Tuesday, June 18, 2019

The Strange Journey of the First Church (AD 33-66)

The Book of Acts gives us few but illuminating insights into the life of the first church. That congregation began on Pentecost (May 24, AD 33). Father had raised Jesus from the dead fifty days before (April 5). Jesus had then ascended into heaven only ten days before (May 14). Just before his ascension, Jesus had told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem until empowered as his witnesses by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4, 8).

On the morning of Pentecost, 120 disciples of Jesus had gathered together. Suddenly, each and all were filled with the Holy Spirit (2:1-4). They spontaneously began to preach the Gospel in a wide variety of languages. Jews from various nations heard it, each in his own language, and were astonished (2:7). With Christ as the center of all he said, Peter explained the meaning of the event and called on all of his Jewish listeners, regardless of their native language, to repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus, and they too would receive the Holy Spirit (2:38). Thousands immediately did (2:41).

This first congregation of people understood themselves to be Jews. They continued to worship with their fellow Jews at the Temple.

What distinguished them from other Jews in Jerusalem was their acknowledgment that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. This had implications which widened with time. From the beginning, they honored the first day of the week to celebrate together the Resurrection. They voluntarily subordinated themselves to the authority of the twelve apostles; especially, in the beginning, to Peter and John (brother of James, sons of Zebedee). Under the impact of the Holy Spirit, they shared all property in common (2:44, 4:32).

Still, one challenge after another confronted the church. Two disciples, Ananias and his wife Sapphira, lied about the amount of money they had received for a piece of property they had sold. They both spontaneously died when Peter spoke the truth to them (5:5, 10).

Out of jealousy (5:17), the Jewish Council in Jerusalem had Peter and John beaten and ordered them to stop preaching (5:40).

It came about that, within the church, Aramaic-speaking Jews distributing food were neglecting Greek-speaking Jewish widows who needed it. The twelve Aramaic-speaking apostles decided that seven Greek-speaking men should be chosen as deacons to focus on administration and so that the apostles could continue to concentrate on praying, preaching, and teaching (6:1-6).

Stephen, one of these seven deacons, was empowered by the Spirit to speak great wisdom and perform miraculous signs. Greek-speaking Jews not committed to Jesus hated Stephen for this and dragged him before the Council (6:8-15). Its members chose to respond to Stephen’s bright witness with rage and stoned him to death (7:54-60, AD 33). Led by Saul (later known as the apostle Paul), they then began a general persecution of the first church (8:1-3).

Having fled Jerusalem, Philip, another deacon, started a second church outside of Jerusalem in rival Samaria. Even so, the apostles in Jerusalem sent Peter and John to it. After they had prayed for it and laid their hands on its members, this new church also received the Holy Spirit (8:14-17). On the way back to Jerusalem, Peter and John shared the Gospel in many Samaritan villages (8:25).

While tensions between Christian and non-Christian Jews continued to intensify in Judea, an even more profound source of trouble began in the coastal city of Caesarea. While Peter was sharing the Gospel with a group of non-Jewish sympathizers, the Holy Spirit was poured out on them too. Peter responded creatively in the only way he could: he had them baptized into the name of Jesus as well (10:44-48, AD 40).

The report of this event initially rattled the church in Jerusalem. Still, they acknowledged this baptism of non-Jews and outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them as the work of God (11:1-18).

More trouble. The apostle James, brother of John, was executed (AD 44), though at the command of Herod Agrippa and not the Council. He also had Peter arrested with the intention of murdering him as well. But the Lord rescued Peter from prison and struck dead Herod Agrippa (12:6-12, 20-23).

Later, James, brother of Jesus, displaced Peter as leader of the church in Jerusalem. In time, at the request of the high priest, James also was executed (AD 62). According to Eusebius (260/5-340) in his Church History (ca 324), following the death of James, brother of Jesus, leadership of the community fell to Simeon, cousin of Jesus.

Before the outbreak of the Jewish Rebellion (AD 66), Simeon led members of the first church to abandon Jerusalem and Judea. They moved to Pella, a city east of the Jordon River and near the Sea of Galilee in a largely non-Jewish land. With that move this first church, initially so important, stepped outside the meaning of the Christian movement and vanished.

The Book of Acts
Justo L. Gonzรกlez, The Story of Christianity (Peabody, Massachusetts: Prince Press, 2008 (eighth printing); pp.18-22).