In 1973 we planted a church in New Jersey. Named it “The Living Church.” The local Episcopal priest (half?) joked, “I guess that means the rest of us are dead.” Ours was alive, yet nowhere near the “alive-level” of the Jerusalem church in her exhilarating early days. Makes me long for what they had.
In this series of posts, I’m focusing on “The Acts Eight”—eight sermons scattered throughout the book. To see them in context we ‘re following the narrative. It’s taking more time than I anticipated. I hope the Lord uses it for good.
In Acts 5:12-16 author Luke writes a third summary (see 2:42-47 and 4:32-37 for the first two) of church life, as she marched through her early months and years. This summary intoxicates . . .
Alive with the Spirit’s Power
The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed.
“Seeing” the scene helps—so an explanation. Solomon’s Colonnade was a porch-like walkway running along much of the eastern side of the temple courtyard. They met in homes, but this was the public place believers gathered. Outsiders kept their distance. (Memories of Ananias and Sapphira?) Yet more came to faith; numbers surged. Miraculous healings were regular. Crowds came from outside the city with their sick. Like the days of Jesus.
A clarification. The NIV says, “The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders”. An unfortunate translation, because it makes the apostles the actors. More faithful to the original Greek is the ESV translation: “Now many signs and wonders were regularly done . . . by the hands of the apostles.” This makes the apostles the means, not the source.
That church, that was The Living Church. Alive with the Spirit’s power.
But such dynamic success instigated opposition . . .
Advance Despite the Court’s Clout
Then the high priest and all his associates, who were members of the party of the Sadducees, were filled with jealousy. They arrested the apostles and put them in the public jail. But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people the full message of this new life.” At daybreak they entered the temple courts, as they had been told, and began to teach the people. When the high priest and his associates arrived, they called together the Sanhedrin– the full assembly of the elders of Israel– and sent to the jail for the apostles. But on arriving at the jail, the officers did not find them there. So they went back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked, with the guards standing at the doors; but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” On hearing this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were puzzled, wondering what would come of this. Then someone came and said, “Look! The men you put in jail are standing in the temple courts teaching the people.” At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them. Having brought the apostles, they made them appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.” Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead– whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death.
But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Christ (Acts 5:17-42).
This text, too, beats with the Spirit’s life. First, the miraculous “prison break”, noted almost matter-of-factly. Second, the bold “defense” of the apostles, which Peter attributes to the power of the Spirit. Third, the rejoicing by the bloodied apostles. And finally their unstopping good-news-proclaiming.
Speaking of “the bloodied apostles”, it’s significant to note that the flogging may well have been the traditional 39 lashes with bone-filled straps. That they rejoiced having been “counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name”, and that they continued spreading the Gospel knowing the cost, points to the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit in them.
In fact, it’s quite remarkable how unflinchingly they declared Jesus to be the One . . .
- raised from the dead by the God of their fathers. Thus they connected Jesus to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
- the Court had killed by crucifixion. Thus declaring their unquestioned guilt before God.
- God exalted to the place of ultimate authority (“exalted to his own right hand”).
- who is now “Prince (Greek arkaygos–leader, prince, pioneer) and Savior”.
- whose exaltation is for the purpose of giving repentance and forgiveness of sins. Thus giving the Court opportunity to repent and be forgiven.
- whom the apostles saw alive again with their own eyes.
So again, as before (4:1-22), the “optics” for the Court aren’t good. Despite their best efforts, they look powerless and inept, as the bloodied apostles leave rejoicing and persistently spread the word.
Question: Is Acts only a history of the church or a model? If model, then from my (admittedly limited) view, we’re not matching up well. What is happening among us that can be attributed only to the Holy Spirit? When was the last time people came because they heard how the Lord was miraculously changing lives among us? Are we in danger of persecution because our words and works threaten powerful people?
Maybe we should pray desperately for what we’re missing from the model . . .