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New Testament Overview II - Birth of the Church

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

I: Life and Ministry of Jesus II: Birth of the church
III: Paul's Missionary Journeys IV: Paul's Imprisonment
V: John and the Later New Testament

Prev - NT Overview I Next - NT Overview III

The Book of Acts

Our greatest source of information about the early church is the Book of Acts. Perhaps the Acts of the Apostles should be called 'Some of the acts of some of the apostles' because it only gives us a very selective history of the first century church. Of the twelve apostles named at the beginning, most are not mentioned again. Instead, there is a strong focus on Peter, and later on Paul. Luke gives an account of how the Gospel began in Jerusalem, the centre of the Jewish world, and spread northwards and westwards to end in Rome, the capital of the Gentile world. It gives no account of how the Gospel spread east towards India, or south to Egypt, and in other directions, even though we know from history that it did during the first century.

Another suggested name for the book of Acts is the 'Acts of the Holy Spirit', as the work of the Holy Spirit in empowering the disciples for witnessing to Jesus, in guidance, and in performing miracles, is a major theme of the book.

The gospel of Luke and Acts form a double volume by Luke. Both books are dedicated to someone called Theophilus. His title 'most excellent' would suggest that he was a senior official in the Roman government, who also appears to have had some interest in the Christian faith. It has been suggested that Luke's purpose in writing both his gospel and Acts was linked with Paul's impending trial before the emperor, to show that Christianity should not be seen as a threat to the Roman empire. In both books there is a strong theme showing that the main opposition both to Jesus and to the early church was from the Jewish leaders. Also various Roman rulers either protected Paul and the Christians, or declared that they are innocent of any charge against them. In Luke, Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent three times (Lk 23). In Acts, the proconsul Gallio in Corinth rejected the accusations made against Paul by the Jews (Acts 18), and Herod Agrippa II declared that he would have released Paul if he had not appealed to the emperor (Acts 26).

The book of Acts can be divided neatly into two parts:
1. Acts 1 - 12 Focus on Peter and preaching the Gospel to Jews
2. Acts 13 - 28 Focus on Paul and preaching the Gospel to Gentiles

The Church in Jerusalem Empowered (Acts 2-5)

Pentecost (Acts 2)

All four gospels finish by describing post-resurrection appearances by Jesus to his disciples. Before seeing the risen Christ, the disciples were fearful and demoralised. However, the coming of the Holy Spirit changed them so they boldly proclaimed the gospel. Before his ascension, Jesus told his followers to wait in Jerusalem until they were empowered from on high. During this wait, they appointed a replacement apostle following the failure of Judas. Then, one morning, the Holy Spirit came as tongues of fire, giving them the ability to speak in other languages. This made a great impact on the visiting Jews who heard them speak in their own languages. Others scoffed, claiming that the disciples had drunk too much wine.

Peter stood up, and declared to the crowd that this was the coming of the Holy Spirit, as promised by the prophet Joel, that "in the last days, God will pour out his Spirit" (Joel 2:28), and that Jesus was the promised Messiah, whom the Jews had crucified. After calling the listeners to repent, about 3000 were added to the church.

Peter preached a second message after the miraculous healing of the lame man at the gate of the temple, after which a further 2000 were saved. However, the disciples were not left in peace for long. The temple authorities, most of whom were Sadducees, objected to them preaching that there is resurrection from the dead in Jesus. They were brought before the council, who forbade them from preaching in the name of Jesus, but they were amazed at Peter's boldness when he preached the risen Jesus to them in response to their questions.

The first believers in Jesus were all Jews. The 3000 saved on the day of Pentecost were Jews from all over the Middle East who were visiting Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost. The first believers continued to attend the temple ceremonies and keep the Jewish law, until persecution put a stop to that. In Acts, we see how the church gradually broke out of its roots in Judaism to become the worldwide body of Christ, including both Jews and Gentiles, even though this was sometimes a struggle for the Jewish believers to accept.

Early Spread into Judea and Samaria (Acts 6-9)

The Hellenists (Acts 6)

The first step out from Judaism was when some Hellenistic Jews were converted. These were still Jews, but they were Greek-speaking, and attended synagogues where the services were conducted in Greek, rather than Aramaic, and where the scriptures were read from the Greek Old Testament, known as the Septuagint. They were mostly Jews of the Dispersion, Jews who did not live in Israel.

The Hellenists began to complain that the distribution of food to their widows was unfair, so the apostles decided to appoint seven people full of the Spirit, to oversee the practical details, releasing the apostles to the ministry of the word and prayer. These seven were all Hellenists, and included Stephen and Philip. The problem with Hellenist widows arose because many Hellenist Jewish men moved to Jerusalem before they died, so they could die in the holy city, leaving many widows there.

Stephen became the first Christian martyr after he upset the Hellenist synagogue by his preaching. He was brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin, where he gave a long message showing how God worked through the Old Testament, and ended by proclaiming that God did not need the temple as his dwelling. This enraged the Jewish leaders, who unlawfully stoned him. The stoning of Stephen was the beginning of a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem. The believers were scattered from Jerusalem, and began to preach the gospel in the surrounding areas of Judea, and into Samaria.

Spread into Samaria (Acts 8)

The next stage out of Judaism was when Philip preached with great success in Samaria with its half Jewish, half pagan population. When the apostles heard about this, they sent Peter and John down to find out what was happening, and to pray that the new converts would receive the Holy Spirit. Led by the Spirit, Philip also baptised an important official from Ethiopia, who had been attending the temple.

The conversion of Saul (Paul) on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9)

It is now that we first meet Saul (or Paul), watching and approving the stoning of Stephen, then as a zealous and violent persecutor of the church. It was as he travelled to Damascus carrying letters of recommendation from the high priest, in order to pursue and capture Christians that he was so dramatically converted, when Jesus appeared to him. It is impossible to over-emphasise the importance of Paul's conversion, it certainly changed his life, but also the life of the church. In that moment, Paul would have realised that his zealous works for God counted as nothing, and that he was saved purely by the grace of God, which he received by faith. It was also on the road to Damascus that he received his commission to be the apostle to the Gentiles.

Paul was the ideal person to receive this commission, as he was fully Jewish, trained as a Pharisee under one of the best leaders, but also a Roman Citizen, giving him identification and access to both groups. Paul was one of his three Roman names (we do not know the other two), and Saul was his Jewish name, which is used by Luke when he is among Jewish communities.

Most of the first 15 years of Paul's ministry are not recorded, but he preached powerfully in Damascus and spent time in Arabia. When he finally visited Jerusalem, the church would not believe that the great persecutor was genuinely converted, thinking this was a just a devious trick. It took Barnabas to believe that Paul was genuine, and to introduce him to the apostles. When the opposition to Paul from the Hellenist Jews in Jerusalem grew too intense, the believers sent Paul to his home town of Tarsus, after which we hear nothing of him for the next few years.

The First Gentile Believers (Acts 10-12)

The most significant and very difficult step out of the roots of Judaism came when the first Gentiles became believers in Jesus, and part of the church.

It was possible for Gentiles to become Jews, but it was a lengthy and demanding process to become a proselyte. The person had to receive training in the law, then agree to keep it totally, they were then baptised in water and given a new name, and all family ties were seen as broken. And if he was a man, he would be circumcised.

Many Gentiles were attracted by the monotheism of Judaism, and would attend the synagogue services, but did not want to make the complete commitment necessary to become a proselyte. Luke refers to them as 'god-fearers', and many of them quickly responded when they heard the gospel preached by Paul and the other apostles.

Cornelius, the first Gentile believer (Acts 10)

Luke gives a lengthy record of the conversion of the first Gentile, emphasising the role of the Holy Spirit in this significant event. Cornelius was a Roman centurion in Caesarea, who was a god- fearer. One day an angel appeared to him, telling him to send men to Peter, who was in the town of Joppa.

Meanwhile, as the people approached the house where Peter was staying, God was preparing him for this meeting. While he was waiting for his lunch, he was praying on the roof of the house, when he saw a vision from God. This was of a sheet being lowered from heaven containing all sorts of unclean animals, (pigs, birds, snakes ...), which God told him to kill and eat. As a good Jew, Peter refused, as that would break the law of Moses. But God told him that he must not call things unclean which God had made clean. For emphasis, this vision was repeated three times. As Peter was wondering what this could mean, there was a knock at the door, and the Gentile men from Cornelius had arrived. Suddenly Peter understood the vision, invited them in (making himself unclean under the Jewish law), and went with them to the house of Cornelius (an unclean place under Jewish law), where he preached to his household. In the middle of his message, the Holy Spirit came upon the listening Gentiles, just as it had on the Jews on the Day of Pentecost, so Peter followed the clear direction of the Holy Spirit and had them baptised, recognising them as true fellow-believers.

However, when the apostles in Jerusalem heard about this, they called Peter back and critically questioned him about preaching to Gentiles. He repeated the story to them, clearly showing that this was directed by the Holy Spirit, and so how can they disagree with that?

Establishment of the church in Antioch (Acts 11)

As an important step in the spread of the Gospel, Luke describes the establishment of the first predominantly Gentile church, in Antioch. It was here that the believers were first called 'Christians', meaning 'little Christs', which was probably originally meant as a term of abuse. The apostles in Jerusalem sent Barnabas to see what was happening there, and he sent to Tarsus for Paul to come to Antioch too. A prophet called Agabus predicted that a severe famine would affect the area of Judea, so Paul and Barnabas were sent to Jerusalem with food and supplies for those suffering.

Peter's release and death of Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12)

Around this time, there was a short persecution by Herod Agrippa I, who had James, the brother of John beheaded. Because this pleased the Jews, he imprisoned Peter, who presumably would have suffered the same fate, had he not been miraculously released by an angel. One of the more amusing stories in the Bible is when church was praying for his release, but did not believe it when the servant girl told them that he was waiting outside the door for them to let him in.

Luke also describes the death of Agrippa, when he was wearing his royal clothes, and people called him a god. Because he did not give glory to God, he was struck down and died. The Jewish historian Josephus also describes Agrippa's death in his History of the Jews (Ant. 19:8:2). In this he described how Agrippa wore spectacular silver clothes which dramatically reflected the light from the sun, so the people declared him to be a god.

Prev - NT Overview I Next - NT Overview III

Related articles

I: Life and Ministry of Jesus II: Birth of the church
III: Paul's Missionary Journeys IV: Paul's Imprisonment
V: John and the Later New Testament

The Bible

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Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
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Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John


Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah

Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?
Paul and the Greek Games

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS