Friday, April 07, 2006

The Early Church (1)

This is part 1 of chapter 6 of my book, Biblical Glasses.

The Book of Acts, written by the Gospel writer Luke, describes how Christianity spread from Judea and Galilee among the followers of Jesus, eyewitnesses to His life, death, and resurrection, to Samaria, all over the Middle East, to Europe, and eventually worldwide. Acts reveals how the early Church coped with its trials and tribulations. A thorough study of the problem-solving skills displayed in the Book of Acts can teach us how the methods of the early Church differ from our own. Many evangelical Christian churches today are striving for a renewal of early Church mannerisms; those efforts begin in the Book of Acts.

After the resurrection, Jesus physically appeared on at least twelve occasions to a minimum of 530 people. His appearances strengthened the faith of these people and encouraged them to spread the Gospel to all nations. After Jesus issued the Great Commission, He ascended into heaven. Shortly thereafter, Peter led the large group of Jesus’ followers in constant prayer. They decided to replace Judas Iscariot, who had committed suicide after betraying Jesus; they cast lots between two men, both witnesses to the resurrection and long time followers of Jesus. “The lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles” (Acts 1:25).

The apostles and disciples were given the Holy Spirit for strength and comfort, and they began preaching in many languages, healing the lame, curing the sick, and baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus had instructed. Peter gave bold sermons to the Jews, proclaiming that Jesus, Whom they crucified, was the promised Messiah. Upon realizing this truth, thousands of Jews were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37); believing in Jesus Christ, they repented of their sins and were baptized, joining the fellowship of believers, which in time, became the Church. This fellowship loved and served each other, living as the apostles instructed, according to the commands of Jesus Christ; God blessed them and “added to their number daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47).

Later, Peter and John healed a crippled man and were arrested for preaching about the resurrection of Jesus. Despite their arrest, the total number of believers in Christ grew to 5000 men (perhaps 15,000 including women and children). When the Sanhedrin asked how they healed the crippled man, Peter boldly declared that the man was healed in the name of Jesus Christ. He said, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Now the Sanhedrin was baffled; they did not want the news of the power of Jesus to spread. So they demanded that Peter and John no longer speak or teach or preach or heal in the name of Jesus. Peter said, “We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:20). Despite continued warnings from the religious leaders, the word about Jesus spread like a wildfire, and many people believed in Him. In the true Spirit of Christ, the fellowship of believers cared for the poor and needy among them by selling their possessions and sharing what they had.

The guidance of the Holy Spirit led the Church leaders, such as Peter and John, to make wise and discerning decisions; however, others did not have the deep influx of the Spirit. Thought to be members of the fellowship of believers, some followed neither God’s Word, nor the example set by Jesus, nor the instructions of the leaders closely; sin intruded the young Church. The first public sin in the Church occurred when a wealthy couple, Ananias and Sapphira, withheld some of the money they claimed to be giving to the Church. They were struck dead immediately as an example of what not to do.

Despite the clear example of the consequence of sin, people within the young Church continued to sin. Christians today continue to sin as well; as we will see, that has become the biggest turnoff to the Christian life. Non-Christians see Christians sinning, and they immediately think the Church is full of hypocrites. Unfortunately, even in the early Church, there were hypocrites among the believers.

Nevertheless, God continued to work through these sinners, not only sanctifying them, but also giving them the desire to preach Christ to everyone with whom they came in contact. The Sanhedrin continued to despise the preaching of Christ, so again it corralled the apostles and imprisoned them. The Lord opened the jail gates at night, and the apostles went free, continuing to preach in the Temple courts. Though the Sanhedrin desired to kill the apostles to put an end to this new ministry, a knowledgeable Pharisee named Gamaliel encouraged the Sanhedrin to release the apostles on account of previous, similar uprisings from other so-called religious fanatics. Gamaliel said: “If their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39). Of course, the apostles, “day after day, in the Temple courts and from house to house … never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ” (Acts 5:42).

Sometime later, the Church had grown too large for the apostles to manage the smaller details while continuing to teach and preach, so they chose seven deacons, men full of wisdom through the Holy Spirit, to handle food distribution to the needy and other responsibilities. “So the Word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of [Jewish] priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).

Now one of the deacons, Stephen, was falsely accused of blasphemy. He was brought before the Sanhedrin, where he gave a brilliant defense, professing Christ through the Old Testament Scriptures, which were familiar to the Sanhedrin. He criticized the religious leaders for resisting the Holy Spirit and killing the prophets and even the Savior Himself! The members of the Sanhedrin were furious at Stephen’s defense; they rushed him outside with their ears covered (so as not to hear anymore of the truth coming from his mouth) and stoned him to death. A young Pharisee, an understudy of Gamaliel, was present there, giving approval to the death of Stephen; his name was Saul, who would later become the missionary apostle, Paul.

On the day Stephen was martyred for his faith, a great persecution broke out against these people professing faith in Jesus Christ. Saul became the greatest of these persecutors; he went from house to house and town to town, imprisoning as many of these people as he could find.

Meanwhile, another deacon, Philip, went to Samaria to escape the persecution. There he preached the Good News of Christ and drove out demons; many became believers, “so there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). Later, an angel of the Lord told Philip to leave Samaria and travel south to the desert road leading to Gaza. There he came across an Ethiopian eunuch, a Jewish man who had been to Jerusalem to worship and make offerings. Philip, noticing the man was reading from Isaiah 53, asked if he understood it. The Ethiopian asked for help, so Philip taught him the Good News about Jesus. The eunuch was baptized on his way home, rejoicing in Jesus. Philip continued preaching as he made his way to Caesarea.

Now Saul, still persecuting believers in Christ, headed for Damascus to arrest more people. Nearing the city, he was blinded by a great light, and Jesus Christ appeared to him. Jesus told him to go into Damascus for more details. Saul was led into the city, because he was still blind; in fact, he remained blind and did not even eat or drink anything for three days! While Saul was waiting, God called Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, to go to Saul and restore his sight. Ananias was afraid, because of what Saul had been doing to his fellow believers, but God said: “Go! This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

Ananias went and restored Saul’s sight; Saul was baptized and received nourishment. Saul then traveled to Arabia, probably to learn more about Christ; he returned to Damascus three years later. Within days of his return, Saul was preaching in the synagogues (as he was accustomed to doing as a Jewish rabbi), but now he was preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ! This baffled the Jews, so they thought he must have gone crazy. They conspired to kill him, but learning of the plot, Saul escaped to Jerusalem. Even there, the believers were scared of Saul, not understanding how he could have been converted from the greatest persecutor of their kind to a fellow believer—and a knowledgeable one at that!

Saul was a given a chance to preach, and he did so magnificently. He debated and argued with the Jewish scholars, who eventually tried to kill him. For his safety, the apostles sent Saul to his hometown of Tarsus, in present day Turkey, where he remained for some time. Once Saul had been converted from Judaism to faith in Christ, the believers enjoyed a time of peace without persecution, and the Church continued to grow and thrive throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.

Peter then began traveling throughout the region, where he worked miracles and preached the Gospel. He raised a dead woman to life in Joppa and healed a crippled man in Lydda. Acting on a command he received in a vision from the Lord, Peter went to Caesarea and converted a Roman centurion named Cornelius, along with his whole family, as the first Gentile converts to faith in Christ. When he returned to Jerusalem, Peter was criticized for spending time with non-Jews, but he told everyone about the vision he had seen. “When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life’” (Acts 11:18).

This is critical to Christianity! Prior to this conversion, salvation was preached only to Jewish people and thought to be only for Jews, those physical descendants of Abraham. With Peter’s vision and the conversion of Cornelius, the family of believers learned that (rather than Abraham’s physical descendants) Abraham’s spiritual descendants, all those who have faith in the Messiah of God’s plan of redemption, are marked for salvation.

Paul said in Galatians 3:28-29, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Nothing changed from God’s standpoint, but this was revolutionary from the standpoint of man, especially the Jews, who thought they were superior to Gentiles.

As the message of the Gospel spread to both Jews and Gentiles throughout the region, the apostle Barnabas went to Antioch to teach the believers there. Many more came to the Lord in Antioch, and Barnabas went to get Saul from Tarsus. Saul and Barnabas spent a year in Antioch preaching and teaching. The first time that followers of Christ were called Christians was at Antioch (see Acts 11:26). The church in Antioch was so diverse—made up of Jews and Gentiles, Greeks and Romans, whites and blacks—that the only way to classify the group was as followers of Jesus Christ—Christians.

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