By Natalie Hardt | February 2020
How well does your church reflect the
characteristics of the Apostolic Church:
- Comprised of believers (Acts 2:41)
- Adhere and study doctrine that has been safely defined as Scripture (Acts 2:42)
- Partake in fellowship, the Lord’s Supper and prayer (Acts 2:42)
- Gather for worship regularly (Acts 2:46; 20:7)
- Take care of the needs of its own (Acts 2:44-45)
- Appoint church elders (Acts14:23; 20:28-31)
- Ministry outreach (Acts 13:2-3)
Jesus’ Church is meant to be the light to the world. This discussion looks at the first century Church and some of the challenges it faces as it fights to remain true to the Gospel.
The first century church in Acts is the model to follow.
Luke is the author of Acts and brilliantly records historical events, their significance, and characteristics of the Apostolic Church. This gives us a glimpse into history and how societal and cultural difficulties effect church politics in Jerusalem, the church outside Jerusalem, and the Holy Spirit’s work foundational to proclaiming the Gospel throughout the world.
It is important the believer apply to their life the principles intended by the biblical author of whom has written centuries past and to a different society and culture.
The setting is first century Palestine where the known world consists of various ethnicities and cultures, these include Judaism Jews (traditional), Hellenistic Jews (due to Alexander the Great rule 332BC), Samaritan Jews (due to Assyrian captivity 722 BC), and Jewish and Hellenistic Christians of whom occupy territories close in proximity in Jerusalem. Greek was the primary language and the roads were made safer for travel under Roman rule, resulting in favorable conditions for spreading the church throughout. Acts picks up where the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John) leave off, Jesus has handed off His church (flock of sheep) to His disciples with specific instructions to go to all people and gather ‘those’ who believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior for they belong to His Kingdom. This is a calling to gather His sheep, and points to predestination which is a subject for another discussion.
Politics in the Church
It is not long after Jesus ascends to Heaven that the early church begins having conflicts and controversies. Luke writes about the external disputes, as with the Sanhedrin, and the internal disputes within the Jerusalem church of whom Peter and then James (Jesus’ brother) lead. For example, Acts 6 records Hebrew widows being favored over Hellenistic widows that eventually culminates in delegating leaders to oversee church activities. This allows the Apostles to dedicate their “…attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4 NIV). After Acts 7, the Jerusalem church appears to be made up of Jewish Christians as most or only Hellenistic Christians flee the area after Stephen’s death; Luke records this saying, “…all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1 NIV) (Bruce, 2019). The stoning of Stephen is the catalyst that leads to the dispersion of believers and prompts the Gospel taken outside Jerusalem to the areas of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cyprus (Acts 11: 19). These were the Hellenistic believers, likely run out of Jerusalem by those motivated to riot by the chief priests and pharisees (Bruce, 2019).
Acts 21 provides another glimpse into the early church dynamics when Paul visits the Jerusalem church and tells the leaders about the great progress concerning the Gentile conversions; consequently, James and the elders tell Paul how the Jews have also “…believed, and all of them are zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20 NIV). The mention of the ‘law’ is an evident snag among the Gentile and Jewish Christians and constitutes the tensions that arise as the church seeks to establish itself. With good intensions, James tries to help Paul against criticisms from ‘those’ that remain tethered to the law by suggesting Paul fit-in better and show his allegiance to Jewish traditions (clean foods and circumcision). Whether Paul and his companions compromise by shaving their head and visiting the temple, or whether it is out of respect for their Jewish heritage, neither act is part of the Gospel (Marculet, 2013). Paul may have felt the skepticism from the Jerusalem church leaders due to his past. Paul, formerly known as Saul, was a Pharisee and a persecutor of Christians until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
Like the first century, today’s newly converted Christians from Catholicism may find it difficult to completely let go of Catholic frivolous and futile customs and traditions. As with Paul and his companions, rituals have no significance nor contribut to one’s salvation. The more one knows the Word of God, the less likely one will be fooled by these false doctrines. False teachings of the Gospel should be confronted because in ‘not’ doing so is to go against loving one’s neighbor.
Leadership Within The Church
The more one digs deeper into the Word of God and sees the various heresies and trials that have afflicted the church for centuries, the more one realizes little has changed.
One way the Jerusalem church responds to the Gentile conversion phenomenon taking place outside Jerusalem is to send Barnabas to Antioch Syria, the first church believers to be called Christians (Acts 11:22). Barnabas and Apostle Paul then go and remain for one year as they teach the Gospel to the church there. Gathering in homes is the norm for the early church, for instance Acts 16 records the conversion of Lydia in Philippi and how “The Lord opened her heart…” (Acts 16:14 ESV) and will lead to her baptism and the use of her home for church gathering. First century Greek women were gaining freedoms in cities more heavily influenced by Roman culture, such as Philippi and Corinth, versus Greek culture, such as Athens (Mowczko, 2018). Independent women in Acts include Lydia, a businesswoman, and Pricilla an artisan and how their roles helped advance the early church (Mowczko, 2018). Lydia was able to use her resources for good, this presents a more positive view of wealth in the New Testament as it is used for God’s purpose (Mowczko, 2018). The early church developed ways of reaching the world through its outreach (care of those in need), missions, and small group. And somewhat unique to the early church believers is how they were ‘one’ and shared everything (Acts 2:42-45) as they spent time together breaking bread (meals not only Eucharist), praying and worshipping (Wenham & Walton, 2005).
Humans have always been and continue to be worshipping beings and Satan knows that; consequently, as counterfeiter (2 Thessalonians 2; Revelation 20:10) and imitator of God, Satan’s sole purpose is to take as many down into hell with him. It cannot be overstated the awesome responsibility church leaders have been entrusted as they care for and navigate the church. Believers’ are cautioned time and time again to check the scriptures for Satan via false religious leaders aims to twist and confuse. Recall the moment Satan uses scripture ‘incorrectly’ in his attempts to entice Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; Mark 1:12-13).
The Gospel message never changes, how it is presented will vary. Theologian, Kevin Vanhoozer according to Neely (2019) says scripture is “the script’ which is to be lived out as the church ‘performs’ the Gospel on the world stage” (Neely, 2019, pp. 7).
Scripture translation for understanding and application varies depending on cultures and ethnicities and is evident in Acts, for instance Apostle Paul’s speech to the Greek philosophers in Athens (Acts 17) versus his sermon to the Antioch Syria church (Acts 13). Regarding his Athenian speech, Paul is observant of the culture and their many gods and idol worship; consequently, he adjusts his language so that his audience can understand the Gospel message. When Paul is asked to speak to the Greek philosophers, he takes this opportunity to establish common ground by saying, “…in every way you are very religious” (Acts 17:22 ESV) before he goes on to present his case by focusing on “…unknown god” (Acts 17:23) versus “gods” (Marculet, 2013). What prompts this is the moment Paul sees an inscription that says, “to the unknown god” and thinks perhaps they not only believe in “gods”, but also “a” god and uses that as a means of focusing on the unknown “god” (Marculet, 2013, pp. 33). Another explanation is that among their many gods, there is one angered god the Athenians want to appease and yet do not know the identity. In either case, Paul thinks best to focus on the term “god” “…in order to express from the beginning what he wanted to talk to Areopagus’ court and to have a monotheistic speech” (Marculet, 2013, pp.30). Vanhoozer goes on to describe improvisation, not in making up anything new, but rather “…creative but faithful contextualization or application of canonical truth to shifting cultural contexts…is fully consonant with a stable orthodox identity” (Neely, 2019, pp. 6). This is what Apostle Paul does when he speaks at the Areopagus in Athens, where the Gospel meets Greek philosophy, and is what Marculet (2013) says is necessary for “the Gospel has to be incarnated into a preexistent soil, through a process of inculturation” (Marculet, 2013, pp. 30).
God Never Contradicts His Word
Proper biblical interpretation consists of looking at the historical sociological setting for scriptural relevance.
When a new teacher/teaching emerges that does not line-up with biblical doctrine, it is vital reputable pastors and theologians, as well as believers push back. Prior to the Athens visit, Apostle Paul and Silas had gone to preach in the synagogue (Jewish temple) in Thessalonica (Acts 17). Luke recorded many Jews and Greeks were saved that day in Thessalonica while others formed a mob and attacked Paul and Silas. When Paul and Silas escaped to the synagogue in Berea, they were received by Jews and Greeks that eagerly listened, it says they “…examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11 ESV). The latest fad the Evangelical community has had to distance from is the prosperity gospel and charismatic movement that pushes worldly success. This is what happens when gross negligence in an otherwise systematic approach (Exegesis) effects coherent biblical interpretation (Hermeneutics). For example, the charismatics have been accused of improper contextualization, as in John 14 where Jesus says to His disciples, “…whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these…” (John 14:12 NIV). The prosperity gospel preaches a good life now agenda that clearly goes against the teachings of Jesus and the Apostolic Church, for suffering draws us closer to God, “…We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,” (Acts 14:22 NIV). Apostle Paul, the greatest Christian to have ever lived, knew this all too well. He often addressed the churches throughout the new world concerning the false teachers and teachings that infiltrated their congregation.
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1 ESV)
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:6-9 ESV)
The issues surrounding miracles has spiraled out of control so much so, there are those today claiming to have apostles in their congregation equal to the Twelve Apostles. This is heresy and must be completely rejected. Scripture is clear on what constitutes an Apostle: 1) followed Jesus’ ministry; 2) appointed by Jesus directly; and 3) an eye witness to Jesus after the resurrection (Acts 1). In other words, there will never be an Apostle like the Twelve – Matthew, John, Peter, Andrew, James, Philip, Judas (not Iscariot), Judas Iscariot (replaced by Matthias), Bartholomew, Thomas, Simon, and James (son of Alphaeus).
This subject has evidently brought to the surface the interpretation of miracles, visions, wonders, and healings today that are being compared to the feeding of 5,000, casting out demons, raising the dead, and healing the sick. These grand miracles were for a specific purpose and in a specific time in history. When Jesus and a select few apostles did miracles, it was always for the sole purpose of exhorting the Father resulting in growing faith and hope for the coming Kingdom. Good examples include the moments Paul and Peter speak with boldness because of the Holy Spirit; it says, “Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit…” (Acts 13:9 NIV), and in Acts 2 about Peter and the disciples, “All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:4 NIV). Jesus’ words concerning His followers doing greater things than He has been interpreted by reputable theologians to mean spreading the Gospel – the Good News – by growing His Church throughout the world. If the first century church could look into the future at how Christianity has grown, it would look like a miracle.
Prosperity versus Suffering
There are many types of hardships and sufferings, some may come from the enemy albeit under the sovereignty of God, as in the Book of Job while others are tests sent by God to grow the believer’s faith and/or weed out false believers (MacArthur, 2020).
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2 NIV)
“For my name’s sake I defer my anger for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off. Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver I have tried you in the furnace of affliction. For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned? My glory I will not give to another” (Isaiah 48:9-11 ESV)
“…so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:7 ESV)
Does this mean believers’ will not have happiness in this life? Absolutely not! As James says (above) our joy is the filling of the Holy Spirit not the things we get from and in this world. This does not mean having nice things (i.e. car, jewelry, clothes) is wrong, it comes with an understanding that things never become more important than our thirst for God. False teachers/preachers such as Joel Osteen come across as a self-help book with a psychological approach to gaining self-esteem in bettering one’s life now. This is not the Gospel, Jesus warns constantly that to be His follower, expect to be hated for this world belongs to Satan “…In this world you will have trouble…” (John 16:33 NIV). Having said that, it is important to avoid lumping all believers in a group because there are some that truly do experience talking in tongues; however, that is not the discussion here. What the charismatics are pushing does not qualify as special or unique, but rather occultic over the top behaviors. Miracles happened infrequent in biblical times, here we have constant groups of people partaking in convulsing and squirming on the floor, claiming to have visions and conduct healings that never prove true. The charismatics are not restricted to any one denomination or religion either, for instance the Catholic charismatics believe in the miracles of crying statues. These sorts of miracles are not divine, but rather demonic in nature.
Those Led Astray – “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons…” (1 Tim. 4:1 ESV)
Suffering Sharpens Believers
It is important to reiterate Christians are meant to have joy in this world; however, seeking it in the fashion presented by these prosperity preachers is false and goes against scripture. Spiritual growth is not had when life is prosperous. It is through the trials and tests that we are “weaned from this world” (MacArthur, 2020). Apostle Paul pleads with God to relieve him of his pain, “…a thorn was given me [Paul] in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV). Jesus replies to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12: 9 ESV).
The bottom line is for Christians to be on guard and cognizant of false teachings; afterall, Satan disguises himself as “an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14) to confuse, distort, divide, and prevent those from coming to Christ. Jesus said to doubting Thomas, “…Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29 ESV); for faith is the hope for things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). In the first century, the Old Testament scriptures were well established, known, and had been in circulation for centuries. On this side of the cross (after the resurrection), the New Testament and the giving of the Holy Spirit replace these types of grand miracles. It is important to clarify the meaning ‘miracle’ because God still does miracles every day, as in the believer that prays for God’s healing power for her premature infant struggling for survival, or the addicted homeless person’s transformation and now living a clean and productive life.
The Holy Spirit Directs the Church
There are common features and consistent talking points true to the Gospel message throughout both the Old and New Testaments. Due to vantage point, the speeches may vary on bits of information that support the main points; however, the story about Jesus targets who He is, what He did, and what that means for humanity. Main points are Israel’s history; Jesus is Messiah, His death (rebuking those responsible), His rising and living today; eyewitnesses (and in this case Peter and Paul) that support these events; and the Holy Spirit’s work calling believers to action. This action requires telling the story to all who will listen.
Churches today have a model in the New Testament church and faces the same types of struggles. The church must listen and obey the Spirit like Paul, Silas, Timothy, and Luke in Acts 16 when they obeyed the Spirit that took them to Macedonia and not Asia per Paul’s vision. Looking back, it is clear God wanted the Gospel to reach what will become Europe – and again my friends, this is the miracle of the Holy Spirit.
Bruce, F.F. (1985). The Church of Jerusalem in the Acts of the Apostles. Bulletin of the John Rylands Library of Manchester, 67 (2): 641–661. Retrieved from: https://www.escholar.manchester.ac.uk/api/datastream?publicationPid=uk-ac-man-scw:1m1650&datastreamId=Post-Peer-Review-Publishers-Document.pdf
MacArthur, J. (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.gty.org/
Marculet, S. (2013). Elements of Inculturation in Saint Paul’s speech from Areopagus. Revista Teologica, 23(3), 28–48. Retrieved from: https://search-ebscohost-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=94518061&site=eds-live&scope=site
Mowczko, M. (2018). Wealthy Women in the First-Century Roman World and in the Church. Priscilla Papers, 32(3), 3–7. Retrieved from: https://search-ebscohost-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=131340184&site=eds-live&scope=site
Neely, B. (2019). Kevin Vanhoozer’s Theodramatic Improvisation and the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Evangelical Review of Theology, 43(1), 5–16. Retrieved from: https://search-ebscohost-com.lopes.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=133918455&site=eds-live&scope=site
Wenham, D., & Walton, S. (2005). Exploring the New Testament, Volume 1: A guide to the Gospels and Acts (2nd ed.). Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.