Lessons from the Early Church
The Book of Acts is the record of the first generation of the Church and how that one generation expanded to the uttermost part of the known world. What was it that made the Early Church so vibrantly alive, harmoniously united, and incredibly effective? What were the input-characteristics that made the out-put of the First Century Church so dynamic? Is it possible for the Twenty-First Century Church, although in her “senior years,” to be renewed to the vitality of her youth?
The Early Church may have been inexperienced and naïve in certain ways, but she was a model Church in spirit and we can benefit greatly by studying what made her so effective.
First, Early Church believers were indwelt by and filled with the Holy Spirit. They were also unified in their desire to obey the Lord’s Great Commission. They had such vitality for life and Christlike love for one another, they had a magnetic effect on those around them, and the Lord added souls to His Church daily (Acts 2:47). The powerful first sermon of the Church Age, spoken by the former “foot-in-mouth” Peter (a mere 53 days after Christ’s crucifixion) brought incredible fruit (2:41)!
The first “activity” of the Early Church mentioned by the inspired writing of Luke in Acts was her serious, steadfast study of Apostolic doctrine (2:42). The new believers in Christ understood the importance of being discipled by “the disciples,” the special men the Lord chose to equip others, who were then to go to their respective homes and communities to evangelize and instruct (disciple) others in Apostolic doctrine. Writing to young Timothy, the Apostle Paul said, “The things that thou hast heard of me . . . the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2).
The Church was never intended to be a spectator sport, a social club, or an entertainment venue! It is to be a Spirit-filled teaching center where faithful people are taught sound doctrine so they worship the Lord “in Spirit and in Truth” (John 4:24)! Two critical characteristics of a healthy, Spirit-filled believer are his hunger for and submission to the teaching of Scripture. There is something seriously wrong when a professing Christian exhibits no hunger to learn of Christ. Equally troubling is when pride interferes with having a “teachable” spirit and attitude.
Another fascinating thing about the Early Church was the daily gathering of her people. Christians came together to learn, pray, fellowship, take communion, and share meals, but it was not just for one hour once a week! They did so continuously, whenever they were able! When one Apostle grew weary in teaching, another took over. They broke into small groups; met in homes, and were heavily engaged in discipleship ministry (as we will be doing this year in our Living Word Ministry – contact us if interested, no matter where you live)!
What is the Lord’s “Great Commission” to His Church (Matthew 28:19, 20)? Is it not to go into all the world and make disciples? Is it not to teach Christ? Again it was to Timothy Paul wrote these instructions, “These things command and teach . . .Till I come,give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine . . . Take heed unto thyself and unto the doctrine; continue in them . . . Preach the Word . . . in season; out of season. . .exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine” (I Tim. 4:11, 13, 16; II Tim. 4:2, 3a). If we do not teach people the truth, they will not know when error enters their midst! A shepherd who does not teach the truths of the whole Counsel of God to the sheep of His flock is not protecting them! He is not encouraging them in Christlikeness, for people cannot properly function on what they do not know! We need to study God’s Word NOW, while we yet can do so freely! The time make be soon coming when it will be forbidden.
Hosea 4:6a contains tragic words for Israel; words also tragically true for a large portion of Christendom: “My people are destroyed for a lack of knowledge”! The condition of our country today is largely the fault of the Church! Where is the discipleship in sound doctrine? Where are the Christians who strongly, confidently know how to defend their faith? Where are the young people grounded in Christian apologetics who can stand firm on their Rock foundation before the Bible-mocking liberal professors who fill our university system? Where are the Christians who are not compromised with evolutionism, globalism, and socialism, and refuse to be indoctrinated into accepting all the varied “progressive” social issues (which are degressive, not progressive)?
The Early Church was an “awesome” Church. A confirmation of the Spirit-filling of that body of believers is that “fear came upon every soul” (2:43a). “Every soul” speaks of unbelievers. The people of Jerusalem became acutely aware of something supernatural going on. God was working in and through the followers of Jesus of Nazareth! Many Jewish people experienced a sense of what Peter first felt when he realized Who Jesus is and fell down saying, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). The new-born body of believers was having a profound impact on those around them. People were sensing their sinfulness.
Would it not be wonderful if the Church today had that kind of effect on the world? AND we would if we stopped trying to emulate the world! “Ekklesia” (Greek word for “church”) means “called out ones”! We are called out of the world to be witnesses for Christ! Do you know what attracts the world? Something different; something “out of this world”; something the world cannot duplicate no matter how much time, money, or resources are thrown at it.When churches try to imitate the world and offer people the same thing the world offers (except in “Christian” packaging), unbelievers are not impressed; they can do it better! But what they can NOT do better is to be holy. Holiness either attracts people or repels them, but they are not indifferent to it. Most churches today unwisely set their standards low to attract the lost instead of setting their standards high to instill the awe of God in them!
The Early Church members had a level of commitment to one another as a body that the Church has not again experienced in its 2000-year history. There was one passion among the new believers. We are told that everything they did was done “with gladness and singleness of heart”. They not only gathered publicly in the Temple, they gathered privately “from house to house”. With such effectiveness, it did not take long before persecution entered the pattern of the first-generation Church. Peter’s sermon of Acts chapter 3 was rudely and suddenly interrupted by the arrival of a contingent of priests, Sadducees, and the Temple captain. Peter and John were thrown in prison. The next morning, they were brought before the High Court of Israel to be interrogated (and threatened). The persecution of the Church from the enemies of Christ had begun.
In Acts 4:16, Israel’s religious leaders had asked among themselves, “What shall we do to these men?” Their question clearly shows the “heart” issue. They were not seeking to know the truth about Jesus, or they would have asked, “What shall we do about the message of these men?” Instead, they wanted to DO something to the men so they could silence the truth and, worse, keep others from hearing the truth. Rather than fulfilling their duty as spiritual “builders” by searching Scripture to see if they were wrong about Jesus and had,in fact, rejected the Stone (the Messiah), as Psalm 118:22 predicted (Acts 4:11), they threatened the Apostles. They gave a command which was not only for Peter and John, but for the entire body of believers. They were no long to speak or teach in the name of Jesus (4:17b, 18). They were forbidden to proclaim the Gospel.
The problem with the Council’s command is its direct contradiction to the will of God, expressed by Christ to His followers. The Spirit-filled response of Peter and John was they had to obey God over men on this issue! For the Twenty-First Century Church to be vibrantly fruitful in our world today, we need men, women, and young people like Peter and John. We need Christians who are faithful, uncompromising, bold, dogmatic, Christ-centered, Christ-exalting, unstoppable, compulsive witnesses of the Gospel! We need followers of Christ who put fear of God above fear of man!
The elite, educated, wealthy, powerful Sanhedrin Council of Israel was confounded by the simple witness of two Galilean fishermen. Is it not humorously amazing that “. . . God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty” (I Corinthians 1:27)? Are you kind of “a nobody”? If so, that is great! God delights to use you for His glory!
When Peter and John were released, after being threatened, they immediately went to “their own company and reported all” that transpired between them and “the chief priests and elders (Acts 4:23). A basic principle regarding persecution is it drives Christians together. Repeatedly, we read how the Early Church was of “one accord”. Upon hearing of the Council’s command to speak no more of Jesus, the young body of believers did something spontaneously, and it was not to run and hide. Nor was it to cower in fear. They did not commit among themselves to be “secret” Christians. What did they instinctively do? They lifted up their voice to God with one accord (4:24a). They PRAYED! It is what we should be doing, for we are definitely facing increased “threats” to our Christian faith.
Prayer is the perfect response of Spirit-filled people to persecution! As one voice, those exemplary First Century believers spoke to God, and their prayer began with praises to God’s omnipotence! They praised Him for being Sovereign Creator; the One Who made “heaven and earth, and the sea, and all that in them is” (4:24b). They were reminding themselves that He is Creator of everything and all people (“all that in them is”), even those persecuting them.
It is a marvelous comfort for those persecuted for Christ’s sake to remember that God is absolute Sovereign over all who cause harm, try to destroy by using violence, terror tactics, deceptions, and lies to have their way, and are anti-Christian and anti-Semitic. It is important for Christians to know “the end of the story” (end-times’ prophecy), which is why our home group Bible studies will be studying the Book of Revelation this year. We must know that unrepentant persecutors of God’s people will answer to Him. His wrath against all ungodliness is coming, for Christ is coming soon. He will reign in holy justice. He will make all things right.
The early believers, faced with their first case of persecution, took comfort in their understanding of prophetic Scripture. They did not yet have the Book of Revelation, but they referenced Psalm 2 in their prayer (Acts 4:25, 26). Psalm 2 is prophetic; it gives a condensed sweep of the ages. It is actually a dual prophecy regarding man’s rebellion against God and His Anointed (Christ). The first fulfillment of the prophecy had recently occurred. The kings and rulers (of Israel and Rome) conspired together against God’s Anointed; they raged at Him during His unjust trials and while He hung on the cross. The second fulfillment of Psalm 2 will occur at the end of the Battle of Armageddon, when the kings and rulers of earth will take their stand and rage against Christ at His Second Coming (Revelation 17:9-14).
Application of Psalm 2
The praying Jewish Christians knew Psalm 2 also says God laughs at man’s puny efforts to break asunder their bondage to His rules (2:3, 4). The only time God is said to laugh in Scripture is over the futility of man’s efforts to escape His Sovereignty. Everything His enemies plot against Him and His Son is vain. It is complete emptiness on their part, for He will have His way. All His enemies will be destroyed, dashed “in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (2:9), and His Son will sit on His holy hill of Zion (Jerusalem) (2:6)! So, what is God’s advice to the rebellious of the world today? What does He say to those who mock Him? What does He say to those who want to break free from moral absolutes? What is His advice to those who scorn His Word and want to remove any trace of our Judeo-Christian heritage from America? What does He say to Communist dictators and Marxist propogandists who want to remove Christianity from the world? What does He say to Muslim extremists who want to obliterate Israel? What does He say to judges who “legalize” abortion and other abominable practices? He says, “Be wise now . . . Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and ye perish from the way, when His wrath is kindled . . . Blessed are all they that put their trust in Him” (Psalm 2:10-12)!
The praying Early Church believers stated, in their prayer, that the combined antagonism of man (and Satan) against God’s “Holy Child Jesus” (Anointed One of Psalm 2:2) merely works together to accomplish what God “determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27, 28)! After having done their worst, God’s enemies had only succeeded in carrying out His predetermined plan for redemption! The Lord orchestrates things in such mysterious ways, He makes even the wrath of man to praise Him (Psalm 76:10)!
The unified, praying believers turned from praise to petition. In Acts 4:29, they asked the Lord to behold the threats issued at His servants! They knew anyone who touched them was touching God’s property! Is that not true for us today? We belong to the Lord. We have been bought with a price. We are God’s love-gifts to His Son. Corporately, we are Christ’s beloved Bride. These truths are comforting, especially in times of persecution! When someone harms God’s property, they put themselves in greater eternal danger than those they harm! If they do not repent, they can expect His wrath.
What is interesting to notice is that the early believers simply asked the Lord to behold the threats to His servants (4:29). They did not make any request regarding what He should do about the threats! Having been discipled by the Apostles, they knew the servant does not tell the Master what to do or state what the outcome should be! They merely encouraged and reminded themselves of God’s sovereignty. They reminded themselves that nothing could touch them except as He allowed. They knew Christ said those who suffer persecution for righteousness’ sake are blessed (Matthew 5:10-12). Do you think some of those Early Church members (particularly the original 120) had prayed for Pilate to release Jesus? Did they not find out later how necessary His death was? We might pray to be spared from persecution, but it may not be what is ultimately best for His plan and for us. Maybe our land and our world need things to get so horrific that it wakes people up! Beginning with the Church, we need to repent and seek God’s forgiveness so He can heal this land and become a nation that enjoys God’s blessing.
Proper Persecution Prayer
The right way to pray in a situation of persecution is to follow the Spirit-filled example of the Early Church! We should say, “Master, we are your servants. Behold what Your enemies are doing to us, to our nation, to our world! Use us as You will for Your name’s sake. The outcome is in Your hands, for You know best.”
The one request in the prayer of the early Church saints in Acts chapter 4 was the thing that got them into trouble to begin with! They asked “. . . that with all boldness they may speak Thy word” (4:29b)!In other words, they asked the Lord to help them to be even more fearlessly outspoken for Him! They did not ask for an escape from persecution; they asked for more boldness in the face of persecution!
Did the Lord respond to the Christ-honoring, Scripturally based, unselfish, Spirit-led prayer of the early believers? You bet He did, and He made sure they received physical confirmation that He heard them! He shook the building in which they were assembled! It was His vibrant “AMEN” to their prayer!
The Lord also demonstrated His power in a spiritual way by giving the believers a fresh filling of the Spirit, so they were emboldened, as they requested, to go forth speaking of Jesus and His salvation! The command-threat of the Sanhedrin totally backfired! The persecution of two prominent Church leaders only increased the commitment and courage of the entire body to proclaim the name of Jesus!
Physical persecution and verbal threats cannot disrupt or obstruct the work of God! Yes, the arrest of the Apostles interrupted Peter’s sermon, but it did not stop the sermon from bearing fruit! When those Spirit-bolstered believers went out from their prayer-meeting “on-fire” for Jesus, they found “a multitude of them that believed” (4:32). Persecution led to a new zeal in the believers! Halleluiah!
Are you Filled or Fearful?
What is our response to the pressure being brought on Christians in our world today? Do we magnify the power of the Lord by our response, or do we magnify the power of the enemy? If we are filled with fear, anxiety, and anger, we magnify evil men out of proportion. The prayer of the early, Spirit-filled believers put the enemies of God where they rightly belong, raging a vain thing (Psalm 2). Prayer also puts believers today where we rightly belong, relying on the ultimate victory of Sovereign God. Do not magnify the persecutor out of proportion to our great and sovereign God! Be confident in Him! We are in the hands of Almighty God! The result of the first persecution of the Church was that “multitudes both of men and women” were “added to the Lord” (5:14)! It was an evangelism explosion!
The persecution itself was the work of Satan, but God used it for the good of His Church, for she increased in unity, power, and grace! The Church is entrusted with an assignment from One infinitely higher in authority than the evil men who issue their anti-Christ commands, then and now!
Obey God, Not Man
When the dictates of those in authority positions conflict with the dictates of God, the Bible principle is this: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29b). When we are absolutely certain we stand on the foundation of Scripture and God’s will, we obey God no matter the personal cost. “Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you: But rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, that, when His glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy” (I Peter 4:12, 13)!
“Kiss the Son”
The nations are in uproar
As waves on stormy seas,
While proud, rebellious people
Seek godless vanities.
The kings of earth now take their stand
To fight against the Lord.
Earth’s rulers band to rob the Christ
Forever of His sword.
“Let’s break this world from bondage
To moral absolutes!
Replace the binding cords of Christ
With more pleasurable pursuits!”
But He Who sits in Heaven
Looks down on foolish man;
Much as He did at Babel,
He laughs upon their plan!
But laughter dies, to rise as wrath
As Adonai then speaks,
“For all your plans, I yet will set
My King on Zion’s peaks!
In predetermined Council,
The earth shall be My Son’s!
His mighty, `rod of iron’ Word
Shall silence mortal guns!”
Therefore, kings, show wisdom
And judges take thy heed!
Serve the Lord with reverence
And put away thy greed!
Rejoice with fear and trembling!
Do homage to God’s Son!
His wrath will soon be kindled;
This age is almost done!
How blessed are they who place their trust
In God’s Anointed One!
Take heed, O nations, while there’s time . . .
Bow down and kiss the Son!
© Katherine K. Caldwell