THE RISE OF THE CHURCH: III
The influx of three thousand new converts into a small group of one hundred and twenty, plus those that were constantly being added, must have created insurmountable problems for the disciples, as well as for the community. In addition to being baptized in pools with sufficient water, they had to be taught, fed, sanitized so they could break bread together, prayed, and expected being transported to Jesus and His mansions in His Father’s world. The problems in managing alone began to multiply when the immediate return to Jesus was delayed. And the people began to have second thoughts about giving up their homes and their properties. Tough sentencing was needed to stop people from starving while they waited for their imminent departure for heaven. At the end, the leaders began to realize that in order for the Church to survive on earth, it first had to be built. Ananias and Sapphira, who had second thoughts, were not that fortunate. The death of Ananias and Sapphira kept Peter’s transport to heaven alive. Jesus specifically prayed, to His Father, not to take his disciples or their future followers out of the world, but to keep them in the world (John 17). Peter and the disciples became tangled up in the managing of the Megachurch. They did not have time for training the other disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). Peter had accused Ananias and Sapphira of being in league with the devil, but Peter totally forgot that Jesus saw him doing the same thing (Matthew 16:22-23).
But a man named Ananias with his wife Sapphira sold a piece of property, and with his wife’s knowledge he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the Land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to men but to God.” When Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died. And great fear came upon all who heard of it. The young men rose and wrapped him up and carried him out and buried him.
After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. And Peter said to her, “Tell me whether you sold the land for so much.” And she said, “Yes, for so much.” But Peter said to her, “How is it that you have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? Hark, the feet of those that have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.” Immediately she fell down at his feet and died. When the young men came in they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. And great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things (Acts 5:1-11).
Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common. And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet; and distribution was made to each as any had need. Thus Joseph who was surnamed by the apostle Barnabas (which means, Son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field which belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37).
The miraculous healing of the lame man and the fear did convince many to seek refuge in the Jesus’ movement. And in a short time, more than five thousand people had settled in the temple and more were joining, daily. Peter’s preaching about the “Risen Messiah,” whom the leaders had crucified, did more than make them feel guilty. The priests and the Sadducees took actions. And they prematurely had Peter and John arrested. The first encounter with the religious authorities ended in favor of Peter and John.
And as Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple and the Sadducees came upon them, annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead. And they arrested them and put them in custody until the morrow, for it was already evening. But many of those who heard the word believed; and the number of men came to about five thousand.
On the morrow their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Caiaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well. This is the stone which was rejected by you builders, but which has become the head of the corner. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus.
But seeing the man that had been healed standing beside them, they had nothing to say in opposition. But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred with one another, saying, “What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is manifest to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge; for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them, because of the people; for all men praised God for what had happened. For the man on whom this sign of healing was performed was more than forty years old (Acts 4:1-22).
Peter and John were released and they rejoined their congregation where they prayed and thanked the Lord for their release. They encouraged each other in boldness and they did grow in popularity among, even the unconverted. People would pray for Peter’s shadow to pass over them. Their success and boldness incited the high priest and his Sadducees. They jailed the apostles and intended punish them in the morning. When the leaders ordered to bring in the prisoners, the Peter and John could not be found. To their surprise someone reported that the prisoners were in the temple holding services. And that an angel had set them free and told them to hold services in the temple.
Now many signs and wonders were done among the people by the hands of the apostles. And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico. None of the rest dared join them, but the people held them in high honor. And more than ever believers were added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women, so that they even carried out the sick into the streets, and laid them on beds and pallets, that as Peter came by at least his shadow might fall on some of them. The people also gathered from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed.
But the high priest rose up and all who were with him, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and filled with jealousy they arrested the apostles and put them in the common prison. But at night an angel of the Lord opened the prison doors and brought them out and said, “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this Life.” And when they heard this, they entered the temple at daybreak and taught.
Now the high priest came and those who were with him and called together the council and all the senate of Israel, and sent to the prison to have them brought. But when the officers came, they did not find them in the prison, and they returned and reported, “We found the prison securely locked and the sentries standing at the doors, but when we opened it we found no one inside.” Now when the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these words, they were much perplexed about them, wondering what this would come to. And someone came and told them, “The men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people.” Then the captain with the officers went and brought them, but without violence, for they were afraid of being stoned by the people (Acts 5:12-26).
Peter and John received help from Gamaliel, who was a teacher of the apostle Paul. Gamaliel was a highly respected member of the highest Jewish council. He persuaded the angry council to let time take care of the Christians, as it has done in the past to quite a few revolutionaries. The sad part was that Gamaliel was right. The Christians lost steam. Therefore, they needed the help from the Gentile Christians. And then the Christians were dispersed, not just by the Romans, but by their own people.
And when they had brought them, they set them before the council. And the high priest questioned them, saying, “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, held in honor by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a while. And he said to them, “Men of Israel, take care what you do with these men. For before these days Theudas arose, giving himself out to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred joined him; but he was slain and all who followed him were dispersed and came to nothing. After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
So they took his advice, and when they had called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ (Acts 5:27-42).
Gamaliel’s prediction, that the new movement would create its own hurdles was already in the making. The Jews who had adopted the Greek language and the Greek ways were treated as second rate disciples. And they even were deprived of their share in the distribution food and in the fellowship of taking their meals together. It was an internal split before the larger problem arose when Gentiles sought membership in the movement. In fact, the Gentiles were never admitted into full Jewish discipleship. When Jews were present in Antioch, Paul defied Peter’s attitude of not eating with the Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14). At the first Council in Jerusalem, the Gentiles were granted the right to operate on their own without Jewish interference (Acts 15:12-29). Under the leadership of the Apostle Paul, the Gentiles became a separate church. The Jews in Corinth forced Paul out of their synagogue. Therefore, Paul dedicated all his time to the Gentiles (Acts 18:1-8). We shall discuss the Gentile Church in the next chapter.
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists murmured against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the body of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brethren, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole multitude, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands upon them.
And the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith (Acts 6:1-7).
The selection of the seven ministers to serve the people brought Stephen into the public light that resulted in drastic changes. Stephen’s dynamic personality, his knowledge of his own people’s history, and his accusing powerful sermons, drove the leaders and the mob to stone him. The stoning of Stephen was done without the permission from the Roman governor. That violent action put all the disciples in danger of their lives and their mission. A young man, who watched the clothes of those who stoned Stephen, became a ruthless persecutor of the followers of Christ. However, that young man did become Christ’s greatest Apostle. We have selected two passages to depict this violent time among the Jewish Christians.
And Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, arose and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated men, who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:8-15).
Stephen was allowed to speak in his defense and he reviewed the entire history of Israel’s rise and Israel’s fall without interruption. But, when Stephen turned his attention to his generation, and made them feel guilty for what they had done to their Messiah, they became furious:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did not your father’s persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as there were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death (Acts 7:51-8:1).