The Church Introduced We first hear of the Church in the Lord’s response to Peter’s resounding confession of Jesus’ true identity and deity: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by My Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Mt. 16:15-18 NIV). Is Peter the foundation rock? Or is Jesus? In a sense, both. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that “God’s household” is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.” Including Peter, the apostles were the men Jesus commissioned to found the dynamic Church – to get it up and running.
Then Paul continues: “…with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20). Peter made it clear that Jesus is the foundation stone of the Church, supporting his statement from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah (1 Pet. 2:4-6; Isa. 28:16). Jesus Himself is the Rock on which the Church was founded. He became that foundation when He laid down His life to redeem the people who are the Church (Eph. 2:11-22; Acts 20:28). The teaching of Jesus, through the men He prepared and sent as His initial agents, is the foundation of the visible, dynamic Church. That same teaching today, via the Scriptures, is the means by which the Church grows, and is the basis of her vitality and function.
In a 40-day seminar after His resurrection, Jesus further instructed His apostles, concluding – just before he lifted off to return to his Father – with a last instruction to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:19-20).
A Dynamic Beginning
The dynamic Church presence on earth began with a “rush” just 10 days later in Jerusalem when the promised Holy Spirit arrived bringing a multi-lingual message of God’s wonderful greatness (Acts 2:1-11). Peter, a primary spokesman in those days, addressed the gathered multi-national crowd in the power of that Spirit. And the growth began: 3000 individuals responded to his message, were saved and incorporated into the new-born body (2:41).
Later, Paul looked back on this event and, exercising his own apostolic mandate, instructed believers in Corinth by writing, “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink” (1 Cor. 12:13). Notice that, though he wrote “we,” neither Paul nor the Corinthian believers to whom he wrote were present on that first day. Yet he included them all, thus teaching us that the Church became an eternal entity, a living organism through the Holy Spirit’s “baptizing” those gathered believers into one, including all believers from that day forward.
Following that initial day, Pentecost, the apostles began their teaching ministry (Mt. 28:19-20), instructing and shepherding the converts. And the Spirit continued to give form, vitality and growth to the new community as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship (active community life), to the breaking of bread (the Lord’s Supper, though the term also refers to a common meal) and to prayer” (2:42).
God used the apostles mightily, as agents and witnesses of His presence and power, and “all the believers were together and had everything in common” sharing with “anyone as he had need … praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” In this dynamic climate God gave growth: He “added to their number daily those who were being saved” (2:43-47).
Enemy Attack From Without
The power and harmony continued, and God worked miraculously through the apostles. Peter and John healed a man crippled since birth. When Jesus promised that “the gates (power) of Hades will not overcome” (Mt. 16:18) the Church, He clearly implied attacks from the power of Satan and of all opposition to God and His Christ. Those attacks began soon enough. Peter and John were challenged by the religious establishment to explain “by what power or what name” they had healed the man (4:7). Peter didn’t give the short answer, but used the occasion to deliver a challenge, provoking a violent reaction from those influenced by that opposition. He declared that the healing came “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead.” Then he delivered a strong evangelistic appeal: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (4:12).
The two were jailed, threatened and grilled by the religious authorities, but on their release, “went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them.” Then they launched into anthems of praise and reminded God and each other of these same authorities’ opposition to Jesus Himself, concluding: “Now Lord, consider their threats and enable Your servants to speak Your Word with great boldness. Stretch out Your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” And after they had prayed, “the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word of God boldly” (4:23-31).
Instead of telling the Lord they felt it wise to “lay low” until the current wave of persecution passed, they asked His help to continue spreading the Word as boldly as ever. Their commitment to their community and to the proclaiming of Christ’s resurrection was strengthened. And the predictable consequence followed – more attacks from the “gates of Hades.”
Enemy Attack From Within
The next attack was internal. The group continued to share everything in common, but a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, joined in with less than pure motives. They sold some property, as many were doing, and brought some of the proceeds to the common fund for distribution to the needy, pretending that it was the whole. Detecting the deception, Peter confronted Ananias and charged him with collaborating with Satan and attempting to deceive the Holy Spirit (4:32-5:4). Peter was the agent, but God was the target of deception. Ananias dropped dead! Three hours later his wife came in, and after questioning was sentenced to the same fate and also died at once.
In these days of permissiveness, this punishment seems hugely out of proportion to the “crime,” and we wonder how God could condemn so drastically. Remember, these crimes were committed against God Himself, the supreme judge of morality and justice. The Holy Spirit had full liberty to expand this new project called the Church. The slightest moral imbalance or disturbance “grieves” Him (Eph. 4:30), obstructing His liberty. God was still getting His Church up and running and could tolerate no interference. He had to give the people an example and establish the parameters.
Ananias and Sapphira were examples. Are they in heaven? I think so. God is not seen to so summarily judge and execute the unconverted in this period of grace, but waits patiently for their conversion (2 Pet. 3:9). Believers, however, “know better” and are responsible. These two were “safe” in that they had eternal life. The effect of their failure and execution was powerful: “Great fear seized the whole Church and all who heard about these events” (5:11). God’s holiness and justice are exhibited, believers are cautioned and the gospel gets new impetus (5:12-16).
The Church Persecuted
There was, of course, more persecution of the believers and their leaders, accompanied by God’s mighty working. The apostles were jailed again, but God’s angel released them in the night so they could continue teaching in the temple first thing in the morning. The religious leaders, perplexed that their prisoners were not in the jail, gingerly had them brought to council chambers and severely took them to task for continuing to teach contrary to their prohibition. And, citing the superior authority of their leader, Jesus Christ, the apostles responded: “We must obey God rather than men!” Furious, the authorities nevertheless listened to reason from the revered Gamaliel and released them after an unwarranted flogging and another stern warning against preaching Jesus (5:17-40).
The quality of Church growth was evident in their reaction to persecution: “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day … they never stopped preaching” (5:41-42). Their boldness was the measure of their faith as Jesus’ followers. Do we dare measure ourselves by them?
Another internal attack came in the form of inter-ethnic friction, the Jews of Greek culture and language murmuring against the Palestinian Hebrews with respect to the distribution to the needy (Acts 4:34 and IVP Bible Background Commentary). By God’s wisdom, the apostles ordered the community to select seven men to administer the fund fairly, so that their own attention not be distracted from the Word and Church needs (6:1-4).
The wise goodwill of the believers was clear in their choice of men from the Grecian party – the offended group in this complaint – to administer equitably. The spiritual requirements for these first deacons was very high, emphasizing that any and all service to God and His Church is spiritual work requiring quality workers (6:3-5). The problem resolved, the work went on freely (6:7).
The quality of these men was soon exhibited in one of them, the Spirit-filled Stephen, who became so powerful that the “gates of Hades” crowd went on the attack. The convened court saw Stephen’s face “like the face of an angel” as he stood to deliver an eloquent, stinging defense/ rebuke before his execution, proving to be a martyr worthy of his Lord (7:1-60).
The Church Spreads
Far from being a tragedy, this first martyrdom proved to be the catalyst to launch the gospel into “all the world.” Initially, the enemy was revitalized in his determination to obliterate the message of the resurrected Christ. “A great persecution broke out against the Church at Jerusalem” which scattered believers throughout the region. But they didn’t go into hiding; in the spirit of Acts 4:29 – “Lord … enable your servants to speak Your words with great boldness” – they “preached the word wherever they went” (8:4).
It’s a cliché, but nevertheless true, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” One martyrdom effectively threw the gospel into a fan that scattered it “throughout Judea and Samaria.”
Another of those first deacons, Philip, went to Samaria and for the first time extended the gospel to the people with whom Jews did not associate (Jn. 4:9). Possibly founded on the initial work of Jesus Himself, through a Samaritan sinner woman and her witness to the townsfolk (Jn. 4:27-42), a great evangelistic harvest exploded.
Then the Holy Spirit sent Philip to meet a single Ethiopian government official on the highway near Gaza, on the southern edge of Israel (Acts 8:26-40). Through a miraculously arranged scenario, he found his text and sermon waiting for him. He evangelized the Ethiopian, baptized him and sent him on his way to plant the Church in his country, and eventually the African continent. The Church in Ethiopia today traces its beginnings to that encounter. The Church is a living organism; it grows.
This was followed by the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9), and his preparation as the greatest missionary the Church has ever seen. In Acts 10, the Holy Spirit gave Peter a crash course in rising above traditional prejudice so that he could take the gospel to Gentiles – Romans, no less. This time, Cornelius, “a centurion in … the Italian Regiment” sent for the evangelist and his message. And so, through Peter and Paul, Europe was introduced to the gospel.
Two conditions observed in this beginning stage of Church history were: the all-out commitment of believers to God, to each other and to the Holy Spirit’s control; and vigorous attacks of the enemy. May we always be available for God’s use in ways we might not anticipate or imagine, so that His message continues to grow and spread to “all nations.”
By Bill Van Ryn
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org