From  the  book


God's Church

Until the Book of Acts, the Bible primarily belonged to the Jewish people. Of the many radical elements of Jesus' message, one of the most radical was that he meant for it to apply to Gentiles (non-Jews) as well as Jews. When Jesus told his apostles to go to the ends of the world, he really meant it. This brisk narrative begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, symbolizing how Jesus took the faith of ancient Israel and opened it up to the whole world.

The lists of disciples differ slightly from one book to another. The Gospel of Matthew lists Simon, Andrew (Simon's brother), James and John (the Sons of Zebedee), Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew the tax collector, James the son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Cananite, and Judas Iscariot. Luke refers to Simon as "the zealot" (a brand of political protestors) and mentions "Judas son of James" instead of Thaddaeus. Many of these men were pillars of the early church.

Peter was called Simon before Jesus renamed him and was prominent in the early church. Peter had a long history with the Lord; he denied Christ before the cock crowed three times but went on in faith following Christ's death and resurrection to become exactly what his new name meant: "the rock."

James and John, both sons of Zebedee, were brothers. They both were active in the early church. Both had been especially close to Jesus, being present at the transfiguration. It is strongly believed that John went on to write the Gospel of John.

Acts introduces the New Testament's second most influential figure (Jesus was the first!), an educated, pious Jew and tent maker named Saul. Born in what is now Turkey, Saul went to Jerusalem to learn from the esteemed rabbi Gamaliel, grandson of the legendary rabbi Hillel, the most prominent Pharisaic rabbi of the first century. Given authority by the high priest to arrest followers of Christ in Damascus for blasphemy, Saul vigorously persecuted early Christians. His name was changed to Paul after he experienced a transforming vision and conversion.

Paul developed a strategy for his traveling ministry that he followed through all his journeys. He generally moved farther westward from Israel with each mission. When he entered a city for the first time, he would look for a synagogue or other place where he could find the Jews of the city. In the first century A.D., Jews were dispersed throughout the world. Rarely did a city not have Jews who met together regularly. Sometimes synagogues were receptive to his message; at other times hearers were extremely hostile.

When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem for his "heretical" views, he demanded a trial in Rome before the emperor, his right as a Roman citizen.

Many other missionaries preached the gospel in the early years of the church. Their mission was to spread the word of Christ to all parts of the known earth, as they had been commissioned to do by Jesus before he returned to heaven. Thanks to their efforts, Christianity gained a foothold quickly in nearly every part of the known world.

Barnabas was one of the earliest converts to Christianity and a close friend of Paul's. A Greek-speaking Jew from Cyprus, his real name was Joseph, but because he was an excellent teacher, his friends called him Barnabas, which means "son of encouragement." He accompanied Paul on the first missionary journey through Asia Minor.

Timothy was one of Paul's main helpers. Paul mentored the younger man through two letters (1 and 2 Timothy) and called him "my true son in the faith." Timothy also traveled on his own.

Philip became a missionary and was the first to preach the gospel to those living in Samaria. He is especially remembered for how he helped an Ethiopian read a passage from Isaiah. An angel directed him to go to the Ethiopian. Upon his arrival, they read the passage together. The foreigner asked to be baptized and became the first Ethiopian Christian.

Silas traveled as a missionary with Paul and Peter. He sang hymns joyously to Christ while imprisoned with Paul during the earthquake in Philippi. The jailer became a Christian because he was so moved by their display of faith. Silas was to Paul a "faithful brother."

Phoebe is one of the few women missionary figures of the New Testament. History indicates that it was not uncommon for women to be in leadership roles in the early church, though it was certainly not typical in Jewish synagogues. Phoebe traveled to Rome, most likely to bring Paul's letter to the Christians in that city.

Apollos was a Jew from Alexandria. He was actually a missionary before he met Paul. John the Baptist had mentored him and helped Apollos become a powerful preacher. He found help for his questions about Jesus in Corinth when he spoke with Priscilia and Aquila.

Roman subjects incorporated emperor worship into the focal religion throughout the empire. In the provinces, leading citizens became priests in the imperial cult to cement their ties with Rome. (Augustus, however, exempted the Jews from the imperial cult.) Emperor worship continued as the official pagan religion of the empire until Christianity was recognized under the Emperor Constantine (A.D. 306-337).

Paul stayed longer in some cities than others. Some larger cities, such as Ephesus, became teaching centers through which he could reach the surrounding regions. Paul's goal was to teach his followers well enough so they could teach others. Those who were able to accept this role were called elders, overseers, and pastors. The focus, however, was not on building an organization, but on preaching the Word.

The excellent highway system constructed throughout the Mediterranean world by the Romans was traveled frequently by Paul. Built so Roman armies could move swiftly and their traders could deliver goods efficiently, the Roman roads also contributed to the spread of the Christian message.

Corinth was the main city of the Roman province of Greece. It held a large community of Christians, thanks in large part to the missionary work of the apostle Paul. Corinth was an immoral and highly cosmopolitan city. Calling someone a "Corinthian" was for many people another way of saying "prostitute." The Christians faced moral dilemmas and difficulties and were counseled by Paul in 1 and 2 Corinthians regarding these issues.

When the New Testament writers speak of "Asia," they are not referring to the whole continent of Asia as we know it. Rather they are speaking of the province of the Roman Empire known as "Asia," a piece of land in the vicinity of modern-day Turkey. This province's capital was Ephesus. This city received one of Paul's epistles, which we know as Ephesians. John makes note of the seven churches of the province of Asia when he writes the Book of Revelation.

Since many Jews traveled to Jerusalem for annual feasts, and since many apostles were on the road with Christ's message, Paul sometimes found that the gospel message had reached a town before he did. This was the case with Rome, the center of the world in its day. There were many disciples in this metropolis long before Paul reached it.

The gospel of Christ spread primarily by word of mouth. Sometimes the apostles would move on to another city only to receive a request for more teaching from the city they had recently left. So they would write letters to be read aloud to groups of individuals who met for teaching and encouragement. They also wrote letters while confined in prison.

The Agrapha is a phrase meaning "things not written." It was used in the early church to refer to sayings of Jesus that his followers remembered, but which were not written down in any of the Gospels. For example, in Acts 20:35, Paul quotes the Lord Jesus as saying, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Those words can't be found in any of the Gospels, so apparently that is one of the things the Lord's followers remembered him saying, and they would cite him as the source even though it was never written down as such.

How do you tell the world the Good News if you don't speak their language? The disciples were gathered in an upper room when all of a sudden "tongues of fire" touched the followers. And they began to speak in other languages. Some people who saw them thought they were drunk. This was the arrival of the Holy Spirit whom Jesus had promised. The disciples could now go and spread the Word everywhere.

The early church grew as a "communistic" society in which everyone shared, according to the reports in Acts. A Utopian state of harmony is depicted in these first days of the Christian community, although they were not yet called "Christians." A young man named Matthias was elected to replace Judas as one of the Twelve, and the group prospered and made collective derisions and enjoyed common ownership of goods, making the early Christians in Jerusalem a practical model for the kibbutz.

Seven young men were appointed in Acts 6 to see to the needs of the church people in order to free up the time of the disciples and eventual apostles. Stephen, a gifted speaker, was one of these men. He was a skilled debater and angered many who could not argue well with him or win him over. Eventually these men became so angry that Stephen was arrested and tried before the Sanhedrin.

Stephen was the first martyr of the church. A young Pharisee named Saul was present. Eventually Saul would be converted and receive the name Paul. His conversion is a sign of the wondrous grace God has in store for those who believe in him. Stephen died with a vision of Jesus in sight. He was at peace and thus incensed his captors even more. Before he died, Stephen said, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them."

The early church was not a perfect organization. Christians were as sinful then as they can be now. One of the earliest instances of this appears in Acts 5. Ananias and his wife, Sapphira, lied about the amount of compensation they received after selling a field. Had they not pretended to sell it for less, it wouldn't have mattered, but since they did lie in order to keep back money for themselves, God took them both. As Peter told them, "You have lied to the Holy Spirit!"

Another famous Ananias was Ananias of Damascus. When Paul was converted, he became blinded. Ananias was told to go to the house where Paul was staying. He did so, though he knew that the man Saul was coming to arrest Christians. He went as he was called, however. He prayed, and the newly converted Paul received his sight back.

Dorcas, who was also called Tabitha, received a miracle during the early days of the church. She lived in Joppa. She fell ill and then died. Her distressed friends sent for Peter, the "rock" of the church. He prayed for her even as she was dead! She was given her life back and sat up. Many of her friends became believers as a result of this miracle.

Cornelius was a Roman soldier stationed at Caesarea. He was a Gentile who had joined a synagogue in order to seek God. He was a "God fearer." An angel appeared to Cornelius one day and told him to send for Peter. When Peter came, Cornelius and his entire family learned about Jesus. They were baptized immediately and praised God.

Eutychus was named well. His name means "lucky." While he was listening to Paul preach, he fell out of a third-story window (he fell asleep) and was lying still and believed to be dead when they reached him. Paul embraced him and he was healed. He had been blessed, not lucky, but his name seems appropriate!

Philemon had an interesting conversion experience. He was a wealthy Christian from Colossae and was converted by his slave, Onesimus. Onesimus had run away and eventually met the apostle Paul and became a believer. Paul sent him back to his master, Philemon, and urged Philemon to receive him as a "beloved brother." Philemon did so and was also saved!

Lydia is one of the few women mentioned in the early church. She was a seller of purple cloth and a Gentile, but she sought God by going to a Jewish prayer center. She then met Paul and his fellow missionaries. She became converted and eventually she and her family and even their workers were baptized. Paul and his friends stayed in her house.

Stephanas and his entire household were the first Christians to convert during Paul's ministry in Achaia. As the church grew in that area, Stephanas took a more active role in caring for other new Christians. Paul was fond of him and his family and he especially enjoyed when Stephanas visited him in Ephesus.

Aquila and Priscilla were a tent-making couple from Corinth. They became Christians after listening to Paul preach. Dear friends of Paul, they supported him to the very end, even risking their lives for him. They were loved and known in many churches in Greece and Asia Minor.

Acts closes with Paul incarcerated and under house arrest in the imperial capital. He continued preaching the gospel and writing letters to the churches he had established. Acts says nothing more about Paul's appeal or ultimate fate, or that of Peter. Both eventually disappeared from the biblical account without any specific word of what happened to them. According to well-established tradition, both apostles were martyred during Emperor Nero's persecution of Christians after the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64.

Early Christians used the "holy kiss" as a sign of their concern and love for one another. Paul ends several of his epistles with reminders to "Greet one another with a holy kiss" (Rom. 16: 16). The holy kiss was most likely a peck on the cheek, much as might be used today to greet visiting family or friends.