Early Church History
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First Chapter
Prior to Pentecost
Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, he gave his followers both
a promise and a challenge. His promise was that in a few days he was going
to send to them the Holy Spirit, who would endue them with great spiritual
power. Once that happened, they were to go out and be witnesses of
all the things that they had seen Jesus do and say, beginning in Jerusalem,
branching out into Judea and Samaria, and eventually reaching to the ends
of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Thereupon, the followers of Jesus waited in Jerusalem in the upstairs
room where they were staying—the total number being about 120, including
both men and women (Acts 1:12–14). They spent much of their time
together in intense prayer for the coming event, perhaps as a result of Jesus’
instruction: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts
to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy
Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).
During the ten days before the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost,
the followers of Jesus did one other thing. Since the disciple Judas
had defected from their group, betrayed the Lord into the hands of his enemies,
and subsequently died by his own hand, the apostles felt it was
important to appoint a replacement for him. The number twelve was significant,
since these men were going to form the nucleus of a new people
of God, comparable to the twelve tribes of Israel.
Therefore Simon Peter, who functioned as the group’s leader, pro-posed
that two men be selected who could fulfill the qualifications for
being an apostle: one who had been with the Lord Jesus from the beginning
of his ministry and who had been a witness of his resurrection (Acts
1:15–22). The two men nominated for this position were Joseph Barsabbas
and Matthias. After the disciples had prayed, asking the Lord to select
the right one, they cast lots between the two of them, and the lot fell on
Matthias. Nothing more is known about him, however.
Pentecost
Ten days after Jesus had ascended into heaven, a most astounding
event happened—one that rightfully has been called the birthday of the
church. The 120 followers of Jesus were altogether in one place, when suddenly
“a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and
filled the whole house where they were sitting” (Acts 2:2). At the same
time tongues of fire appeared to rest on each person, and they were all filled
with the Holy Spirit “and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit
enabled them” (2:4).
These phenomena were not imaginary or apparent only to the disciples
of Jesus, since people throughout Jerusalem rushed to the scene to
see what was going on. The crowd that gathered included not only residents
of the city but also visitors from all over the Roman empire, who had
come to the holy city for the Feast of Tabernacles. Some of the onlookers
mocked what was going on, charging that it was simply a group of
drunken Jews making a lot of commotion. But others were perplexed, since
they were hearing words in their own languages from people who did not
normally speak those languages.
Then Simon Peter, once again the spokesman for the group of Jesus’
followers, stood up and addressed the crowd (Acts 2:14–36). He told them
that this was the beginning of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies
for a mighty outpouring of the Holy Spirit in the last days. This was
happening as a result of the promise of Jesus, the Messiah whom God
had promised for centuries to send, who had fulfilled God’s promises in
the Scriptures through his ministry, cross, and resurrection, and who was
now sitting at God’s right hand as Lord of all. Peter charged the crowd with
being responsible for the crucifixion of God’s Messiah.
The people were smitten by Peter’s message and asked what they
should do. Peter instructed them to repent and be baptized in the name of
Jesus, so that they might receive the forgiveness of their sins as well as the
Holy Spirit as a gift. Peter received an amazing response to this call to
salvation; on that one day alone, three thousand people were baptized and
added to the church (2:37–41).
The New Christian Community
The Bible uses four words to describe the activities of the new community,
centered around the apostles, that developed in this body of more
than three thousand Spirit-filled Christians: teaching, fellowship, breaking
of bread, and prayer (Acts 2:42).
Teaching. In his Pentecost sermon Peter had given a brief summary
of what Jesus said and did. But much more needed to be taught to this new
community of faith in order to shape their hearts and their lives. The
responsibility for doing this fell on the apostles. The Lord had charged
them with passing on all the important details of his ministry, death, and
resurrection. Their teachings were eventually encapsulated in the four
Gospels.
Fellowship. The new believers quickly formed a community of love.
The haves among them were eager to share their possessions with the have-nots.
Some among them even sold their “possessions and goods” in order
to help out the less fortunate among them (Acts 2:45; 4:32–35). The apostles
took charge of distributing food to the needy (cf. 6:1).
Breaking of bread. On a regular basis the new Christians broke bread
together (2:46). This seems to refer not to the mere act of eating a meal
together, but to a special way of remembering the Lord Jesus. Perhaps they
were reenacting what had taken place in the upper room before Jesus went
to Gethsemane; perhaps they were recalling how Jesus had broken bread
with them and eaten after he was raised from the dead (cf. Luke 24:30,
35, 41–42; Acts 1:4). In any case, this special commemoration eventually
became the Eucharist.
Prayer. The early Christians had regular times of worship, including
especially prayer. Every day they went to the temple courts to praise
God’s name, to thank him for miracles being performed in the name of
Jesus, and to pray for one another. According to Luke, nothing important
in the history of the New Testament church happened outside a context
of prayer.
Life in this new community of faith was exciting and contagious.
People living in Jerusalem could not help but notice what was happening,
and every day more were accepting Jesus as the Messiah. Within a
short time their numbers climbed to five thousand men, besides women
and children (4:4).
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