Biblical Studies (NT)/I. THE BIRTH OF THE CHURCH
I. The Birth of the Church
The Place of Acts in the New Testament
Acts is a history of the early church from the time of Christ's ascension until Paul's time under house arrest in Rome. It roughly covers the period from 30 AD until 62 AD. During this time, the church multiplied in size, both in terms of numbers and in terms of area, due to the courage and persistence of the early disciples. Acts is a natural progression from the gospels, taking up where they leave off, and it also provides the background for the epistles which follow it. In the first chapter, Luke sets the tone for all that is to follow by quoting the words which Jesus spoke to his disciples in the moments before his ascension: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be witnesses to me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:7-8). Acts does indeed trace the expansion of the church from Jerusalem, to the rest of Palestine, and from there to Rome, the capital of the empire.
In his commentary on Acts (Westminster, 1930), Charles Erdman writes, “It was a high honor to compose the most significant chapters in the history of the Christian Church; yet the author of The Acts, who alone relates the origin of the most significant society and of the mightiest movement in the world, makes no mention of his own name.” Nevertheless, credit for authorship is almost universally given to the same person who wrote the third gospel: the man Paul calls “Luke, the beloved physician” (Col 4:14). The idea of Luke’s authorship is supported by a constant tradition which extends back to the earliest days of the church. This is supported by the similarity in style, language, and spirit in the two documents. Both books were addressed to the same person, Theophilus, and the opening verse of Acts appears to refer to the Gospel of Luke: “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach” (1:1).
While parts of Acts (sometimes called “Acts of the Apostles”) are written using the first person singular (“I”), other parts are written using the first person plural (“we”), indicating that the author was present with Paul during certain events in his life. These passages agree with references to Luke in the letters of Paul. Some have argued that the “we” passages were written separately and incorporated into the story, but this is unlikely since Acts as a whole exhibits an overall unity of plan, style, and vocabulary.
The Greek in which Acts is written is of an excellent quality, matched in the New Testament only by the epistle to the Hebrews. It was not, however, written in the classical Greek style, but in the ordinary Greek of contemporary usage. The excellence of language is in keeping with the fact that not only was Luke a well-educated man, but unlike the other New Testament writers (with the exception, perhaps, of the anonymous author of Hebrews), Greek was his first language.
From a statement in the last verses of Acts, we know the time of writing to be between about 62 AD and 66 A.D. Luke writes, “Paul dwelt two years in his own rented house and received all who came to him” (28:30). Luke is referring to the period of Paul’s life (A.D. 60-62) when he was under house arrest in Rome, and this is where Acts ends. He does not mention Paul’s execution, which occurred in about 66 AD, and it is this that leads us to understand that while Acts was written at least two years after Paul arrived in Rome, it was also written before he was condemned to death, for it is most unlikely that if Luke wrote after Paul’s execution, he would have omitted to mention it.
If Luke was the author of Acts, it is natural to ask, “Who, then, was Luke?” This is not a question which can be answered in any great detail, for we know very little about his life. He was not a Jew (Col 4:11-14), which as far as we know gives him the special distinction of being the only non-Jewish writer in the entire Bible. He is thought by many to have been a Greek of the city of Antioch in Syria. Since Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, referred to him as “Luke, the beloved physician,” we know that he was a doctor. From this we can surmise that he was well-educated and probably a man of some affluence. Paul’s use of the word “beloved” indicates that he was held in high esteem, not just by Paul, but by all who knew him.
Not many people are aware of the extent of Luke’s contribution to the New Testament. Many people think that Paul is the New Testament’s major contributor because he wrote so many epistles. But in reality, Luke’s two books, the Gospel of Luke and Acts, make up about a quarter of the New Testament, comprising a larger portion than all of Paul’s letters, most of which are quite short. When they were written, each of Luke’s books would have filled a roll of papyrus about thirty-two feet long, each one carefully written out by hand.
The Founding of the Church
In describing the establishment and growth of the early church, Luke details an event of tremendous importance which was a major turning point in the history of the western world, an event which had been symbolically prophesied by Jesus in the parable of the vinedressers, in which the vinedressers represented the Jewish leaders. After relating the parable, Jesus spoke directly to these leaders, saying, “The kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a nation bearing the fruits of it” (Mt 21:43).
We see an apparent fulfillment of this prophecy in Acts, beginning in Chapter 10, where God calls Peter to go and preach the gospel to Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and his household. This is the first occasion where we see the apostles preaching to non-Jewish people, for up until this point, the church only existed within the Jewish community and it was still believed among the disciples that salvation was reserved for the Jews. Luke writes, “Those of the circumcision who believed [i.e. Jewish Christians] were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles [i.e. non-Jews] also” (Acts 10:45). In Acts of the Apostles (John Knox, 1960), Albert Winn writes:
- There seems to be a tremendous emphasis in Acts on the changeover from a church that was mainly a little sect within the Jewish nation to a church scattered over the Roman Empire and largely Gentile in membership. Thus Acts begins in Jerusalem, the world center of Judaism, and ends in Rome, the world center of the Gentiles. More and more as the book progresses, the Jews reject the Gospel and the Gentiles accept it. Four times, Paul turns from the Jews to the Gentiles. The last turning, at Rome, is the climax with which the book ends.
Acts opens by telling us how Jesus commanded the apostles not to depart from Jerusalem until the coming of the Holy Spirit. After giving final instructions at the Mount of Olives, just east of Jerusalem, Jesus was taken up and a cloud received him out of their sight. The disciples then returned to Jerusalem, where they “continued with one accord in prayer and supplication” (1:14). During this time, the apostles agreed to select someone from among the disciples to take Judas Iscariot’s place in the group of twelve apostles which Jesus had selected to be his leadership council. Peter said, “Of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when he was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (1:21-22). There were two possibilities, “Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias” (1:23). After praying for guidance, they drew lots and Matthias was chosen.
As this is the only mention of Matthias in the New Testament and there are no dependable historical references, we know nothing more about him than what these statements suggest. Peter’s words tell us that he was one of the earliest disciples, having been with Jesus from the time of his baptism by John, and that he continued with Jesus throughout his ministry and was a witness to his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Peter is specific concerning the candidate’s witness of the resurrection. This was probably to ensure that there could be no doubt, either in Matthias’ own mind or anyone else’s, that Matthias’ testimony was true, for he had been an eyewitness.
The Coming of the Holy Spirit
Ten days after Jesus’ ascension into heaven, the disciples were gathered together during the Feast of Pentecost. Luke writes, “Suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. And there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance” (Acts 2:2-4). For three and a half years, Christ had physically walked among his disciples as their teacher and leader. Now his physical body was no longer with them, but as he had promised, he sent them his Holy Spirit, through which they would be empowered to carry on his work.
The coming of the Holy Spirit, like the coming of Jesus in the flesh, was seen as a fulfillment of a prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures (Christian Old Testament). When the crowd heard the disciples speaking in tongues and accused them of being drunk, Peter responded:
- These are not drunk, as you suppose, seeing it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘And it will come to pass in the last days, says God, I will pour out of my Spirit on all flesh; and your sons and your daughters will prophesy, and your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams. And on my menservants and on my maidservants I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they will prophesy. (Acts 2:15 18)
John the Baptist also prophesied the coming of the Holy Spirit, saying, “There comes one after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mk 1:8). In the last days before the crucifixion, Jesus promised the disciples that he would not leave them without comfort and help, saying, “These things I have spoken to you while being present with you. But the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (Jn 14:25-26). The word “helper,” used here in reference to the Holy Spirit, has variously been translated “comforter,” “counselor,” and “advocate.”
In the opening verses of Acts, we are told that Jesus himself ministered by the power of the Holy Spirit: “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after he through the power of the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom he had chosen” (1:1-2). Jesus warned the disciples of the persecutions to come, but encouraged them with these words: “When they arrest you and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand, or premeditate what you will speak. But whatever is given you in that hour, speak that; for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit” (Mk 13:11).
Peter is the main character of the first twelve chapters of Acts, while Paul becomes the center of attention from Chapter 13. At the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost in 30 A.D., Peter gave a sermon that resulted in three thousand converts. This was just the first of many dramatic works ascribed to Peter in Acts. Peter appears to have been appointed the leader early on, for he is named first in all of the lists of the apostles. His leadership role becomes more pronounced in the days after Christ’s ascension. As one of Jesus’ oldest and closest disciples, he was a likely choice. However, he must also have had a natural leadership ability as well as a deep spiritual maturity which made him an automatic choice as the spiritual head of the Christian community at Jerusalem.
Our first evidence of Peter’s leadership comes at the end of Chapter 1, where he is the one who calls the disciples to choose an apostle to replace Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Again, in Chapter 2, on the Day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came upon them and people were “amazed and perplexed” to hear them speaking in languages of which they had no former knowledge, Peter was the spokesperson who got up and preached to the crowd the meaning of these things. In the next chapter, when the lame man is healed at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, even though John is present, Peter is the instrument of the healing, and Peter is again the spokesperson when an amazed crowd gathers around. Notwithstanding Peter’s role in the conversion of Cornelius, the first non-Jewish convert, Peter was mainly sent to his own people, in contrast to Paul, who was sent to the Gentiles (non-Jewish peoples). The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary (Zondervan, 1967) says:
- The character of Peter is one of the most vividly drawn and charming in the New Testament. His sheer humanness has made him one of the most beloved and winsome members of the apostolic band. He was naturally forward and often rash, liable to instability and inconsistency, but his love for and associations with Christ molded him into a man of stability, humility, and courageous service for God, becoming one of the noble pillars of the Church.
Administration in the Early Church
It was inevitable, as the church grew, that it would become necessary to create an administrative structure to handle the needs of its members. We see the beginnings of this in Chapter 6. Luke writes, “In those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a murmuring against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution” (6:1). The apostles moved rapidly to correct this problem by appointing seven deacons, “men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (6:3), who were to be the overseers of the ministry to the needy in the community. This ministry continues in churches to this day.
From about 42 A.D., Acts turns its attention from Jerusalem to Antioch (in Syria) where there apparently was a large Christian community, and which also was the base from which the apostle Paul set out on his missionary journeys. While Peter fades from the story, he nevertheless retains his position of influence over the Jewish believers from his base in Jerusalem. Paul, on the other hand, emerges as the spiritual head of the growing non-Jewish community of believers, which are largely the result of his own missionary work.
In addition to these outstanding leaders, each church appointed elders for spiritual leadership and administrative purposes. These elders were sometimes appointed by Paul himself as he established new churches in Asia Minor and Greece. Luke writes, “When they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they believed” (14:23). Although there were leaders in every community, and although Paul was generally accepted as the spiritual head of the non-Jewish believers from the time of his first missionary journey, Jerusalem was still seen as the headquarters of the universal church. When a dispute arose over whether non-Jewish believers should observe the laws of Moses, it was necessary for Paul and Barnabas to go to Jerusalem to resolve the question to the satisfaction of the whole church. This early meeting of Christian leaders is known as the Jerusalem Council.
One of the original seven deacons was Stephen, who is described as a man who was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5). Not much is known of his life, but he is said to have worked extraordinary miracles, and that the leaders of the people were not able to resist the wisdom with which he spoke. As a result, he was seen as a threat. He was falsely accused of blasphemy and brought before the council to be judged: “All who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel” (6:15).
In his defense, Stephen gave a brilliant speech in which he recounted the history of Israel with the object of illustrating how, all through history, the leaders of his people had rejected and murdered those whom God had sent to them. He closed with a stinging rebuke: “Which of the prophets have your fathers not persecuted? And they have killed those who foretold the coming of the just one, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers” (7:52). While he was still standing before the court, Stephen had a vision. He exclaimed, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (7:56). He was then pronounced guilty and taken out of the city and stoned to death.
After Christ, Stephen is believed to have been the first Christian martyr. Two chapters of Acts are devoted to him (6 and 7) and most of Chapter 7 consists of the speech he gave before the council. In all of the drama that characterizes Acts, there is perhaps nothing so moving as the story of Stephen. As little as we know about him, we know enough to see that he was an extraordinary individual. Following the example of Jesus, he died with this prayer on his lips: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (7:60).
The Jewish Establishment
While Palestine was a Roman colony, the Jews were allowed to retain their own culture and law, based on the Mosaic law of the Old Testament. The most powerful individual within the Jewish community was the high priest, and he in turn presided over the Sanhedrin: a body of seventy men, made up of priests, scribes and elders. Even though the ultimate authority was Rome, the Sanhedrin took care of the internal government of the country for the most part. Its influence was recognized even in the Diaspora (i.e. the Jewish communities outside of Palestine.)
In the crucifixion of Jesus, the Jewish leaders no doubt felt that a serious threat to their authority had been eliminated. It must have come as an unpleasant surprise when the disciples began to publicly preach and perform miracles in his name. Luke describes their response: “They called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus” (4:18). It is hard to imagine the blindness and the hardness of heart that characterized the leaders of the Jewish community at this time. Jesus said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore, whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do” (Mt 23:3). Then in a scathing attack, he added, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Mt 23:27-28).
Despite opposition, the church had continued to grow in Jerusalem until the martyrdom of Stephen. Luke writes, “At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (8:1). However, instead of putting an end to Christianity, this persecution caused it to spread even more, for in all the places to which the believers fled, they preached the Gospel and made many converts.
Among the disciples who were scattered throughout the land as a result of the persecution was a man called Philip, who along with Stephen, had been one of the original seven deacons chosen to care for the poor in the church. This Philip is referred to as Philip the Evangelist or Philip the Deacon in order to distinguish him from Philip the Apostle, and he is only mentioned in Acts. The names of the seven deacons imply that they were of Hellenistic (i.e. culturally Greek, rather than Hebrew) background, and they were described as “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” (6:3).
When the church was scattered from Jerusalem, Philip went up to the city of Samaria, about thirty-five miles to the north. In Samaria, he is said to have performed many miracles: casting out demons and healing the sick. As a result, the people heeded the words which he spoke “and there was great joy in that city” (8:8). Even Simon, a local sorcerer who had amazed the people for a long time with his miraculous powers, was converted and baptized. The response was so great that the apostles at Jerusalem sent Peter and John to Samaria to help in the work. This was all the more remarkable because in those days Jews did not normally associate with Samaritans because of their mixed blood and syncretistic religion, which blended Judaism and paganism.
Luke writes, “An angel of the Lord spoke to Philip, saying, ‘Arise and go toward the south to the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza’” (8:26). On the appointed road, Philip met a Jewish eunuch who was a man of great authority under Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia; a man who “had charge of all her treasury” (8:27). The eunuch was returning home after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship at the temple. As Philip approached his chariot, he heard the man reading a passage from Chapter 53 of Isaiah which is interpreted by Christians as a prophecy concerning the crucifixion of Christ. Luke writes, “Philip opened his mouth, and beginning at this scripture, preached Jesus to him” (8:35). The man was converted to Christianity, and coming to some water, he asked Philip to baptize him. Luke continues, “When they had come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord caught Philip away, so that the eunuch saw him no more; and he went on his way rejoicing. But Philip was found at Azotus. And passing through, he preached in all the cities till he came to Caesarea” (8:39-40).
From this account, it seems likely that Philip was instrumental in introducing the Gospel into Africa. The place where he is believed to have baptized the Ethiopian is Beth-zur, on the Jerusalem-Gaza road. Azotus, where Philip went later, was near the Mediterranean coast, about thirty miles west of Beth-zur. From Azotus, Philip continued preaching in all the cities up the coast as far as Caesarea, the Roman provincial capital, about sixty miles to the north. It seems that Philip stayed in Caesarea, for the next we hear of him is about twenty-eight years later in A.D. 58, when Paul stopped there on his way to Jerusalem. Paul and Luke stayed with Philip “many days.” Philip had become a family man also, for we are told that at the time of Paul’s visit, he had “four virgin daughters who prophesied” (21:9). Nothing more is known of his life after this.
The Gospel Is Preached to Gentiles
A landmark event in church history took place in 41 A.D. During his evangelistic travels around Palestine, Peter came to the city of Joppa on the Mediterranean coast. It was to be an eventful visit. He began by raising a dead woman called Tabitha to life. Then he had a vision in which God revealed to him that the Gospel would now be taken to Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews). Up until this time, it had only been preached among the Jews. No sooner had Peter seen the vision than messengers arrived requesting him to come to a Roman centurion named Cornelius who lived at Caesarea, another coastal town about thirty miles to the north which was where the headquarters of the Roman forces in Palestine were located. Cornelius also had a vision, in which he had been told to send messengers for Peter and have him brought back to his house. When Peter arrived there, he began to explain the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. Luke writes, “While he was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell on all those who heard the word. And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord” (10:44,48). Thus, for the first time, the Gospel was preached to non-Jews, and the door was thrown open for the dramatic expansion of the church which was to take place in the next few centuries.
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