The 1st Century Church: The Unstoppable Faith that Changed the World

Dr. Aída Besançon Spencer

Note: Dr. Spencer's essay is an adaptation of a talk she delivered on Acts in the DVD series Disciple: Becoming Disciples through Bible Study, 2d ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 2005).

The miraculous advancement of the gospel started with a handful of everyday men and women waiting in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, in their lifetimes, without modern transportation or communication and amid ruthless persecution, the knowledge and hope of Christ had spread as far as Europe, India, Africa, and elsewhere.

How was this possible?

It was through the power of find indispensable components of spiritual transformation: Jesus, the content of power; prayer, the means of power; the Holy Spirit, the transporter of power; witnessing, the goal of power, and the Father, the source of power. All five working together can help believers, as Barnabas exhorted, “remain true to the Lord with all their hearts” (Acts 11:23 TNIV).

Spiritual transformation is analogous to photosynthesis, where an everyday plant can miraculously manufacture good. Food is the content produced to nourish. The root is the means by which to absorb the water and nutrients. A plant’s stem transports water and food. The leaf, above ground, is the goal because it absorbs carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. And the sunlight is the source that gives energy. Similarly, Jesus nourishes us; prayer is the means to connect to God; the Holy Spirit transports our prayers; witnessing is our goal to communicate to the outside world; and, ultimately, God the Father is our source who energizes all activities.

Acts 1:8 sets the theme for the Book of Acts when Jesus tells his followers that “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

It all began with Jesus of Nazareth, as Peter said, “a man attested by God before you with deeds of power and wonders and signs which God did through him among you” (2:22). Almost 200,000 people would visit Jerusalem at Pentecost, when the wheat harvest was ready to eat. When the crowds in Jerusalem became impressed with the sound like “a rushing forcible blast” (a tornado), and the sight over the disciples of divided tongues as in a “fire,” and the speaking of the disciples in many languages (2:2-4), Peter gives credit to God and in particular to God’s Son, Jesus (2:32-33). Again, in Caesarea, when Peter explained to the Gentile Cornelius and his household why an angel commanded Cornelius to contact him, he gives credit to Jesus of Nazareth whom God anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power (10:38-39).

The first thing we learn about power in the book of Acts is that the disciples’ power was not in their natural might or force. It came from God, God working through humans, and this power began with Jesus. Why Jesus? Jesus resurrected from the dead. As Peter said: It was impossible for Jesus to be held in death’s power (2:24). Jesus, at the right hand of God, poured out the wind and the fire and the tongues (2:33). He remained Lord and Messiah, even though he had been crucified (2:36). Paul, too, explained that he himself stood in chains before King Agrippa and Bernice because he hoped in the promise given to the Jews that the Messiah would suffer but then be the first to be resurrected from the dead (26:6-8, 22-23).

Power should never become an end in itself. As Lord Acton said, “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” when it is an end in itself. That was the problem with the magician Simon. They called him “the power of God that is called Great” (8:10). He amazed the people of Samaria with his magic (8:11). But Simon became himself amazed with Philip and then Peter and John; he wanted to pay to be able to lay hands on people so that they could receive the Holy Spirit (8:13-14, 18-19). Simon missed the point. It’s not about power. Power won’t save you. Jesus will. Simon asked for prayer (8:24), but according to the early church, Simon never got it right.

If Jesus contains, or is the content of this power, then we should find lots of people praying in the book of Acts. And we do, because prayer is communication with the triune God. Prayer is the means of this power. Jesus had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem (1:4), and this they did. But, what did they do while they waited? They prayed. The 11 apostles were “constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (1:14). About 120 people were praying. They prayed between Passover and Pentecost (about 50 days). And, after Pentecost, the larger group of over 3,000 also prayed (2:42).

Prayer set them up and kept them going. Prayer was a way to wait and a way to live. Because they prayed, they were tuned into their power source: God.

Jesus said: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (1:8), but power is not an end in itself. When the Holy Spirit comes powerfully among people, they are empowered to speak and to act as eye witnesses to Jesus’ life. Power comes only after people receive the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit fills people up. Peter, Stephen, Paul and the whole church are all “filled up” with God through the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit also teaches, baptizes, foretells, speaks, encourages, predicts, decides and sends. Bearing witness is the goal of power. Peter explained to the religious authorities that it was only his faith in Jesus that could heal the man lame from birth (3:12-16; 4:7-12). The point of these miracles was to direct people to the God who causes miracles. Moreover, Peter added: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved” (4:12). Stephen, who was “full of grace and power,” filled with the Holy Spirit, as he gazed into heaven even told his enemies: “Look...I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (6:8, 7:55-56).

All the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus with “great power” (4:33). Witnessing is the goal of power. Witnessing to Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gives life to others. We all get attracted to the marvelous miracles narrated in the book of Acts, but we may not remember all the opposition and conflict that ensued.

When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, some were amazed, but others sneered (2:13). When Peter and John healed the man lame from birth, some were filled with wonder, but others were annoyed (3:10; 4:2). The temple authorities were so annoyed, they arrested the apostles several times (4:3; 5:18). Soon a great persecution began (8:1). But God worked through this great persecution to spread the good news about Jesus to new cultural groups and new lands: Samaritans, even Gentiles, such as the treasurer from Ethiopia, Cornelius in Caesarea and Lydia in Europe. Jesus was powerful, but yet was persecuted when on earth and now Jesus’ body on earth, the church, is also powerful but yet persecuted.

When Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” as he lay on the ground, Jesus answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (9:5). So, too, does the church suffer opposition from the world. Those who believe appreciate its life-giving message. Those who do not believe oppose it. But even the world’s persecution can be withstood by a fully vibrant church.

Amidst the persecution of the early church, the triune God was active. God the Father’s power and will de-cided beforehand what would happen to Jesus, and God the Father anointed, resurrected and appointed Jesus as judge (e.g., 2:24; 4:27-28; 10:42). The God who knows the heart also opens it and grants repentance (11:18; 15:8; 16:14).

The book of Acts or “The Acts of Jesus through the Holy Spirit through the Apostles” is an exciting book to read. How can we ourselves enter into this dynamic, explosive world? I want to suggest four ways: learn, pray, ask and speak.

First, learn about the content of power: Jesus the Messiah. He is the food that builds our faith. Study Acts and collate all you learn about Jesus. No one is more nourishing than Jesus!

Second, prayer is the means of power. Therefore, pray that God will work miracles to bring about changed lives. Any one of us can be used by God if we pray, because when we pray we become like plant roots, ab-sorbing Jesus’ water and food. Pray as a way to live, and also when life is in turmoil. Pray for one another. Pray to change people and to thank God. Listen to God as you pray. God will honor your prayers in Jesus’ name.

Third, ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the transporter of power who brings heavenly power to your efforts.

Fourth, speak and act to witness about Jesus in religious and secular settings, before colleagues and rulers. Be ready to explain God’s point of view. Don’t be surprised by opposition. But ask God that you can become like Peter and John and Lydia. It was after the religious leaders told Peter and John not to speak to anyone about Jesus that the house church prayed for more boldness to speak and for God to heal through Jesus’ name (4:29-30). The dynamic Holy Spirit then shook up the place where they were gathered (4:31). Are you ready to receive this kind of power from the Holy Spirit? Sometimes we lose hope in today’s changing societies because we feel insignificant and overwhelmed by life. Yet remember, God used a few mostly unschooled, praying men and women filled with the Holy Spirit, built up in the knowledge of Jesus, and with God as their source, to take the gospel message of hope and everlasting life to lands and peoples they would never have imagined.

As a result, our world is forever changed. And we are forever changed.

Dr. Aída Besançon Spencer, Professor of New Testament, joined the faculty in 1982 after serving as a professor with New York Theological Seminary and Academic Dean with the Alpha-Omega Community Theological School (A.C.T.S.) in Newark, N.J., where she and her husband, Dr. William David Spencer, lived in community as Masters-in-Residence. She also served as a community organizer with Hispanics and as a campus chaplain. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church, she is Founding Pastor of Organization of Pilgrim Church in Beverly, MA. She has written or co-written 12 books and over 140 essays and articles, including most recently Marriage at the Crosswords (InterVarsity, 2009) and Global Voices on Biblical Equality (Wipf & Stock, 2008). Forthcoming this fall is Reaching for the New Jerusalem: A Biblical and Theological Framework for the City (co-edited with Drs. Seong Hyun Park and William David Spencer) and The Pastoral Epistles with the New Covenant Commentary Series (Cascade).