The Period of Establishment
In Mathew 16:18, Christ made a statement to Peter that eventually would change the course of world history. In this famous passage Christ declared, “And I tell you that you are Peter and upon this rock, I will build MY Church and the gates of will will not prevail against it.” In this installment of our chronological examination of the book of Acts through the lens of the four historical periods, we will begin to look at period number one which I have identified as the “Period of Establishment.”
In this early establishment period, the focus will be on the birth and the initial growth of the Church in Jerusalem. This early initial period which goes from Acts 1:1 to Acts 6:7, records the beginning or early stages of the birth and “establishment” of the Church beginning in Jerusalem (1:1–6:7): “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).
In this first section of Luke’s inspired record, he focuses on several significant events:
He tells of Christ’s promise to send the Holy Spirit.
Christ then commissions His followers to take the gospel to all of the world.
He then gives them the promise of His spirit, after which, they were instructed to go and be His witnesses to Him in Jerusalem, Samaria, Judea and to the ends of the earth.
Then after Christ’s return to Heaven, He poured out the Holy Spirit on those disciples waiting in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost.
Peter then preaches a vary powerful sermon in which over 3000 people responded to the good news, at which point the Church was officially born.
And then in the remainder of that first section in Acts, Luke tells us about the power and the courage of those early believers. Luke records that not only did they have power to perform miracles, but they also had the courage and the fortitude to withstand tremendous physical persecution, as they went about spreading the message of the Gospel in a pagan culture that was completely hostile to their message.
Acts 1:1 to Acts 6:7, records the beginning or early stages of the birth and “establishment” of the Church beginning in Jerusalem (1:1–6:7): “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” As Jesus was getting ready to ascend to heaven, He gathered His disciples together and said, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Prior to returning to Heaven, Jesus gave His disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit who would come to empower them to take the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. The book of Acts details the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost which marked the beginning of the church and its miraculous spread through the power of the Holy Spirit. On the Day of Pentecost, about 120 rag tag group of believers were gathered together when the Holy Spirit was poured out.
Ten days after Jesus ascended back into heaven (Acts 1:9), the Holy Spirit was poured out upon 120 of Jesus’ followers who waited and prayed (Acts 1:15; 2:1–4). The same disciples who had quaked in fear of being identified with Jesus (Mark 14:30, 50) were suddenly empowered to boldly proclaim the gospel of the risen Messiah, validating their message with miraculous signs and wonders (Acts 2:4, 38–41; 3:6–7; 8:7). Thousands of Jews from all parts of the world were in Jerusalem for the Feast of Pentecost. They heard the gospel in their own languages (Acts 2:5–8), and many believed (Acts 2:41; 4:4). Those who were saved were baptized, adding daily to the church. When persecution broke out, the believers scattered, taking the gospel message with them, and the church spread like wildfire to all parts of the known earth (Acts 8:4; 11:19–21).
In only three decades, a small group of frightened believers in Jerusalem transformed into an empire-wide movement of people who had committed their lives to Jesus Christ, ending on a high note with Paul on the verge of taking the gospel to the highest government official in the land the Emperor of Rome. Everywhere they went, they were ridiculed and opposed and persecuted and physically assaulted for their beliefs. Some were even put to death. Yet within a period of about 30 years, this original group of 120 and their converts came to be known as “those who turned their world upside down.” And by the time the Book of Acts closes, Christianity had spread from Jerusalem, all the way to Rome, the Capital City of the Empire.
The Spread of the Early Church
The church is Jesus Christ’s worldwide “enterprise.” He prophesied that He would build His church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). The Book of Acts tells us how His church began in Jerusalem and spread to the ends of the earth. It provides a vital link between the gospels and the New Testament epistles.
How did the Christian faith that began with a few followers of Jesus in Israel spread to Rome and points beyond? How did an ardent Jew who was not even a believer become the apostle to the Gentiles? How did the early church, which was exclusively Jewish, begin to reach out to and incorporate the Gentiles? How did the early Christian church survive? Humanly speaking, the odds were all stacked against it. It was unthinkable that a small, despised movement, from a corner of Palestine, could move out to become the dominant faith of the mighty Roman Empire, an empire and culture that was immersed in fiercely defended traditional pagan religions. The spread of the Christian church in its earliest centuries is one of the most amazing phenomena in all of human history.
Christianity was considered a religio prava , an illegal and depraved religion. The church grew rapidly in the beginning. However, wave after wave of persecution was unleashed to squash it. At least two of the persecutions were empire-wide and intended to destroy the church. So how did this young fledgling movement make it? How was it able to grow and spread so fast, so fast?
More than a building
The earliest Christians did not have church buildings. They did not have public ceremonies that would introduce them to the public. They had no access to the mass media of their day. There is no early record of the early believers having any types of mass choirs, concerts, open or outside revival crusades, or millionaire preachers. So how can we account for their steady and diverse expansion over the first three centuries?
Acts 2:42-47 gives us some insight into just how this happened: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
Peter’s Post-Pentecost Ministry – Acts 3:1-4:37
Luke summarizes the early activity, organization and enthusiasm of the first Christian church. Note carefully the outline of and inspired biblical pattern laid out for church ministry, organization and growth in these few lines of Scripture. Luke summarizes the early activity, organization and enthusiasm of the first Christian church. Note carefully, the outline of and inspired biblical pattern laid out for church ministry, organization and growth in these few lines of Scripture. If you look carefully you will note five different ministries begin to develop, as well as, a compact summary of the relationship between ministry and church growth:
Evangelism(Acts 2:12-41): They were preaching the gospel of Christ to the lost and baptizing repentant believers.
Education(Acts 2:42a): They were teaching the converts to know and obey the words of Christ.
Fellowship(Acts 2:42b): They were integrating these new Christians into the body of Christ.
Worship(Acts2:42c): They were organizing the church for Christian worship (Lord’s Supper, etc.).
Service(Acts 2:43-47a): The church began to pool its resources to care for the needs of the brethren and the community in the name of Christ.
The book of Acts is often referred to as, “The Great Commission in action.” It is called the Acts of the Apostles, and this early section describes the infancy period of the early Christian Church, a time when Christianity spread like wildfire in the midst of tremendous opposition. The emergence of Christianity is primarily seen through the actions of Peter, actually the first Apostle to bring Christianity to the Gentiles, and Paul, with his four missionary journeys – three from Antioch and his voyage to Malta and Rome.
Following the day of Pentecost (2:1-4), the Descent of the Holy Spirit to the first community in Jerusalem, the mission in Jerusalem is detailed from Chapters 2 through 7. There are four speeches by Peter in which he repeatedly witnesses to the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus: the Pentecost speech (2:14-36), which led to the conversion of 3000 Jews, thus fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham to bring salvation to the Israelites; the second to the people following the cure of the crippled beggar (3:1-26), and twice before the Sanhedrin with his famous reply, “We must obey God rather than men” (5:29).
As we study the book of Acts chronologically, we can see that the disciples obeyed Jesus instructions and stayed in Jerusalem. They prayed and waited for the promise of the Holy Spirit from the father. While they were waiting, they choose another man to take the place of Judas and his name was Matthias. On the day of Pentecost the apostles were together in one place when the promise of the Holy Sprit was poured out on them. Then Peter goes on to tell these people that were listening, how Joel’s prophecy was being fulfilled and teaches them about Jesus death, burial and resurrection.
In doing this, the apostles had accomplished the first part of Jesus statement in Acts 1:8 by being a witness to him in Jerusalem. Now after the crowd had heard Peter’s sermon, some of them realized that they had crucified their Messiah and this caused some of them to have great deal of pain in their heart and they wanted Peter and the rest of the apostles to tell them what they should do (Acts 2:37).
So, Peter tells them exactly what they must do in order to receive the remission of their sins. They had to repent and be baptized for the remission of sin. As you continue on reading we discover that about 3000 people gladly received those instructions that day and were baptized into Christ for the remission of their sins in Acts 2:41 and because of their obedient faith we learn that God added them to the church in Acts 2:47. These 3000 Christians, who took part in the birth of the church, continued in the apostle’s doctrine, fellowship, breaking bread, and prayer according to Acts 2:42.
Another remarkable event, which caused the church to grow is found in Acts 3 and 4. Peter and John were on their way into the temple when they came across a man who was lame from birth. He was left there to beg for alms but notice what Peter tells the man.
Acts 3:6 Then Peter said, “Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” 7 And he took him by the right hand and lifted him up, and immediately his feet and ankle bones received strength. 8 So he, leaping up, stood and walked and entered the temple with them — walking, leaping, and praising God.
Instantly this man was healed after more than forty years of being lame from his mother’s womb according to Acts 4:22. All the Jews knew this man could not walk because they saw him begging daily at the entrance of the temple. When the Jews saw this man was healed they were truly amazed and their hearts were open to hear what Peter had to say.
The main purpose for miracles was to prove to the people that the message being spoken by Peter and John was from God and not from man. It was common practice for the apostles and to use miracles to prove this very thing. Mark 16:20 “And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.” Peter boldly preached to them about Jesus proving to them from scripture that he was the Messiah. The high priest, Sadducees, and the captain of the temple arrested Paul and John for proclaiming Jesus death, burial, and resurrection. However they to late because we learn that Peter’s message had reached a great number of these people and the church was now around 5000 men strong not including the women Acts 4:4.
The next day the Sanhedrin council had no choice but to let them go because they could not deny the miracle that was done (Acts 4:16). The church was really coming together and growing rapidly by the end of Acts 4. In Acts 4:32 we read, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all.”
The Christians were of one heart and one soul. They shared everything they had with each other so that no one was without. These Christians truly loved one another and because of the love the church continued to grow by leaps and bounds. We learn a great lesson from their example, on how we should have a great love for one another so that we can help God’s church grow today in the midst of a culture that is becoming increasingly hostile to the message of the Gospel as well.
However, we learn that whenever we are dealing with flawed sinful humans, that there will always be the susceptibility for sin and corruption, even in the church. For example, we learn from Acts 5 that there were some that were thinking more of themselves and how they could could look good to the people.
Ananias and Sapphira for example, sold their land but then they tried to lie to God about how much they were giving. They both said they gave it all but in fact they were keeping back some for themselves so that they could look good to the brethren. Well this didn’t pay off for them because they both died instantly for their sin and because of the example the church grew in great fear of the Lord.
Once again, the apostles were working many signs and wonders and men and women were being added to the church Acts 5:14. But once again, the high priest arrested the apostles and threw them into jail, but an angel freed them that night and told them to go back into the temple and preach the word of God again.
Eventually, they found themselves before the Sanhedrin council again defending that Jesus was the Christ. A well-respected teacher of the law by the name of Gamaliel convinced the council to leave these apostles alone. Acts 5: 38 “And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; 39 “but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it — lest you even be found to fight against God.” The council followed this advice and had the apostles beaten and told them not to speak in the name of Jesus again. However, this did not discourage the apostles at all. Instead, noticed what happens:
Acts 5:41 So they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for His name. 42 And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. At this time the church was growing by leaps and bounds. Because of this great growth we encounter our first problem in the church in Acts 6. The widows were being neglected from the daily distribution of food so the apostles decided to find seven faithful men to look after these widows. Not only did these men take care of this problem with the widows they found ample time to preach the word of God and the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem Acts 6:7.
The Chosen Seven (Acts 6:1-7): This whole scenario introduces us to the Hellenists. They will become the main characters for the furthering of the gospel “to the ends of the earth.” Luke also gives us a birds-eye view of how the church began to solve internal problems, which Paul will further utilize when he visits Corinth and the other new churches to help them solve problems.
At this time, the church divides into two groups: One group is the Hellenists, or Christians who were born Jewish but who have a Greek cultural background. The other group is the Hebrews, or the Christians who, like the apostles, were born into Jewish cultural backgrounds. The Hellenists feel discriminated against, so in response, the community of disciples elects seven leaders to account for the needs of the Hellenists.
Now the Solution: Gathering the “disciples” together they offered this solution: “choose seven men: seven men who are well-attested, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this necessary task.” Foremost among these Christian Hellenist leaders was Stephen who will soon become the Church’s first recorded martyr.
The Life of the Early Christian
Early Christianity was primarily an urban faith, establishing itself in the city centers of the Roman Empire. Most of the people lived close together in crowded tenements. There were few secrets in such a setting. The faith spread as neighbors saw the lives of the believers close-up, on a daily basis.
And what kind of lives did they lead? Justin Martyr, a noted early Christian theologian, wrote to Emperor Antoninus Pius and described the believers: “We formerly rejoiced in uncleanness of life, but now love only chastity; before we used the magic arts, but now dedicate ourselves to the true and unbegotten God; before we loved money and possessions more than anything, but now we share what we have and to everyone who is in need; before we hated one another and killed one another and would not eat with those of another race, but now since the manifestation of Christ we have come to a common life and pray for our enemies and try to win over those who hate us without just cause.”
Luke concludes his description of this early initial origin of Christianity and the Establishment period of the Church in Jerusalem, with the following progress report:
“The word of God increased and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem. A great company of the priests obeyed the faith.”(Acts 6:7).
The word of God increased. More and more people were accepting and spreading the apostles’ message, and that message was having an ever-growing effect.
The number of disciples multiplied. At last count, Luke has the number at 5000, and that was counting only men (Acts 4:4). Luke does not give us a new number, but says the number “multiplied greatly. “ So, there were many thousands of people in this congregation in Jerusalem.
A great company of the priests obeyed. The temple hierarchy had been jailing the apostles for preaching the word, but now the temple priests were defecting to the apostles. This was probably the main reason why persecution by the temple authorities was stepped up to a new level, as the story of Stephen will show.
We should come away from our initial study of the “Establishment” of the Church, with two great truths that should lead us to ask ourselves a basic question. First, Christianity is a faith rooted in history. We saw this in our initial study of Luke also. Christianity is not the religious speculations of a bunch of brilliant thinkers. Christianity is God’s revelation of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. The apostles faithfully handed down to us what they had seen and heard concerning the life, death, resurrection, and teaching of Jesus Christ. Our faith is built on “the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:20). Thus we can have confidence about our faith.
Second, God is at work in history through His church. While the life and ministry of Jesus Christ is the historical foundation of our faith, God didn’t just send Christ, pull Him off the planet, and stop working. Jesus began the work; His church continues it. That’s why He saved us and why He leaves us here on earth.
The church grew, and can grow today, by following in the footsteps of the early church.