The Lord Was Among Them (Patterns in Acts)
Christianity took the ancient world by storm. It is hard for us to imagine how drastic this movement’s progress seemed to people living back then. Jesus was, in his day, virtually a “nobody.” Although crowds thronged around him in Galilee and Jerusalem, he was virtually unknown outside of his homeland. As the gospel began to spread, it surely sounded like a strange story partly because it seemed to come “out of nowhere.” “A man from where? Nazareth? Never heard of it.” But this message that began in a proverbial nowhere would, in just one generation, invade the heart of the Roman empire itself. How? Because the Lord was with them.
From the very first day of the preaching of the gospel by the apostles, it became clear that this would be no ordinary “movement.” Greater results could not have been obtained even if Peter had preached about a popular topic. If Peter had spoken on Pentecost about the unfairness of Roman rule, or how taxes had gone through the roof, or how the religious leaders were in bed with the politicians, he still could not have gotten 3,000 people to join with him that day. Instead, Peter preached about how the Jewish leaders basically were so mentally dense that they did not recognize their own Messiah when he was standing right in front of them. The common people who did recognize him had been told to sit down and shut up, and they basically did when it became clear that Jesus was not going to overthrow the Roman government. No one wanted what Jesus was offering. Peter told them on that day that they had made the worst mistake that could ever be imagined – that God had sent His own Son to His people, and His own people refused, hated, and killed him. What could be worse than that? We can still hear the desperation in their voices when they said “What shall we do?” Certainly, this level of offence against God would bring the worst punishment imaginable. The point is: this was not an endearing, feel-good message. It was bold and it cut them to heart. It was not likely the kind of message that would get many responses. But it did. About 3,000 of them.
From that moment, and the next several decades, Christianity became a force to be reckoned with in Jerusalem. As the Jewish leaders realized what was happening beneath their feet, as it were, they tried to stop it. When the apostles were summoned before the Jewish court to explain why they were saying such unflattering things about the Jewish leaders, they recognized Peter and his companions as uneducated Galilean, men who had been with Jesus (Acts 4). The Jewish leaders were confused. How could ignorant Galilean peasants be having so much success in leading the people? But the answer lay not in the peasants, but in the Lord who as empowering them. They threatened the disciples, but when the disciples prayed about it the Lord answered by shaking the building where they were gathered. Power from on high was on their side. A healed lame man was living testimony to what was happening.
Like Joseph in Egypt, the lowly preachers of the gospel turned out to have God with them. Nothing outside of them could stop it. When the apostles continued to preach, the Jewish leaders had them arrested. But an angel from God came and let them out (Acts 5). It was becoming clear that this was no ordinary Jewish movement. A greater power was helping it. One of their wise men, named Gamaliel, finally said what others might have also been thinking: this might be of God, and if it is, we had better not fight it.
If no outside force could stop them, internal fighting could. But even then, when a serious dispute arose over alleged favoritism in the church, men who were full of the Spirit settled the matter equitably (Acts 6). The Lord was among them. In addition to the outward displays of care and power around them, the Lord was also in their hearts, and a Christ-like spirit of love overcame the problem at hand.
Meanwhile, attempts to stop the Christians continued. Stephen was killed (Acts 7). The opposition surely thought that with one of their best spokesmen and leaders dead, the movement would fade. But it did not. Even as Stephen died, the Lord was with him. The persecution that blew up in the aftermath of Stephen’s death up only forced Christians to other places where they continued to fill those places with the news about Jesus (Acts 8). Like stepping on an anthill, the attempt to destroy it only made it spread. It looked more and more like Gamaliel’s advice was sound after all.
One by one the obstacles and barriers continued to fall like trees in the path of a volcano’s blast. Philip converted a man who was probably a proselyte (Acts 8), and a sorcerer confessed that the power of the Lord was unlike anything he had ever seen. Later Peter preached to Gentiles (Acts 10). Little by little this movement was defeating the opponents and crossing the social barriers that defined the ancient world. But if the church thought that the opposition to Stephen was bad, it had seen nothing yet. A young hot-head, on fire for ancestral, traditional Judaism, had made it his mission in life to eradicate Christianity from the face of the earth. He was on a trip to do exactly that when the Lord confronted him and called in to be a follower. By the end of that narrative, the enemy had become a disciple, preaching now the very message he once opposed (Acts 9). Again, no one could stop this. Enemies fell before it in total submission.
Human distinctions based on an arrogant need to think of others as below oneself disappeared as the gospel came eventually to Antioch, and Jews and Gentiles began to worship together (Acts 11). Let me say that again: Jews and Gentiles began to worship together. What was unthinkable in all normal circumstances in that world now became a reality by the power of the gospel. That’s because the gospel was not of men, but had the power of the risen Lord in it. While it took a while for some to understand it (they were still debating in it Acts 15), they gradually came to see that this revolutionary practice would be the new normal for the church.
Back in Jerusalem, when the enemies again tried to stop the church’s most powerful leaders, they killed James the brother of John and imprisoned Peter. But again an angel from God let Peter out of the jail, and Peter lived to preach another day in many other places (Acts 12). But the man who had orchestrated the opposition died a horrible death, which was obviously a sign from God to all those who heard about it.
The movement continued to spread, first to Asia Minor, then to Greece. A Jew who had gotten a good job advising the proconsul of Cyprus tried to prevent Paul and Barnabas from preaching, but he ended up blind for his efforts (Acts 13). They tried to kill Paul in Lystra, but he walked away from it (Acts 14). They tried to silence Paul and Silas with a beating and a night in jail, but again the Lord opened their cell doors (Acts 16). Word about these people often got to towns before they did. “These men who have upset the world have now come to our city” objected the people of Thessalonica. Local courts refused to convict them (Acts 18 and 26). Jealous unbelievers tried to get the entire city of Ephesus to rise up against Paul and the Christians there, but nothing came of it (Acts 19). When Paul finally returned to Jerusalem, old prejudices heated up again and the Jews tried to kill Paul, but each attempt failed (Acts 21, 23) Paul got caught in the middle of a political game and became a pawn whose life was about to be traded for political favor, but Paul escaped the threat (Acts 25). When his ship to Rome broke apart in the sea, the Lord was with Paul and everyone on the ship (for Paul’s sake), and not a soul perished (Acts 27).
At the end of Acts, Paul spoke with the Jewish leaders in Rome. Like many other people, they had heard about Christianity but had not yet encountered it for themselves. “Concerning this sect, it is known to us that it is spoken against everywhere.” That was a fact, but the other side of the coin was that for all the persecution and for all the effort that had been expended on trying to stop this movement, it had done nothing but grow and spread. The reader of Luke’s volume on the early Christians would have seen, by the time he got to the end of the story, that one thing was crystal clear: the Lord was with these people. There was no other explanation for it.