EDITOR’S NOTE: This groundbreaking series is being offered in celebration of a previously top-secret project and now unprecedented new 3-Volume book series (over 10-years in the making) from best-selling scholar Dr. Thomas Horn and acclaimed biblical history and theology majors Donna Howell and Allie Anderson: THE MYSTERY OF JESUS FROM GENESIS TO REVELATION—YESTERDAY, TODAY, AND TOMORROW
So, the apostles and disciples rushed all over the city, speaking in other languages as the Holy Spirit gave them utterance and preaching the Gospel of Christ. After quite a bit of confusion regarding this phenomenon, Peter stood before the crowd of listeners and explained that this was not, as they believed, an unexpected occurrence. Not only was this event one the Lord, Himself, promised would take place, the prophets Isaiah and Joel saw it coming from time immemorial as well. God prophesied through Isaiah: “I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, And my blessing upon thine offspring” (44:3b). God had also spoken through Joel:
And it shall come to pass afterward, That I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your old men shall dream dreams, Your young men shall see visions: And also upon the servants and upon the handmaids. In those days will I pour out my spirit. And I will shew wonders in the heavens and in the earth… And it shall come to pass, that whosoever [“whosoever” includes Gentiles] shall call on the name of the Lord shall be delivered: For in mount Zion and in Jerusalem shall be deliverance, As the Lord hath said. (2:28–30a, 32a)
On the Day of Pentecost, all this was fulfilled. With conviction, Peter then spoke about the shared guilt of the Messiah’s death, which was necessary for the Resurrection, and then explained that this was a foreordained act of God as acknowledged by David (Acts 2:29–36).
Acts 2:5 mentions “devout Jews.” Commentator C. K. Barrett states that, from its onset, the Christian church has been “a universal community [including] ‘pious men’ of every kind (cf. 10:34, 35).”[i] The receptive crowd recognized the supernatural nature of the miracle immediately (2:6–12). Though some mocked the apostles/disciples for being drunk, upon hearing Peter’s sermon, mockery had disappeared and in its place was conviction and concern (2:37). Mass repentance led to a glorious baptism, and the saving of three thousand souls who were added to the fledgling church (2:41).
Such boldness! On one hand, Peter had to be willing to be bold as he shouted out such convicting, punchy words to the crowds. His sudden confidence (a noteworthy shift since Peter allowed fear to own him the night he denied Christ) in proclaiming the Gospel is inspiring. On the other hand, it is only by the empowering of the Holy Spirit that the otherwise-fearful Peter would be so bold. (We have access to the same Spirit today, and He is only one “ask” away from being as available to each of us as He was for Peter on that Day of Pentecost. What intensely God-glorifying miracles could/would happen through us today if we grasped onto that same boldness in the streets?!)
Another moment of early Church growth is found in Acts 2:42–47, when the recent converts form a fellowship community and church in Jerusalem and establish “the four essential elements” that would forever help to define “the religious practice of the Christian church”: teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread, and prayer.[ii]
The faith, itself, was brand new—Christianity had never existed before. This assembly would have involved men of diverse backgrounds as well. Some of these believers no doubt would have felt some level of anxiety about joining the very movement/religion that had angered religious leaders to capture and torture Christ…and many would face scorned family members who didn’t share the same affirmation and conviction about the Messiah (perhaps not unlike what Muslims face under the same circumstances today). Nevertheless, as is clear through the entire book of Acts, everything was communally shared, including both material goods (such as possessions and land) and immaterial belongings (such as faith, emotion, joy, excitement, etc.), creating a new religious/familial setting for everyone. This bond, driven by the Holy Spirit and the power of the Gospel, engendered receptive, teachable, and passionate Christians who were eager for growth.
(As a lesson that can apply to us today: In this New Testament model, we don’t need a full band, sound equipment, ushers, or velvet offering bags to achieve a church service as legitimate as it is anywhere else at any other time in history. We can [and should] practice teaching, fellowshipping, communing, and praying both inside and outside those buildings the increasingly secularized world is coming to disdain.)
Following this, over and over again, Acts accounts for many lives who were saved, well beyond the three thousand who were saved on that day (those who created the first Christian Church in history [2:41]). The vast majority of the book of Acts is a description of where these men and women went and what they did to fulfill the Great Commission. Just as repeatedly, as hands were laid upon new believers, the equipment of the Holy Spirit frequently landed upon them, and they spoke in other tongues as well—Jews and Gentiles alike. Many were healed and delivered from demons just as they had been while Jesus had walked the earth. As yet another lesson for modern times, this was never done simply because God smiled upon His servants, but because the Lord’s servants bathed themselves in prayer, supplication, and unity among believers.
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One particularly “loud” example (that has stretched forth to speak to us today, even as our children sing Sunday school songs about the healing) occurs in the beginning of Acts 3: Peter and John went to pray at the Temple, during the “ninth hour” (the hour of prayer). A group of men carried a man who had been lame from birth to the “Beautiful Gate” (3:1–3).
There is a reason for this name: The gate literally was beautiful. (And women will be touched to know it may have been the “Nicanor Gate, as it is called in the Mishnah, leading into the Court of the Women”![iii]) Josephus wrote of this particular part of the Temple being covered in “Corinthian brass” and adorned with extra beauty:
Now nine of these gates were on every side covered over with gold and silver, as were the jambs of their doors and their lintels; but there was one gate that was without [the inward court of] the holy house, which was of Corinthian brass, and greatly excelled those that were only covered over with silver and gold.… Now the magnitudes of the other gates were equal one to another; but that over the Corinthian gate, which opened on the east over against the gate of the holy house itself, was much larger; for its height was fifty cubits; and its doors were forty cubits; and it was adorned after a most costly manner, as having much richer and thicker plates of silver and gold upon them than the other. These nine gates had that silver and gold poured upon them by Alexander, the father of Tiberius.[iv]
The lame man was carried to that gate every day to beg for alms. When he saw Peter and John there, he asked for money as usual, but money wasn’t what the apostles had in mind. When Peter said, “Look on us” (Acts 3:4), the poor man looked upon them, expecting an affirmative response to his request. But then:
Peter said, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” And [Peter] took [the crippled man] by the right hand, and lifted him up: and immediately his feet and ancle bones received strength. And he leaping up stood, and walked, and entered with them into the temple, walking, and leaping, and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God: And they knew that it was he which sat for alms at the Beautiful gate of the temple: and they were filled with wonder and amazement at that which had happened unto him. (Acts 3:6–10)
See how quickly these events caught the attention of observers? And these were no ordinary men of the street, like some of the accounts in Acts describe. These were folks who had seen this lame man every single day begging for alms at the gate, those “pious men” whose primary goal was to submerge their mind, body, and soul into the depths of Jewish theology, customs, practice, culture, and worship. The narrative goes on to explain:
And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers, and elders, and scribes, And Annas the high priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem. And when they had set [Peter and John] in the midst, they asked, “By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?”
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, “Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, If we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; Be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole. This is the stone which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved. (Acts 4:5–12).
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When the crippled man bounced up, walking, leaping and praising God, righteous men who frequented the Temple were the first to see that the Man who had been crucified had surely sent His followers some kind of power to enable them to perform miracles as He had done. Even if Jesus had not visited them personally, His presence was still with them as proof of His claims. In a way, this healing would be the best example of this reality. But on the other hand, this very healing may have been what angered the Jews and Romans all the more, leading to intensified persecution of Christians in the first century. As history does tell, the deaths of the martyrs were…well, they were so bad we can’t discuss them at length and still call this book “family friendly.” The details are so gruesome they make our previous study about sex in the Songs look muted.
But despite, and against, all odds, Christianity continued to expand across Judea, the neighboring regions, and the uttermost ends of the earth, as Christ had said was possible. Many of these accounts have conclusive endings, showing exactly where and when the new Christians traveled to new locations and planted churches, despite the threats from Roman leaders that anyone caught teaching about Christ’s Kingdom (on earth or otherwise) would receive the death penalty.
In Acts 6:1–7, the Jerusalem church got too large to manage its own charity/food distribution, and the hungry widows became the victims of a communication error. The twelve apostles acted fast, delegating and laying hands on seven men (one of whom was Stephen, who was soon to be martyred) to take over the food distribution, which freed the apostles to return their full focus to prayer and teaching. By verse 7, it is clear that communication and smooth operations were restored, and the church was greatly increased. The audience in Acts 6:1–6 is the same eager, united church discussed earlier, working together in the interest of keeping the teachings of Jesus alive and well. However, in verse 7, something astonishing happens when the new level of organization contributes to a large number of Jewish priests joining the family! Though some commentaries suggest “priests” should be read simply as “Jews,” others say “priests” refers to “ordinary priests” who did, in fact, serve in higher positions, including some in the Temple.[v] This meant they a) may have been harder to convert because they had preexisting theological ideas, but b) had more experience in watching how a church should be managed.
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Perhaps something about the apostles incorporating structure made the new Christian church appear less chaotic to the experienced priests.
Had the enemy gotten his way, the grumbling between believers that erupted from the food-rations issue would have been the end of the church. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, weak humans found the strength to rise above their squabbles and implement an organized strategy to correct the problem. (A spiritual truth drawn from Acts 6:1–7 is that, if a church wishes to be relevant and effective for the lost, it requires organized, Spirit-filled leaders to work together in a respectful and organized way, while they remain flexible enough to respond to problems as they arise.)
The church in Jerusalem steadily grew, sometimes by the thousands (see 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 8:4), and sometimes through persecution. The stoning of Stephen (6:8–8:1) and the scattering of Jews essentially launched preachers into action all over Judea and Samaria. The harder the persecution during this time, the more a sense of unity, spiritual family, and charity served to feed the disciples with more zeal…until persecution became a catalyst for growth. In the face of opposition, Christians fearlessly spread the Gospel (8:4–5). A colorful portrayal by Professor Kenneth Gangel of Dallas Theological Seminary reads: “Picture them as they run for their lives, grasping what few possessions they could take with them…. See them praying for deliverance [and] courage to be faithful to their Savior and to proclaim his message effectively wherever they went.”[vi] The threat of death and execution wasn’t going to stop these mighty men and women touched by the strength of the Gospel message of Christ; it only served to send them out to the far ends of the earth in a manner that would fulfill the Great Commission in their time!
Philip—the key player whose name was the only one recorded in Acts 8:4–8, 12—went to Samaria, empowered by the Holy Spirit, healing the lame and casting out demons from the possessed in the Name of Christ (8:4–8, 12). The relief from pain, suffering, and bondage had the entire city erupting with joy (8:8), to the point that many men and women in the region believed in Christ and were baptized (8:12). Philip’s audience was made up of crowds who were eager and in one accord, their attention “aroused by [the miracles] they heard and saw…which acted as a confirmation of his message.”[vii] (Though this passage represents an audience that is brand-new to the Christian faith, even well-versed believers today could learn something from their eagerness. If we would only press in to Jesus with similar zeal, excitement, and togetherness as the crowds before Philip [refusing to be apathetic; 8:6], we would no doubt see acts similar to those the Holy Spirit performed through Philip.)
Peter went to Cornelius in Caesarea and witnessed to the “many” who were gathered in his home (10:27). The Holy Spirit fell upon the entire assembly and, to the amazement of the Jewish Christians, they all spoke in tongues (10:44–48), which irreversibly marked the inauguration of the Gentiles into the family of God.
The church growth in this instance is thereby not only numerical, but it involves a spiritual growth also, as the church matured into a new diverse Jew/Gentile family and took on a new attitude of acceptance and love.
The entire household of Cornelius was made up of devout, God-fearing folks (10:2). As such, they were well primed and ready for spiritual increase. By the time of Peter’s message, more people had arrived (10:24, 27), though nothing specific is said about their spiritual life until it’s noted that they spoke in tongues. (This shows sensitivity to, and an eagerness to cooperate with, the Spirit.) At the onset of Acts 10, Cornelius was not a Christian—nor was he a Jew, a proselyte, or a pagan (because he was a “God-fearer”). “Gentile” might technically appear a compatible term in that Cornelius was a non-Jew, but since “Cornelius believed in the God of the Jews and was committed to honoring him from a sincere and submissive heart,”[viii] “Gentile” seems off-kilter now.
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Some things never change. In that day, the religious-spirited sharks had their labelling games. Today, we have ours. The cliques and labelling games the Church participates in are destructive and divisive: not what we want the lost to see. Whether it’s inside the Body (interdenominational squabbles) or is ostracizing those outside, it harms the mission Jesus has asked us to carry out. A Pharisee would have written off Cornelius for not getting circumcised and identifying as a proselyte. How many modern Corneliuses do we shun for not jumping through our own (Pharisaic) hoops?
Cornelius, for a moment, broke all the boxes our human-created labelling games fit into. We should, too.
If Jesus Really Was Who He Said He Was—Yikes!
Recall some of the would-be messiahs who stood against Rome just before Christ’s birth and during His childhood. In Acts 5, John and Peter had been arrested, but an angel released them from jail and they proceeded to the Temple the next morning to preach. The religious leaders discovered it and were terrified that the news of the men’s supernatural release would spread, so they sent officers to confront the apostles right where they taught and bring them to the Sanhedrin for trial. As John and Peter stood before the council, the council reminded them they were not to teach in Christ’s Name: “Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us” (5:28). The apostles answered, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (5:29). The council then determined Peter and John (and those with them) would be killed, but Gamaliel—a doctor of the Law and a man of great reputation—stood up in a defense that has been as timelessly true as the Gospel: If Jesus was just another would-be, like Theudas or Judas the Galilean, Gamaliel said, then His death would eventually cause His followers to scatter and His movement would fizzle. If He was who He said He was, that would mean anyone who stood against Him was standing against God!
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Some scholars don’t find this to be good advice, because, if radically applied during all eras, the Church moving forward would never stand against false teaching under the assumption that it would simply die out. Politely, we disagree, landing somewhere in the middle on the issue: Though a strong stance against false teachers in the fold is a must for a healthy Body (and therefore teaching should not be dealt with via irresponsible assumptions), Gamaliel was not suggesting that we twiddle our thumbs and wait for God to strike down everything that doesn’t line up with His doctrines. Gamaliel merely said that if a movement is of God, it will thrive regardless of anything mankind does to oppose it, but if it is not of God, it has no chance of maintaining its own momentum throughout future times. Even the end-times, one-world-order church under the Antichrist will grow to encompass the globe, but it will still die out and rain death upon its followers. No good advice from the mouths of men should be applied recklessly, but Gamaliel’s logic here is sturdy, and that very reasoning freed the apostles in this instance.
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For the souls who were saved in the days following their release, it was a miracle that John and Peter were let go to continue their Gospel work. Nevertheless, tragically, every one of the apostles—and countless numbers of disciples (both who are mentioned in Scripture and the precious lives of those who aren’t mentioned in the Word)—would die martyrs’ deaths. As stated prior, the leaders of this fledgling Church were the twelve (Matthias replacing Judas), and just under them were many empowered disciples who, just like their superiors, gave their whole life to the message of Gospel for both Jew and Gentile.
Oh yeah, and there was that one guy who became…a thirteenth apostle!?
Wait… Could there be such a thing?
UP NEXT: Paul—His Background, Conversion, and Ministry
[i] Barrett, C. K., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts… 118.
[ii] Marshall, I. H., Acts… 88–89.
[iii] Bruce, F. F., The Book of the Acts, 77.
[iv] Josephus, F., & Whiston, W., The Works of Josephus, 707.
[v] Bruce, F. F., The Book of the Acts, 123.
[vi] Gangel, Kenneth O., Acts: Volume 5 (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers; 1998), 121.
[vii] Marshall, I. H., Acts… 163–164.
[viii] Laney, J. C., “Peter and the Centurion Cornelius (Acts 10:1–48),” as quoted in: B. J. Beitzel, J. Parks, & D. Mangum (Eds.), Lexham Geographic Commentary on Acts through Revelation (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press; 2019), 261.