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New Testament Overview 2 - Birth of the Church

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Also available:

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

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.

Also available:

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