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The Birth of the Church

At the end of the gospels, we leave the resurrected Jesus giving the famous Great Commission to His disciples.  “Go and make disciples.”  He’d spent forty days with them, but the promised Comforter (John 14:16-17) had not come and He had not begun to build His church (Matthew 16:18).

In the book of the Acts of the Apostles, we see the fulfillment of both of these promises.

While the title of this book of the Bible refers to the Apostles, what we see is the power of the Holy Spirit being manifest through them.  The Apostles were the human actors, but the Holy Spirit was delivering God’s plan for His new people.

Pentecost – the Church begins with a BANG!

While Jesus ascended into Heaven from Galilee, He sent His disciples back to Jerusalem to wait.  He didn’t tell them what they were waiting for, or how they would know.  He only told them that God’s promise would be fulfilled and they would receive the Holy Spirit.

I doubt the disciples had much of an idea of what that the Holy Spirit was or what His coming would entail.  But they were faithful and they returned.  And they waited.  Those ten days must have seemed like years, not knowing when they would receive the promise.

Jesus had promised to build His church.  They knew this but didn’t know what it would look like.  The disciples’ only frame of reference was God’s covenant relationship with the nation of Israel.  It makes sense that they would have expected a renewed covenant with Israel, but Jesus had wildly different ideas.

In Acts 1:8 Jesus told the disciples that they would receive POWER when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  The Greek word used there is the same root word from which we get the word dynamite.  It’s not a tame word. 

The Holy Spirit comes with explosive power.  He transforms everything He touches.  He cannot be contained or controlled.  He destroys the old and introduces the new. 

The disciples didn’t understand this yet.  They were in the dark, but the light was coming.

In His great commission (Matthew 28:19020), Jesus laid out the scope of the church He was going to build:

  • Jerusalem
  • Judea
  • Samaria
  • All the rest of the earth

And now He had sent them back to Jerusalem for the beginning of the building project.

The Jewish holiday of Shavuot (Festival of Weeks) was one of the three pilgrimage holidays for the Jewish people.  Falling seven weeks after Passover, it was intended to celebrate the wheat harvest (Exodus 34:22), although it also became associated with the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai. 

Once again, Jerusalem would have been filled to overflowing as Jewish pilgrims descended upon Jerusalem to celebrate and make their offerings of loaves of bread from the harvest.  It is precisely

Into this setting that the Holy Spirit came.

Empowered by the Holy Spirit…

Luke the Physician did not experience Shavuot with the rest of the disciples.  Neither did his traveling companion and ministry partner Paul.  But He did interview those who were there.  Even looking back upon it, it seems that the power of God defied proper description.

First, we learn of a sound.  Luke described it as the sound of a great wind.  But there was no wind, nor was there the damage that would come with such a blast.  It filled the ears of everyone gathered in the room together.  I imagine that it was loud and surprising and scary.

Then came a strange sight.  Luke described it with two metaphors, tongues and fire.  This conveys the image of wavering and flickering.  There was one for everyone in the room and these apparitions appeared to settle on each of them.

Not knowing what was going on, this would have been an unnerving series of events.  But more was to come as the effects became apparent.  They were able to speak in languages they had not formally learned.

Acts 2:5 says that Jerusalem was filled with God-fearing Jewish people from all over the world.  Shavuot would have gathered them all together in the city.  The sound of the rushing wind wasn’t limited to the people in the room.  It drew a crowd, everyone wondering what was happening.

Acts 2:6 says that the disciples went out to them and preached the gospel and the crowd was able to hear the good news each in their native language.  They wondered and marveled at this, remarking that the disciples were common men from Galilee, not sophisticated learned men who would be expected to talk to them.

…Peter preached a great sermon…

Peter, in his typical headstrong way, responded to the astonishment and the side claims that they were drunk, stepped forward to tell everyone what was going on.

Verses 14 through 40 of Acts two convey Peter’s great sermon.  He didn’t go easy on them.  He didn’t apply subtle psychology to convince them of anything.  He didn’t beat about the bush and wait for them to ask questions.  Peter went for the jugular.

He began by explaining what they saw not as drunkenness, but the fulfillment of the prophecy made in the Old Testament (Joel 2:28).  The Spirit of God had come as never before, but now He dwelt among men and women on Earth.

Then, in so many words Peter called them on their sin.  He told them that Jesus of Nazareth had come from God and they had rejected and crucified Him as a common criminal.

This same Jesus God had raised from the dead, and many testified to His resurrection.   And through His power, the penalty of sin had been paid and the power of sin had been broken – but they had to repent and come out from among the number of the guilty and receive it.

We don’t have the entirety of the sermon.  Undoubtedly, Peter went on for a long time.  He had spent years being prepared by Jesus, and suddenly the pieces were falling into place.

…And the results were staggering!

Acts 2:41 says simply that on the day of Shavuot, later named Pentecost by the church, more than three thousand people believed and joined the Church.  This speaks to the POWER of the Holy Spirit. The first time they heard the message, they believed.  It was not a carefully sown seed. 

Just like that, the church was born.  Not only did the people of Jerusalem believe, but so did those pilgrims who had come for the festival.  They then returned home and took with them the message of the gospel that they had heard.  In one move, the gospel had been scattered to the nations.

Faith Spreads to the Gentiles

As the after-effects of Pentecost began to settle upon the now-apostles and the city of Jerusalem, one thing was clear.  Their outreach had been limited to the Jewish population.  Only Jews would have come to the city for the festival.  Peter’s sermon was tailored to a Jewish audience.

So the apostles set about teaching and preaching about Jesus.  But their assumptions were narrowly focused on the Jewish context.  It must have made perfect sense to them that Jesus’ message was to His people.

But Jesus had already been rejected by His people (Matthew 12).  His focus in the latter half of His ministry was on His disciples, not His countrymen.  This limitation existed only in the minds of the Apostles.  Not in Jesus’ plans for His church.

Once again it fell to Peter to open the door of ministry.  While staying in Joppa, outside of Jerusalem on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, he had a strange dream.  In the dream, he was offered a banquet of food, all of which was not permitted under Jewish dietary law. 

Three times the offer was made.  Three times Peter refused, clinging to the old prohibitions.  Finally a voice, as of God, spoke to him.  “What God has made clean, do not call common (unclean).”

When Peter woke from the dream, he probably did not understand what had just happened.  It was a strange dream for sure, but he had no reason to suspect that it was as world-shattering as he would later learn.

Not long after he awoke, Peter was informed that some men had arrived to visit him.  They wanted to take him to meet a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion and gentile.  Normally a proper Jew would not enter the house of a Gentile.  However, Peter agreed and by the time he arrived, he had figured out the meaning of the vision.  Gentiles were no longer to be considered unclean and avoided.

Cornelius greeted Peter and explained that he, too, had had a dream and that in it he was told to call for Peter to come and reveal a message from God.  Even though he was a Gentile, Cornelius had been following the Jewish faith and believed in God.  Now there was something more for him and he wanted to know what it was.

By now the dream made complete sense to Peter.  He understood that Jesus’ church wasn’t to be a Jewish church, but an international and multi-cultural church.  So he began preaching another sermon, explaining who Jesus was and what He had done.

The Holy Spirit didn’t wait for Peter to finish preaching.  In the middle of his sermon, the Spirit fell upon Cornelius and the members of his household and staff who had gathered to meet Peter.  They began speaking other languages just as the Apostles had at Pentecost. 

Peter’s companions, who had not had the dream, were astonished that the gentile experience and result was the same as the Jewish experience at Pentecost.  They quickly concluded that the Holy Spirit had accepted the gentiles just as He had accepted them.

The Church Grows

Peter had a sales job when he returned to Jerusalem to explain what had happened.  Not everyone was excited by what he had done.  Some accused him of sinning because he had visited a gentile.

Peter had to tell the entire story of his dream and the visitors from Caesarea who had taken him to Cornelius.  When he was done, everyone was speechless.  

When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18)

The matter of Jewish practices (such as circumcision and the keeping of certain Jewish legal practices) still hadn’t been addressed.  But the Holy Spirit was doing amazing and new things.

Not long after, reports from Antioch, a Roman city to the North, arrived in Jerusalem.  The gospel had been preached there and people had believed.  Once again the Spirit had exceeded their expectations and shown them that their understanding of Jesus’ plan to build the church was too small.

The Apostles sent a man named Barnabas to check out these claims.  He traveled to Antioch and verified that it was true.  The gospel was spreading.

Beginning in Jerusalem the church had spread throughout Judea and Samaria and was now entering the “uttermost parts of the Earth.”  Not only that, but the reach of the gospel was more than Jewish. Gentiles had, against all expectations,  responded to the preaching and now were joining the church in ever-growing numbers.

Summary

The book of Acts tells the story of the growth of the church.  The first half of the book focuses heavily on Peter.  As the church began, he was the Apostle who presided over all of the breakthrough events.  From Jerusalem to the Gentiles to the spread beyond Judea, he was the one who acknowledged the work of God breaking down his barriers.

Next, the book of Acts switches to another great Apostle, Paul, who began as the great persecutor of the church.  But we’ll save that for another installment.