The book of Acts relates the continuing work of Jesus Christ in and among His disciples after the ascension. In light of the fact that a number of the key characters in Acts witnessed Jesus’ earthly life, thereby experiencing firsthand his love, power, and grace, and given the enormous expansion of God’s kingdom during the thirty years covered by Acts, the book provides instruction on how to conduct ourselves as the body of Christ now. This essay will focus on three essential characteristics of the early church that gave power to the early church, its unity and fellowship, the emphasis it placed on prayer, and the joy with which it received the good news. As is often the case with the kingdom of heaven, the last shall be first, for this essay shall begin by discussing the joy with which the gospel was received.
The typical response of those who accepted the gospel message is one of joy. For example, the jailer to whom Paul and Silas told the good news was “filled with joy because he had come to believe in God-he and his whole family.” (Acts 16:34) Similarly, the Ethiopian eunuch “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39) after accepting the way of salvation through Jesus Christ. The joy that filled typically filled believers’ hearts on first hearing the gospel preached remained in the hearts of many and did not die out when trouble or hardship came. Indeed, Acts 2 records that the believers “broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts.” (Acts 2:46) They performed the eucharist not as a ritual to be performed in obligatory fashion, but with great thankfulness, “praising God” for his glory in saving them through His Son, Jesus Christ. Even when persecution came and danger threatened whenever disciples came together or preached the good news, yet they rejoiced “because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace because of the Name.” (Acts 5:41)
If the disciples had retreated each to his own home to pursue his faith in isolation, much of the persecution suffered at the hands of both Jews and Gentiles would not have occurred. While Saul, later to be known as Paul, dragged believers from their own homes, he could not have known who believed if the early disciples had considered their faith a private matter to be practiced by each individual in his own time. Instead, they “devoted themselves…to the fellowship” (Acts 2:42). Unlike many today, who find church burdensome and attempts at fellowship a drain on their time and energy, the early believers met together, not grudgingly, but eagerly. They rejoiced in sharing in the apostles’ teaching, in praising God, and in giving to one another as needed. When one of them saw another brother in need, he gave to that brother cheerfully, for the love of Christ dwelt in him richly. It appears that they took Jesus’ command to love each other seriously and witnesses knew them by their for one another, for it says that they enjoyed the “favor of all the people.” (Acts 2:47)
Certainly, the disciples took the commands of Jesus seriously and endeavored to obey them to the best of their ability. Yet, Acts clearly indicates that believers did not merely rely on human effort to achieve this rapid advance of the kingdom. Instead, the believers leaned on prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit to propel their actions. For example, as stated in the study guide, it was not during a planning session that the church at Antioch set apart Saul and Barnabbas for their first missionary journey. Frank Slaughter, in God’s Warrior, suggests that Saul and Barnabbas had the missionary trip in mind before Barnabbas brought Paul to Antioch. The trip, he suggests, had been delayed by external factors, such as the imprisonment of Simon Peter, the execution of James ben Zebedee, and the famine that struck Jerusalem. Only when the famine had subsided, Herod Agrippa had died, and a Roman proconsul put in charge that severely limited the power of the temple authorities were they free to embark on the missionary journey. Whether or not what the author suggests is true, Acts records that the commission came from the Holy Spirit during a period of fasting and worshipping the Lord. Though Jesus had issued a command to make disciples of all nations, Saul and Barnabbas had waited for a specific anointing from the Lord for a particular trip. Their sensitivity to the Spirit’s movement is further reflected in their awareness that the Holy Spirit kept them from preaching the word in Asia on their second missionary journey. (Acts 16:6-7)
This sensitivity to the Spirit could not have been accomplished had not the disciples been devoted to prayer. From the moment of Jesus’ ascension, the apostles “joined together constantly in prayer.” (Acts 1:14) After Pentecost, the believers continued to commit themselves to prayers (Acts 2:42). Saul, after seeing Jesus on the road to Damascus, was found praying in a house in Damascus, presumably the bulk of what he had done for those 3 days between his revelation and the arrival of Ananias. Also, the jail in Philippi shook with a violent earthquake while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God. (Acts 16:25) Prayer formed the vein through which their lifeblood, the inflowing of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, flowed into them. To be cut off from prayer was like severing oneself from the very God whom they yearned to serve. It did not, as now, as too often to us, consist of a formality, something just to be spoken before meals, a church service, or a Bible Study. Instead, from prayer they drew on the life of the Holy Spirit and received instruction, wisdom, power, and love.
Not all of what transpired in and around the church at the times of Acts was idyllic, however. Many among the Jewish authorities in Jerusalem did not take kindly to the message preached. Persecution descended on the church, spearheaded by Saul, the one who later became a hero of the Christian faith. Later problems arose in nearly all of the cities in which Paul preached.
These problems, though, formed only part of the difficulties afflicting the early church. The first incident described in Acts of a believer transgressing against God came with Ananias and Sapphira who lied concerning the amount they received for selling their house. Other troubles rose up in arguments between Gentile and Jewish believers, with a number of Jewish believers arguing that the Gentiles must follow the Law of Moses also to be saved. Some among that camp actively tried to thwart Paul’s work in the cities he visited. More issues arose in the churches Paul planted, creating in Paul “anxiety for all the church (2 Corinthians 11:28). Some, as the author of Hebrews mentioned, fell away from the habit of meeting together (Hebrews 10:25) and the Corinthian church needed to be admonished for not loving one another.
In this way, we might receive encouragement, for clearly the early church was populated
by men and women with flaws and weaknesses much like us. The church in that day, by
which I mean the entirety of the body of Christ, had not achieved perfection, for a perfect
church does not exist this side of heaven. Yet, we are also to be ashamed-and by this I
mean the experience of godly sorrow that leads to repentance, not guilt or condemnation-
for this ordinary group of men and women transformed the world around them such that
within 150 years “a Christian writer could boast that the Christian Church had permeated
the whole Roman empire to such an extent that if the Christians abandoned the cities they
would be turned into howling deserts.” (Study Guide, p. 14) Few of these men had an
education remotely comparable to what many of us in the western world today possess
and none could travel to and fro as readily as we can. To travel in those days meant to
risk life and limb, yet Paul and his companions traveled many thousands of miles to
spread the gospel and others ventured far as well with rumors of the apostle Thomas
taking the good news to India. Today, we send people out on mission trips and perhaps
go ourselves when the occasion fits, yet the church of the early to mid first century acted
as if a fire had ignited in them that could not be quenched and would burn them up if
they kept quiet and sat still. By contrast, the church in America today has grown cold
and sterile, a force perhaps in the political arena, but not powerful for cultural
The question arises, then, how we here in the western world might attain the motive force that so drove the early church. One answer that may not sound particularly satisfying, but appears to be true is this: we cannot achieve it. That is, we cannot work ourselves up to that same state of passion and intensity so characteristic of the church founders. We may try, by means of fiery sermons and motivational techniques, by eloquent words, clever strategizing, and heartfelt worship, to mobilize a nation for Christ. Even should we incite an emotional response that mirrors the passion of the first believers, it may not lead to the sort of transformation that we desire, for without the backing of the Holy Spirit, all our work shall be for naught. Imagine the apostles after Jesus’ ascension. His last words told them to make disciples of all nations and how they must have yearned to obey that command after seeing all that they did. Yet, he also told them to wait for the Holy Spirit because he knew they had to be clothed with power from on high to accomplish the task he set for them. In the same way, for the kingdom to advance in similar fashion to what the first Christians witnessed, the Holy Spirit must inspire and drive the movement.
Dependence on the Holy Spirit does not absolve us of responsibility, however. Rather, it should instill in us patience as we pray and wait for God to move in a mighty way. Some lose patience and try to start a revival through their own efforts, but that very impatience may lead them to act in a way contrary to the Spirit of God, for patience clearly is one of the fruits of the Spirit. Instead, we should humbly follow God, obey his commands, and walk in faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. Our responsibility lies in putting the words of Jesus into practice and helping others to do the same. It behooves us not to acts as a stumbling block to our fellow man and to submit our own rights when necessary in order that we may not trip up another’s faith. For example, to some, it may not have seemed necessary to avoid the blood of animals, yet it pleased God to avoid troubling Jewish believers by staying away from that practice. Where our freedom crushes another’s faith, we are to relinquish that freedom out of love for our fellow man. Similarly, we are to inspire our fellow man to follow God more faithfully through the witness of our own lives and through the speaking of God’s word.
We must, though, realize where our sphere of influence lies and what we must leave to God. If we think we can be a savior to anyone or to a group of people, then we have exceeded the boundaries of our responsibilities and taken on ourselves the burden of being God. In the same way, if we think a person or group of people ought to be a certain way and that is our task to help them become this way, then we may become blind to the work God is doing in them for our vision of what should be has become almost a matter of what God must do in that person or people. If that becomes the case, then we have wrested control of the matter from God and are not leaving the work of the Holy Spirit in His hands. Better to concern ourselves with what lies in our control and let God handle the rest. If we do not do so, we show our lack of trust in God.
What, though, are we to do? If the ultimate responsibility for the advancement of God’s kingdom must be left to the Holy Spirit, is there anything left for us to do? Most certainly! As mentioned above, our responsibility is to walk humbly before God, to obey the word of the Lord, and to place our faith the Jesus Christ. That advice may not be sufficiently concrete, though, so this essay shall conclude with some advice gleaned from Acts on how to recapture the three essential characteristics-unity/fellowship, prayer, and joy-that were so prevalent in the early church but seem lacking today.
Fittingly, our conclusion shall begin with the first topic listed, unity/fellowship, for the body of Christ today is characterized by individuals and groups of individuals striving for the first position. Whether we speak of denominations or particular individuals in the church who may esteem themselves more highly than they ought, a quick look at the church in western world looks like the situation at the Last Supper where the disciples fought over the highest seat of honor. We see this despite the words of Jesus to take the lowest seat at the table so that the master of the banquet might raise you a higher position. (Luke 14:7-11) In the early church, the decision on who should ‘wait tables’ proved a decision worthy of much discussion and prayer, whom only those ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ were deemed worthy of the task. (Acts 6:1-7) How different it is today where different denominations pit themselves one against the other and where Christian leaders leap to criticize any new Christian work if it seems in the slightest to challenge their belief system! Perhaps the walls of pride and competition would break down if the leaders and congregation acted to serve, rather than criticize, the churches that stand in supposed competition with their own. What a vast difference it might make if more Christians followed the advice of Paul and “in humility considered others better than (ourselves).” (Phi 2:3) In the same way, we ought to “wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14) as Jesus commanded us. How we have fallen from that commandment and how easy it is to let pride and selfish ambition stand in the way of the Lord’s purpose for unity among the brethren. To walk humbly before our God also involves walking humbly before our fellow men and women. If the Son of God acted in way that placed others above himself by washing his disciples feet, then how readily we should do the same!
Similarly, our Lord, the very Son of God, placed a strong emphasis on prayer. If he, beloved of the Father, saw communion with God as essential to walking the path set out for him, then how quickly we should jump at the chance to converse with our Creator. Through Jesus we have been given the freedom to cry out “Abba, Father,” yet how little we exercise the gift of approaching the heavenly throne boldly and in full assurance of faith. One might think that in light of all we know God to be, a Christian might find departing from the heavenly throne to be the sorest disappointment, yet few ever approach God on a regular basis. It seems that we lack awareness of its power and think it little worth effort in light of other activities in which we might partake. We think it will not produce results, forgetting the words of James that “the prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” (James 5:16). Perhaps we do not believe ourselves to be righteous and therefore God will not listen to us, yet those who place their faith in Jesus Christ have been declared righteous in His sight. In this fast paced world, we lose the patience for prayer with the patience required as we await God’s answer. Instead, the fast food offered by other activities sates us more readily. Yet, nothing can advance the kingdom more readily than brothers and sisters of the faith united in prayer.
At last, we come to joy, the response that characterized the early church’s response to the good news. From Peter leaping off the boat to greet his Savior on the shore to the reaction of the jailor in Philippi at the message of hope he heard, early Christians rejoiced at the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why, then, do we in the western world react lifelessly to the message preached each Sunday? Moreover, why does that message not lift us up and inspire us to greater depths of knowledge of the love of Christ? Super Bowl parties, TV shows, and Internet surfing excite us and capture our enthusiasm more fully than the Word of God. We trudge to church out of obligation and keep an eye on our watches during the service to see how quickly we can leave. If a pastor extends beyond the usual time, we grumble and groan. Sometimes, this boredom comes with good reason, for not every pastor leaps to the pulpit, excited by the word he is to preach. How can the gospel elicit such lackluster response from us when in fact it is the elixir of life? This particular problem poses a powerful dilemma. Are we to feign joy and work at happiness, putting on a happy face for those around us concerned about our welfare? If the joy is faked, a mask to cover up some unhappiness, then our genuineness is lost and people can often spot the falsehood. Depth of communication between brothers and sisters in the faith is absent and a superficial sense of ‘everything is fine’ is established.
How, then, do we recapture joy? I think the answer lies in the leaders, individuals who by their life and the joy that pervades it inspire Christians who have lost hope to reclaim the ultimate hope in Jesus Christ. Let us who would lead Christians go out on the front lines, inspiring by word and deed those with whom we come in contact. Further, let us not simply incite with fiery words or glorified actions, but serve and show our fellow Christians the full extent of Jesus’ love for them by our example. May we live in full assurance of faith, dying to ourselves that others might receive life to the full. With such an example before them, our brothers and sisters might revel in the hope and in the joy of following Jesus for they see it with their own eyes and yearn to have the same joy and hope inside them. At the very least, we will have done our part to insure the propagation of the gospel and received that very life we yearn to see in the lives of others.