By Josiah Blake Tidwell
From the Ascension to The Church at Antioch.
Acts Chs. 1-12.
The Book of Acts. The book of Acts is the only purely historical book of the New Testament. It is as a continuation of the gospel of Luke. It follows the fortunes of the infant church and gives us all the light we have in regard to its further organization and development, but it does not claim to be a complete history of the work of the early church. As a history it is as remarkable for what it omits as for what it narrates. The central theme is the triumph and progress of the gospel in spite of all the opposition and persecution which its advocates met. The chief purpose seems to be to show the progress of Christianity among the Gentiles and only so much of the work among the Jews is given as will authenticate the other. The whole book falls into three sections: (1) The church at work in Jerusalem, chs. 1-7. (2) The church at work in Palestine, chs, 8-12. (3) The church at work among the Gentiles, chs. 13-28.
The material of the period which we are now to study includes the first two points and should be read in connection with the following outline:
I. The church at work in Jerusalem, chs. 1-7.
II. The church at work in Palestine, chs. 8-12.
The Principle Events of this Period. Many things which on the surface seem to be of little importance, contributed much toward shaping the destiny of the early church. The following, however, should be remembered as the great outstanding events of the time. (1) The ascension with the incidents connected with it. (2) The Baptism of the Holy Ghost with the consequent sermon of Peter and its results. (3) The first persecution of the Apostles, with Peter's sermon and the measures taken by the Sanhedrin to stop the movement. (4) The punishment of Ananias and his wife. (5) The appointment of the first deacons. (6) The martyrdom of Steven. (7) The work of Philip in Samaria and the conversion of the Eunuch. (8) The conversion of Saul of Tarshish. (9) The conversion of Cornelius with connected events. (10) The church's acknowledgement of the validity of this work among the Gentiles, Acts 11:18. (11) The great work at Antioch. (12) The martyrdom of James and the death of Herod.
The Organization and Control of the Early Church. Jesus had set up his church and left it his final commission. Its organization was a matter of growth and was increased only as new conditions arose that made it necessary to the success and efficiency of their work. They elected, at the suggestion of Peter, Matthias to take the place of Judas as one of their witnesses. When conditions arose that threatened the success of their work, they elected deacons to assist the apostles in caring for the more temporal work of the church. In it all it is clear that the church as a whole transacted the business. The Apostles no doubt had a very good influence but did not assume to dictate to the church what did not "please the whole multitude" (Acts 6:5). All responsibility was put upon the church as a democratic and self-governing body.
The Persecutions of the Church. In the persecutions which Jesus suffered the Pharisees took the lead, but the opposition met by the early disciples was led by the Sadducees. This was because of the doctrine of the resurrection, preached by the apostles. The persecutions deepened and widened very rapidly. (1) They were given public hearing, commanded not to teach in Jesus' name and after threatening were let go. (2) They were released without punishment only by the appeal of Gamaliel, a doctor of the law. (3) On account of the universal aspect of Christianity, preached by Steven, the Pharisees joined the Sadducees in opposing the Christians and their joint persecution led to the death of Steven and the scattering of the disciples from Jerusalem, 6:8-8:3. (4) The Romans who for the most part had been indifferent to the movement also joined the Sanhedrin in the attempt to suppress the brethren. Accordingly Herod Agrippa, hoping to gain the good will of the Jews, seized the apostle James and put him to death and seeing that this made him popular seized Peter and would have destroyed him but for divine intervention.
In spite of all this persecution these early Christians made wonderful progress. They were unmoved in their purpose to establish their faith. They went everywhere preaching the gospel of the kingdom. They openly declared that they would not refrain from preaching what they conceived to be their duty to God. They boldly threw their doctrine into the teeth of their antagonists. Such courage was something new in the history of the Jews. They even "rejoiced that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for his name."
Their Growth and Influence. The courage already mentioned could not fail to bear fruit. The second chapter tells of three thousand, added to them in one day and then of others day by day. In chapter five it is said a multitude of believers both men and women added to them.
Chapter six says that "the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." The priests were for the moat part Sadducees and the fact that many of these who had been active in arresting the disciples now came to accept their teaching is highly significant touching the matters of their success.
Extension of the Gospel to the Gentiles. One of the most interesting topics for study found in the records of this period is the way in which Christians gradually extended into the borders of the Gentiles. Many questions were raised that had to be solved-questions that had not been before raised among the followers of Jesus. (1) Philip went into Samaria and many of these half-bred Jews believed. Here he was following the steps of Jesus who had also met with success and introduced his teachings before going outside to those in no wise akin to the Jews. (2) Peter and John were sent to Samaria and not only approved the work of Philip but bestowed upon these Samaritans the Holy Spirit and themselves preached to many Samaritan villages. (3) Peter made a tour of certain Judean villages and came down to Joppa where he lodged with a tanner and would, according to Jewish law, have been unclean. This tends to show that he was coming to see that the ceremonial distinctions of the Levites were not so binding. (4) Peter preached to Cornelius a Gentile and he and his household received the Holy Ghost and baptism and spake with tongues. (5) Having heard Peter's explanation of his course the church glorified God and acknowledged that God had granted repentance and life to the Gentiles. (6) Paul the chosen vessel to bear the Gospel to the Gentiles was saved. (7) The work spread to Antioch of Syria and Barnabas was sent to investigate it and soon went to Cilicia and brought Paul to Antioch and the two labored there a year, then made a visit to Jerusalem to carry gifts to the poor and returned to Antioch bringing John Mark. This period closes with them still at Antioch.
The Teachings of this Period. (1) Men can succeed in any right cause in spite of opposition. (2) Popularity is not required to give one success as a Christian work. (3) Small numbers are not a sign of weakness and do not foretoken defeat. (4) The gospel truth, courageously preached, can win its way into the hardest hearts. (3) Consciousness of duty, divinely imposed is the most powerful stimulus to action.
For Study and Discussion. (1) The Great Commission, ch. 1. (2) Peter's sermon on the day of Pentecost. (3) Stephen's address of defense. (4) The liberality of these Christians or their provision for the poor. (5) The place of prayer in the work of these disciples. (6) The references to the Holy Spirit and his work. (7) The teachings of the period concerning Jesus. (8) Concerning the resurrection. (9) All the events, persecutions, teachings, etc., mentioned above.