Building the church – Acts 1-12
Foundation of the church
Recently there have been marches and rallies against violence against women, abuse of power and injustice. The ongoing nature of these issues shows that human relationships are flawed, and we can’t repair them. This is a symptom of our rebellion against God. But in Jesus the justice we long for can be found. By having a right relationship with God through Jesus, a new life can be ours. And churches are where we can learn to live with others. Where we can develop healthy human relationships.
If you want to find out about the early church, don’t look in the Old Testament of the Bible, because the church didn’t exist then. And don’t look in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), because the church didn’t exist then either. As the church began 10 days after Jesus ascended into heaven, we need to look in the book of Acts, where we see that: God’s witnesses spread the gospel message and established churches.
The Jewish Messiah was promised in the Old Testament and He came to earth in the gospels. The Holy Spirit was promised in the gospels and He came to live in believers in the book of Acts.
The Old Testament describes the relationship between God and the Jewish people before 400 BC. And the New Testament is the story of Jesus and His followers and what it means to follow Jesus. The Gospels describe the life of Jesus. And Acts describes the first 30 years of the church. It’s written to educate Christians about the early church.
Acts was written by Luke who was a companion of Paul (Col. 4:10-14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Phile. 24). So he had first-hand experience with the followers of Jesus and what their message was. He knew their history. Luke was probably a Gentile – but he was familiar with the Jewish faith.
The events in Acts occur in the Middle East and in countries around the Mediterranean Sea. The Roman Empire was in power and the people were required to acknowledge the superiority of the Emperor and the polytheistic Roman gods.
Jesus and the apostles were Jewish. And the members of the early church were Jewish or Jewish proselytes (first-century converts to Judaism). They still followed many Jewish customs and went to the Jewish temple and synagogues, as there were no church buildings apart from homes.
Christians and unbelieving Jews disagreed over the person and work of Jesus. The church proclaimed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah who had conquered death and was restoring all creation, beginning with His own resurrection from the dead. But the unbelieving Jews considered it impossible for a man crucified as a criminal to be the promised Messiah. This difference created a rift between Christians and non-Christian Jews that continues today.
The early Jewish Christians thought that all Gentiles were pagans, but they gradually came to understand that Gentiles who followed Christ were to be granted full status in the Christian church.
Luke wrote a true and reliable historical account of the church in the first century. He understood that God reveals Himself in history and He works through history to bring about His salvation and judgment. So Acts is an historical narrative. We could think of it as Luke’s diary of significant events in the history of the early church. These were chosen so they could fit on a single scroll. It was probably written before Paul’s death in about AD 65.
Luke also wanted to confirm the reality and power of the gospel message. How Jesus was the promised Messiah and how He sent the Holy Spirit to establish the church. His authority is Jesus and the apostles – He quotes their speeches and deeds.
Portions of Scripture can be categorized as either: a command, an example to follow, or a report of events. As an historical narrative, Acts contains all of these categories.
Jesus told Peter [stone], “on this rock [massive rock – meaning Jesus Himself; 1 Cor. 10:4] I will build my church, and the gates of Hades [hell, or the power of death] will not overcome it” (Mt. 16:18NIV). The building of the foundation of the church is described in the book of Acts in the Bible as follows.
Jesus taught His disciples for 40 days after His resurrection. He told them to wait in Jerusalem until they would be empowered by the Holy Spirit to witness about Him across the known world. After this Jesus ascended back to heaven.
Because Judas Iscariot suicided, he was replaced as an apostle by Matthias.
On the day of Pentecost (10 days after the ascension), the Holy Spirit miraculously came to live within the 120 Jewish followers of Jesus and they praised God in other languages. This drew a large crowd and Peter preached showing how Jesus was the promised Messiah. 3,000 people believed his message. This was the beginning of the church. They met regularly for teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer.
Like Jesus, the apostles did healing miracles and Peter preached to the Jews. Thousands of them decided to follow Jesus. But the apostles were opposed and persecuted by the Jewish religious leaders. Two believers died after they lied to Peter.
The apostles appointed seven men to oversee the distribution of food to the poor. Stephen was stoned for his faith in Christ and the church was persecuted and scattered.
Philip was the first missionary in Judea and Samaria. The Pharisee Saul (whose Roman name was Paul, Acts 13:9) had a dramatic conversion and started preaching about Jesus instead of persecuting Christians.
Peter preached in Judea and Samaria. He was given a vision to show him that the gospel was going out to Gentiles as well as Jews. And when they decided to follow Jesus, the Gentile household of Cornelius received the Holy Spirit (like at Pentecost). Later a meeting was held at Jerusalem to decide whether the Gentile believers had to keep the law of Moses like Jews. They agreed that it was God’s will that the church was for all nationalities and not just Jews.
James was put to death and Peter was imprisoned but was miraculously released.
Then Paul went on three missionary journeys to establish churches in what is now Turkey and Greece. After this he was imprisoned and transported to Rome. So the gospel travelled 4,000 km (2,500 miles) from Jerusalem to Rome. From the locked upper room to the palace of Caesar. This progress was both geographic and ethnic (see Appendix).
Acts is about how the Holy Spirit took the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, the capital of their world. It shows what God can do through individuals and churches who are fully committed to Him and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
There are two twists in this story. Firstly, at Damascus, Jesus calls Saul (who was leading the persecutors) to serve Him (9:1-30)! Saul was praying instead of persecuting! This was shocking! The enemy turns into a friend. No wonder the Christians in Damascus and Jerusalem were nervous and afraid of him at first.
Secondly, at Caesarea, a group of Gentiles received the Holy Spirit (Acts 10: 1 – 11:18). According to the Jews they were pagan outcasts of God’s covenant relationship with Israel! This was shocking as well! It triggered Paul’ s missionary journeys (Acts 13-28). He plants churches across the Roman Empire. This explains how the original Jewish church spread to build Gentile churches. These twists are important because Luke repeats his account of them in Acts.
The themes of Acts
The overall theme of Acts is the growth of the early church. And the key verse is “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). That’s the mission of the church. Believers are to be God’s witnesses.
The themes of Acts are shown in this diagram. These are the components of God’s plan of salvation to spread Christianity across the Roman Empire. They are:
– God supplies a message and a messenger that leads to people repenting of their sin and trusting in Jesus Christ for their salvation.
– The message is the good news about Jesus.
– The main messengers were the apostles.
– The messenger and believers pray to God.
There is positive feedback in this diagram because once a person becomes a believer, they also become a messenger. This pattern could lead to exponential growth in the number of believers (like compound interest, or pyramid schemes, or going viral on the web).
When there is a group of believers in one location, they become a church, where the foundation is the gospel that is offered to all nations. The Holy Spirit empowers believers to declare the gospel among both Jews and Gentiles. In doing so they establish the church.
In molecular biology, messenger RNA copies the instructions in DNA and then transports this information outside the cell nucleus to build a protein molecule. To build a protein you need both a message (in the DNA) and a messenger (mDNA). Likewise, the church is built on both the message of the gospel and the messengers (apostles, evangelists) that spread the good news about Jesus.
We will now look briefly at each of these themes. First, the Holy Spirit, the power behind the church.
The Holy Spirit
God the “Holy Spirit” is mentioned more often in Acts than in any other book of the Bible – 41 times. He empowered the apostles and the believers to boldly proclaim the good news about Jesus. He was the agent behind the expansion of the gospel across the Roman Empire.
The Jewish believers didn’t pray for the Holy Spirit to come; they just waited as instructed by Jesus. When the Holy Spirit came for the first time on the day of Pentecost there were miraculous signs – something to hear (a loud noise like a hurricane), something to see (what looked like a flickering flame above each believer), and something to do (they praised God in languages they didn’t know). This was unique because it was the first time and because they were already believers. These spectacular signs drew a large crowd for Peter to address. God arranged the introduction to his sermon!
Now there was racial tension between the Jews and the Samaritans and the Jews and the Gentiles. This was like the anti-Chinese riots at Lambing Flat on the NSW goldfields and what the Black Lives Matter movement is concerned about.
The Holy Spirit didn’t indwell the Samaritans when they first trusted in Jesus until Peter and John came from Jerusalem and placed their hands on them (8:17). This expressed full fellowship between the Jewish church and the Samaritan church. It bridged the ethnic divide. It was unique.
And when the Holy Spirit indwelt the Gentiles for the first time, they praised God in other languages like on the day of Pentecost (10:46-47). Peter said, “they have received the Holy Spirit just as we have”. This expressed full fellowship between the Jewish church and the Gentile church. It bridged the ethnic divide. It was unique
The baptism of the Spirit is a one-time event. It happened on the day of Pentecost (1:5) and subsequently, it happens to every single believer at the point of salvation (1 Cor. 12:13). It places all believers into the church, which is the body of Christ. And they are permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Whereas, in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit only indwelt believers on a temporary basis.
And the Bible says they were all filled with the Holy Spirit (2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9, 52). This is where the believer, under the control of the Spirit, begins to show the fruit of the Spirit. It’s a daily thing as we allow the Spirit to move through us to produce the right attitudes and the right actions. It doesn’t happen automatically all the time.
The speaking in other languages was shocking to the Jews because they believed that Hebrew (and Aramaic) was God’s language. Instead, God was being praised in Gentile languages. It would be like a Muslim hearing the Koran spoken in another language and not Arabic. Have you ever heard or seen the Koran in any other language?
Paul said that “Jew’s demand signs” (1 Cor. 1:22). They asked for supernatural evidence (a miracle) before they would believe. But God had already given them the sign of the resurrection (Mt. 12:39-40; 16:4). A sign was a miracle that pointed to a message. And He gave them another sign on the day of Pentecost. Paul explained that the speaking of unlearned foreign languages was like when the Israelites rejected Isaiah’s warnings to repent, and God promised to speak to them in foreign languages (Isa. 28:11-12; 1 Cor. 14:20-21). This was fulfilled when the Assyrians invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and when the Babylonians invaded Judah and destroyed the Jewish temple (Jer. 5:14-15; Dt. 28:49). The invaders spoke foreign languages. Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah predicted it. The sign is that judgment is coming because of their sin and unbelief. The speaking in other languages was a sign of judgment of Israel. On the day of Pentecost, it was a sign to unbelieving Jews that Peter’s message was true and if they rejected it, they would be judged. Israel was being set aside, and the church was born to take her place as God’s people on earth. The judgment came in AD 70 when the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jews were dispersed to other countries.
Does the Holy Spirit live inside you? Have you accepted God’s gift of salvation? How often are you filled with the Spirit? How often is the fruit of the Spirit evident? “Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). That’s the best solution for abuse, violence, racial tension and injustice.
Next we look at the apostles who were the messengers in the church.
The qualifications for an apostle were that he had spent three years with Jesus and that he had been a witness of the resurrection (1:21–22). They were chosen by God (1:2) to be the main witnesses of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. They were the main messengers spreading the gospel at that time.
In Acts they were changed men compared to in the gospels. How were they transformed? First, they had witnessed the resurrection of Jesus. Because of this they were willing to die for the Christian faith. Second, Jesus spent 40 days teaching them how the Old Testament taught that the Messiah would suffer and die and be resurrected so that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” could be preached in His name to all nations (Lk. 24:45-48). In this way, they were to bring the gospel to all nations. They understood that Jesus was the Messiah and were confident that He was alive. Third, they were empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The apostles were also the main teachers in the early church. The only written Bible they had was the Old Testament. We now have their doctrine written in the New Testament. Most of it comes from Peter, John and Paul. The church was built on the foundation of what the apostles taught (Eph. 2:20).
When Jesus did miracles, it was a sign that He was divine. Nicodemus told Him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him” (Jn. 3:2). Peter said, “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through Him, as you yourselves know” (2:22). Something that is accredited has been tested and found to comply with established standards. Training courses, aged care services, and gene technology are all accredited. NATA offers accreditation for many industries and professions. And I used to audit environmental auditors for JAS-ANZ (the Joint Accreditation System of Australia and New Zealand).
Jesus demonstrated that He was the Messiah by the many miracles He performed in the power of God. Jesus said, “The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me” and “Do not believe me unless I do the works of my Father” (Jn. 5:36; 10:25, 37; Mt. 11:3-5). The Lord’s miracles proved that He was the Messiah because they were predicted in the Old Testament and because they showed mercy and compassion.
The Holy Spirit enabled the apostles to do miracles in Jesus’ name (2 Cor. 12:12; Heb. 2:3-4). It was one of the signs of an apostle. These confirmed the truth of their message and that they were messengers from God (2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12). The miracles were unexpected, instantaneous and complete. They drew a crowd to hear the preaching of God’s message. And the miracles should have reminded the Jews of the promised kingdom of God (Isa. 35:5-6).
After the apostles died an account of their teaching and their miracles was recorded in the New Testament. We can confirm the ancient message and the ancient messengers today by reading the New Testament. And we can assess teachers today by comparing what they say with what the Bible says.
The work that apostles did in the early church is done today by elders, teachers and evangelists. They lead the church, teach the church from the Bible, and spread the good news about Jesus.
The apostles and their associates wrote the New Testament. When we read the Bible, we should realize that it wasn’t written to us. The Old Testament was written to the Jews – it isn’t about the church. The gospels were written to the early church, but they describe a period before the church began. And the rest of the New Testament was written to the early church.
For the first 5 years, the church was Jewish. And for the next 20 years, the church was in transition from being predominantly Jewish to being predominantly Gentile. This transition period is a bit like the 20 years of human growth to maturity.
Because there are no apostles, the gift of miracles isn’t operative today. Don’t be deceived by those who claim otherwise. After all, during the pandemic people still need masks and vaccinations. There have been no miracle cures of COVID-19.
But God is working every day. Be aware of His guidance. His providence. And answers to prayer.
And the complexity of God’s creation is awesome and spectacular. Nature is an example of God’s wonders. It’s more spectacular than flying a helicopter on Mars. Do we “stop and consider God’s wonders” (Job 37:14). Watch any living creature and think, “How do they do that?”. We think we are clever in taking a year to manufacture a vaccine. But it’s just activating what our immune systems do every day of our life. However, all the wonders of God’s creation (Job 36-39) “are but the outer fringe of His works” (Job 26:14).
Next we look at the gospel message spread by the church.
The gospel message
The Old Testament prophets foretold that the Israelites would be restored to their land where they will be ruled by a descendant of King David (Ezek. 37:22-24). So the Jews were looking for the promised Messiah who would bear their sins and suffer in their place (Isa. 52:13 – 53:12).
John the Baptist preached a message to the Jews of repentance from sin and turning back to God because the Messiah was coming to deliver His people and judge the wicked. He said that Jesus was the Messiah who they should believe and follow.
Jesus preached the gospel of the kingdom to the Jews: Repent and receive the Messiah; then you will enter His kingdom when it is set up on earth. He taught under the old covenant law of Moses. The purpose of the kingdom gospel was to prepare a Jewish people to receive the earthly kingdom of Jesus Christ the descendant of David.
From the day of Pentecost, the apostles preached that Jesus was the Messiah who had died for the sins of humanity. Paul said, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16). In Acts the gospel message went to the Jews first and after they rejected it, the gospel went to the Gentiles (3:26; 15:14). They were both told to “repent and turn to God” (3:19; 26:20). This was the third opportunity for the Jews (after the preaching of John the Baptist and the preaching of Jesus). So, God gave them plenty of opportunities.
The gospel is, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). The purpose was to pay for the sins of humanity. It says, “Repent and receive Christ; then when He returns you will be raptured to meet Him and be with Him forever”.
The factors which make up the gospel of God’s grace are you have to be a sinner (this includes everyone), you have to confess your sins to God, you have to accept the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus as payment for your sins and hope for eternal life, and you have to personally trust in this finished work as sufficient for yourself apart from any works. It’s “the good news of God’s grace” (20:24).
That’s the message that spread across the Roman Empire in the first century. There’s no other way to get right with God. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (4:12). This message transcended all nations and all cultures.
Jesus’s rejection and death might seem like a tragedy, but all along it was God’s purpose and plan to bring salvation to the world. The gospel is not an afterthought, a plan B, or a new thing. It is God’s predetermined plan (2:23; 3:18; 4:28; 13:29). It’s the most important message in the world.
Acts is full of preaching this message. And it had an impact. On the day of Pentecost about 3,000 were convicted and saved! They turned around to follow Jesus. Their baptism cut their ties to Judaism. They were thrown out of the synagogue, dispossessed by their Jewish family and persecuted. And when Stephen preached the same message a while later, they stoned him to death (7:57-60). This was the beginning of the time of salvation between the day of Pentecost and the Christ’s return in the rapture (2 Cor. 6:2). He will save now, but He will judge later.
If Saul as a zealous Pharisee can accept the gospel message, then so can anyone else. What about you? Have you accepted God’s gift of salvation?
We began with the abuse, violence, and injustice in our world. But political and social reforms only treat the symptoms and not the problems themselves. Only the gospel can change people’s sinful nature. Have you repented of your sin and turned to follow God? Have you declared this by being baptized?
Next we look at the church.
When a messenger preached the gospel message, those who accepted it became followers of Jesus. That’s how God builds the church. The church is a gathering of followers of Jesus.
The church is a living spiritual organism. It’s illustrated as a body with Christ as the head. Its mission is evangelism and discipleship – to spread the gospel message and bring believers to maturity.
Members of the early church were committed to one another (2:42-47). They shared life, which is called fellowship. There was support and unity. They cared for each other (4:32-37). They provided for each other’s needs. And they were generous.
Church is not a spectator event or entertainment. It’s relational. We are a family. It’s collective, not individual. It’s shared life, not a private life. It’s being connected, not isolated.
The early church faced two big issues: persecution and multiculturalism. People scattered away from Jerusalem to avoid severe persecution by the Jewish authorities. God used this to spread the gospel geographically. Christians around the world face varying degrees of persecution today. We can learn from the accounts of how the early church faced persecution.
The early church was Jewish. But God showed Peter that the gospel was to go out to Gentiles as well. He shattered the Jewish Christians’ prejudice. They had to learn that all believers are equal before God (Gal. 3:26-29). The nation of Israel was being replaced by people from every nation (the church) as the people of God. The people of God were no longer a single nation. The church was the new people of God. This was hard to accept and there was racial conflict. There can be conflict between Christians in churches today. We can learn from the accounts of how the early church dealt with conflict.
The Bible is honest. Because people are flawed, the church isn’t perfect. Sin devastates the fellowship. The first instruction to the church was how to confront sin in the church (Mt. 18:15-17). And lying and hypocrisy was the first sin to be disciplined in the church (5:1-11).
Prayer is mentioned more often in Acts than in any other book of the Bible – 33 times. The believers prayed before the day of Pentecost (1:14). Prayer was one of the main activities of the early church (2:42). They prayed amidst persecution (4:24; 12:5; 16:25).
Prayer and Bible teaching were the main activities of the apostles (6:4). The apostles prayed before God did miracles through them (9:40; 28:8). They prayed when people were appointed to service (6:6; 13:3; 14:23). And Cornelius the Gentile “prayed to God regularly” (10:2).
How often do you pray to God?
Lessons for us
In Acts, God’s witnesses spread the gospel message to all kinds of people and established churches. It was a unique transition period from the old covenant to the new, and from the Jew to the Gentile. Some things the apostles did were unique to their era, whereas some apply today. We can view this period as building the foundation of the church.
The gospel went to the Gentiles because the Jews rejected it. And God used persecution to do this. When God closes one door, He usually opens another door. So God works in all circumstances.
The components of God’s plan of salvation to spread Christianity across the world today are shown in the diagram. The message is the good news about Jesus in the Bible. The main messengers are evangelists and believers. And the messenger and believers both pray to God.
That’s how the church is built numerically. Peter and Paul boldly presented the gospel to individuals and groups of people. What about us? That’s a challenge for us today because the gospel is often ridiculed.
Teaching from the Bible and applying what is learnt to daily living builds the members of a church into maturity.
God is still building His church today. Will you be His witness like those in the early church?
Appendix: The structure of Acts
Acts can be divided into two sections, the first dealing primarily with the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem and Samaria (1:1 – 12:24) and the second following Paul on his missionary journeys throughout the Roman Empire (12:25 – 28:31). Peter’s ministry was primarily to the Jews and Paul’s ministry primarily to the Gentiles.
In his sermons by Peter taught that Jesus was the promised Messiah (2:14-39; 3:11-26; 4:8-12; 10:28-37; 11:4-18). And many people converted from Judaism to Christianity.
Acts reveals a progression of the gospel that divides the book into six parts. At the end of each section is a summary statement (6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:5, 19:20, 28:30-31). The progression begins in Jerusalem (1:1-6:7), extends to Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (6:8-9:31), Syria and Cyprus (9:32-12:24), Pisidia, Pamphylia, Lycaonia, and Cilicia (12:25-16:5), Asia and Greece (16:6-19:20), and finally Rome (19:21-28:31).
MacArthur J Acts Bible-Book Series.
Richison G “Tongues – a transition issue in Acts”.
Written, April 2021