The New Testament Church
I. The New Testament Church
Luke, in about AD 63, wrote the book of the Bible called the Acts of the Apostles. This book records the birth, inauguration, and phenomenal advancement of the New Testament church. The church became a dynamic organism, and the feeble but faithful followers were transformed into a vigorous spiritual force for righteousness. They vocally proclaimed with anointed lips the purpose of God manifested through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. They drew out of their own vibrant encounter and knowledge, for they had been privileged to be eyewitnesses of His majesty (II Peter 1:16). From approximately AD 50 to 100 the apostles and their associates wrote the books of the New Testament to record the gospel message as they were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
a. Apostles’ Teaching (Matthew 28:20; Acts 2:42)
The new believers desired to be taught the Word of God by the apostles. Everyone who has committed his or her life to Jesus Christ must make every effort to hear and study the Word of God. The Word of God gives us the foundation we need to stand upon. Every believer needs faith, which comes by the Word of God (Romans 10:17). We need the Word of God to live by (Matthew 4:4).
b. Fellowship with the Church (Acts 2:42)
A phrase that describes the life of the early church is “all that believed were together” (Acts 2:44). The Christian has a word for this togetherness: it is called fellowship. The first commitment to fellowship is with Jesus Christ (I John 1:3). “And truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” John then tells us in verse 7, “We have fellowship one with another.”
c. Breaking Bread from House to House (Acts 2:42)
Witnesses told everyone about what God was doing in their day. They had fellowship from house to house, and they took the gospel from house to house with a lay ministry. (See Acts 20:20.) Witnessing and preparing the way of the Lord is still an important aspect in the believer’s life today.
d. Prayer (Acts 2:42)
After the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, the church kept praying. Prayer is an essential weapon in the life of a Christian. Because of their prayers and praise, God gave the church favor with all the people and added to it daily.
2. The First Miracle in the Church (Acts 3:1–11)
The first recorded miracle performed after the ascension of Jesus and the inauguration of the church was the healing of the lame man at the gate called Beautiful. This miracle produced evidence that the power of Jesus Christ was upon His followers. Jesus was present to heal through the faith of His disciples. (See Matthew 10:1–8; Mark 6:7–13.) The Lord has not changed. He still heals today. When unbelief, lack of obedience, and worldliness are cast aside, the Lord will perform miracles just as He did in the early church. As a result of the lame man’s healing, people gathered, Peter preached his second sermon, and many believed. When the Holy Ghost first fell, about 120 were present. After that initial outpouring of the Holy Ghost, three thousand more souls were added. When these converts came together to have fellowship in the apostles’ doctrine, the Lord added to the church daily. After this miracle of healing, many more believed. The number of men was about five thousand (Acts 4:4). This made a total of about ten thousand souls who were converted from the Day of Pentecost.
3. The Giving Spirit of the Church
It is easy to see that fellowship and miracles were important factors in the expansion of the young church. There was also a singleness of devotion and dedication depicted by their selflessness, God-centered attitude, and concern for each other’s needs. In its infancy the church had a purity and innocence about it that was disarming. As many converts came together from various lands, there were various material needs among them. In any group numbering into the thousands, there will be widows, the homeless, the poor, and people who struggle to eke out a bare existence. These new believers were taken up with the expectation of a better inheritance in another world, and so “neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own” (Acts 4:32). They grasped the fact that they were simply stewards, not owners, of God’s gifts and goodness.
a. The Lord’s Stewards (Acts 4:34–35)
As stewards of the Lord’s blessings, those who had prospered materially were eager to distribute their blessings to their brothers and sisters in need. They sold houses and real estate, and the proceeds were laid at the apostles’ feet.
b. Barnabas Shows the Way (Acts 4:36–37)
Barnabas was a Levite. Perhaps he remembered that God, hundreds of years prior, had promised to be his portion and his inheritance (Deuteronomy 10:9). He disentangled himself from the things of the world (II Timothy 2:4). He exhibited great-hearted giving. Barnabas, whose name means “son of consolation,” had a ministry of encouragement and comfort. He uplifted and inspired many of the churches in his later ministry (Acts 11:22–24). He encouraged the apostolic circle to receive Paul as a fellow preacher.
Persecution of the Church
II. Persecution of the Church
In Acts 6, the church was increasing so rapidly that the apostles recognized the value of sharing responsibilities. They could not do the relief work and still spend adequate time in prayer and preaching and teaching of the Word of God. Seven men were chosen to lighten the load of the apostles. One of these men was Stephen.
a. Stephen’s Qualifications (Acts 6:8)
Stephen was “full of faith and power.” He not only did the specific job God had given him, but he looked for other opportunities to serve. God can always use someone who has this kind of outlook. Stephen’s work was so outstanding that he was picked as a target by the enemies of the rapidly growing church.
b. Stephen on Trial (Acts 6:10)
Stephen’s opponents were no match for his wisdom and spirit. They tried by physical force to get rid of him. They hired men to bear false witness against Stephen. Stephen was placed on trial before the Sanhedrin (the Jewish body of elders).
c. Stephen Preaches and Dies (Acts 6:12–13)
Men testified falsely against Stephen’s conduct, but they could not change his character. The Jewish leaders were greatly alarmed when they beheld his face shining as an angel as he preached to them with a holy boldness. He delivered his sermon to them about the way God had dealt with Israel throughout the Old Testament. He preached truths they could not contradict, finishing up by proclaiming that his listeners had betrayed and slain the Son of God. In anger they cast him out of the city and stoned him to death. With the murder of Stephen, the persecutors of the church shed the blood of the first of many Christian martyrs. One of the leaders of the subsequent persecution was Saul of Tarsus, who was a witness of and gave consent to Stephen’s death. A wise man has appropriately said, “They tried to stamp the fire of God out in Jerusalem, but they spread the embers all over the world.” As a result of the persecution, the truth spread into all Judea and Samaria and into all the world.
Acts 9 describes the conversion of Saul, who was also known as Paul. He is a key figure in much of the New Testament. Saul was a devout Pharisee and a persecutor of the church. By the power of God, he became a powerful apostle and preacher to the Gentiles. The conversion of Saul was so unlikely that a British agnostic of the last century thought it would not be difficult to disprove. By so doing he thought he could show the rest of the New Testament to be unworthy of any credibility. George Lyttleton wanted to show how impossible it would have been for a man like Saul to change so drastically. He put the results of his studies in a book titled Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of Saint Paul. His amazing conclusion? “Paul’s conversion and apostleship alone, duly considered, is a demonstration sufficient to prove Christianity to be a divine revelation.”
a. Saul the Persecutor
When the Sanhedrin had Stephen stoned, Saul was in agreement with their actions. He launched an all-out persecution of the church (Acts 8:3). He obtained letters of extradition from the high priest against the Christians in Damascus.
b. Saul on the Damascus Road
On the way to the city of Damascus, a bright light from heaven shone round about him. Then he heard a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” All sorts of inadequate explanations have been given to explain away what really happened. But the conversion of Paul cannot be accounted for except by Paul’s own description of the change in him. He met Jesus and was fully persuaded to surrender. He had a personal encounter with God. Paul answered Jesus by saying, “Who art thou, Lord?” When Jesus answered, “I am Jesus whom thou persecutest,” Paul was convinced. His reply was, “What wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:5–6). It is important to ask God, What will you have me do? This question will save a person from many unproductive, failing years. Saul asked this question immediately upon contact with God. His life was never the same after the encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road.
c. Saul Receives His Sight (Acts 9:18)
Saul was blinded by what he saw. He was led to Damascus, where the Lord sent him for further instructions, telling him he would find help there. After Saul prayed and fasted for three days, the Lord sent a man with a message for him. A disciple named Ananias visited Saul, laid hands on him, and prayed. Immediately Saul received his sight and was filled with the Holy Ghost, and Ananias baptized him. Saul received both physical and spiritual sight that day (Acts 9:18). Paul wasted no time in getting busy with the Lord’s work. He began witnessing immediately. A conversion like Paul’s makes for an exciting and dramatic testimony. Of course, most people come to God without a vision or a spectacular ordeal, but the experience of the new birth is always a glorious, transforming miracle.
Peter Brings the Gospel to the Gentiles
III. Peter Brings the Gospel to the Gentiles
1. Cornelius and the Angel (Acts 10)
The gospel spread from Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria to the uttermost parts of the earth. Acts 10 records a new and remarkable turn in the history of the church. Before chapter 10 the apostles only preached to the Jews, but now the door of faith opened to the Gentiles as well. Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army, was a moral man, who was generous to the poor, feared God, and was faithful in prayer. Cornelius saw a vision, and an angel of God told him to send to Joppa for one called Peter, who would tell him what to do to be saved. “Send men to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter; he lodgeth with one Simon a tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do” (Acts 10:5–6; 11:13–14).
2. Peter on the Rooftop
While Peter was on the rooftop, he had a vision in which he saw a sheet descend out of heaven containing unclean animals. The Lord told him to “rise, slay, and eat.” Peter, with all his Jewish tradition, would not eat lest he partake of something unclean, but God was preparing Peter for a ministry to the Gentiles, whom the Jews thought were unclean. At this time the messengers sent from Cornelius arrived. Peter journeyed with them to Caesarea. There he learned that God is no respecter of persons and that the Holy Ghost is “for whosoever will” (Acts 10:34–35).
3. Gentiles Receive the Holy Ghost
As Peter preached to Cornelius and his household, the Holy Ghost fell upon them. Peter then commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 10:48).
Paul Brings the Gospel to the Gentiles
IV. Paul Brings the Gospel to the Gentiles
Paul was a chosen vessel to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). His ministry was to bear the name of the Lord before the Gentiles, kings, and the Israelites.
1. Paul on Mars’ Hill
Paul was not like a candle upon a table that gives light to one room, but he was like the sun that goes in its circuit to give light to many. He took three major missionary journeys to establish churches in Gentile cities in the Roman Empire. In Acts 17 Paul was on one of his missionary journeys. He preached at Thessalonica and Berea and then at Athens. He was appalled at the idolatry he found in the latter city. Athens was full of temples, idols, statues, and pagan altars. His discussions with the philosophers of Athens led to Paul being taken to the Areopagus on Mars’ Hill, a court that was the most sacred and reputable in the Gentile world. Four centuries earlier this same court had condemned Socrates. Paul preached to the Athenians about their altar with the dedication to the unknown god. He proclaimed the message of one God who is self-existing, the giver and supporter of life (Isaiah 46:9–10; Mark 12:32).
He stated that everyone could find the Lord (Acts 17:27; Jeremiah 29:13). Paul declared that God had tolerated the foolishness of people for a while, but judgment would come by Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead. At this saying, some mocked, but others believed. One of those who believed was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, the court of Mars’ Hill. Eventually a fruitful church was established at Athens.
2. Paul in Prison Writing Epistles
An important part of Paul’s ministry was writing letters (epistles) of instruction to various churches and individual Christians. God inspired these epistles as part of Scripture. Paul wrote some of his epistles while he was in prison awaiting trial. While he was imprisoned, Paul witnessed to and won many of his guards and visitors. Onesimus was one of the converts from his prison ministry. Most conservative Bible scholars think that Paul was released for a while, but when a renewed persecution began, he was taken captive again. Finally, after years of frustration in prison, Paul was tried, condemned, and put to death. His last words were, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith” (II Timothy 4:7). What an accomplishment to die full of faith, hope, and victory as Paul did!
3. Paul in Ephesus
In Acts 19 Paul arrived in Ephesus where he encountered a group of disciples who only knew of baptism from John the Baptist. Paul taught these disciples that they needed to be baptized in Jesus’ name. When they were baptized, they received the Holy Ghost and spoke in tongues and prophesied (Acts 19:6). Paul continued three months there in Ephesus, speaking boldly in the synagogue and “disputing and persuading the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8).