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The Book Of Acts by William R. Cannon


Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Book Of Acts, Copyright 1989 by W.R. Cannon, published by Upper Room Books. This material prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.


Chapter 2: The Birth of the Church


Jesus did not establish the church. To be sure, he was the originating cause of the church; that is to say, that without his life, his ministry, his teaching, and his death and resurrection, there would have been no church. But he did not actually organize it. He did not personally frame its polity or constitute its discipline. Jesus was the impetus given to the apostles to establish the church. He was the inspiration and stimulus for organized Christianity. He anticipated the institution founded by those who came after him and to which they gave his name.

The nature of the church is so different from the nature of any other social institution that it is hardly correct to think of it as having been established by any person or collection of persons, even the apostles themselves. The best way to picture the origin of the Christian church is in terms of birth. Maybe it is providential that Luke's placement for the beginning of the church in the book of Acts falls at exactly the same place as his description of the birth of Jesus in his Gospel-in the second chapter. The church is the extension in time of the incarnation. It is the continuation in corporate form of Christ's personal presence. Indeed, it is the body of Christ. It is the historical institutionalization of Christ's ministry and the life-giving properties of his death and resurrection.

The Holy Spirit is the founder of the church. Just as Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit to be born of the Virgin Mary, even so the church was given its corporate life by that same Spirit. As God once lived on earth as a human being in the Second Person of the Trinity, so God resides now in the Third Person of the Trinity in the church and in its members. The Holy Spirit is God still living among and in God's people. Thus, it is correct to say that at a given time in history the Christian church was born of the Holy Spirit.

 

Pentecost (2:1)

This birth of the church by the Holy Spirit took place on the day of Pentecost. Next to Christmas and Easter, Pentecost is the greatest day in the Christian year. On that day the paraments on the altars of our churches are red, and the ministers wear red stoles over their shoulders. Red is the liturgical color for the Season after Pentecost, which can extend now from Pentecost Sunday until the beginning of Advent. Trinity Sunday follows Pentecost, and some churches begin Trinity Season on that day, which limits the Season of Pentecost to only one week. United Methodists renamed Trinity Season Kingdomtide. But no matter how we divide the Christian calendar into seasons, Pentecost itself is one of the three great feast days of the Christian year. Since Christmas seldom falls on Sunday, Pentecost Sunday is second only to Easter as the most important Sunday in the Christian year.

Yet the word Pentecost occurs in the Bible only three times, all in the New Testament (Acts 2:1, 20:16; 1 Cor. 16:8). The latter two refer to Paul; in the first instance, it is indicated that he has to be in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and on the second occasion, he says he will remain in Ephesus until the Pentecost.

Pentecost means "fiftieth day." It corresponds to the Jewish Feast of Weeks, which was a one-day religious observance that came fifty days after Passover. On that day the first fruits of the wheat and corn harvest were presented to the Lord God in the Temple. All Old Testament holy days commemorate some special event in Israelite history, and the Feast of Weeks is no exception. It recalls God's covenant with Noah and later with Moses. It came to be the anniversary of the promulgation of the law by God from Mount Sinai through Moses. There is a rabbinical tradition that the Ten Commandments were issued by God in the several languages of the seventy nations of antiquity.

Pentecost comes fifty days after Easter Day. The Passover is the anniversary of the deliverance of the Hebrew people from Egyptian slavery, and the Feast of Weeks is the anniversary of God's constitution for the establishment of a new nation. Without the law, the state of Israel in the Promised Land could never have come into existence. Likewise, Easter, as the anniversary of the resurrection, is the celebration of Christ's conquest of death and his victory over the grave. Pentecost, then, signalizes the gift of the power of the resurrection to Christ's followers and the constitution of a new Israel -- the church -- to supersede the old Israel.

Before that could happen, however, two requirements had to be met. The first was that the people who would constitute the new Israel, that is, the first members of this emerging organization, the original corporate manifestation of the body of Christ, had to be of "one accord." They had to possess a single mind. They had to share the same ideal. Divisiveness among them would have meant ruin for the whole enterprise and would have thwarted the plan of almighty God.

The Christian church could never have been born had Judas Iscariot remained in the lot. He would have polarized the group and prevented the unity necessary for the accomplishment of God's purpose. But his contrary attitudes and actions seem to have died with him. Fortunately, there was no other "Judas" in that illustrious company on that first Christian Pentecost.

The second requirement that had to be met was that the people had to be gathered together in one place. They could not be scattered abroad. When the glorious transaction took place, they all had to participate in it.

From its very inception, Christianity has been a social movement. The plan of what it should be and the motivation for it did not come to just one individual who had to convince others of the value of what he recommended. In this regard it was entirely different from Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam. The church was born through a collection of people who were assembled together in one place. It did not originate under a Bo tree or in a scholar's study or on the sands of the desert. It began in an upper room.

 

Empowerment by the Holy Spirit (2:2-13)

Under such circumstances, the Holy Spirit came and transformed that small collection of people into the first congregation of the Christian church. Luke uses two symbols -- wind and fire -- to describe the descent of the Spirit; a symbol is a sign, an indication, not the reality itself. He says that those present heard a sound out of heaven like a strong, swift wind blowing through the whole house. At the same time they saw above them streaks of bright light like fire. Evidently their vision was that of bolts of lightning striking all about them. The Holy Spirit was manifested to them by both what they heard and what they saw. Pentecost for those first followers of Jesus was an audiovisual experience.

According to the account, however, the sound was more than mere sound. It became almost tangible to them. Indeed, the noise that sounded like wind whistling in the distance proved to be wind and blew in on them so that they felt what they heard. The blowing, whistling wind illustrates the pervasiveness of the Holy Spirit, which reached and affected everyone in that first Christian congregation.

There is no Old Testament equivalent for this. God was not in the wind that blew in the face of Elijah as he stood waiting for God atop Mount Horeb in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:11). However, Jesus used the image of wind to explain to Nicodemus the coming and going of the Spirit, whose presence one always feels when one experiences the new birth, is "born again," so to speak, in the image of God, and becomes an entirely new person (John 3:8). That is precisely what happened to those people on the day of Pentecost.

The symbol of fire for the Holy Spirit does have its equivalent in the Old Testament. God led the people out of Egypt by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exod. 13:21). Fire illustrates the guidance the Holy Spirit will give the followers of Jesus as they undertake their mission in the world. He will show them what to do and how to do it. He will enable them to convict people of sin, to warn them of God's judgment, and to make them righteous (John 16:8). In other words, the same thing the Spirit has done for them at Pentecost, he will through their agency do for all those who believe and accept the gospel they proclaim.

Luke says that the bright light that looked like fire settled on each one of them; that is, a separate tongue of fire lapped every person -- a bolt of lightning struck each and every individual. At Pentecost those people were set on fire spiritually by the Holy Spirit. They gained divine energy;

they no longer operated as mere human beings Their strength and influence were the strength and influence of almighty God. When Luke says that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, he means that their personalities no longer belonged to them but belonged to God. It was no longer they who lived but Christ by the Holy Spirit who lived in them (Gal. 2:20).

The immediate result of the descent of the Holy Spirit on that little congregation at Pentecost was the ability the Spirit gave some of them to speak in languages other than their own. The languages were not unknown tongues in the sense of being something different from any languages spoken by people on earth. What each spoke was unknown to him before he spoke it, but it was not unknown to those to whom it was spoken. And evidently each person spoke a different language from every other person; there was a variety in communication corresponding to all the languages that the foreigners in Jerusalem understood. The purpose of speaking in other tongues was not for the personal edification of the Christians but simply as means of converting unbelievers This gift, therefore, was altogether utilitarian.

The response of those who heard, as might have been expected, was mixed. Some were most favorably impressed and wanted to hear more and ponder the meaning of what they heard relative to their own life and destiny. Others discredited what the followers of Jesus said, made fun of them, and claimed that they must be drunk to make such extravagant claims for this new faith and for their risen Lord. But, no matter, both those that took them seriously and those that did not were equally amazed and perplexed to hear the presumably ignorant Galileans conversing fluently with them in their own languages.

Luke is very careful to enumerate the countries from which all the people came. They were all Jews of the Dispersion. There was a larger population of Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire and its borders than lived in Jerusalem itself, almost as many as lived in the whole of Judea and Galilee and the other territories that constituted the old kingdom of Israel. The Jews of the Dispersion tried at least once in their lifetime to attend one of the feasts in Jerusalem. Of course most tried to be there at Passover. Wealthy Jews from abroad came often on such occasions to Jerusalem, and it was not unusual for them to move to the Holy City in their old age in order to die and be buried in the land of their forefathers, the land of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

One might expect such people to know Hebrew, but most of them did not. Practically all of them had forgotten their native tongue. The Old Testament had to be translated into Greek to satisfy the Jewish population in Alexandria, Egypt. Even the inhabitants of the homeland itself had forgotten Hebrew. Jesus and his followers spoke only Aramaic.

The countries Luke names indicate that the people came from all parts of the known world. He wants thereby to show the international character of Christianity from its inception. At the outset, it addressed itself to the whole world, for many of the Jews were proselytes, that is, Judaized Greeks, Romans, and Orientals.

 

Peter's Proclamation of the Gospel (2: 1-36)

The very first act of this newly constituted Christian congregation was to preach the gospel to unbelievers. Evangelization is the soul of Christianity. After the Spirit descended on that little company at Pentecost, its members did not remain in the upper room to sing hymns together, pray for one another, and reenact Jesus' last meal with them by breaking and eating bread and drinking wine together in memory of his death and in anticipation of his second coming. They went immediately into the streets of Jerusalem to witness to others and to announce the good news about Jesus Christ.

The first sermon to be preached by the infant church was delivered by Peter in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. Luke is ambivalent as to how many persons the Spirit gave the power to speak in other languages. Probably it was only the twelve apostles, for the other eleven alone stood up with Peter when he preached his sermon. It is obvious from the -beginning of the church, when Matthias was chosen to succeed Judas, that there was a duly constituted ministry distinct from the membership at large. The first ministers were the apostles, and their primary responsibility was to preach the gospel.

Peter used the accusation of the mockers in the crowd that the disciples were drunk as the lead-in for his sermon. He said it was too early in the morning for people to star who drinking; they had not even eaten breakfast. What the crowd saw in those witnesses was a demonstration of the power of the Holy Spirit prophesied by Joel in the Jewish scripture (Joel 2:28-32). The disciples of Jesus, inspired by the Holy Spirit, had dreamed dreams and seen visions, and they could not help prophesying. Earlier, God had shown wonders in the heavens and signs on the earth. At the death of Jesus, the day had suddenly become night, an earthquake had struck Jerusalem, the veil of the Temple had been rent in twain, and the graves had given up their dead (Matt. 27:51-53).

This Jesus, who had demonstrated that God approved him by miracles and wonders, had been arrested and convicted by the very people to whom Peter preached, and they caused him to be crucified by the Romans. Peter denounced them for this in his sermon, accusing them of killing their own Messiah. But God raised Jesus from the dead, as King David himself had prophesied. What reads like a statement by David about himself (Psalm 16:8-11) Peter interpreted as David's description of what would happen to the Messiah. He told the crowd that David could not have been talking of himself, for David had died and been buried and his tomb was visible to them in Jerusalem.

Jesus of Nazareth was the person whose soul God would not leave among the dead. It was he whom God raised up to sit at God's right hand in glory. It was Jesus the Messiah who had sent the Holy Spirit to empower Peter and the other disciples, and the people were witnessing now in them the demonstrations of the Spirit. The people at large had not witnessed the resurrection. Only the intimate friends and followers of Jesus had seen the tomb immediately after Jesus had vacated it. Only they had had fellowship with him after his resurrection. And they alone had watched him ascend to heaven. But the demonstrations of the Holy Spirit in the words and deeds of the apostles and the other followers of Jesus on the day of Pentecost were public acts that anyone who was present could see and hear.

Peter brought his majestic sermon to a close by proclaiming that the person his auditors had crucified, God had designated as their Lord and their Messiah.


The Response of the People and the Pattern of the Church (2:37-47)

The people were deeply moved by Peter's sermon. He convinced them of the truth of what he said and also convicted them of their sins. Their response was immediate and positive. They asked Peter and the other apostles what they should do. They wanted to be told how to amend their lives and become acceptable to God. They wanted to know how they could be saved.

The only way, Peter told them, was for them to repent of what they had done and to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they would receive a double gift: their sins would be forgiven, and they would also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. In other words, the new converts could expect the same empowerment by the Holy Spirit that they had witnessed in the words and deeds of the little company in the to upper room who had known and loved the Lord when he sojourned with them on earth. These gifts of the Spirit might differ in their various recipients. Certainly the new converts could not expect to be apostles. Nonetheless, they, too, would become effective witnesses to their Lord.

Three thousand people were converted on the day of Pentecost as a result of Peter's sermon. As they took their places as new members of the emerging church, the pattern of organization of the believing community began gradually to take shape. Its form was very simple, but some of its features have remained as characteristics of the body of Christ.

At its heart was the teaching ministry entrusted to the twelve apostles who had been with Jesus, listened to his words, and knew his mind. It is safe to assume that preaching went hand in hand with teaching, both being expressive of the same truth, the teaching designed to nurture and edify the believing flock while the preaching won new converts.

The church was a place of fellowship where members shared a common meal as often as they could and where also, presumably as a part of their worship, they ate bread and drank wine ceremoniously in remembrance of their Lord's death and in anticipation of his coming. Voluntarily they shared what they had with one another, putting their material resources at the disposal of the congregation as needs arose. There is no proof that they lived together in one community as the Essenes did.

They did not break at first with their Jewish past. They still worshiped daily in the Temple, but they also met in one another's homes that they might increase in their understanding of the apostles' doctrine.

As they praised God and as the apostles did many wonderful things, they at first found favor with all the people, and every day new converts were added to the church.

Questions For Reflection And Study

1. What is your reaction to the statement, "Jesus did not establish the church"? Do you think he intended that an organized church be established, or might Jesus have had something different in mind?

2. How is the Holy Spirit the founder of the church?

3. Before the Christian community could be empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry on Christ's work, two requirements had to be met: they had to be of one mind, and they had to be gathered together in one place. These requirements were met at Pentecost in the upper room. Does the empowerment received by those disciples extend to Christians today? Can it be said that Christians are of a single mind, of one accord?

4. What divisiveness is found among contemporary Christians? What factions contribute to disunity? How does this impede the reign of God on earth?

5. Since the beginning, Christianity has been a social movement. What does this suggest about the importance of corporate worship? What effect, if any, does this understanding have on your spiritual life? What is the relationship between corporate and private worship for you?

6. The symbols of wind and fire are used to describe the movement of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. How are these symbols meaningful to you?

7. The Holy Spirit was evident to the disciples in what they heard, what they saw, and what they felt. Give some examples of how the Holy Spirit is evident to you.

8. After the Spirit descended on the little band of followers, they went immediately into the streets to announce the good news of Jesus Christ. Understanding that people often mock what they do not understand, Peter effectively used the ridicule of the crowd as a lead-in for his sermon. How might you turn scoffing into effective evangelization?

9. Which characteristics of the New Testament community do we find in the church today'? Which are different? Is it possible or even desirable for the church to operate in the same fashion now? What might be some obstacles?

10. What do you think it was about the early Christian community that found favor with the people and contributed to the steady flow of converts? What do you think might have a similar effect on people today?

 

 

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