By Jessica Brodie, Crosswalk.com
Most Christians understand the basic, most critical aspects of the Bible: God made the world, God selected a special people (the Israelites), the people rebelled, God’s son Jesus was born and spent His life teaching and performing miracles, Jesus was crucified at the hands of the very people He’d come to save, and then He was resurrected. But what happened next? After Jesus’s miraculous resurrection from the tomb on Easter morning and His subsequent return to heaven, then what? How did the church go from a handful of disciples to a worldwide movement and the largest religion on the planet today?
That’s precisely what the Book of the Acts of the Apostles attempts to explain: what happened after Jesus’ resurrection, how the church began, and how it began to grow, flourish, and thrive in spite of massive odds and opposition.
Who Wrote the Acts of the Apostles?
Scholars believe Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles in roughly 63 A.D. Luke was thought to have been a Gentile physician and one of the companions of Paul, the missionary who helped spread the faith across most of Asia Minor in his time. Acts is addressed to Theophilus but appears intended for all believers as an instructional summary to help people understand how the church began. Luke is one of the four writers of the Gospels and the only non-Jew to write an account of the life and crucifixion of Jesus. While not one of the original disciples—Luke is believed to have never met Jesus, like Paul and many of the other key new-church leaders—Luke was an avid collector of stories who spent much time gathering information and writing accounts. Acts is, essentially, a sequel or “part two” to the gospels. It details how the church started and grew, the conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians, and how these two very different groups of believers were somehow united in Christ.
Here are 10 things to know about the Acts of the Apostles:
1. Acts Shows Us the Details of Jesus’ Ascension
Some of the gospels end by noting Jesus was “taken up” to heaven, but Acts shows us the circumstances surrounding this, including what happened before and after. For those who like the full details of a story so they can better wrap their minds around it, this provides some much-needed insight into the who, what, where, when, and why of the ascension of Christ. We’re told Jesus was eating with the disciples, told His friends they are to be His “witnesses” and that they’d soon be baptized with the Holy Spirit, then was “taken up” as they watched and hidden from view by a cloud (Acts 1:9). Two angels then stood near them and asked by they were still looking, for Christ would return in the same way He left.
2. Eleven Apostles Weren’t Enough
Jesus originally called 12 apostles, but one, Judas Iscariot, was lost when he betrayed Jesus and got him arrested. However, his absence was felt. Often, the disciples worked in pairs teaching and performing miracles when Jesus walked the earth; only 11 would have skewed the pairings. And besides, Jesus had called 12, so they wanted 12. They gathered and cast lots, which was a seemingly random selection method they used in the hopes God would influence the results, to pick their 12th man.
3. The Holy Spirit Came Upon Them with Sight and Sound
Sometime later, they were all gathered in one place when they received the gift that Jesus had promised: their advocate and helper, the Holy Spirit. The sound of a “violent wind” (Acts 2:2) filled the place, and they looked around and saw “tongues of fire” (Acts 2:3) resting on each of them individually. They all began to speak, and while they understood each other perfectly, those not baptized by the Holy Spirit heard their voices in a multitude of differing languages—yet these men were all simply regular, working-class Jews who should not know these exotic languages. It was such a wild scene the onlookers thought the apostles were drunk (Acts 2:13).
4. The First Sermon Converted 3,000 People
Peter was an uneducated fisherman not terribly learned about the more advanced aspects of Judaism, yet when He was filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter became a man transformed. He opened his mouth to speak and brought forth the very first sermon of the new church, which convinced nearly 3,000 people of the truth that Jesus is indeed the Messiah—a huge number given the unpopularity of what Peter was speaking about.
5. The First Church Was a Snapshot of a Perfect Community
Imagine the happiest, best neighborhood ever, where people share meals, lend each other whatever is needed, open their arms to each other and to those in need with generosity, support, and passion—that was the early church. The people were encouraged to live in full communion with each other like brothers and sisters would. “All the believers were together and had everything in common,” we’re told in Acts 2:44 (NIV). Their community—an idealized, thriving group that emphasized prayer and sharing—was contagious, and it grew daily. They credited all miracles to Jesus, and more and more people became Jesus-followers.
6. The New Christians were Despised
As the number of followers grew of “the Way,” which is what early Christian believers called themselves, some Jewish leaders began to view them as a threat. Vehemently opposed to the apostles’ teachings about the resurrection and that Jesus was the Messiah, these Jewish leaders began to persecute and arrest them. Stephen, a much beloved and fervent Christ-follower, was arrested and stoned to death (Acts 7:59-60) becoming the church’s first martyr.
7: Paul: From Opponent to Champion of the Faith
One of the more impassioned opponents of the Christians was Paul, an educated Jewish man who’d been rounding up Christians as prisoners. Paul was a dedicated, fervent man who tried his best to follow Jewish Law and was an enemy of “the Way” of Christ. Then one day as he was traveling to arrest more Christians, Paul was blinded and had a vision of Christ speaking to him, asking why he was persecuting God’s people. Paul changed his life and repented, devoting the rest of his days to supporting the message of the cross and making new believers. In fact, he became one of the most influential leaders of the early church and played a huge role in spreading the gospel to the Gentiles in the region.
8. Church growth explodes among Gentiles
Under an impassioned Paul, church growth exploded among the Gentiles. He made three or four, possibly more, missionary trips aided by helpers such as Barnabas, Luke, and Mark, and established church groups in cities such as Ephesus. Crucial to him was the concept that salvation comes only through faith In Jesus, not by following the Law of Moses. Peter, one of the original apostles called by Jesus, was among the most respected church leaders and agreed with Paul that salvation comes through faith. Peter had a vision from God where God declared as “clean” a number of animals considered unclean under the Law of Moses, and Peter realized the vision was a message from the Lord that the Gospel is for all people, Jews as well as Gentiles. With Peter’s blessing and contribution, as well as Paul’s explosive growth of new believers, church growth significantly increased among the Gentiles.
9. Conflict Existed between Jewish and Gentile Christians
But the image of the early church as one of a perfect, united, generous brotherhood had shifted There was much conflict between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Many Jewish Christians felt the Gentile Christians, once baptized, needed to give up their cultural traditions and adopt Jewish ones, especially the tradition of circumcision. This created strife and division. Finally, a mass meeting was organized, the “Council at Jerusalem,” where respected Christian leaders including Peter gathered and ultimately decided the growth of believers was far more important than following archaic rules, as salvation was dependent on faith in Christ, not keeping Jewish customs. Their letter following this meeting, stating this, effectively ended the conflict.
10. Paul Became a Political Prisoner and Pawn
Unfortunately, the man who did so much for the spread of God’s church also became a political pawn and prisoner. Arrested by Roman officials on false complaints, he let it be known he was a Roman citizen by birth, and that’s where the trouble began. What should have been a short stint in prison became years of imprisonment. Commanders passed him from one to the other, each hoping for some special favor in what was an increasingly divided rule. Eventually, he was released to go to Rome, where he was shipwrecked but survived—and continued his work for Christ. Eventually, he ended up on light imprisonment in a rented house in Rome, converting many through letters and encouragement.
Acts’ depiction of the explosive growth of the early church in such a politically and theologically divided era can be a source of significant inspiration to many Christians today. For God clearly used His Holy Spirit and other methods to change people’s hearts and lives. While the church did indeed experience setbacks, today there are said to be more than 2 billion Christians across the world. The church grows today, still.
Photo credit: ©Sparrowstock
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Her newest release is an Advent daily devotional for those seeking true closeness with God, which you can find at https://www.jessicabrodie.
This article is part of our Books of the Bible Series featuring lessons, prayers, and facts about each book. We have compiled these articles to help you study the writings inspired by the Holy Spirit. May the information you learn strengthen your faith and encourage your soul.
31 Days to Pray through the Book of Romans
Why You Should Read the Book of Genesis
28 Days to Pray through the Book of Ephesians
6 Life Lessons from the Book of Esther
How Should We View the Book of Revelation?