaders, mostly Greek-speaking (based on their names), to oversee the distribution of food. This movement toward unity will be a challenge to the future church that will so easily be divided by any problem, real or perceived.
As Stephen recounts how God has worked with the Jews in spite of their faltering fidelity, his speech up to this point sounds like any good synagogue sermon. In the stories of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses, he narrates the history of God’s work of salvation among the Jewish people in the midst of their repeated struggle with unfaithfulness and idolatry.
However, it is one thing for his audience to agree that idolatry was a problem in the past and another when they are charged with the accusation of the same idolatry in the present. According to Stephen, those who reject Jesus are following the same path as the people who rejected Moses to follow idols. Such a strong message strikes a nerve, and Stephen becomes the first martyr of the church because of it.
Stephen’s sermon weaves together the story of the Jews and the life of Jesus. The point of the message is that God pursues His children despite their constant failure. The crucifixion of Jesus is the greatest of all of these failures.
Stephen affirms that through circumcision they have made themselves look like Jews, but their hearts and ears need circumcising as well. Of course, telling the Jewish leaders to get their hearts and ears circumcised elicits a rather violent response. Stephen speaks the truth so that all might hear, including a man named Saul.
They flee to the very places where Jesus said His disciples would be His witnesses at the beginning of this book. As a result, the persecution spreads the message of Christ rather than hinders it. Commenting about similar events a century later, church father Tertullian will write, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.”
The true gospel is becoming increasingly clear as the church spreads and develops. What happens that day in Caesarea changes the face of Christianity forever. It builds a bridge from Jews to Gentiles, from insiders to outsiders, and sends the community of Jesus on a journey beyond the kind of religious and cultural barriers that all people erect.
Through Peter’s short trip, the church makes an important journey toward reaching the ends of the earth because the message of Jesus is not for the Jews alone but for all people of all time. This is a hard lesson, and not everyone is eager to learn it.
Just as the experience of the Holy Spirit transforms that small community of believers into the church at the beginning of this book, the presence of the Spirit’s work among these outsiders, the ones who were not a part of God’s covenant with Moses, demonstrates that they, too, are part of the church. This isn’t what many expected, and questions about inclusion of outsiders consume the early life of the church.
On the night before his execution, Peter sleeps like a baby. Here he is, chained in a room full of soldiers while James’s blood is still moist on the ground. Although he can only assume this is his one last night before his own torturous death, he is not afraid.
So peacefully does he rest, in fact, that the heavenly messenger has to prod him to wake up; and while he is walking, he questions if he is dreaming. Does the thought that believers are on their knees all day appealing to God for him give him peace? Maybe.
But certainly Peter trusts that God is in control. A church that started with a few people is now over 8,000, and God is redeeming the rest of the world through these people.
After Barnabas and Saul help deliver the relief fund to Jerusalem ( 11:29–30 ), the three men return to Antioch. With this trip by Saul (who will shortly be renamed Paul) back to Antioch, Luke’s emphasis for the rest of the book shifts away from Peter and the church in Jerusalem to focus on Paul and his mission to spread the good news to Jews and outsiders throughout the northern Mediterranean area.
Paul never forsakes the Jews, the ones to whom the covenants were given. He shares with them first the good news about how God has fulfilled His promises through Jesus. Only when he faces opposition does he turn to the outsiders, because this hope is for them too.
When God uses men to bless the world, many mistakenly exalt those men to the place of God. This inevitably leads to pain and disappointment. Paul and Barnabas did the right thing by shouting as loudly as possible, “We are only men!”
It is time for many leaders and celebrities to follow their example, root out the religious hero worship, claim our humanity, and start sharing our own struggles — sin, depression, despair — to remind people we are all alike. Then we can focus on the one true God instead of His messengers.
These debates give a glimpse of the cultural tensions present between Jewish and Gentile believers throughout the New Testament writings. The early Jewish believers still follow the traditional Jewish practices of Sabbath rest and kosher food. This is fine, until Jewish and Gentile Christians must share a table.
How can they be truly unified as one church without being able to sit down together for a meal? This council affirms — under the influence of the Spirit’s work — that the outsiders may become Christians without becoming Jews first; but the outsiders should respect their Jewish brothers’ beliefs so they can fellowship together.
The decision is a model for church unity: artificial hurdles should not be imposed for inclusion, but groups should willingly sacrifice their freedoms to promote unity in the church.
Paul and Silas are keeping a low profile in order to advance the cause of Jesus. Paul’s first miracle in the area is to cast out an evil spirit from a girl. This sets off an unexpected chain of events bringing the men into the city court to be beaten before the crowds.
This sounds like the start of a very bad day. Silas must wonder, “Paul, what were you doing? Is your aggravation with this wandering girl worth all this trouble?” But they neither fight nor despair; instead, they sing, pray to God, and love their captors. Paul and Silas demonstrate that believers are not easily distracted or depressed as long as serving God is their priority.
This exchange is the most potent example of cross-cultural evangelism in the Bible. Paul provokes his audience to think and invites them to pursue God, but he does not attempt to summarize the gospel in simple propositions or acronyms. He connects their culture with the truth of the gospel and the beauty of the person who is Jesus. After that, it’s the job of the Holy Spirit.
Paul is no machine. He needs encouragement to faithfully pursue his calling in the face of persecution. While God allows Paul to experience serious persecution in many other cities, He spares him that trouble in Corinth even though the Jewish leaders still try to stir up the government officials against him.
Paul knows that the greatest joys in life are found in passionately pursuing the dangerous mission of Jesus, and that God sustains His followers in good times and bad.
Both Apollos and this small band of John’s disciples hear an incomplete gospel. The church is called not only to bring the gospel to those who have never heard, but also to expand the truth to those who understand only partial truth. All people are on a journey to know God — no one has “arrived.” Everyone has something more to learn because the truth constantly reveals itself.
The message of Jesus not only has the power to annihilate economic supremacy, but also turns the world upside down in the process. In the kingdom of God, a worker is always paid a wage worthy of his work: anyone who works has enough to eat, and no one is left out of the profitable bounty of God. No longer do businesses profit from dishonesty, manipulation, or selfishness.
This may be one of the strangest stories ever told. Paul was talking about faith while one young man dozed off and fell out the window. Many a pastor has secretly prayed that slumbering congregants would fall out of their chairs. It might have been funny had he not died; instead, it was a scene of great horror.
That is, until God used Paul to turn horror into celebration with a death-defying miracle. But the people were so enamored with Paul’s teaching about Jesus that they returned to their conversations, which continued until sunrise.
The last words of Paul to his Ephesian disciples are emotional, inspiring, but unbelievably arrogant. Who would place himself on a pedestal and encourage everyone to be more like him? It sounds like a cult of personality, but it is not. Paul understands that the gospel must be incarnate; it is more than a set of ideas, so someone must demonstrate how to walk the path of faith.
He calls them to watch him carefully and emulate his behavior: watch how I treat people, how I eat, what I say, the way I give; and do likewise. If all believers could possess the same boldness to say, “do as I do,” then the world would be a better place. Believers would not just speak the good news; they would live the good news.
Paul is a man of great mystery. This persecutor-turned-preacher seems more like a character from pages of fiction than the instigator of the spread of Christianity. He becomes what he once despised and willingly suffers on behalf of his new Savior. Paul is accused of many things, but he is no fool. He fully understands what is waiting for him in Jerusalem: persecution, suffering, and ultimately death.
His friends beg him not to return to this holy city, but Paul is called to live in the footsteps of the One who was crucified — He who was destined to suffer yet called for no drugs. His suffering served a greater purpose, and Paul never loses sight of this spiritual reality because he is living in the kingdom of God.
The masses hope for a gospel that makes them happy, healthy, and wealthy. Jesus said the way of life is a hard road, with only a few on it. Ironically this hard road ends in life. The easy, broad street — which may be paved with good intentions — always leads to death and destruction.
These Jewish leaders are prepared to squabble with Paul about the law. But in his wisdom, Paul disarms them with his story. He is one of them; and on his journey to defend Judaism against these Christian heretics, he encountered the living God. How can anyone dispute his experience? He was trained by trustworthy Jews and lived his life according to their strict interpretation of the law.
When Paul invites his audience into his experience with the supernatural, it makes debating the finer points of the law seem ridiculous. It would be like antagonizing Moses while he reiterated God’s message heard through the burning bush. But prejudice is apparently stronger than any divine message. Paul has them hanging on to every word from his mouth, until he speaks of the outsiders.
The crowd immediately rises from their silence into a furious rage. The message is clear — if your revelation extends beyond our people, we will hear nothing of it. How could all of these students of the Hebrew Scriptures have been so ignorant about God’s intentions to rescue all people? The prophets declared God’s plan to offer grace to Jews and non-Jews, but no one in this crowd considered that good news.
Paul is brilliant. Accused by a group of religious intellectuals, he gets them fighting with one another. Paul understands the axiom, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” so he picks a fight with the Sadducees knowing the rest of the room will defend him. The thing society opposes often defines it, so manipulation is easy. (Consider some of the conservative political pundits who have never espoused any inclination toward Christianity.
They gain millions of Christian followers by opposing the political enemies of conservative Christians.) Paul embraces a similar strategy here — if he can get these guys to fight, they will forget why they are actually convening. In many ways, the culture war is equally distracting to the early church.
In the middle of the Jews vs. Gentiles battle, the church is realizing believers are not here to fight about morality and culture, but to bring the kingdom of God to earth. His kingdom will not come by debate, but by the working of the Holy Spirit within the church.
There are rumors that a large sum of money is at Paul’s disposal — that is, the relief offering for the church in Jerusalem. But Paul does not choose to buy his freedom. Despite the corruption of the government, Paul understands that ultimately his justice is in the hands of God. In the near future, he will appear before the government of Rome, and that encounter will likely lead to his death.
At different points in Acts, Luke shows how the good news of Jesus challenges Greco-Roman culture and religion, but he also shows that Christianity is not subversive to the Roman government. These direct statements by Roman officials about Paul’s innocence support this message.
However, a challenge to culture and religion always ends up becoming a challenge to the government, as later Christians will learn.
Luke’s account of the early church ends abruptly: one of the story’s heroes, Paul, is under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial. Other sources will recount how Paul is later martyred in Rome, a victim of Nero’s paranoia and cruelty. But Luke’s story isn’t a biography of Paul; it is a narration about “the Way” as it moved geographically and culturally from Jerusalem (at the edge of the empire) to Rome (the celebrated center of the world).
Therefore, Luke’s story finishes once the message of Jesus is spreading without hindrance. As it moves geographically, “the Way,” as Jesus’ followers preferred to call it, crosses cultural, linguistic, and religious boundaries. At each and every point, Luke assures, the Spirit is there demonstrating God’s blessing on and approval of the emissaries who walk in the footsteps of Jesus and in fulfillment of prophecies.
Clearly what happened in those early decades was driven by the Spirit-wind of heaven; and God’s purposes are realized through the faithful obedience of disciples such as Peter, Stephen, Philip, and Paul. Luke’s account has ended, but the story about the acts of God through the church continues into our day. We are the characters in the current volume of salvation history. Through our faithful obedience, also empowered by the Spirit-wind of heaven, our stories are part of the anthology of God’s new creation.