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The growth of the church of God in Jerusalem was initially the result of the fearless preaching of the Spirit-filled apostles, who testified to the power to save which was associated with the Name of the crucified and now glorified Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing could hold these men back. Shortly after the day of Pentecost they put to public test their total confidence in the authority of the risen Lord. Peter and John took by the hand the man whom the apostles had all passed by many a time as he lay daily at the Beautiful Gate of the temple. They called, "In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk." And the helpless cripple leaped up and began to walk. The Spirit of Pentecost, in His sovereignty, was establishing His ministry of signs and wonders by the hands of the apostles.
The envy which had led the leaders of Israel to crucify Jesus of Nazareth was directed at His apostles. They laid hold of Peter and John, put them in prison overnight, then charged them in the morning "not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus." But they were wasting their time. The apostles all met together for prayer. The meeting was so charged with the power and presence of God that the very building where they prayed was shaken, and in fresh renewal the Holy Spirit again filled them. As a consequence, no power known to the leaders of Israel could extinguish the fire of boldness with which the twelve openly brought home to the nation the guilt of Calvary; yet offering, in the mercy of God, a great new spiritual city of refuge, in the person of the ascended Christ, if only they would flee to Him for salvation with eternal security.
The effect of this preaching was profound. First, "the number of the men came to be about five thousand." Then, "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and soul." After this, "believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women." In due course, "Now in these days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying" and surprisingly, "and the word of God increased; and the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem exceedingly; and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith." (All these and subsequent quotations occur between Acts 4:4 and 6:7 unless otherwise stated).
The living, active Word of God was proving powerful in its increase. It was running and being glorified, as Paul, years later, described its effect in the church of God in Thessalonica. It was casting down in Jerusalem strongholds of Jewish unbelief. It was invading with authority the very kingdom of darkness. No longer was the number of names together about a hundred and twenty. No longer did an upper room suffice. Now, a vast number of disciples were together - no longer in one place, for that was impossible, but still together in their unity of purpose. They now met in different companies, yet still constituting the one church of God in Jerusalem. All this is borne out in the portion in Acts already referred to. All challengingly clear although many think and act differently today.
Reacting adversely to the effective growth of this new teaching, this new way, this new contemptible sect, the leaders of Israel in Jerusalem were filled with jealousy. They were so blind in their zeal for tradition that they could not discern the changed purpose of the God of their fathers revealed to those men who were filled with the Spirit.
So the rulers thought to take punitive action again, and this time it was more drastic. They arrested all twelve apostles, and locked them up for the night. But they did not allow for the fact that Daniel's delivering God was now on a different course. He had laid Israel aside. They had smitten the Shepherd. He had therefore turned His hand to the little ones, to the new little flock. So an angel of the Lord released the apostles quietly in the hours of darkness and in doing so, gave them so fresh a recall to their early commission that they went forth recharged with Holy Spirit power. What He said was, "Go ... and stand ... and speak ... to the people all the words of this Life." Theirs was surely the mighty ordination of the pierced hands.
Nor was the power and authority of this preaching confined to the apostles. The growth in the church produced men of high spiritual calibre. Seven such men are named, all of them being of good report, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. Stephen was a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit ... full of grace and power. Like the apostles, he was gifted by the risen Lord to work great wonders and signs among the people. In this way God was bearing witness to the new teaching, a teaching strange to Israel, contrary to all their previous understanding, and unacceptable. But this new teaching came by the incontrovertible authority of the Son of God. It was first expressed by the Lord Jesus and was confirmed by His apostles and the New Testament prophets. God was also bearing approving witness, as we have noted, by granting signs, wonders and manifold powers and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will.
The new teaching involved the passing of the old law as the basis of the Old Covenant; and the introduction of the faith which was the basis of the New. It meant an end to the service of God in the temple in Jerusalem and the establishing of the service in the holy place in heaven. Stephen taught this and Israel's leaders hated him for it, so they found men who were prepared to give a wrong sense to his teaching who charged him before the Sanhedrin. At the close of his brilliant exposition of the ways of God with Israel, and just as he was about to expound the new way of God more perfectly, they were so filled with hate and jealousy that they stoned beloved Stephen to death.
On the day of Stephen's death, the pent up fury of the leaders of Israel was turned full blast upon the whole church of God in Jerusalem. In particular, something in Stephen's death seemed to fan into uncontrolled hatred of the Christian Jew a young man named Saul, at whose feet the murderers of the first known Christian martyr had laid their garments. Already he was towering above the Rabbis of his own age, deeply entrenched in the teachings of Gamaliel, in the traditions of his Pharisee forbears. So in his total ignorance of the new direction which the God of his fathers had given to His purposes, "Saul laid waste the church, entering into every house, and dragging men and women committed them to prison" (Acts 8:3).
Paul's own testimony against himself indicates the intensity of his hate complex towards Christians in those days:
I verily thought with myself, that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this I also did in Jerusalem: and I both shut up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, and when they were put to death, I gave my vote against them (Acts 26:9, 10).
These were doubtless the days of Christian persecution and affliction sharing referred to in Heb. 10:32-34.
So the powerful inevitable outworking of the will of God in the spread of the gospel was forged in the fires of persecution, brought to red-heat by Saul of Tarsus, the brilliant young activist of the Jewish leaders. The historian of those days wrote of the church in Jerusalem, "and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles" (Acts 8:1). This is a clear indication of the vast number of disciples who were dispersed. They may have fled, afflicted and bereft of possessions, but they were actually riding willingly and joyfully on the streams of glad tidings flowing out from Jerusalem to the lands of the Gentiles. "They therefore that were scattered abroad went about preaching the word" (Acts 8:4). The extent of the scattering, the effect of the preaching, is not indicated. That it was constructive in its powerful impact we can be assured. And we can safely assume that its outcome can be seen in such individuals as Ananias in Damascus, the saints which dwelt at Lydda and in Sharon, and the disciples in Joppa.
A few specific details of the momentous reaching out to those beyond
the borders of Jerusalem are outlined in the experiences of Philip, the
second man of the seven. This Philip was presumably the evangelist mentioned by name in Acts 21:8, one of the seven, who had four daughters who prophesied. His exercise led him to the city of Samaria. There he proclaimed unto them the Christ, to the accompaniment of remarkable signs of healing. And as the people believed the word there was much joy in that city. But Philip's preaching was the real, full gospel of the Commander's commission. He had disciples in view, the planting of a church of God, whereby these disciples might be taught to give effect to the teaching of the Lord Jesus. So he preached the good tidings concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. As a result the disciples were baptized and a new assembly was added to the expanding kingdom.
Meantime the apostles remained at the base, dedicated to constant prayer, fearless preaching, assembly care for the persecuted disciples, exercised deeply as to the scattering of the saints and the progress of the work of God reaching out from Jerusalem. They were filled with wisdom, and when they heard of the spread of the work to Samaria, they sent down Peter and John to express to those with whom, by nature, they would have had no dealings, a warm-hearted expression of fellowship in the new community. Not only so, but on the way back to Jerusalem they took the opportunity of preaching the gospel to many villages of the Samaritans.
Then the wholly unexpected happened, and what had been a general scattering of the disciples was to become a coordinated plan by the Holy Spirit for the growth among the nations of the kingdom of God. The Lord Jesus appeared to Saul of Tarsus as he journeyed to Damascus seeking further elimination of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. That was one of the great turning points in the history of the work of God. The persecution eased in the church in Jerusalem, so much so that the historian wrote:
So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace, being edified; and, walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, was multiplied (Acts 9:31).
But what about Isaiah's word about a light to the Gentiles? And the Lord's word concerning disciples of all the nations, and His reference to the uttermost part of the earth? Judea, Samaria and Galilee were one thing, but who among the Jewish Christians would have the vision, the sense of urgency, the call to go to the uncircumcised nations beyond? That call came to two honoured men in particular. From among the twelve God made choice that by the mouth of Peter "the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel, and believe" (Acts 15:7).
Of all the twelve, Peter is recorded as moving out from Jerusalem on
preaching itineraries (apart from John accompanying him to Samaria). The historian says that he went throughout all parts, doubtless in Judea, Galilee and Samaria. Then he received the great vision of the wider call to the uncircumcised nations. He first protested in the well known and totally incongruous "Not so, Lord." But it just had to be so. The time had come in the providence of God when Peter should open the door to the Gentiles. The fulness of the Gentiles had assuredly come in. And when:
the apostles and the brethren that were in Judea heard that the Gentiles also had received the word of God ... they glorified God, saying, Then to the Gentiles also hath God granted repentance unto life.
Then came the second man, Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles. At his conversion the Lord revealed to Ananias, " ... he is a chosen vessel unto Me, to bear My name before the Gentiles ..." (Acts 9:15). Following his experience in Arabia and his flight from the plotting Jews in Damascus he came to Jerusalem and joined himself to the disciples there. But the pressure of the unbelieving Jews was mounting against him, all in the sovereign purpose of God. As he prayed in the temple, Saul fell into a trance and saw as in a vision the Lord calling to him,
Make haste, and get thee quickly out of Jerusalem: because they will not receive of thee testimony concerning Me .. Depart: for I will send thee forth far hence unto the Gentiles (Acts 22:17-21).
The great purpose of the ages was now well under way. From the strongly established base in the church of God in Jerusalem the word of God was now travelling fast through Judea, Samaria and Galilee on its way to the ends of the earth.
And as we thus briefly reflect on it all, and in particular its relevance to us in our own day, how better could we sum it up than in the words of E.M. Clarkson's inspiring hymn:
So send I you to labor unrewarded, to serve unpaid, unloved, unsought, unknown,
To bear rebuke, to suffer scorn and scoffing, - so send I you to toil for Me alone.
So send I you to bind the bruised and broken, o'er wand'ring souls to work, to weep, to wake,
To bear the burden of a world aweary - so send I you to suffer for My sake.
So send I you to loneliness and longing, with heart ahung'ring for the loved and known,
Forsaking home and kindred, friend and dear one - so send I you to know My love alone.
So send I you to leave your life's ambition, to die to dear desire, self-will resign,
To labor long and love where men revile you - so send I you to lose your life in Mine.
So send I you to hearts made hard by hatred, to eyes made blind because they will not see,
To spend tho' it be blood - to spend and spare not - so send I you to taste of Calvary.
"As the Father hath sent Me, so send I you."