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The Early Church

[The Acts of the Apostles]

The beginnings of the church

[Acts 1-5] Luke is writing his second treatise to Theophilus (the first being his gospel) recounting Jesus’ final words to his apostles and his ascension before recording the events that follow. When all the disciples are gathered together, about one hundred and twenty in all, Peter recalls the fate of Judas and the need to replace him to restore the number of apostles to twelve. Through prayerful casting of lots, Matthias is chosen and becomes the twelfth apostle. On the day of Pentecost all the disciples are gathered together, are filled with the Holy Spirit, and start to speak in tongues. There are people from many nations in Jerusalem, all of whom are able to hear what the disciples are saying in their own language. Peter and the other eleven apostles are grouped together when Peter addresses the crowd, responding to some mocking suggesting the apostles might be drunk. He tells them how Joel prophesied the event they are witnessing, then takes the opportunity to preach Jesus as the true Messiah, reminding them in the process that it was they who had crucified him. Following Peter’s address, about three thousand souls become believers, are baptised and added to the Church. The apostles go on to preach daily, healing the sick, casting out demons and converting many. The fellowship of believers begins to grow and many of them sell their possessions, sharing what they have with the needy amongst them. One day, when Peter and John go to the temple to pray, they are confronted by a man who has been lame from birth and heal him. He immediately stands up and follows them into the temple, walking and leaping and praising God. All the people had been used to seeing this man daily at the Beautiful gate, and are filled with wonder and amazement at what has happened to him. Peter tells them it was not by their own power that he and John had healed this man, but through the power of Jesus of Nazareth whom the people had crucified, although in ignorance. He calls them to repentance, telling them how the prophecy of Moses was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and how all the prophets from Samuel’s time testified of Jesus. He reminds them that they are the children of the Abrahamic covenant through which all will be blessed, and tells them that Christ came to bless them by turning them away from their sins. The priests and Sadducees are incensed at their teaching (the Sadducees do not believe in the resurrection) and arrest them, intending to deal with them in the morning. However, many are converted and the number of believers is now around five thousand. The next day they are brought before the Sanhedrin and questioned concerning the authority by which they had done these things. Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, proclaims Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom they had crucified, as the authority. Perceiving that Peter and John were not learned men, they are confounded by their boldness of speech. Knowing the miracle of the previous evening was witnessed by so many, they are unable to do much about it other than to command them not to preach again in Jesus’ name. Peter and John are defiant and are further threatened by the Sanhedrin before being released. They return to their own company reporting all that had happened, and are joined in worship and prayer. God answers their prayers with a further filling of the Holy Spirit, enabling them all to witness with boldness. Now none of the disciples are found lacking, as those who are wealthier sell their land and possessions, distributing their money as needed. One of those able to contribute in this way is Joses, a Levite of Cyprus who is surnamed Barnabas by the apostles. Among those who sell their possessions are Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, but they are deceitful in their giving. Their deceit being considered an offence against God, they are both separately rebuked by Peter and struck dead by the Spirit, bringing fear to all the Church. The apostles continue to work many miracles and the Church grows. Such is the faith of some that they even position the sick so that Peter’s shadow might pass over them and heal them. The high priest and the Sadducees are so angry by the apostles’ preaching and works that they seize them and throw them into prison. But the angel of the Lord releases them, instructing them to go and preach the gospel in the temple. When the high priest gathers the council in the morning and sends for the apostles, the officers return reporting their escape, despite the prison being secure. Meanwhile, they hear the apostles are back in the temple preaching, and send the captain and the officers to bring them before the council. The council reminds themof the previous day’s hearing and the demands they had placed on them, but the apostles defend themselves, charging them with Christ’s death and reasserting his resurrection. The council considers slaying the apostles but are dissuaded from doing so by the prudent advice of Gamaliel, a celebrated doctor of the law. They are then beaten and again charged not to teach in the name of Jesus before being released. They leave rejoicing in their persecution and defy the council by continuing to preach Jesus Christ.

Stephen and his martyrdom

[Acts 6:1-8:4] The church has now greatly multiplied, causing logistical problems for the apostles’ ministration, which naturally begins with the early Hebrew converts. Because of this, the Hellenistic Jews begin to complain that their widows are being neglected. The remedy is to appoint seven deacons to assist the apostles, allowing them to focus on preaching God’s word. Among those chosen is Stephen, who stands out as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Stephen goes on to do great wonders and miracles among the people. Stephen now preaches in the synagogue, but is opposed by certain groups who dispute with him, but are not able to overcome his wisdom and teaching. They induce people to falsely accuse him of blaspheming against Moses and God, and he is brought before the Sanhedrin to answer to these charges. Standing before the council, Stephen responds to his charges with an account of the history of the Jews beginning with Abraham, emphasising their fathers’ rebellion against God and their persecution of the prophets. Indignation at Stephen’s testimony, and his account of his vision as he looks to heaven and sees the Glory of God with Christ at the right hand of the Father, seals his fate and he is dragged out of the city and stoned. Among those witnessing the stoning, and supporting it, is a young man by the name of Saul. Stephen’s death is followed by a great persecution against the church in which Saul plays a major role. The church is scattered abroad, but this enables the word to be preached all the more.

Philip’s ministry

[Acts 8:5-40] Another of the seven chosen along with Stephen is Philip, who later goes to Samaria and preaches Christ there, healing the sick and casting out demons. Among those baptised is Simon, a sorcerer. When word reaches Jerusalem that Samaria had received the word of God, Peter and John are sent to investigate. They confirm the converted with prayer and the laying on of hands, and the Holy Spirit comes upon them. On seeing this, Simon the sorcerer offers money, thinking he can purchase the ability to confer the Holy Spirit. He is rebuked by Peter and urged to repent, which he does, requesting support in prayer from the apostles. Peter and John continue to preach in the villages of Samaria a while before returning to Jerusalem. Philip is then commanded by an angel of the Lord to go towards Gaza to meet an Ethiopian eunuch. The eunuch is reading Isaiah when Philip joins him. Philip preaches Jesus from the Scripture, then baptises the eunuch. The Spirit of God then carries Philip to Azotus where he preaches, not just there, but in all the cities until he reaches Caesarea.

Saul’s conversion

[Acts 9:1-30] Saul, the noted witness at Stephen’s stoning, is zealous in his persecution of the church. He successfully gains authorisation from the high priest to go to Damascus to detain and bring back any disciples found there. On the way, he is surrounded by a light from heaven and challenged by Jesus concerning his persecution. Struck blind, he is led to Damascus where he spends three days without food or drink. A disciple named Ananias is commanded in a dream to go to Saul and lay hands on him to restore his sight. This he does and Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul then spends a few days with the disciples before going to synagogues where he preaches Christ. Knowing his reputation, this confounds the Jews who then seek to kill him. Assisted by the disciples, Saul escapes by being let down over the walls of the city at night in a basket. He then goes to Jerusalem and attempts to associate himself with the disciples there. At first they fear him, but their minds are put to rest when Barnabas confirms Saul’s conversion. Saul then preaches Christ to the Hellenistic Jews, but they are unconvinced and plan to kill him. The disciples become aware of this plot and take Saul to Caesarea, from where he travels to his home at Tarsus.

Peter’s ministry

[Acts 9:31-11:18] The churches, now being freed from persecution, were edified, walked in fear of the Lord and multiplied. Peter, it seems, was in Jerusalem during the persecution, but is now able to travel freely to visit the churches. In time, he arrives at Lydda and finds a man named Aeneas, who had been afflicted with palsy for eight years. Peter heals him, telling him Christ has made him whole. Aeneas must have been well known, as his healing brought about the conversion of all at Lydda and the district of Saron. Farther on at Joppa, there had lived a woman by the name of Tabitha who had been known for her good works and charity, but had recently died. Knowing Peter was nearby, the disciples sent two men to request he comes to them. Peter responds readily and raises Tabitha from death, bringing about the conversion of many at Joppa. Peter stays at Joppa for many days, lodging with a man called Simon, who is a tanner. Meanwhile, there is a centurion at Caesarea called Cornelius who is a God-fearing man. Cornelius has a dream in which an angel of the Lord tells him to send men to Joppa to fetch Peter. The next morning Cornelius sends three of his men to do as the angel had commanded. While they are travelling, Peter is at prayer and begins to feel very hungry. He falls into a trance and has a dream of a sheet being lowered with all kinds of animals in it, both clean and unclean. Peter is instructed to kill and eat the animals, but objects saying he has never eaten anything unclean. He is told by a voice that God has declared them all clean. This happens three times and Peter is left puzzled by the dream. The three men sent by Cornelius then arrive and deliver their message. They lodge there for the night before returning to Caesarea next morning, accompanied by Peter who takes six men with him as witnesses. When Peter and his company meet with Cornelius, Peter is quick to point out that Jews do not keep company with Gentiles, but reveals that God had shown him not to call any man common or unclean. When he asks Cornelius why he has sent for him, Cornelius relates his dream and Peter then realises the full meaning of his own dream. That is, God is no respecter of persons and Christ is to be preached to the Gentiles as well as Jews. He then preaches Christ to Cornelius and his friends, and the Holy Spirit descends on them ll, after which they speak in tongues and praise God, to the astonishment of the witnessing Jews. Peter has them baptised and agrees to stay with them for a few days. When Peter returns to Jerusalem he is accused of having associated with Gentiles. He defends himself by relating in detail the whole story concerning Cornelius and his dreams. His defence is accepted and they glorify God for having granted repentance and eternal life to the Gentiles.

Hierarchical Précis